David Dennis, founder of Gorilla Strength Equipment is a throwback to an era of American craftsmanship long thought forgotten. Interact with him on any level and it only takes a few words before you find yourself captivated by the passion with which he approaches providing for his family and producing high quality equipment that your great grandchildren can hit PRs on.
Put yourself in the position of someone placing a custom order. What are some things that you’d need to make sure you knew ahead of time in order to make the ordering process go as smoothly as possible and help ensure that you were satisfied with your finished product when it arrived at your house?
It is always nice to know up front what the customer’s long-term goals are, what type of weight that they will be moving, their body type (size), and target price. This helps with the overall design of equipment. I tend to start with complete overkill and work my way back. Trap bars are a good example of this. I have built tons of custom trap bars. Mostly for people that will be moving 1k+ loads and often dropping those loads on safety straps or safety pins from inside a rack. This type of build needs to be overkill. My typical custom build on this scale will be capable of lifting around 17,000 lbs and includes my original “Bubba Bar” load sleeves.
There is no reason for the average person to have a bar like that. There aren’t that many people moving 1k+ around. Most people need a bar that will handle 500 to 600lbs safely. By letting me know up front what your needs are, we can get on the same page quicker.
Another big aspect of custom builds is body type: How wide is your natural grip? How tall you are you? If I am building a custom piece of equipment I like to customize it to you. I don’t think a lot of people understand that a piece of equipment can be tailored to them. Just like when buying a pair of shoes, you can wear a size bigger or smaller and get by with it. I imagine that if someone had never had a proper fitting pair of shoes they probably would not know the difference. Custom equipment is just that, until you have had it in your hands it is hard to explain.
Lastly is budget. I hate this part of the business! When pricing custom equipment I estimate design and build time and add that to the cost of materials and shipping. That sounds pretty straight forward right? Well it is in most cases, but if you want something that is next level, let me know up front. You can have a leather topped flat bench with your name or logo branded into the center, a trap bar that is 185lb unloaded, a custom rack with a picture of your ex-wife’s new husband cut into the back of it for motivation.
That’s amazing, especially the part about the ex-wife’s new husband. I honestly can say that I’ve never had a conversation that included the words you used in that sentence with anyone else. So what’s the number one thing that customers do that you wish they wouldn’t?
I wish customers would not feel like they inconvenience me by talking about equipment. I love building, fabricating, and designing equipment!! When people ask questions or bounce their ideas off me it gives me an opportunity to talk about something I love. Customers often feel like they are taking up too much or my time or causing an inconvenience to me. I just don’t get that. Yes, I have a lot of shit going on, but I always have time to stop and talk about something new and special. I love what I do.
Your Next Generation Grip Machine was an update of the famous “Bruce Lee” Grip Machine that allows the user to build their pinch grip, arm-wrestling grip and of course crushing grip but it didn’t sell as well as you thought it would. With space saving being so important in home gyms why do you think that is? I mean, I knew I wanted one as soon as I watched the video!
Man, I think a lot of people still don’t understand grip training and the different ways, (or need), to train it. People only have so much time and I think that grip machine was just too complex for most people. In the end people who want that are people who already have some idea about grip training. Right now, we are at a point where those people are too few. Luckily there are many new people coming in to grip strength but a machine like that is just too busy looking. The simpler grip machine just looks easier to use. I think that is why the old standard grip machine continues to be a good seller.
You had a great blog post how President Trump’s tariff on imported steel would affect the cost of strength training equipment. The purpose of the tariff was ostensibly to protect American business, but you pointed out that it would actually make it easier for foreign brands like Titan Fitness to compete against American manufacturers. It’s been a few months since you wrote that, have you found that your predictions were accurate so far?
I have seen my steel prices double since writing that article. I have had to raise my prices a bit— I wish I hadn’t had to do that. The price of steel is making an impact and is making it harder for American companies to compete on price— but that is really just the surface of what I think we have here. I may lose a customer or two for this but hold my beer.
Don’t ever hesitate to say what’s on your heart in our publication. We’re here to give you guys a voice!
I believe that people should be able to work and support their families. I pay people who work for me a wage that will allow them to work an honest day and have health insurance and support their family without government assistance. That is important to me. I think we all can agree that if a man/woman works hard they should not have to worry about themselves or their children going hungry or getting sick. This is at the heart of whether or not you buy an American product. If you believe in those things, you should support American companies whenever you can. In return, you should expect a superiorly made product and great customer support by people who show respect to you for what you do to provide for their families. Too often American companies are failing to meet their responsibilities to customers and customers are choosing to buy overseas.
Shipping is a major chunk of the cost when purchasing a new piece of equipment. That’s probably why so many garage gym owners find that they can save money by going the DIY route. But there are advantages to getting a piece professionally built. Talk about some factors that might make it better to buy instead of DIY.
Some things you can get by doing DIY and I do offer DIY kits for many of the things I make. They are pre-cut parts ready to be welded together. I do this so that people who can weld have the parts to do it. My first big fabrication project was building a three wheel bicycle from plans I ordered from the back of a magazine. I like to be able to provide that experience to others. The DIY kits I provide are simple things that can be done with medium skill level. Where you really start to see safety come into play is when you started getting into heavier weight.
When you start getting into loads over a couple hundred pounds you need well-built equipment. This is especially true with dynamic movements. Years ago (when I was in my mid-teens) I saw a man get his neck broken when an incline bench failed at a local gym. He was incline pressing 225 and the back of the bench broke loose. His head hit the spotter platform behind him and the bar landed on his neck.
That’s similar to why I’m picky about where I get my heavier dumbbells from— I saw a guy in the gym where I worked get a broken nose when a 70lb dumbbell came apart on him during a set of pullovers. I told someone on r/HomeGym this a week or so ago— expensive, well-made equipment is cheaper than surgery and months of physical therapy!
Most people do not realize but many of the benches you buy off the shelf are only rated for a combined weight (lifter and load) of 300lbs.
You have a number of videos on your YouTube channel dedicated to specific builds you’ve done for individuals. Why did you choose to create those videos? Is it just an efficient way to give an update to customers or is there another reason?
I wish I could do videos like that for all my customers. That is a goal of mine. I am a little old fashioned. I grew up on a farm in rural Kentucky. Looking someone in the eye and shaking someone’s hand is something I think is important. Doing customer videos is a way for me to put myself out there to customers so that they can see the person who is standing behind the product. I have built many things in my life from structures over interstates, to automations in factories, to helping my wife build babies ha, ha! But nothing gives me more satisfaction than shaking someone’s hand after finishing their project. I love building fitness equipment, but I miss that one-on-one interaction with the customer. I can’t really look someone in the eye or shake their hand over the Internet. Maybe Elon Musk will figure that one out but until then I will make customer videos when time allows.
You’ve got some unique builds but the most unusual has to be the Wall Mace! As soon as I read the description of it, it made sense, but I would have never imagined turning painting with a roller into a training tool. Has that been a popular item or is it too esoteric for the average customer?
We have sold a total of two of them. The people who have purchased them seem to like them. I think they are a bit esoteric for the average Joe.
You have an eBay store and a pretty solid reputation on there, with 100% positive rating out of 126 reviews, why did you choose eBay as a sales platform?
Years ago, when my wife and I got married, our combined income was $80 a week. eBay was still a very new platform. Funny, but back then, everyone had dialup [Internet]. We used to go to yard sales and buy stuff to clean up and resell on eBay. We developed that into a decent business and eventually sold that business. My first few pieces of equipment were sold under that business. Later when I decided to pursue my passion for building equipment eBay was a natural channel for me to use.
I mentioned your excellent customer rating but nobody hits it out of the park every time on customer service. However, great companies and great people learn from their mistakes. Can you talk about a customer service situation that you’d like to go back and handle differently? How has that affected how you do business today?
I view customer complaints as a chance to prove who I am. By working through a problem, you have a chance to develop a relationship with that customer that is deeper and more meaningful that you would have had otherwise. [Celebrity personal trainer] Gunnar Peterson is a customer of mine. He had a problem with the very first thing he ordered from me. Now he will send me links of pictures of famous people like Bruce Willis and Russell Wilson using my equipment.
Dude, you need to put stuff like that on your Instagram and Facebook pages! Your website landing page!
I wish I had an instance or situation that stuck out but there isn’t any one situation that comes to mind. I think how I interact with customers I learned at a very early age. I grew up in an upholstery shop. I really think that has shaped a lot of who I am. I think I get a lot of the artisanship I put into my builds from watching my mother line up the strips on couches and the painstaking detail she put into her work. I also think a lot of my views on the world were developed then.
I remember my mother coming home from work one night. Both her and my grandmother worked in the same sewing factory for many years. They made shirts. I heard her telling my father that instead of making shirts they were now sewing pre-made sleeves on already sewn shirts and a tag that said, “Made in America” (back in the 80s and 90s what it meant to be “Made in America” was very relaxed). Many of the “American made” products from that time period were mostly made elsewhere.
My mother left and went to another factory and shortly later opened the upholstery shop I grew up in. The impact that the change had on my grandmother was much greater. With all the parts of the shirt she had been proud to have been making now being made overseas, it devastated the sense of pride that she once had in her work. It was the equivalent of being told that she wasn’t good enough to do the job. My grandmother was a very simple lady. The world to her was very black and white. I often step back and try to see the world as she did. In most situations, no matter how complex they seem to be, they usually can be broken down into black and white. What is the right thing to do and what isn’t.
Family is important to you. In fact, you started your business as a way to teach your son to enjoy what he does for a living. Looking at the Gorilla Strength videos on YouTube, it seems to be working. Do you realize how rare, father to son apprenticeship is in an age when most kids are conditioned to go to school to learn to work forty plus hours a week at jobs they dread so they can make someone else’s family wealthy?
I have spent so much of my life working at things I didn’t enjoy because they were what put food on the table. I hope that my son decides to follow the natural talents that God has blessed him with to what ever enjoyable end he finds with them. I hope he is able to watch me as I watched my mother and learn how to work hard and treat people. If you have those two things and are willing to learn whatever things are necessary, you can do anything you want. That is something I believe very deeply.
You’re also on Amazon so what is it about eBay that makes it worthwhile to maintain a store there?
Amazon is not a good business partner. We do perhaps five times more volume through Amazon than eBay, but we have also had thousands of dollars held up for months at a time due to errors on their part with shipping overcharges. The seller’s forum is full of horror stories from sellers. There are a lot of scams people run through Amazon. A friend of mine is down over 50k from a scam where people were buying expensive authentic items and returning fakes. Amazon can be a very tough place to sell. Many times you are fighting against a company that should be viewing you as a business partner.
What’s different about the eBay customers versus the customers you get through Amazon?
The average eBay customer is much more likely to be a return customer. I think this is due to how the systems are set up. It has more of a foundation as a community with buyers and
sellers interacting. This is not the case with Amazon. I think when most people purchase through Amazon they consider themselves first to be an Amazon customer and second to be a customer of the seller. With eBay most people view themselves as a customer of the seller first. It really is two different business models at work. Right now, Amazon’s model is winning. I don’t think this will always be the case. I see some pretty big holes that emerging companies to the market such as Facebook (which is our number 1 selling platform) can take advantage of. I view each selling platform as a channel. Just as people have their favorite TV channels, people also have channels they are comfortable buying from. I think it is important to keep in mind that even as web purchases have increased, they are still a very small part of overall retail.
One thing that attracts a lot of people to Amazon is fast shipping times. With a family operated shop how do you manage to keep up with order volume and maintain such fast shipping times? Some of the reviews I saw on Amazon talked about three or four day turnarounds on equipment!
In the beginning, I used to design things to use pre-cut parts. The same load sleeve or handle that would be on this machine would fit here and there on those machines. Unassembled equipment with modular parts made the turnaround much quicker. That and a lot of long hours gave us quick turn around times. I have hired a few people to help but over the last couple of years we have been growing really fast.
Describe your typical customer. Are you getting more recreational lifters or people who participate in strength sports?
I have three types of customers. Which one is the top of the heap changes quite a bit.
- The first type is the big lifter. These are people who really push big weight. They pretty much know what they are looking for from the start.
- Another type is the guy that buys himself something new every month or two to add something new to his workouts. He is the small club or home gym type guy.
- The last is the older lifter. These are people who have lifted most of their life and want the quality they get from small shops like ours. They usually know what they want and have decades of experience. Ninja Master, from my YouTube videos is a prime example of this. My shop is open for people to drop in and hang out. He originally started dropping in on his way up north from Georgia.
Do you supply competition equipment for any strength competitions or do you prefer to be able to craft equipment without having to build to a fixed set of specs?
I build tons of strongman equipment for shows and work with promoters regularly. I would like to break into more strength sports especially grip sports.
Speaking of grip sports, armlifting, which is fairly new as strength sports go, holds some opportunities for companies like Gorilla Strength to get brand exposure. I mean you’re already making Saxon bars, axle bars and other implements used in the sport, do you plan to throw your name into the ring as far as providing equipment?
Right now, I don’t have many contacts in the arm lifting sport. I have sent out a few emails in the past to different people but not had any responses. It is definitely something I am interested in.
Well, I’ll see what I can do about putting you in touch with some people. David, I know that you’re passionate about family and making quality products. As an entrepreneur, what is most important to you about owning your own brand?
One of the things I am struggling with is making sure that people who work for me have an opportunity to enrich their family. I know that sounds like a crazy idea, but I have been successful following my heart doing what I believe is right. Right now, I am helping two employees develop their projects. My hope is that they will be able to develop the ideas that they have into a product that they can bring to market and profit from.
I love to see people change their lives. I hope that I can be a conduit to help that happen not only through the equipment I build but also through the opportunities I can provide for those who help me.
You can find Gorilla Strength by visiting their website at gorillastrength.us, and you can also follow them on social media via the following links: