Back in 1975, Tim Leatherman came up with the idea of sticking a pair of pliers on a pocket knife. Forty-two years later, his company sells $100 million of those gadgets a year, and still makes all of them in the U.S.
The trouble is, every useful person in the country already has a Charge, Juice, Surge, Wave, Skeletool, Style, or other Leatherman—or knockoff—in their pockets. Our economy dictates that to continue to be successful, a company needs to grow. One way to do that is to subscribe to planned obsolescence. Another way is iterative product improvements.
But one of Leatherman’s selling points is its 25-year guarantee. Break one of its tools in that time, and it’ll repair or replace it. And after decades of gradual, user feedback-based improvements, Leatherman has neared the limits of finding new ways to package a knife blade and a pair of scissors in the handles of a plier.
So in order to keep business booming, Leatherman and other multitool companies are looking at a third option: sell customers on new uses for their products. If you’re the industry leader, you’re designing new products intended to be used and carried in new ways. If you’re one of its imitators, you’re trying to design a better mousetrap in the hope of redefining the category in your image.
At first, those new iterations were pretty harmless. Big multitools are handy, but heavy in your pocket. So Leatherman put a smaller multitool on your keychain. If you’re like me, you own and benefit from both.
Next came the trend for special-use multitools. Your standard multitool doesn’t include a fin key or wax comb, so for surfers, Leatherman designed the Thruster. For archers, it designed the cam. For skaters, it designed the Jam, and so on. Small niches in the market were identified and filled. People who already owned a single multitool bought more.
Multitool design steadily devolved from there. In 2015, Leatherman debuted the Tread. That piece of man jewelry never managed to be as useful as one of Tim’s original pocket tools. In its raison de etre—a multitool that’d be more socially acceptable—it was surpassed by the company’s existing range of keychain tools. The Leatherman Style PS, for instance, is also TSA-compliant and costs just one-tenth the price of the Tread.
That was the last all-new product introduced by Leatherman. But other companies have taken up where the Tread left off.
Ultra-slim tools designed to fit in your wallet have been around for a while. But with the help of crowdfunding, their ubiquitousness—and ridiculousness—is reaching new heights. Did you know there’s one that’s the shape of a monkey?! Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not much good at fixing stuff. Making a multitool extra slim doesn’t actually make it easier to carry than one designed to fit on your keychain. And that keychain tool can actually tighten a bolt.
This year, SOG debuted a multitool (in two sizes) that doubles as the world’s ugliest belt buckle. They sent one over, I cut myself trying to detach the low-quality tool from the belt clip, then I threw it away.
Then there's SOG’s new Baton range. Here's what the company says about those tools: “The visually subtle design and form factor makes it easy to carry and use without bringing unwanted attention to yourself or tool in the office, street, or local coffee shop.”
Like the Leatherman Tread, the SOG Batons are intended to look friendlier than a traditional multitool. It’s ironic, then, that the Baton’s form factor appears intended to replicate that of the kubotan. An easily-concealed, unintimidating looking metal or glass-reinforced plastic rod, kubotans are a martial arts weapon designed to deliver crippling strikes, or to force a person to submit to your will with painful pressure point attacks.
The rest of the Baton’s design suffers from common novelty multitool problems, like poor quality and poor use of available real estate. The Q2, for instance, is over six inches long, yet only makes space for a small flashlight powered by a AAA battery, a terrible knife blade, and a tiny little bottle opener/flat blade screwdriver. The tools on my keychain cost less, take up less space, and are of vastly higher quality and usefulness. And this in a range of tools that runs up to $120!
What gives? I interviewed Leatherman’s then-President, now-CEO Ben Rivera a couple years ago, and I think he identified the problem.
“For Leatherman to grow and become relevant to a broader group of ages, and women, and people who live in the city, we have to be more innovative in how we approach design,” he told me. “Leatherman is largely associated with the product itself: a pair of pliers that folds up so you can put it in your pocket. The mission of our company is to improve people’s lives by producing products that can prepare them for the unexpected. Pliers do not have to be the answer to every product that we do.”
The problem is that Leatherman, and other multitool makers, are struggling to define who they are, in the absence of those pliers. Rather than find new ways to bring useful tools to new people, they’re simply finding different, inferior ways to package traditional multitool functionality. The way forward? That’s way above my pay grade. But I will suggest they return to what made the multitool so popular in the first place: genuine utility.