Brad McCarthy’s business was born as he lay sprawled on a Cape York beach, dehydrated, exhausted, and covered in black mangrove mud and sandfly bites. That was the easy part.
In 1999, Brad wrote and self-published his first 4WD guidebook, Dirty Weekends in South East Queensland. In 2000, he followed it up with a guide to Central Queensland. In 2001, he was researching his third book – a guide to North Queensland – when he got bogged on a remote beach with the tide coming in and without another soul in sight.
“I spent six hours winching my 4WD out of this bog, getting eaten alive by insects,” he remembers. “By the time I got it out, I just thought there had to be an easier way than that. But when I looked at the market, I saw there really wasn’t anything that was specifically designed for getting yourself out of a bog.”
That’s when Brad began developing MAXTRAX (a play on both ‘Mac’s (McCarthy’s) tracks’ and ‘maximum traction’), the bright orange planks that you’ve no doubt seen strapped to the roofracks of 4WDs around Australia. The design is fiendishly simple – it comes with a scoop to dig out sand, mud or snow, and once you’ve cleared enough space, the rounded ‘teeth’ on the surface of the plank fit into the grooves of your tyres, providing traction while you get going.
MAXTRAX are now available at most major and independent automotive and outdoor retailers around the country, with factories on the Sunshine Coast and in Sydney operating around the clock to meet demand. They’re also available from more than 30 international stockists, and are used by the Australian, US and French militaries; the United Nations; mining, energy and exploration companies; lifeguard and emergency services; off-road rally drivers and more.
Of course, it wasn’t as straightforward as simply seeing a gap in the market, filling that gap, and waiting for the cash to roll in. As Brad puts it, “it took about 10 years to become an overnight success – 10 years of being prepared to put my head in the guillotine if it didn’t work out”.
Brad was working as a plumber when he initially conceived MAXTRAX. He tinkered with the idea for a couple of years, but was essentially in limbo until he stumbled across a program on the ABC that set him on the right path.
“The host was interviewing people about their professions, and he spoke to this one guy who was an industrial designer,” he says. “The host asked what an industrial designer does, and he said, ‘Well, if you’ve got a car, a lawnmower, a toaster or a TV, an industrial designer designed that’. I realised that’s what I needed, so I grabbed the Yellow Pages and looked for an industrial designer – there were only three in Brisbane at the time.
“One of them had won a few awards, so I figured they knew what they were doing. I met with them, told them about my idea, and we went on to make several prototypes and test several materials and designs until we arrived at what worked. That process took a couple of years, and I was still working full-time as a plumber through all of it, using my income to fund the prototypes.
“I spoke to a patent attorney early on to get the necessary protections in place, and I started doing some market research. I sent emails to people who had bought the 4WD guidebooks over the years, asked them to sign an NDA, and had them fill out a questionnaire about whether they’d be interested in the tool and how much they’d be prepared to pay. Essentially, the response was, ‘Yes, how soon can we have it?’
“I took that as a good sign that it was worth investing in manufacturing the tool, which was going to cost me about $120,000 to get started. I went to the bank I had my mortgage with and I told them what I wanted to do, and they said, ‘Well, we’ll need to see a business plan’. I said, ‘The plan is to make them and then sell them’.
“Somehow, that worked. I borrowed the money, built the first run of MAXTRAX, and then did a 10,000km lap around Queensland with the tool. It was late November, so it was hot and boggy, and I was towing a heavy camper trailer. Every time I got stuck, I set up a tripod and filmed the solo recovery with MAXTRAX.”
Brad launched MAXTRAX at the National 4×4 Outdoors Show in Brisbane in 2005, using the video of the product in action to drive interest among the weekend warriors and retailers in attendance. Not long after, it won Australian 4WD Monthly Magazine’s award for Best New Product under $500.
“Money would come in and it would go straight into the next production run,” Brad says. “My goal was to get to a point where I could sell a certain amount each week, and then I could stop plumbing and focus on MAXTRAX full-time, and it took a few years to get there.
“There were so many times when I thought, ‘Is this ever going to happen? Is it ever going to get to that stage? How long do I keep pushing before I decide it hasn’t worked?’ I was fortunate enough to have support from family and friends who would say, ‘We think it’s a great idea, you’ve just got to stick with it and keep going’.
“It always felt like success was just over that next hill, and about three or four years after we launched, things started to snowball. The orders started to increase every week, and we were fielding enquiries from retailers every day, and eventually I was able to stop plumbing and concentrate solely on the business.
“You just have to keep bashing your head against the wall. Eventually a few cracks will start to appear, and after a while you can poke your head through.”
Over the horizon
Now firmly established on the 4WD accessories market, MAXTRAX has a team of 17 employees to handle day-to-day operations while Brad gets back to what he does best – exploring.
“I usually work from my LandCruiser,” he laughs. “I’m out there off the beaten track as much as I possibly can be, because that’s my passion – that’s how this whole business came about. I love being a thousand miles from anywhere, because that’s where you can push the envelope and find problems that don’t have solutions yet. That’s my R&D process.
“A lot of people in the 4WD industry aren’t actually 4WDers. Their R&D teams are sitting in front of computers trying to dream up ideas, whereas I’m actually out there doing it. I designed MAXTRAX for me and a specific scenario I experienced, and it just turned out that a lot of other people have encountered similar problems.
“When we first started doing 4WD shows with MAXTRAX, industry people would come up to me and say, ‘It’s so simple; why didn’t I think of it?’ Well, the reason they didn’t think of it is that they weren’t bogged on a beach with the tide coming in under their car for six hours.”