“How That Happened” Episode 50: Tim Thornton – Tactical Electronics – Assisting the Armed Forces

Interview Transcript

Tim Thornton:              … and we’re not afraid to say, “You know what? I don’t know. Let’s find out.” “Hey, is there any way that we can make a security camera loop the video like you see in the movies?” “That’s a good question. I’ve never done that. Take that security camera down from the back of the classroom. We’ll go get the TV that’s in my office. And we’ll try to create something to see if that’s possible.”

Robert Wagner:            From HoganTaylor CPAs and Advisors, I’m Robert Wagner, and this is How That Happened, a business and innovation success podcast. [00:00:30] Each episode of the show, we sit down with the business and community leaders behind thriving organizations to learn how business and innovation success actually happens.

Our guest today is Tim Thornton. Tim is the founder and owner of Tactical Electronics based in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Tactical electronics provides law enforcement and military agencies with exclusive high-end technology and training to excel in real world challenges. Tactical’s mission is to preserve our world by protecting those who protect us.

On [00:01:00] the lighter side, Tim is a professional drummer and a serious competitor in volleyball, table tennis, and cornhole. On the professional side, as I mentioned, Tim is a founder. He’s also an inventor, an international spy, and a subject matter expert for protection against terrorists at major events, such as the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and national political conventions.

Tim has been a senior consultant to US Special Operations Command, the United Kingdom Special Forces, and the Singapore Special Forces. Tim tells me he can teach you how to pick a lock, crack a safe, [00:01:30] hot wire car, and bypass building security systems. What he hasn’t said, though, is whether he can help you not get caught doing those things.

Tim, welcome to the How That Happened podcast.

Tim Thornton:              Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. We’re really excited for this. We’ve never had anyone described as an international spy on the podcast.

Tim Thornton:              Well, perfect.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. So-

Tim Thornton:              I’m the first. That’s great.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. Your story is fascinating. We definitely want to hear some great stories and spy stories along the way. But our podcast is about business. It’s about innovation success, all of which are part of your story as well.

But just to get context [00:02:00] and get us started, just big picture, what is the problems that Tim Thornton and Tactical are trying to solve?

Tim Thornton:              Sure, sure. No, I appreciate that. I started about 20 years ago. I was working at an independent intelligence agency and I was an instructor, and we teach various special forces and government agencies techniques. And was noticing that there was a real lack in the tools that they needed to achieve certain objectives. They were using tools and methods from other crafts [00:02:30] that didn’t necessarily apply to what their objective was.

So during some of these classes, I would go home and make a little black box in my garage and show up at the class the next day and say, “Hey, sorry you’re having some trouble diagnosing that wire. This little black box has got a button. You push it, and it’ll do it for you.”

And they liked it. It was working. I was building these black boxes in my garage for a while and thought, “There’s probably a real need here for someone to build some specialized equipment for this specific field.” And so [00:03:00] that’s how it started.

The intent is to help the first responders and military and various government agencies stay safe. We’re trying to protect those guys as they combat terrorists and we make devices that do so.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. It seems like the business is really focused on the person. Is that accurate?

Tim Thornton:              I would agree with that. Yes.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah.

Tim Thornton:              Yes.

Robert Wagner:            And their protection and their ability to do their job very effectively. Yeah.

Tim Thornton:              No, I agree with that. The training that we do really does focus [00:03:30] on the individual. Some of the guys that we train don’t have a support squadron behind them when they roll in to do the job. They get pushed out of a plane. And everything they’re going to need for the next five days, they have to have on their person. So not only is it the equipment, it’s the knowledge.

They’re going to land somewhere behind the lines. They’ve got to be able to find a car, bypass the security system, hot wire it, break the steering column so it’ll steer, break the gear shifts so it’ll drive, get to a target. They might have to [00:04:00] pick the lock to get in, bypass the security system that’s in the building. So we do safe cracking as well.

Just having these tools in their toolbox, so to speak, when they’re out on a mission is what we focus on. Yeah.

Robert Wagner:            Awesome. Awesome. Hope to get into more of that. So you started in 1999. You mentioned it’s 20 years ago, 20 plus years ago maybe. And it’s a classic story. You start in your garage. You got 3,000 bucks, right?

Tim Thornton:              That’s right. That’s right.

Robert Wagner:            So what was the plan when you started?

Tim Thornton:              You’re exactly right. I had a [00:04:30] business plan of starting in the garage, building a shop at $3,000 for my equipment. Initially, I was building nanny cams for a local distributor here in Tulsa, Pam Distributing. That’s where I got my start.

And a few months into starting the business, we found out that we were pregnant. Okay? So I had quit my job and we were living on one income now, my wife. And now, we were having a child on the way. So everything changed at that point. We had to … There was no business [00:05:00] plan at that point. It was, “How are we going to raise and take care of this child?” I was a stay-at-home dad for really the first two years, just doing what I could in the garage.

So I hate to say that I had this perfect plan lined out, what we were going to do. That all went away when we found that we were pregnant.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. Okay. So what was the first breakthrough product that you had?

Tim Thornton:              During some of the early trainings, our guys were carrying around a signal jammer. A signal [00:05:30] jammer’s used to turn off equipment, cell phones, garage door openers, things of that nature.

The jammer that they were carrying was about the size of a dolly, had two car batteries on it and a big antenna. And it weighed a lot. It didn’t last very long. You couldn’t stand any closer than two feet, because you’d be cooking your insides from the power that was coming out of there.

Robert Wagner:            Wow.

Tim Thornton:              I had come up with a jammer that was about the size of a TV remote, used two AA batteries, and it could fit in your pocket. So we came into class one [00:06:00] day and we were doing an exercise that involved a wireless security system. And they had their military jammer, and I had my pocket one. And I had just said, “Hey, you guys might try this out on the next exercise and see what this does for you.” Well, it worked. They were impressed and they took it back to the command with them. And we call them the hundred pound heads. They all started poking and prodding, agreed that it did work.

We had some tests that were done out in Yuma, Arizona to verify that this wasn’t smoke and mirrors.

Robert Wagner:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Thornton:              And I remember at [00:06:30] the end of that demonstration, we all got in the room. And it was me, this kid from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and top military hundred pound heads. And they had said, “You just outsmarted the guys at the lab.”

Robert Wagner:            Wow.

Tim Thornton:              “We have not had … We’ve been working on this for a long time, and you’ve cracked the nut. We’re ready to buy.” So we made a deal right there on the spot. And I merely asked, “Well, what are you paying for the systems that you’re buying now?” And I came in, I think, a hundred dollars cheaper than what they were paying. So that was one of the [00:07:00] first large contracts that we had that put us on the map and got us over the hump.

Robert Wagner:            Got you. So am I right in remembering that this would jam the signal that the guys were using to set off IEDs and things like that?

Tim Thornton:              That’s correct. Whenever long range cordless phones, car alarms, those were the devices that we saw so prevalent in the wars that were going on. That was roadside IED devices. That’s correct.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. So you’ve taken a device that, again, was the size of [00:07:30] a suitcase or something, right? You said a dolly and turning it into, like you said, a TV [crosstalk 00:07:34].

Tim Thornton:              A wearable. That’s correct.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. Very cool. Very cool. So you hit on there, making a deal. The concept of making a deal with the federal government on the spot, that doesn’t strike me as a normal situation. So what was it like being no name at all basically in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, trying to do business and contract with the federal government?

Tim Thornton:              Sure. Early on, it was much different than it is now. Those types of product deals and even the training, [00:08:00] they would just cut me a check at the end of the week. Literally, one of the students would write a check out of the checkbook, and that’s how I would get paid. We didn’t have any contracts at that point. It was I’d build them something, deliver it, and they would pay me. There was no oversight. They really had a lot more freedom to purchase items than they do now.

So it was quite different back then. Now, it does take a team. As you can imagine, with everything that’s happened and going on, we have an awesome team. Our administration offices out of Virginia [00:08:30] Beach really do a good job of going through and getting us the contracts that allow us to continue to do business, keeping it legal, what we can ship, what we can’t ship overseas. It’s a challenge.

Robert Wagner:            So I think training has been a part of the picture since day one, right?

Tim Thornton:              Yes.

Robert Wagner:            That was your original background. So give us a taste of what a training exercise looks like that you guys would set up.

Tim Thornton:              So we had a training exercise [00:09:00] a few years back. Interesting story, we had to buy-

Tim Thornton:              Exercise a few years back. Interesting story. We had to buy a 747 for this exercise. We found one out of Russia that was for sale. We flew it over from Russia to a very small airport in Southern Oklahoma, where we could set up for the training in the middle of nowhere, without people looking over our shoulder.

I think it’s well known that we do train explosive ordinance disposal. To [00:09:30] teach that, we have explosives onsite. During part of the exercise, the black box became disconnected through one of the charges that we had. We were blowing different parts of the plane, after it had landed.

One of the charges disconnected black box, which activates the beacon, that there’s a plane down. Unbeknownst to us, it was sending a, “I’ve crashed in the middle of Oklahoma,” signal to the FAA. And the local tower in the area had picked that up and they were scrambling [00:10:00] jets. They started doing research of the tail number that was being broadcast.

Robert Wagner:            Which was Russian.

Tim Thornton:              It came out of Russia. There was no flight plan of how it got into Oklahoma. We had some government visitors show up. We were able to disable the black box, but we did have to go into a trailer and be questioned. “Is that an 18 wheeler full of explosives over there?” “Yes, it is.” “And you bought this plane out of Russia?” “That’s correct.” “Who was on the plane? How did it get [00:10:30] here?” It was quite the ordeal.

But it was all on the up and up. We had our legal papers and processes for how we got it there, but it was testing at best.

Robert Wagner:            Wow. So you’re training SWAT teams for local law enforcement, and then as well as military, is that correct?

Tim Thornton:              That’s correct. We really started at the military level. Special forces around the world and other government agencies, in the last several years started training SWAT, but that’s not really a focal point of ours. [00:11:00] Most of our stuff is weapons of mass destruction, cat A devices. A letter box, a letter bomb in a mailbox is not something that we typically train for.

Robert Wagner:            Got you. So thinking about training and maybe just trying to analogize this to more general business, so you’re training in life and death things. You’re training people to disable a bomb or something, is what you just talked about. It’s very serious. I’m sure participants take it very seriously.

But for most of the rest of us, training, [00:11:30] it’s becoming more and more essential, because things are changing so fast, but getting training to stick is an issue. Like people come, they participate at some level, the training is effective or it’s not effective. It’s kind of a crap shoot. So other than just the life and death aspect, how do you think about training in a way to make it really stick with people?

Tim Thornton:              Sure. I’ll tell you, the military training that our customers normally receive are from laboratory environments. [00:12:00] They go to another base, they go to the labs. It’s a very formalized training process. I don’t have any formal training. I’m flying by the seat of my pants here.

We will get the students into a classroom. We do not have any PowerPoints. We do not have any lectures. I don’t stand at the front in a suit. Typically, I’ll pull up a chair at the table at the front of the class. We kind of group a circle, and it’s a big question and answer session.

I don’t have a prepared [00:12:30] lecture for the subject of the day, but we’ll start down a road. I’ll wear jeans and a T-shirt, very informal. I don’t mind telling the story that I’m not professionally trained. I’m just like you guys learning as we go.

We focus on hands-on. I’ve got devices, components, pieces of the instruction for that day out in front of them. And we just start building and it brings up questions. And we’re not afraid to say, “You know what? I don’t know. Let’s find out.” “Hey, is there any way that we can make a security camera loop [00:13:00] the video like you see in the movies?” “That’s a good question. I’ve never done that.” Take that security camera down from the back of the classroom. We’ll go get the TV that’s in my office and we’ll try to create something to see if that’s possible.

I think that they appreciate being involved in the solution and not just barked at, not telling you what it is. We discovered it together. I think that’s what sticks and has probably given us a leg up on the other training they receive at a more formal level.

Robert Wagner:            Got you. What does the competitive [00:13:30] landscape look like for Tactical?

Tim Thornton:              That’s interesting. It’s a pretty small group that we run with. So there’s not a lot of players in our circle, but we’re all very friendly. There is several different flavors of training and several different flavors of customers, but we all stay in our own box, and the customers tend to not like to cross the streams.

This group of military likes to do something a certain way with certain instructors, [00:14:00] and this other group likes to do it a different way with their own other instructors. And ours is better than theirs, so we don’t use their guys and they don’t use our guys.

We all go to the same trade shows. We’re seeing the same groups out and about. It’s actually a pretty friendly atmosphere. Sometimes a competitor will have a class that they can’t complete. They’ll call us and we’ll act as a sub, and vice versa. So we’re all working with each other to make sure that the guys get what they need.

Robert Wagner:            Got you. So on the product side, you’re selling [00:14:30] your own stuff. I assume you’re distributing other people’s things as well. Is that accurate?

Tim Thornton:              Very little, very little.

Robert Wagner:            So most of those things that I see on the website are yours. Is that right?

Tim Thornton:              That’s correct.

Robert Wagner:            That’s fascinating.

Tim Thornton:              So during the training, again, we just identify tools that are lacking. So a large part of what we do is research and development. We’ll come up with an idea, a black box that we can design, engineer, CAD, 3D print, lay out a circuit board, write the software, stuff the circuit boards, [00:15:00] build, and then test and take it to our students so that we can say, “Hey, we built this. What do you think? Would this serve a purpose.”

We can take their feedback. And they say, “The antenna is sticking out of my pocket too much,” or “The light’s too bright, the LED is giving away my position. Could you move this button to the side, so I can stick it in my backpack?” And since we do everything in-house, we have that ability. We’re very dynamic and fluid as how we can design products based on immediate customer feedback.

We’ve had some projects where a student [00:15:30] will come to us in the middle of a class, “I had this great idea. What if you could take this,” and do this and that. And we deliver a product in 60 days. “Hey, you mentioned this last month, is this what you were thinking of?” “That’s perfect. That’s exactly what we needed.”

Robert Wagner:            On the product side, are you competing very often anymore against the big defense contractors or are they in a different lane?

Tim Thornton:              They’re in a different lane. We’re pretty small, we’re a pretty small company and it’s a niche company, talking Boeing and Lockheed and stuff. [00:16:00] They would not be interested in the work that we do. So we don’t get a lot of competition from those guys.

Robert Wagner:            Got you. We got to hit on one thing from your bio that says international spy. So what makes you an international spy?

Tim Thornton:              When I worked back at… It was an independent intelligence agency.

Robert Wagner:            What is that? What does that mean?

Tim Thornton:              So the government has people that they use to do work overseas and such, but sometimes there’s got [00:16:30] to be a division of what is being done and connection to the government. You can outsource that job to an independent intelligence agency. So there’s no connection to say, “It was the government that was over there doing that job.” There’s a few of those.

I was working for one and some of the work that we had performed, Middle East. We need you to go spy on this guy. He’ll be in the Dubai airport at this time and staying at this hotel. [00:17:00] One of the jobs was they rented the entire floor of this five-star hotel for this meeting that was going to take place. We were told to go into the meeting room. We stripped all of the carpet. We took the TV apart. The curtain was the blender, put in cameras and microphones and set up down the hall in this other room.

Waited four days for this meeting to take place, and sure enough, they showed up and we filmed it and handed the tapes over to who had hired us to do this. [00:17:30] Waited for the response of, was there another meeting or could we leave? We ended up getting burned and had to get snuck out of the UAE.

At the time, I actually had pretty long hair and stood out. This blonde kid with long hair in Dubai was not a good place to be as this went down. I had to have my hair cut and some passports modified to get out of the country and get back.

And so it was things like that, that we were doing on the fly that I would say is, [00:18:00] that I look back with fond memories of.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. Very cool. Is that a…

Tim Thornton:              … that I look back with fond memories. Yep.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. Very cool. Is that a situation where if it just really goes bad, the government just says, “We know nothing about what these guys are doing.” Is that part of the game, part of the gig?

Tim Thornton:              It wasn’t us. It wasn’t us.

Robert Wagner:            Okay. That’s a great story. So it’s a pretty good segue though. So you’re working for this independent intelligence agency and in the introduction I skipped over your impressive pedigree from Ivy League schools and all that because [00:18:30] it isn’t there. Right?

Tim Thornton:              I skipped over it as well. That’s correct.

Robert Wagner:            You left high school at 17, never looked back. What was Tim the middle schooler, early high schooler like?

Tim Thornton:              I was starting to play around with computers. That’s when they were starting to become more available. I didn’t have a lot of friends. School wasn’t really a challenge.

Robert Wagner:            So you were bored at school?

Tim Thornton:              I was bored. At the beginning, I was making good grades and then just didn’t see [00:19:00] the point. I wasn’t growing, so I was skipping class and sleeping in class and working on other projects in the garage and school just wasn’t working for me. My parents were going through a divorce about that time in high school, and so it was an odd time at home. Really, I had a girlfriend that was going away to college at Southwest Texas University in San Marcus. So I bought a van and I kind of built it into an [00:19:30] RV in the back. I had a bed that folded out and a little heater and some closet and a sink with the tank on it.

I’d say I ran away from home, so I wouldn’t have to deal with that and moved into her parking lot of her dormitory. That’s where I was staying in and living and sleeping. She could have boys on her side until 11:00 PM, so I would stay on her side, up in her room until 11. Winter would come along and I found there was a study hall down in the basement, so I would just grab a book and go down there and [00:20:00] act like I was studying and fell asleep sitting at the table with the book in front of me. There was a boy side to that dormitory and there were vacant rooms up on the top floor, and so I started to live in one of the dorm rooms. I took the top bunk of a room and kept all of my clothes and stuff up in the ceiling tile of that room and I would just-

Robert Wagner:            So you’re living as a spy here?

Tim Thornton:              I tell you, I was going to college, doing all the things the college kids were doing, except for going to the classes or paying for it. We went to [00:20:30] the parties and the whole college experience was there for me. It was great. At one point I ran out of money. I needed to get a job. There was an ad in the paper for a cafeteria worker. So I went to apply, I went to the back door, went in there, I’m looking for Mr. Smith, “Oh, he’s over there. No, I haven’t seen him. Check the floor.” Well, I literally walked through the kitchen right into the cafeteria and my friends were there and sat down and ate with them because it was a card key system to get in to the cafeteria. [00:21:00] Well, that worked perfect. So every day I would show up about the same time, come into the kitchen, grab a rack of glasses and take them to the cafeteria area and sit down and eat. So I was eating there for free, but everybody assumed I worked there because I was walking around every day.

Robert Wagner:            So you were practicing.

Tim Thornton:              I made it work.

Robert Wagner:            You were practicing being a spy at that age. That’s awesome. So how did you get hired at the Independent Spy Agency, other than just you’ve [00:21:30] been living like a spy for a few days, a few years?

Tim Thornton:              Sure. Yep. I had mentioned before I had long hair and was getting into the band scene. I’m a drummer and started joining bands and traveling around. I started playing two man sand volleyball. As we were traveling around, I met several groups of people that played also and became fairly competitive. One of the guys that I had met on the volleyball field, he worked at this agency. So it sounded like a great job [00:22:00] and me and him were hanging out and I was building some things on the side for them and essentially just became involved enough to say, “You ought to just come work here. We’ll just get you in and stick you in the back room and you can tinker around with stuff to help us out.” That’s initially how I got started.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah, which was all you needed, I’m sure.

Tim Thornton:              That was my opener. Yes, sir.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. Okay. So Tim, let’s talk about innovation. I mean, Tactical is a very innovative company. You’re a very innovative person yourself. I remember a previous conversation we had about [00:22:30] some of the cameras you were making and you would take, I guess, the optics out of it, like a Sony Handycam and put them in your products and things like that. So do you have a process for innovation at Tactical?

Tim Thornton:              I’ll tell you one thing at the beginning that we were really good at, and it was integration. Me being a one man show, there wasn’t a lot of funding or capabilities. I had to find objects that had the components I needed in them and remove them and integrate them into something [00:23:00] new. So very good at integration. Nowadays, we have everything that we need, from 3D printers across the board. But to keep our manufacturing costs down, we still try to integrate known technologies that Motorola has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on to develop to get to this level. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. We can just take those components and repackage them, write new software into some product that suits our [00:23:30] application.

So integration was key at the beginning. Now we do make our own cameras. We actually do write our own software. We have our iOS software development and hardware license. We do all of these things in house. We really don’t outsource anything. So I like that now we have the flexibility to really start from scratch and build our own. We could build vacuum cleaners right now. Anything that comes across our radar, we could certainly build. We have the capability for all of that. We [00:24:00] dabble in some agricultural, we dabble in some medical. We dabble in the oil and gas. Obviously the military. So it’s just a fun shop to be in, to have all these capabilities.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. That’s awesome. So just turning to just your personal approach to leadership. Again, it’s in your bio, so I’ve got a follow up on this, that you attend Burning Man every year. So what are you learning from that? What are you applying to running your company from that experience?

Tim Thornton:              Sure. That’s a tough one. [00:24:30] I’m not so sure my customers would appreciate me going to Burning Man. It’s represented as one thing on the internet and that’s absolutely what it is not. Everybody thinks it’s just a big drug sex party out in the middle of the desert. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s out there, but you could go to Vegas and get the same thing. It’s not any different than that. There are TED talks out there. There are a business seminars. MIT sets up a tent and has all the divisions of go talk physics. You [00:25:00] could talk chemicals. I mean, it’s all out there. The premise of Burning Man, there’s 10 principles. They’re trying to even the field of cultural differences. It’s really a big experimentation in a utopian society. There is no money. There’s no advertising. You’ll see no sponsor whatsoever.

It’s the ideas. “If we get a few people and you bring some food and you bring some rope and you bring some water, if we all go out there and kind [00:25:30] of collaborate and help each other, we can live out here. We can thrive.” The desert is terrible. It’s the worst possible place you could try to set up and live for two weeks. But if we all come together. You can go to the hardware store and you need some rope? It’s on aisle seven. You go to aisle seven and you just take what you need. But then it’s expected if you have something left over at the end of the day, go contribute to the store. We want to order a pizza tonight. Great. Well, go to the pizza shop and you order pizza, you take it home and eat it. There is no money exchanged, but the next day, maybe you should go [00:26:00] work at that pizza shop for an hour. You try to help out there.

So that type of … You say leadership and I’m really not a good leader. When we first started the company, I didn’t want any titles. I don’t like titles or the hierarchy of titles. It was a very flat concept. We’re all just here with one big goal of making the company successful. I don’t want to put anybody in a box of what you can or cannot do. So we’ve tried to maintain a lot of that mentality and every year [00:26:30] we take a group of employees, whoever wants to go, to Burning Man and experience that space of just all of us coming together and working together with strangers. Countries from all over the world are represented at Burning Man. You have to meet and greet and talk. It’s always a culture shock coming back from Burning Man. I land in Tulsa and usually first place I go is quick trip to get my IC and I’m coming off of this high of everybody’s [00:27:00] so friendly and interested in what you’re doing. You just walk up and hug them-

Tim Thornton:              … so friendly and interested in what you’re doing. You just walk up and hug them, and then I come back to society. You walk into QuikTrip and it’s a simple comment, “Man, I really like those shoes,” and people will look at you like you’re crazy. “Why are you talking to me? Why are you bothering me?” Everyone’s got their head buried in the phone, looking down, and are just generally not happy. Next time you’re out, walking around, look at people. They’re just so focused and disconnected from the world and buried into their phone, they have no idea what’s going on and [00:27:30] the world’s just passing them by. They’re missing out on what’s going on right here in the now.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. So you feel like that as it relates to the company, this fosters a lot of unity, it sounds like, and a lot of cooperation and collaborations, right?

Tim Thornton:              I’d like to think so. When we designed our offices, I didn’t want any cubicles or individual offices. We’ve designed the office in a big U-shape, and it’s all glass windows on the inside. We’ve got two big TV screens on [00:28:00] the front wall, and we’ve got CNN and Fox News going, and I can look across the office and see who’s working or who’s here. We have corn-hole section set up in the lobby. We’ve got ping-pong tables in the back. We’ve got a big shuffleboard table in the back, keeping everybody in a group, even if it’s through a glass wall. But seeing everyone and just having contact and visibility, I think, fosters a more collaborative [00:28:30] office.

Robert Wagner:            What about just attracting talent to your company? I mean, you need very innovative people who think outside the box all the time.

Tim Thornton:              I would say that most of our employees are not trained or educated in the field that they’re in, our sales guys. Engineers, yes, obviously. It’s a small circle that we run in and we’re known within those circles. A lot of our employees are ex-students or retired [00:29:00] military, or they just got out. We don’t have a formal hiring process, but whenever we do, we’ve got people that have come from the UK and fostered some college graduate programs and such. The interview process starts to separate who we think will work at [TE 00:29:19] and who we think will not. I’m not looking at what your resume says. Obviously I don’t have a great resume. We have questions like, “What’s your favorite movie?” I can tell a lot about [00:29:30] a person from what their favorite movie is. What are your hobbies? What do you do on the weekend? Are you a musician? If you have those types of talent, that usually means that there’s some creative spark that we can latch on to and bring them into the circle of TE.

So I don’t have a formal answer. I just say word of mouth from our students and the circle that we run in. And just ask silly questions. Get them out of their comfort zone. In an interview, we’ll have a lobby [00:30:00] full of whoever we’re interviewing and one of us will come out of our interview room with his shirt off crying and screaming and run into the parking lot. And I’ll come out and say, “Next?” just to throw everybody off their game and get them out of this regimented comfort zone of, this is how the interview goes and these are the questions that you have. You just can’t tell from that stuff.

Robert Wagner:            Right. Very good. Well, Tim, fascinating conversation. I appreciate it very much. So we do have five questions that we ask every guest [00:30:30] though.

Tim Thornton:              All right. All right.

Robert Wagner:            So what was the first way you made money?

Tim Thornton:              I had a customer of mine that called me one day and they had some… We call it dump money, end-of-year dump money that they had to spend on something, and he thought of me. I was still a one-man-show at this time. He said, “We’ve got to spend this money. I mentioned your name. Show much you’ve got. It’s something that we need anyway. We were going to budget it for next year, but can you fly out here tomorrow and just give them your spiel [00:31:00] and show them this gear?” It was remote cameras. We make some scopes that you can stick in a hole and look around. We make some poles that go up to 40 feet and look around walls and windows and such. And so I had this kit.

So I showed up. The plane was late. There was a group of the important people looking at several different product options from other manufacturers. I came in at the tail end of the demonstration. They were already packing their bags and left. I was sitting up at the table. Everyone just started muttering around and picking [00:31:30] up the stuff out of my cases and turn them on. “How do I get this to work?” I didn’t get to do a formal presentation. Everyone just grabbed it and took it into their offices and playing with it.

He came back about five minutes later and says, “Yeah, you’re late. It didn’t go so well, but we really liked the gear. We’ll take it. How much does it cost?” I said, “Well, how many do you need?” “Well, we need this many and we’ve got this much money.” Well, I just took that and divided by how many and said, “Well, this is the cost.” He said, “Great, we’ll take it.” And that was my first big sale. It was my first million-dollar sale that put us over the edge [00:32:00] and put us on the map. This guy’s real. It worked out.

Robert Wagner:            Very cool. So if you were not doing Tactical Electronics, what do you think you would be doing?

Tim Thornton:              I’d be a professional drummer in a world-touring rock band.

Robert Wagner:            Okay. You still going to do that in some way?

Tim Thornton:              I’m almost doing it now.

Robert Wagner:            What would you tell your 20-year-old self, which was living secretly in a dorm?

Tim Thornton:              I would not change [00:32:30] a thing. Really, I wouldn’t change a thing. I love adventure and doing it differently. Just challenge me with something that says it can’t be done, and that’s what I’m going to gravitate to. I don’t know if I would give myself any advice at 20 that I wouldn’t want to just happen naturally to get me where I’m at.

Robert Wagner:            Awesome.

Tim Thornton:              No regrets.

Robert Wagner:            That’s awesome. What will the title of your book be?

Tim Thornton:              Think outside the box, maybe. Well, I don’t know. Yeah. Think outside the box. Rise up. Don’t conform. Yeah. That’s [00:33:00] a tough one. That’s the best I got. You got me on that one.

Robert Wagner:            What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Tim Thornton:              One piece of advice? Boy. You have to think bigger. Get uncomfortable. You can be safe and you can go this far, but at some point you just have to go all-out. Don’t doubt yourself. Try something. Make something happen. If you fail, you fail. At least you tried. But I think that’s what separates, really, the successful [00:33:30] people that have started their own business, and maybe those that don’t. It’s a rough start. You’ve got to swallow pride, and financially it’s a challenge and such.

But boy, when we had my first contract, that one that I mentioned to you, I received the order and immediately was told that I had to have open heart surgery a week later. And we were at a point where now I just got the largest deal of my… This is going to set me up for the rest of my life. No. You have to have it. You have to have [00:34:00] it. And we were at a point where we had to decide, were we going to take this order and just make it work, or was I going to have to turn the order down to take care of my heart? And we made the choice, no, it’s going to be okay. We’d just make it work. And we did, and it worked out. Yeah. Don’t doubt yourself.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. Great stuff. Well, Tim, thank you so much for the time today. I really appreciate it.

Tim Thornton:              Thanks for having me.

Robert Wagner:            If folks want to learn more about Tactical or get in touch with you, how do they do that?

Tim Thornton:              Sure. We’ve got a website, tacticalelectronics.com. You can [00:34:30] message me through there. I’d be happy to answer any questions or talk about ideas that you may have, and I’m not sure I’m the best guy to give business advice to, I’ve I’ve probably done it the wrong way, but I don’t mind, I don’t mind telling you how I did it.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. If you’ve got any solvable problems, it might be a good [crosstalk 00:34:49].

Tim Thornton:              Sure, love that. Yes. Yes. That’s what we thrive at.

Robert Wagner:            Yeah. Okay. Well, Tim, thanks so much.

Tim Thornton:              Absolutely. Thanks Rob, I appreciate it.

Robert Wagner:            That’s all for this episode of How That Happened. Thank you for listening. [00:35:00] Be sure to visit howthathappened.com for show notes and additional episodes. You can also subscribe to our show on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts or Stitcher. Thanks for listening. This content is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional advice. Copyright 2021 HoganTaylor LLP. All rights reserved. To review the HoganTaylor general terms and conditions, visit www.hogantaylor.com.


Tim Thornton is the founder and owner of Tactical Electronics, which provides EOD tools, CIED Training, and Tactical Inspection Cameras for military and law enforcement agencies. Not only is he a founder, he is also an inventor, international spy, and subject matter expert in terrorism.

Tim started in this industry 20 years ago as an Instructor at Independent Intelligence Agency, where he taught special forces techniques, and noticed a lack of tools needed to achieve intelligence and military objectives. He then started making black boxes in his garage to meet those diagnostic needs, with the intent to help responders and government agencies stay safe. These products help pick locks, bypass security systems, disarming explosives, hotwire cars, and more.

In this episode, Tim shares how he got his start and learned to quickly adapt to this unique Industry, some of the amazing product categories that they focus on and how they source them to government agencies, and what it means to be an international spy.

This episode is now on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also listen via the podcast player embedded above.

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