Twin Cities–Based ClipDifferent Is Building Community with an Empowering Invention

You wouldn’t think that something as simple as clipping one’s nails could build relationships and community, but let me tell you some stories.

The first is mine. I have had dwarfism and rheumatoid arthritis my whole life. When I was just a little girl, my grandfather and I would have a routine when he came to visit: I would sit on Papa’s lap and we would read the comics. After the comics, he would clip my nails and we would go to Perkins for brunch. As we have both gotten older, the routine has changed, and it has been harder to climb on his lap and for him to clip my nails. But we continue because this experience has bonded us for life.

The second story is that of Tom McMullen Jr. In 2017, he was at Whole Foods when he saw a gentleman leaving the store and walked up to him. Tom asked, “Sir, could I talk with you for a minute? I noticed that you have only one arm. How do you cut your fingernails?” Looking a bit puzzled, the man replied, “I can’t—my wife does it, and I hate it.” Enthusiastically, Tom responded that he was developing a fingernail clipper for people with differing abilities and told the man he’d be able to cut his own fingernails with it. The mystery man’s look changed to that of heartfelt surprise as he leaned close to Tom and asked, “Why would you think of us?”

Tom with the device

Tom McMullen with his product, the ClipDifferent.

His question got Tom thinking. He was the second born and only boy in a family of five kids. His younger sister Kathy had polio when she was little, and some of his earliest and fondest memories are of Kathy sitting on the dining-room table while he stretched her legs for her. It was his job, and he loved the conversations they would have. She would tell him about her day at school, and oftentimes she found it frustrating that she would have to walk in a clumsy leg brace to school and wouldn’t be able to participate in some of the “ordinary” activities the other kids did. Tom often encouraged her, saying things like, “Kathy, you can participate. You can do it—even with your leg brace! Don’t let that silly thing stop you!”

He grew up encouraging his sister and keeping a lookout for how he could make ordinary activities more accessible to her. It became part of his way of thinking and part of his way of life, such that when he met his first wife, Trudy, he thought nothing of the limp she had. In fact, he liked it; he thought it was cute. Together Trudy and Tom had three wonderful children and were married for a total of 35 years.

However, it turned out that Trudy’s limp was not merely the result of polio she had when she was younger, like Kathy, but a cancerous growth on her spine. The tumor grew, and for the last 18 years of her and Tom’s shared life together, she used a wheelchair. They had some good laughs and some good cries during those years. “Tom,” she would say, “would you bring me my coffee cup? Would you hand me that newspaper? Could you get that blanket for me? Would you . . .?” By the time she could say her next request, Tom simply looked at her and giggled. It was one of the many times they shared a deep humorous connection over ordinary activities of daily living.

So I go back to that question the gentleman in the parking lot asked: “Why us?”

ClipDifferent Pro product image

The ClipDifferent Pro.

“It’s a question we’ve been asked when focusing on a neglected market that has been overlooked and underserved for far too long,” Tom says. “We believe that the time is now to meet the needs for all walks of life to improve the way daily routines are accomplished.” ClipDifferent answers that question by building community as a general benefit corporation. Tom runs the company with his son TJ, daughter Melanie, and others, including Jennifer Miller and Matt Osterman. But what is ClipDifferent? A homegrown startup, the Twin Cities–based business was a semifinalist in the MN Cup, a start-up competition for Minnesota entrepreneurs and innovators. The group took creativity and ingenuity and put them toward the greater good of helping others help themselves. In the culture of disability, this is a wonderful concept: they don’t want to do things for me—they want to make it so I can do things for myself. As Ruth Bachman, cancer survivor and amputee, says in a testimonial for ClipDifferent, “being able to do things for yourself, that makes all the difference in the world.”

ClipDifferent’s first product, the ClipDifferent Pro, is a battery-operated electronic fingernail clipper for those with varying abilities. People who have arthritis can use it, as can people who are blind or one-handed. Some words used to describe it are safe, gentle, and effortless. The instructions are simple: Place it on a steady surface. Turn on. Insert the nail to the desired length. Rotate finger to ensure a smooth finish. Empty the clippings drawer.

A woman opening the tray

Emptying the clippings tray. ClipDifferent

Eager to test out this product and to interview the creators, I set up a meeting at a restaurant near my house. Tom and TJ answered all my questions, and when the food was done they brought out the product. My nails were very long at this point, since I only see my papa three times a year, give or take. I had resorted to biting them in between visits, but I held off for this meeting. Bringing out the ClipDifferent Pro and watching me use it made Tom’s and TJ’s eyes light up. They showed me how to line up each nail and even guided some of my stiff fingers to the right position. We quickly noticed a pattern: due to the extreme curvature of my nails and fingers, the clipper only worked for about 75 percent of my nails. That said, I realize that I am unique—about 10 percent of the disabled community have hands like mine, so the product should work for 90 percent of the disabled population, and that is more than anything else out there. With the prelaunch pricing of $119 dollars, it is a great deal.

TJ and Tom

TJ and Tom.

I planned to leave my review at that. But barely a day after our meeting, I got an email from TJ answering a few questions he and Tom hadn’t been able to during our interview and telling me his dad had spent all night adjusting the faceplate on the ClipDifferent because he wanted it to work for me. I was floored by the compassion and drive of these people. We arranged for a second meeting about a week later, and Tom and TJ came to my house and showed my company and me the revisions. They had opened up the slot in the faceplate where the nail goes so it would take in my curved nails better. I tried it out while my guest used the original unit. During that time Tom talked about how he went all the way to his manufacturers right after our meeting because “the time was now” to fix the problem. With the modifications, it worked for about 95 percent of my nails, and with a little more practice I am confident that it will work for all of them.

Tom and his colleagues aren’t just selling a product; they are selling independence. They are not just building a company; they are building a community. So, for my Twin Cities geek community, if you know someone who could use the ClipDifferent Pro or if you just want to donate so others can experience the independence that you might have, check out ClipDifferent’s website or follow the company on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

One of the ClipDifferent Pros I tested out.

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