Gifts for Hardcore Productivity Nuts: Magnatag Visible Systems

From the 2006 Archives Productivity, Things #THINKINGTOOLS 12 Comments

We born-again productivistas are packin’ paper heat in our leather-backed Moleskines and slingin’ Hipsters in our back pockets like they grow on trees instead of bein’ made from ‘em. Back at the ranch we’ve got Noguchi and tickler files backing us up, keeping our thoughts sizzling and ready-to-go. I once seen a guy, a specialist by the looks of him, use simple index cards kill a task dead at 15 paces without having to click a single mouse button. Welcome to the Wild Wild West of Paper Productivity. It’s a gritty, physical world we live in, and we likes our tools to be tangible, portable, and crushproof. Booyah!

As tough as I reckoned I was with all my paper-based weaponry—you should see the paper task shuriken I’ve been working on—my delusions of badassedness came to an abrupt end when I came across Magnatag products half a year ago. I had stumbled onto a trove of custom magnetic whiteboards and task tracking support tools, built large from steel and plastic. They’re working tools for daily use in the field, for information-critical activities like truck dispatching, construction projects and even church management. From shipping containers to saving souls, Magnatag seems to have an informational whiteboard product for every industry that needs to get things done. Suddenly, my pretty inkjet-printed forms didn’t seem so substantial, especially when the most pressing item listed is don’t forget to buy more cat food and toilet paper.

That said, I try to learn from my mistakes, especially when it means there’s an opportunity to upgrade my arsenal. If you are shopping for a productivity freak itching to lay the hurt on a pile of projects, you might give Magnatag a look-see. Here are some new products I’ve taken a fancy to since my last post:

[NOTE: I've just read in the comments that the Magnatag website is only viewable in North America. Apologies for the inconvenience.]

Magnatag Grand PlannerThe Magnatag Grand Planner shows up to two years of a project, in familiar Gantt chart style. That’s a big board, for big jobs.


Magnatag Personal Time-Task OrganizerFor those seeking something a little more intimate, this Personal Time-Task Organizer might do the trick. I like the idea of it, though I don’t have space to put one.


Magnatag Tack-Free Quick Change Bulletin BoardI love the idea of the Tack-Free Quick Change Bulletin Board, as one might guess from my dalliance with check rails and task tracking.


Magnatag TCardsThese TCards fit into a special board, and are loaded with information. I don’t know what I’d personally do with it, but dang…I want one anyway.


Magnatag Do-Done StepTrackerI like the name of the Do-Done StepTracker, and I love the idea of “flip the magnetic button over to switch from to-do to done” functionality. Elegant and effective!


RotoGraph®<br />
LonOk, I listed this one before, but now there’s a rg showing just how the RotoGraph® Long Range Daily Line Item Planner actually works. It’s one continuous scrolling surface that you can write your schedule on, kind of like a real-world version of Excel with locked sheet cells.


Magnatag Ghost White On White BoardThis is a great idea: a whiteboard with faint gray lines that show up only when you’re up close. A whiteboard to put an end to migraine-inducing crooked writing!


There’s all kinds of other stuff, like the crazy awesome specialty boards, including a transparent whiteboard for use with neon markers…great for that “war room” look, I’m thinking. Check the older Magnatag post for more interesting items.

The Story of Magnatag

As I oooohed and aaaahed over the products in the Magnatag online catalog, I couldn’t help but wonder who or what was behind it all. Usually, I think of office supply provisioners as being rather lame, pumping out mediocre product with little effort going toward innovation. About six months ago, though, Magnatag’s PR company came across my blog and asked if I had any questions about the company. I got to email some questions to the founder, Wally A. Krapf, who generously forwarded me several fascinating anecdotes about sales, personal initiative, and risk from his days as a young salesman-turned-entrepreneur in post-WWII Rochester, NY. Here’s an excerpt about how he got the idea for Magnatag.

NOTE: I’ve removed names for purposes of privacy, edited some sentences out for flow, and bolded a few phrases for my own emphasis, but otherwise this is what Wally related to me via email:

Dave, you ask for a comparison story about our very first original product that I saw could be made as a new company. Actually it did not come about that way. Each day brought a new challenge, adventure and learning as I evolved and applied my “systems” marketing concept to my sales job. It all kind of evolved over time like I was being drawn toward a distant goal in mind that each day’s activity brought a little closer and clearer and sharper until the time just arrived to make the move to “go on my own”. On the personal front, I was married and had three young kids to support as a commission salesman, so income generation was a very big incentive, but not the really driving one.

The concept of making my own products, and marketing them by direct mail came about piece by piece after I had left the stationery company and set up my own business as Krapf Business Systems, Inc. on January 30, 1967. It is hard to isolate a significant event to say that it was the bright light that flashed on and became the company we have today. Each step evolved and was driven usually by reaction to some negative event with a lesson learned and applied.

[...] Anyway, after I conceived the idea of “systems packaging” of selling products as a solution to a problem by bundling all the components into a single entity, I discovered that many of my customers had the same problems and that one packaged solution could be sold to many others with similar problems, only tailoring it to each potential customer’s specific needs and pointing out clearly to him that he had a problem, which they often did not realize. (Listerine told you that you had Halitosis, Nexium told you that you had acid reflux disease, for example).

[...] Our stationery company [where Krapf worked before founding his own company--Dave] was housed in an old loft 4 story building near the headquarters of Kodak in downtown Rochester. It was the old Shinola Shoe Polish factory from the early days of Rochester when it was a center of the men’s fashion clothing industry with hundreds of companies housed in as many loft buildings in the old city, each contributing a piece of the fashion pie. In fact my dad earned his living as a freelance commercial artist doing many of the fashion paintings for industry advertising. When depression hit before I was born, most of his business folded and we lived through some pretty hard times through the 1930s and through the war.

The stationery company had a “systems division” that basically sold the Acme Visible Record line of information storage and retrieval systems equipment. I was getting bored with the furniture and supplies and wanted to get into this department. It really seemed challenging and fun. It was run by an old WWII vet named D- ( a D-Day Silver-Star Purple-Heart veteran, 13 years older than me. He is now 88 my good friend and we lunch every month with the other old vets I told you about). D- had just fired a salesman who had sold a large system to a bank and lost money on it. I pestered D- to give me his job, but he kept turning me down saying there was not enough business for the both of us. I kept after him for about a month and every day he kept painting a more dismal picture of my earning potential as his assistant. To get rid of me he made me a ridiculously meager offer of a sales draw that was about a quarter of what I was making in the furniture. To his shock, I took it. Everybody in the place thought I was nuts making a move like that. I started on a Friday morning. D- took me to what was supposed to be a sales call at Xerox, but he was actually just picking up an order he had sold earlier. Then he took me to an early lunch and when we returned to the office he told me he was taking 2 weeks vacation and that it was all mine. He walked out. As soon as he left, I backed my station wagon up to the door and loaded it up with all his customer files and catalogs and took them home. I studied them all weekend. The line was very complex. On Monday, when repeat customers called, I told them I was new and asked them to help me work through the product line with them. When D- returned I had it down cold. 2 months later he left the department and took my old position selling furniture. He kept dropping in to the systems office every day and we became really good friends. D- kept saying “You know, we really don’t need the stationery company to do this, we could keep all the profits ourselves if we went out on our own” At first I thought he was kidding, but after a few months it started to come about. In the meantime I had applied my “systems packaging concept” to several complex but very interesting applications (designing unique voter registration systems, jury selecting systems, and others, selling them to several counties in western NY state. (another interesting story).

One day the field rep for Acme Visible showed up unannounced and introduced me to the manufacturer’s vice president and told me that I had built up their business in Rochester to such an extent that they were putting in their own factory direct sales office and gave me 30 days to close up. Acme accounted for about 90 percent of my business. The owner told me I could come back to selling the furniture (about 2 years had elapsed). I told him forget it and to “just leave me alone, I’ll be just fine”. Although Acme had a very broad line and there was no other manufacturer who had one even near it, each product segment of their line had competitors. I immediately got on the phone and started calling up the competitor manufacturer sales managers and made appointments to visit their factories. I got in my car and started driving. At the end of about 2 weeks I had visited each plant, and secured a dealership on each competitive line. In the end the product mix I put together was much larger than the Acme line. Unfortunately,. I had made the mistake earlier of having Acme drop ship all my sales, so they knew exactly who all my customers were and gave that list to their new salesman, so I had to start from scratch again, except that I had created a lot of personal relationships with the customers most of who switched over to my new lines. ( I noticed that mostly the newer customers switched, which told me that the loyalty gradually moves from the salesman to the product once they become accustomed to it)

[...] I was [now] selling a broad line of business filing systems, visible record retrieval systems equipment, complex business forms and a lot of unique products including a new line of magnetic scheduling boards. The scheduling board people would send me sales leads from their space advertising, but I soon found them to be pretty poor quality and mostly a waste of time. Their catalog just showed photographs of existing boards in their customer’s offices, and a list of components you could select and build your own system. One day I was selling a filing system to a high school and saw they had a cork board on the wall with paper stickers on it showing teacher-class schedule against the daily periods. I suggested that we could do it better with color-coded magnets, and designed a system right on the spot which they ordered. I cold called a couple more high schools and made an easy sale at each. I then started calling on them all over the area and sold several. When the manufacturer asked me about them and I told them what I was doing, they offered me $500 if I would write up how I did it, for their sales manager. I ignored the request, but got to thinking, they should be the ones telling me how to sell their product not the other way around. In the mean time I also created a computer scheduling board system. In those days if you got a computer, you build a big glass walled room to house it, positioned it on a special built up floor with air conditioning to keep it cool, and invited all the neighbors to come in to see how modern you were. Of course, any department that wanted to use it had to reserve time on it, and I found that that called for a magnetic scheduling board with the 24 hour time scale reservation time spaces and color-coded application magnets. I also had designed system kits for school bus route scheduling and hospital staffing schedules. (another story).

One day I was selling a computer schedule to the Friden company factory when they asked me if I had a thin magnet that they could write on and erase to use to label their parts bins that were constantly changing contents. The magnets I was selling with the boards were about a third of an inch thick with stiff plastic plates adhered to them. You needed a saw or guillitine type blade to cut them. I asked the factory to make them thinner but they refused to consider it. The problem intrigued me, so I looked up the manufacturer of the raw magnet material (Goodrich) and got some samples of the extrusions (the only ones made in those days). I sliced them thin and then went to a local plastic supplier and went through hundreds of plastic samples until I found just the right one that would take writing, not smear and erase with a damp tissue. Next I had to find an adhesive that would cement the plastic to the thin magnet, be flexible because the magnet material bent easily, and wouldn’t come off after being bent or twisted. I also wanted a product that you could easily cut with a scissors. I was having no success with the adhesive, so I went to the adhesive wholesaler and asked for their help. They were not very interested but told me they had a loft with all the special adhesive tape samples the manufacturers were sending them over the years and I was welcome to poke around there and see if I could find what I needed. I spend 2 very hot sweaty summer days in that loft but finally found one that worked after hundreds of tests. That was 38 years ago. They put me in touch with the rather obscure adhesive manufacturer, I had them make me some and voila, I had my first invention, the Magnatag. The very first successful magnatag I made in my basement at home and when I came up and showed it to my wife, she said “When are you coming up for dinner?”

A year later the adhesive started to liquify and the plastics started to come off in the field. My next door neighbor was a chemist at Kodak so he took a sample to work, analyzed it and told me to tell the adhesive manufacturer to change one of the chemical components which they did. I still use that adhesive today.

At first I called them Magnamatic labels, until one Saturday morning I started rhyming mag with words to get a better name: Magnatag. I started showing them on my customer calls and they got a really good reception. By the way 6 months had gone by since the guy at Friden had asked for the special magnets, but by then he had left and the new guy was not interested. I also soon found that my new magnets were much better on the scheduling boards that the klunky ones that came with them, so I decided to drop the other supplier and make my own boards and magnets, (I didn’t tell them right away because I knew they would immediately send another salesman to compete with me, which the sales manager, E-, who left them a few months later told me on a visit to my office.) I bought green steel chalkboards and taped lines on them, later silkscreen printing them (another skill I had to learn). Whiteboards had not been invented yet.

I then took a nice color photo with a model of my board for school classroom scheduling, had it printed on a color post card, went to the library and got a directory of schools, copied out about 500 addresses and mailed them by hand. I was swamped with orders. I was making them at home in my basement. When a truck arrived one day with more steel chalkboards (while I was out selling) and made my wife unload the truck in the driveway, with our three little kids in tow, I came home to find them all over the driveway. Of course, she kicked me out of the basement and I had to get my first production facility which was a little store front on South Ave. in a poor neighborhood. I was there for one year, 1969. I worked alone there 12 to 14 hours a day but was happy a lark with my inventions and business. When a truck would show up in the street with my delivery of steel chalkboards, I would go to the local bar and hire one of the guys on the bar stools for five dollars to help me unload the truck, then would talk the city trashman into taking the crating materials which was against the rules (not an easy sell, but a few free magnets would do the trick). The next year I moved to a 2nd floor loft in an old macaroni factory, kind of an incubator for dozens of would-be entrepreneurs with dreams and schemes. It was a zoo, and I could do a whole book that would keep you laughing for hours about my year and a half in that place. I knew absolutely nothing about manufacturing but just asked questions wherever I thought I could get answers. I bought an old Davidson offset printing press, and read the manual to learn how to print my first brochures. I bought an antique Verirtyper for fifteen dollars to set my first type. Even did all my own mailing (some really funny stories there too).

WOW. I certainly hope Mr. Krapf writes his book, because it’s the most inspiring bit of business storytelling I’ve ever read. It reminds me of Richard Feynman’s autobiography, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, one of my favorite books for its humor, personality, and insight.

For those of you checking your credit card limits, a caveat: I haven’t yet ordered anything from Magnatag, as I don’t have the space for a whiteboard, so I can’t say I’ve hefted their boards or written on their magnets. They sell direct from their factory, and don’t seem to use retailers like Staples. I imagine that they’re used everywhere, taken for granted as reliable pieces of functional architecture in businesses and organizations across America. If someone in the Boston area spots one, let me know! I want to check out the construction and finish, and through that, get some closure on this story :-)