How I Took the Wild Road From Stunts to Safety and Built a Business on What I Learned
Lying in the road, bloodied and hurt after a motorcycle accident, this CEO applied his experience to something people needed.
So, back in 2006, I'm doing about 70 mph on my motorcycle -- while popping a wheelie, with my feet stuck out over the windshield -- when I make a mistake. Bam. One second, I’m doing a stunt for a movie on a Maryland interstate, making money for doing insanely entertaining tricks on one of my two wheels. The next second, I’m roadkill -- still breathing (fortunately) but splattered and sprawled on the highway, with no way to call for help.
I couldn’t move, at first. And I couldn't reach my cell phone. Time slowed and an eternity passed as my body tried to use up the adrenaline it had pumped out. All I could do was lie there, and think: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Here we are in 21st century America with all this technology in our cell phones ... yet I couldn’t access mine to call for help. I was 28 and that was my transformational moment.
Luckily, help eventually showed up. But those minutes of panic and feeling helpless stayed with me long after. Until that wreck, the words “personal safety” had not been in my vocabulary. Well into my 20s, I hadn’t just thrown caution to the wind, I had taunted and tempted it, daring it to keep up with my adrenaline-fueled life.
The fast lane wasn’t fast enough. In fact, the movie I was doing the stunt for was even titled 100% Illegal. Little did I know it was setting me on a crash course to safety.
Chasing the dream
That wasn’t obvious to me in my younger years; when I was 23, and working at a big-box store in Maryland, I solved a huge theft problem that had plagued a section of the store. Our general manager was elated, but when he publicly thanked my boss instead of me, I felt demoralized and recognized that my future didn’t lie in corporate America.
I decided to put Maryland in my rearview mirror and headed west to Los Angeles with a dream about making it in Hollywood. I figured a good way to break in would be to put my motorcycle skills and daredevil instincts to work.
With my new company, Adrenaline Crew, I reached out to directors, actors and stuntmen who could steer work my way. The networking paid off; we got major projects, including music videos with stars like Gwen Stefani; and tough-guy films like Biker Boyz (2003), starring Laurence Fishburne and Torque, (2004) featuring Ice Cube.
Then came a call from an executive at an affiliate of DirecTV who'd seen video clips on our website and thought they were a trailer for a movie. They wanted to put out a movie with us, an idea I loved. Except I didn't actually have a movie yet. So I got busy making one. I shifted from motorcycle stunt guy to filmmaker of motorcycle stunts. I learned to shoot, edit, produce, code and do all the other tasks required to make a movie. That taught me that being an entrepreneur isn’t about the money, it’s about your willingness to learn.
Turning into others' needs
That one pay-per-view movie made me 10 times more money than I’d made in my entire life -- and on a near-zero budget. Adrenaline Crew landed in publications as niche as Tattoo magazine and as mainstream as the Washington Post. We were invited to go on Vans Warped Tour, we had our own TV show in Europe. And our DVDs went number one in multiple territories worldwide.
I was living my dream life, until that day when my dream life literally threw me to the curb. That accident should have killed me; instead, it made me understand the dangers of the road that everyday people face. And it sparked the realization of a problem that needed fixing: I started noticing a stream of horror stories on the news: a kidnapping victim who'd had no way to send her GPS coordinates for help; a kid trapped in a car as first responders frantically tried to figure out his location.
I knew how I'd felt lying on the side of the road. And I wanted one simple solution to get help. I realized that others needed the same thing. It hit me -- and this time not literally -- that everything I’d experienced up to that point had led to the development of a wearable personal safety device that would do what none of the others at the time could do.
Building the Beacon and the business
My basic idea was: funnel smartphone technology into a wearable button-activated safety product. But would I be able to do it without monthly fees? Could I leverage the technology your smartphone already has? Yes. The result was the Silent Beacon.
It gave accident victims the freedom to call either 911 or their in case of emergency (ICE) contact, with the push of a button. Palm-sized, it could connect through Bluetooth to people's phones. No more fumbling in your pocket or purse to find your phone in an emergency and get help or show your GPS location to a loved one. And there were no monthly fees.
Of course there were other wearable personal safety devices on the market, like Life Alert, Bay Alarm Medical and others. But none offered the range of features I felt were essential while letting owners avoid subscription fees.
To raise funds, I started a crowdfunding campaign. (Note to entrepreneurs everywhere: If you pursue crowdfunding, get ready for the stress of having thousands of bosses. If you miss your deadline, as I did, thousands of backers will let the world know their displeasure on social media.)
Three years passed before potential investors started to show interest. I went with East West Resources, a boutique venture capital firm focused on strategic investments in life sciences, consumer safety products and emergency response solutions. I wanted to work with people with a track record of success, the drive to get things done and the ability to share my passion for the product.
Back in my motorcycle badass days, I was all about ready-fire-aim. I’d jump from dreaming to doing. I don’t regret a thing about the past because it made me the person I am today, with my family and in business. But now, I’m wiser. I don’t just wing it anymore. I am methodical; I plan; and I spend more time on strategy and of course on research and development.
I’ve also learned lessons that would come in handy for other entrepreneurs:
Follow your own path: Too many times I see people get caught up in what is trendy or popular, and, frankly, unless you are the needle in the haystack, you are going to have a finished product by the time that fad has peaked. So, stay the course with your own ideas and your own vision. Tristan Walker of Walker & Company explained it by saying, “If you’re chasing something that everybody else believes to be a good idea, there are probably a hell of a lot of other people chasing that same thing.”
Embrace the naysayers: Every idea I’ve had, successful or not, I've pitched first to my friends and family. Some responses have been so harsh I needed to go cool off before responding, but I still benefited. When that friend is saying “You haven’t sold me yet,” you can see what bothered or confused him about your idea. You fix the problem, then go right back and pitch the idea again. This gives you confidence, because if you can get your drunk friend from college to agree the idea is good, people in suits will be a breeze. Pitching to critics is the No. 1 way to sharpen your edge. Nike co-founder Phil Knight said it best: “Let everyone else call your idea crazy … just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”
Don't follow the rules exactly: Most companies keep you in a nice safe box. But those of us with that gleam in our eyes don’t live inside a box: We know that to create a great idea, you need to bend the rules. This goes for downloading “trial” versions of software for 30 days (cough, cough) or thinking a booth at a show expo will break the bank. Instead, furnish your place with a TV, folding chair and table from Walmart -- and then get that booth. Half of the live events I've been to would have been too costly had I not found ways to do things on the cheap.
Keep at it: For me, rebellion was a good thing -- I just had to learn to use it for good. Ban the word “impossible” from your vocabulary. Find a way, even if that means you have to learn how to do everything yourself. In his book Game Changers, Dave Asprey pointed out what he called “weasel words” (like “impossible”) and how they should be avoided at all times.
Final lesson? Life isn’t only about adrenaline. And business isn’t only about money. But if you push the right button, you can find both. And you can do it without ending up splattered across the highway.
Kenny Kelley is the founder and CEO of Silent Beacon LLC. He started his entrepreneurial career as a Hollywood motorcycle stuntman and as the founder of Adrenaline Crew LLC, through which he produced videos and led teams of daredevil riders in risky on-road stunts that captured an enthusiastic worldwide audience, online and at high-profile events. When Kelley made a mistake on his motorcycle, the resulting crash gave him the idea for a wearable emergency-button device, a Bluetooth wearable device that can contact any number, including 911, with a single button push.