Padlock salesman trades 30-pound sample case for 1.35-pound iPad

"My laptop stays at home permanently"

Padlock salesman William Tway traded in his 30-pound sample case of locks for a 1.35-pound iPad 2. Life is easy...and fun.

For William Tway, the really important number for the Apple iPad is 1.35. That's how much the 3G model weighs. And it weighs about 28.67 pounds less than the sample case of padlocks, not to mention the thick paper catalogs, he used to lug around as head of East Coast sales for the Wilson Bohannan Padlock Company.

To put that in perspective, heft a five-pound bag of sugar or flour, multiply by six, and imagine carrying that load to the airport and lifting it in and out of your rental car six or seven times a day.

The iPad is not only saving Tway's arms and legs, not to mention the time spent repeatedly unpacking and repacking the suitcase of samples for airport TSA inspectors. It's also changing his relationship with customers in several ways.

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Using Tway's iPad, his customers now can interactively configure the type, style, color and other features of their padlock order, via an electronic catalog created with a Web-based authoring service called StoryDesk, and delivered on the iPad with StoryDesk's CatalogApp, from iTunes. And the tablet also is creating a subtle collaborative relationship between buyer and seller, as they stand side by side instead of confronting each other over a desk.

The company bought him an iPad 2 shortly after it was announced. It was a great fit for a tech enthusiast. "I was the first kid on my block to have a computer," he recalls. "But I wasn't really the 'geek.' I'm almost 50 years old now. I still enjoy electronics."

Tway is something like the company's unofficial "propeller head" in the field. "I'm trying to get other salesmen to use this," he says. "Once they see what I'm doing with it, I think I can convince them to use it."

Wilson Bohannan Padlock Co., was founded in 1860 in Brooklyn, N.Y., by, and named after, Tway's great grandfather. It's still family-owned. The company's motto is "Locks since Lincoln." Tway chose life on the road instead of the executive suite, and is clearly proud of the company and its history. "It's the oldest padlock company in the world still building padlocks," he says. And the only U.S. padlock company still building them in this country, now at a high-tech plant in Marion, Ohio, which makes possible what one writer dubbed "mass customization" of its padlock offerings.

Tway created an online photo collection of the company's locks, stretching back to the late 1800s.

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Unusually, the company's name is not in its main url, which is padlocks.com. Tway bought that domain for $75 in 1997, from a guy in a New Orleans bar. "That was one of the greatest things I ever did," he says with a laugh. "I wasn't married then. There was a girl involved and she worked in the hotel I was staying at. She knew this guy. His business was selling [Internet] domains, for InterNIC [the precursor to ICANN]. I was talking to him and he asked, 'how'd you like to have padlocks.com?' So I bought it."

Wilson Bohannan's niche is brass locks. "The [brass] lock will never rust or corrode, and it will last a lifetime," Tway says. It turns out there's a big market for such locks: it used to be the railroads, who bought them to secure boxcars and switching gear. Eventually, utility companies become a major market. "They have substations, pad-mounts, and green boxes everywhere with four to seven padlocks each," Tway says. Wilson Bohannon is one of the few padlock makers that sells directly to end users.

Tway travels often to meet with new and existing customers. For years, he lugged the heavy sample case, designed by his father in the 1970s, with 15 or more locks, some of them weighing 2 pounds each. "It weighed a ton. Airports took forever. It was always a hassle," he says.

In addition, he also carried as many as 30 paper catalogs, enough for a week on the road, with the goal of five meetings per day. The catalogs were needed to show the array of lock types, their details, and the options buyers could choose: colors, stampings, having their logo on the lock, different types of attached shackles and so on.

When he got the iPad 2, almost his first thought was to create an electronic catalog. He was struggling to come up with a homegrown solution. Then, during a New York City visit to his aunt, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, she saw his iPad and asked if he knew of an application called StoryDesk

StoryDesk offers a Web-based authoring tool, with an extensive set of ready-to-use templates for quickly creating catalogs and presentations and for entering orders. Tway logs into the StoryDesk Website from his PC. He can upload padlock photos then size and crop them, add descriptions, SKUs, prices, and discounts. The data is securely stored by StoryDesk. The result is a native iOS app for the iPad, which can display the full catalog and save orders even without a wireless connection.

Tway continues to add lock options to the catalog. Eventually customers will be able to select almost any set of options, see the finished, full-sized lock on the iPad, select quantities, see the price adjusted for available discounts, and submit the order all in a few minutes. "In StoryDesk, you can actually see the options," Tway says. "In paper catalogs you'd see one picture of the lock and then a list of the options. Now they can see the lock they want, in the color they want with a tap or a click."

He uses the StoryDesk presentation templates to visually introduce Wilson Bohannan to his customers. "I want them to know they're buying some history here," he says. StoryDesk supports a range of multimedia formats, including video.

With the iPad, Tway uses a rugged case from OtterBox, which converts into a stand, and a pen-like stylus with a pad to touch the screen, a gift from his mother. "I kind of stand just behind the customer, show him the video, talk about the lock he's using," Tway says. "It's a little more intimate."

Customers are fascinated by the iPad, he says. They'll often take the pen from Tway's hand and start touching the iPad screen themselves, scrolling through the options and choosing what interests them on their own.

Tway's iPad is outfitted with 3G. He uses the iPad's VPN client to connect to the company's network. Once on the network, he uses PocketCloud, a remote access client from Wyse, to connect to the corporate mainframe. "I see the computer just like I do from my PC at home," he says. He can check order status, update customer information, file reports, all securely.

He's invested in a few paid apps from the iTunes App Store. One, for $2.99 is MileBug, to track mileage. Another, for $5.99, is BizXpenseTracker, a well-reviewed iOS app, to manage business expenses. He uses the iPad's camera to photograph receipts, enters amounts, add a description, and export the final report in an Excel spreadsheet with a PDF file of all the receipts. "That has saved me so much time," he says. "You can't do that with a laptop."

And that makes his laptop superfluous. "I don't have to carry around a laptop ever again," he says. "The iPad turns on instantly and I don't have to worry about the battery. It's way more business-oriented then they'd have you believe. My laptop stays at home permanently."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed

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