By Douglas McColloch
Mike Burns came to the specialty-equipment market after launching a successful career in finance. A holder of an MBA from the University of Colorado, he has worked as an analyst for energy companies such as ConocoPhilips and as a budget and resource director for the U.S. Air Force. A 2018 SEMA Launch Pad semifinalist, Burns developed his ValvoMax Quick Twist Valve to facilitate easy oil changes without the use of tools. The ValvoMax has sold more than 50,000 units to date, and for his efforts, Burns was named SEMA’s 2022 Gen-III Innovator of the Year at last year’s 2022 SEMA Industry Awards Banquet. The award recognizes young entrepreneurs (age 40 and under) for their innovations in the specialty-equipment market.
We spoke with Burns recently to learn some of his secrets of success. What follows has been edited for clarity and length.
SEMA News: What’s your latest project? What’s in your garage/driveway/studio?
Mike Burns: Our latest project is a tool for oil filter removal. Others have attempted to solve the problem with an accordion-style device, a puncture device or a filter funnel tool, but these all fall short because they still leave a mess, are difficult to operate or are too expensive. Look for the product release in the first quarter of this year.
SN: What was your very first job, and what did you take away from it?
MB: My first real job was at Owasso Lawn Care in Oklahoma. These were long days working in the summer heat with friends from my church, but I learned the virtues of hard work and discipline.
SN: What was the inspiration for the ValvoMax Oil Drain System? How long did it take to devise a working prototype?
MB: I was changing my oil back in 2013 and it spilled in my hands, ran down my arm and poured on my driveway. To make matters worse, I stepped into the used oil pan up to my ankles. Then I had no easy way to transport what oil was remaining to a recycling center. After this horrible experience, I visited every automotive retail shop in my hometown looking for a better solution. But to my surprise, no solution existed. So I hired an automotive engineer, and we came up with a set of drawings. We made a few prototypes and I gave 10 samples to family and friends to test. We iterated several times and about two years later had a workable product.
SN: You were a semifinalist at SEMA Launch Pad a few years ago. What lesson(s) did you learn from the experience, and how valuable was it in developing your business?
MB: Launch Pad was a game-changer for me. For the first time, I got my product out into the open where it was exposed to critiques and constructive feedback. As of today, I still talk frequently with the other Launch Pad attendees I met back then.
SN: Describe your first SEMA Show. What do you remember most about it?
MB: My first SEMA Show coincided with being a semi-finalist at the SEMA Launch Pad in 2018, and it was an eye-opening experience. The scale of the Show is simply mind-boggling. I’ve been back to the Show each year since then.
SN: You’ve worked on the finance side for a number of different companies. How much help was that experience when you were first developing a business model for your own company?
MB: I couldn’t have asked for a better background than finance to run my company. At the end of the day, every business comes down to a set of numbers. Flows of money, assets and ideas are all governed by price, and to be successful you must be able to determine the worth of things.
SN: What’s your daily driver, and what do you like most about it?
MB: My daily driver is a Ford F-150. Being the owner of an oil-change products company means that oftentimes your daily driver is the first test vehicle for new product ideas. I can say with confidence that no other vehicle in the state of Texas has had its oil changed as often as my truck!
SN: What does winning the Gen-III Innovator of the Year award mean to you, and to your business?
MB: I was humbled to win the Gen-III Innovator of the Year Award, especially considering those who were also in the running for this award. My friends Alex Kay of RestorFX and Dustin Woolf of Woolfpack Racing, both finalists for the award, were equally deserving. They are both running great companies with cutting-edge products.
SN: For someone who’s thinking of starting their own automotive business, what advice would you offer them?
MB: As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” First, build your education foundation. I believe your degree should be of an analytical nature. Second, think big. Create a vision as to what problem you want to solve. Third, don’t look in the rearview mirror. Look forward, not behind you. Fourth, take risks and bet on yourself. Helen Keller wrote, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security is mostly a superstition.” Finally, persevere against all odds. Calvin Coolidge wrote, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”
SN: When you’re not working, where will we find you, and what will you be doing?
MB: I am active in my local church and our children’s school. I think it’s important to be involved in the community and give back to others. Aside from being involved in our church and school, I enjoy reading and spending time with family.