How innovation and perseverance led to the development of an inventive farm tool
Brad Fredrick, inventor of Gate Hands. Photo by Katherine Livingston
New, Novel, Marketable
Brad Fredrick was a struggling farmer working a separate job to make ends meet when he developed the first incarnation of what would eventually become GateHands. The Kay Electric Cooperative member had just finished fixing a pair of double gates on his property and was satisfied with the neatness of his work, except for one detail: the ugly chain that was holding the gates together. Fredrick was irritated. Not only was the chain unsightly, it was not secure and would eventually cause the gate to sag due to lack of support.
“There was just an old chain holding ‘em together,” Fredrick says. “I kept staring at it wondering what I was gonna do.”
He knew a bit of what he likes to call “pioneer ingenuity” was all it would take to come up with a solution.
As a fourth-generation homesteader, Fredrick is a true tinker, adapting everything around him to work to his benefit. Fredrick’s solution for the sagging gate was to weld together a latch support system that worked, as he explains it, similar to a pair of crossed-over hands holding onto the gate. It took a few tries to get right, but once he was satisfied with how the latch operated, he went on his way without giving it a second thought.
It wasn’t until Fredrick implemented a similar device on one of his friend’s overlapping gates that it occurred to him he might have something unique on his hands. His friend was so satisfied with the latch system that he wanted to know where Fredrick had purchased it. Once Fredrick explained that he’d made it, his friend encouraged him to pursue the idea further.
“I thought to myself, I’ve seen some of my other ideas come and go,” Fredrick says. “And I ain’t gettin’ no younger.”
Fredrick decided to call someone whose opinion he trusted. Shortly thereafter, Kelsey Wagner, Fredrick’s daughter and current business partner, came out to the farm to look at the latch system. As an entrepreneur and owner of a small web design company, Wagner herself carries a streak of that same “pioneer ingenuity,” though she employs it differently. Whereas Fredrick’s application is practical, Wagner’s is conceptual. And as soon as she saw the latch system, she knew it was a concept they could make something of.
“I’ve seen so many of his ideas before,” Wagner says. “But I knew the minute I saw it that it was new, it was novel, it was marketable.”
Highs and Lows
It wasn’t long before Fredrick began adapting the original latch and making working prototypes. It was a process of trial and error. There were long dry spells spent sitting out in the workshop trying to think of solutions when none would come. Then, there were the ah-ha moments, when ideas would come to him seemingly out of nowhere. Fredrick recalls one such moment when he was in the shower and a solution suddenly hit him. He hopped right out and ran up to the workshop, unable to wait a minute longer to implement his idea.
Once Fredrick had landed on a prototype he was satisfied with, he and Wagner began looking for manufacturers, in hopes they could outsource the mass production of GateHands. The piece of equipment was so specialized, however, that using local manufacturers would have turned a very low profit. They decided to try their luck with foreign manufacturers, but from the start Fredrick had a bad feeling.
“Something stunk,” Fredrick says. “And we didn’t even have a patent pending. I was really scared it was going to get stolen.”
At that point Fredrick decided he was going to build it himself. A difficult, two-year-long process of building jigs from scratch ensued. Fredrick and Wagner were both working full-time jobs and had to sacrifice nights and weekends for their venture. Starting out, they only had a home workshop and minimal funding, until Wagner put together a business plan and presented it for a contest by Ponca City Manufacturing. The pair won the contest and received their reward: manufacturing space and $3,000 in prize money.
“And then,” Wagner says, “we didn’t have to do it out of the shed anymore.”
For Fredrick and Wagner, the moment of truth came when they went to their first farm show. The pair traveled all the way to Louisville, Kentucky, for what Wagner says was their make-or-break moment. They had no idea what to expect out of the show.
“We had a tremendous amount invested,” Wagner says. “It was really, really scary.”
During the show customers came up to try their full-working display, curious about the product, and left wondering where it had been all their lives. By the end of the show, they had sold out. The response was a huge relief.
Currently, Fredrick and Wagner are working with a few businesses to put GateHands in stores. Some locally owned businesses have already agreed to put GateHands on their shelves. Fredrick and Wagner are also communicating with a larger farming and ranching store about working together.
Right now, the future of GateHands looks bright, but according to Fredrick it’s taken a long road to get there.
“You feel like quitting. You have a lot of doubts,” he says. “You have people that tell you you’ll never make it. There’s been a lot of highs and lows.”
A Long Way to Go
Fredrick and Wagner are both looking forward to the future of GateHands and their over-arching company, KB Enterprises. While Wagner is currently focused on securing their place in stores, her long-term vision is for KB Enterprises to become a leader in creating innovative farm tools. She notes there’s currently a lack of forward-thinking products on the market.
“When I go to a farm show I want to see innovative products for famers,” Wagner says. “Farmers deserve innovative solutions for problems too.”
Fredrick, however, is itching to move on to something new. He describes himself as the kind of person who grows bored easily and can’t stand still. His eyes already light up at the mention of new products, and he practically jumps up from the table to retrieve his list of ideas.
“He has a little adventure notebook he keeps,” Wagner explains.
Fredrick comes back with a yellow legal pad covered in scribbles and begins to flip through it, describing each idea as though he can’t help but share them. Listening to him, Wagner can’t help but smile. And, watching them, one can’t help but get the feeling that, though Fredrick and Wagner have come a long way, they still have a long way to go.