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The Pampered Hammer: Denver Women Re-Tool Success

Owners, Mary Tatum, left, and Janet Rickstrew, in the warehouse of Tomboy Tools in Denver.

A sign hangs on the pink door to Tomboy Tools.

The Tomboy Traveler is one of their most popular items.

A close-up of the multi-bit ratchet screwdriver in their signature pink color by Tomboy Tools.

With 3,500 sales consultants, designation as one of Entrepreneur magazine’s Top 100 Brilliant Companies, Denver-based start-up Tomboy Tools reached the $1 million mark in half the time it took Pampered Chef to the do the same.  
Founded by three Denver women, Tomboy Tools does what Pampered Chef does. It’s just cooler, pinker and faster moving.  

Named one of Entrepreneur magazine’s Top 100 Brilliant Companies, Tomboy Tools designs high quality, lightweight ergonomic tools for women and sells them at in-home Tool Parties. Think a Rosie the Riveter version of Suzy Homemaker.

Instead of popping the tops off Tupperware, Tool Party guests play with pink hammers, hard hats, power tools, spark plugs and pink caulk. They also learn simple, cost-efficient techniques to tackle basic home improvement projects.

“We’re the first company to take women seriously in the home improvement market,” says Janet Rickstrew, CEO and co-founder of Tomboy Tools. “So many women are in a position where they have to tackle these projects themselves. It was a need that needed fulfilled.”

Tomboy Tools has approximately 3,500 sales consultants in the U.S. and Canada and is on track for a 25 increase in gross sales in 2012. 

“It took seven years for the woman that started Pampered Chef to hit the $1 million mark,” she says. “We did it in four years.” 

This is impressive considering that, according to the Women’s College at the University of Denver, only three percent of women-owned businesses break the million-dollar annual revenue benchmark.

“We need more businesses that are successful like that, plus their tools are great,” says Tiffani Lennon, chair of the Law and Society (LAS) Program at DU’s Women’s College. “Frankly, their glasses and gloves fit me better than a Home Depot pair, which are about five-times too big.” 

Stroke of the Hammer 
Some say new business ideas start with a stroke of genius. For Tomboy Tools, it was the stroke of the hammer.

In 2000, Rickstrew and some friends went to a local tavern after attending a Pampered Chef event. Kitchen chitchat turned to home project chatter. Soon they were talking about the difficulty of finding tools designed with women in mind.  

“What was interesting was that each of us were working on home improvement projects,” she says. “We then thought of the perfect business model.”

Unlike retail environments, Tool Parties give women a comfortable environment in which to test tools and get an education. It also gives them a chance to make money -- hence the company’s more than 3,500 sales consultants.

“I do think the beauty of the direct-sales business is that you can be headquartered in a certain area and have consultants all across the U.S. and Canada,” says Marketing Director Kelly Bell. “At the same time, Janet and the others decided that this was a viable business that can be headquartered here in Denver, which is a thriving small business market.”

Small businesses are bootstrapping their way to the top of Denver’s economic engine, but women owned businesses have a way to go. The State of Women-Owned Businesses Report recently ranked Colorado No. 21 in the country for growth in the number of women-owned companies between 1997 and 2012. 

“I’m surprised to hear that number,” Rickstrew says. “I would think it would be much higher. I know as a whole, Colorado is a big entrepreneur state. I think it’s a matter of women looking to start businesses need to seek out resources and find those connections to help them be successful and to help get through challenges.”

The Tomboy Traveler is one of their most popular items.From NBC to ROI
A five-minute NBC Nightly News segment that aired before Mother’s Day in 2002 was the turning point for Tomboy Tools. Within the first 20 minutes of the show, the Tomboy Tools website had 60,000 hits.  

“People just came out of the woodwork,” Rickstrew says. “We received thousands of emails from women saying, ‘it’s about time.’”

Despite the national attention and superseding Pampered Chef in terms of growth, Rickstrew says the company is still a quasi secret. 

“The interesting part is that, in reality, we are not that well known yet,” she says. “We just keep working hard and do what we can to offer tools to women.”

Tomboy Tools is on track to add new products and recruit more sales consultants. The company also recently formed a partnership with Paige Hemmis, who is best known as a host of the ABC series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Through this partnership, Tomboy Tools and Hemmis will teach women to feel confident using tools. 

“As we move forward, the more we can get the word out there, the more women we can touch in this area and really empower them,” Rickstrew says. “Our goal is to get a toolkit in every little girl’s hands and woman’s hands to help build confidence.”

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn

Read more articles by Heather Caliendo.

Heather is a Denver-based journalist and Confluence contributor. 
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