By the spring of 2016, Connor Crook was exhausted. For the last 13 years, he'd been working as a litigator in Charlottesville, Virginia, a small, southern, college town with an easy view of the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains. After spending his days mired in civil and criminal conflicts that left him, "grouchy, not wanting to be social, not wanting to be around people, drinking a lot," he was looking for a way out.
Crook's first move was to try consulting, which led him to a childhood friend named Michael Williams who happened to be in the tool business. While working together, the two men ran across a small company in Alaska called Diamondback Toolbelts that was up for sale. Diamondback, they soon learned, was founded, in 1993, when a San Francisco-based master carpenter named Jim Skelton injured his back on the job. In order to keep working, Skelton needed a safer, ergonomically correct toolbelt, so he built one himself.
Now, 23 years after it started, Diamond was grossing only about $125,000 a year. And despite a roster of unfulfilled orders, the company had stopped producing new belts. Digging deeper, Crook and Williams found a Diamondback Facebook group, where used belts and accessories were changing hands in a matter of hours, if not minutes, in countries from New Zealand to Germany. Even more curiously, the Facebook group turned out to be the only place where it was still possible to buy a Diamondback belt.
Connor Crook was as surprised as anyone that he's ended up hawking high-end tool belts. | (Sophia Bain/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)
Growing up around the job sites for his grandfather's construction company, Crook didn't much like tool belts. They tended to be uncomfortable, and he avoided them whenever he could. But something about this scene looked promising. Crook contacted a member of Diamondback's Facebook group and, somewhat begrudgingly, bought his used belt for $350.
When the belt arrived, it was blue, incredibly worn, and streaked with stains. Still, Crook's first thought was, "Wow, that's a tool belt. It looks like it will last forever."
Two months later, despite the complete absence of any existing inventory, Crook and Williams bought the company and moved it to Charlottesville — although, technically, there wasn't anything to move. Crook did receive a series of videos with instructions for making the belts, but it was incomplete. There was also no manufacturing partner, or any clear procedure for how to relaunch the line.
From belts to bathroom reading
One of the few tangible items that came with the Diamondback purchase was a document listing past sales. Crook noticed a handful of orders from customers with Virginia addresses. "I called all of them," he says. "I was like, 'Hey, I just bought the company. I want to meet you and find out more.'"
Soon, Crook was gathering customer feedback while hanging out at a job site west of Charlottesville in a neighborhood called The Rocks, where five- and six-bedroom homes with three-car garages look out on lawns lined with boxwood bushes. His next stop was a suburban job site near Richmond where a past customer gathered some of his buddies for some extra feedback. "I had, like, four guys there who all had Diamondbacks. They were telling me, 'Yeah, I really like this feature, that feature needs improvement.'"
As the detective work continued, Crook talked to anyone he could find with clues to Diamondback's past. A magazine editor Crook befriended on Instagram dug into Fine Home Building magazine's microfiche archives from the late 1990's and emailed old Diamondback Toolbelt ads marketing "back belt tool belts." Priced under $100, they look like back braces flanked with saddlebags.
Sometimes, new information came from the unlikeliest of places. "We'd be talking to someone and they're like, 'Oh yeah, I've got one of those catalogs, but it might be somewhere in my bathroom. I'll go dig it up for you,'" Crook says with a laugh, because a few people actually did this.
As they pieced together the Diamondback product line, and found manufacturers to fill back orders, Crook and Williams had some good luck. First, Diamondback's URL — toolbelts.com, a fabulously search-friendly domain name — came with the sale (Skelton had shrewdly purchased the name back in the company's early days). Second, through Williams' well-established industry connections, they won a contract to create radio belts for National Football League coaches to wear on their hips. It was a short-lived partnership, but it buoyed the company and resulted in good early press. Third, their purchase coincided with a new era in the trades, one where commercial and residential builders, woodworkers, and hobbyist craftspeople alike were flocking to social media in search of a community with its own culture, celebrities, and cult products.
Working for the 'Gram
A year into business, Diamondback's sales were growing month after month (although Crook says his take-home pay then was less than his teacher's salary right out of college 20 years earlier). Prices for a Diamondback belt start at $315 and climb from there to $450 for a belt called The GRRande, developed with industry influencer Kyle Stumpenhorst of RR Buildings. Add-on tool accessories can easily push prices hundreds of dollars higher. The reason that Diamondback's customers pay such astronomical sums for a toolbelt is that its belts — or "rigs," as their fans call them on the company's social media pages — are designed as systems, which can be almost infinitely adjustable.
To accelerate sales, Crook tried traditional PR and marketing, as well as social media, which was almost humorously new territory for him. "For all of the years I practiced law, the only thing that I knew about Facebook," Crook says, was that "Facebook was the place where so-and-so said something about so-and-so and ended up in a fight. And that's how they ended up in court." So Crook created a company Instagram account, and quickly discovered the platform was becoming the center of the trades' virtual universe. "Now it's all I do," he says, as though he can hardly believe it himself.
While stumbling around this new terrain, Crook befriended people like Stumpenhorst, Murray Kruger of Kruger Construction, and Toolaholic's Kiefer Limeback — all top construction industry influencers who have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram in the last few years. These days, Crook, who now owns the company outright, mostly uses the platform just to stay in touch with customers. He hears about doctor and chiropractor visits, how someone justifies buying $400 tool belts to friends, and new features that people want. Along with Instagram and Diamondback's lively Facebook group, the company also maintains a YouTube channel and a podcast.
"What social media, and especially the Instagram space, has given this millennial generation of craftsmen is a space to be proud of what they're doing," Crook told me. "They can learn from each other, which is different than reading a magazine article written by some old guy, versus, 'I can just check out pictures of what this guy's doing. If I really like it, I can reach out to that guy.'"
In Crook's view, these connections open possibilities on an even grander scale. "It is creating communities that would never have existed before," he says. "There is a problem in our country. People retreating to their corners, with liberals over here and conservatives over there." Crook pauses to think. "When I first got into woodworking 20 years ago, there were these chat groups, and they weren't even groups, they were like message boards where you could post a question. And somebody would always tell you, 'Hey, you moron, somebody asked that three weeks ago. It's under conversation 542 or whatever.' To get from that to where we are today, where I can go to a trade show in Nashville and have 15 people walk up to me and introduce themselves knowing who I am. It's crazy. To give people this connection with these passionate interests across all borders. I talk to somebody in at least three countries every day about tool belts. About tool belts."
A gear nerd's dream
By late 2017, sales were booming, and as the holidays approached, with dozens of boxes to fill, Crook realized he needed help in the warehouse. In hopes of finding someone he could trust, he posted the gig in a Facebook group he belonged to for local soccer players. At the time, one of the group's members, Damani Harrison, was on break from his job as an education support specialist in a local school. When Harrison saw Crook's post, he was immediately intrigued. Nine years earlier, Harrison and Crook had run into each other, quite literally, during a soccer game, resulting in a concussion for Harrison and a broken nose and stitches for Crook. And now Harrison's old rival, the combative lawyer, was running a tool belt company?
Outside of Diamondback Toolbelts, Harrison is an influencer and activist in Charlottesville's quietly powerful music scene. | (Sophia Bain/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)
Wanting to make a little extra money over the holidays, Harrison responded. To his surprise, Crook sent him a pile of background information on the company to review. "I thought it was weird," Harrison recalls, "because I was just going to be coming in to be a grunt worker." Even weirder was the concept of Harrison working anywhere as a grunt worker. Harrison was, and still is, a fixture in the Charlottesville music and arts scene, and had spent years hanging out with hip-hop stars in his early days as a journalist. From there he went on to direct a non-profit, after-school program for at-risk kids, and then to work with local schools. Something of a multi-hyphenate, Harrison moonlighted as a local radio personality, wrote and produced his own music, and briefly ran a popular soccer academy.
Nonetheless, one evening Harrison found himself poring over everything Crook had sent. He became fascinated by Diamondback's belts, whose lightweight design differed markedly from the heavy leather belts that were traditional in the industry. By contrast, Diamondback's belts were made from military-grade nylon; and, Harrison noticed, instead of sitting on the hips like most toolbelts, these belts were designed to sit at the waist to protect a worker's back.
Harrison was also stunned at the options Diamondback offered. Designed as modular systems with interchangeable loops, pockets, pouches, and accessories, the belts allowed builders to customize their own rigs, endlessly tweaking the configurations to fit the day's job-site demands. There were belts in different widths, work vests, hammer holsters, gun loops, utility sheathes, phone pouches, snap-on handles, metallic clips, suspenders, nail pockets, bolt bags, lumbar pads, drill holsters, saw bags, drill-bit cases in different sizes and colors, as well as different pouch and pocket options depending on whether a worker is right- or left-handed. He was looking at a gear nerd's dream.
Harrison's explorations stretched into the night and on toward morning. He began to obsess, soon reading anything he could find — not just about Crook's company but about the whole construction industry, the kinds of people they could sell to, the other products in this market niche. For a $12/hour job packing boxes, the time spent, even in Harrison's own estimation, was "ridiculous." But he didn't care. "I just dove into it," he says. "And when I was done, I thought to myself, 'Oh my God. This dude is onto something.'"
For the complete version of this story, please go to Craftsmanship Quarterly.
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