Our Start-Up Story. Concept to John Lewis Launch

product launch

Having designed multiple pushchairs and around 30 other products in the nursery sector, we had built up global contacts, suppliers and distributors. I have three young boys, who at the time had just moved out of the buggy stage. My wife and I had been through four different pushchairs, each of which was rubbish in its own special way. So I decided that the team at D2M and I would design and launch our own.

Firstly, we carried out an innovation workshop and came up with a whole load of ideas. This included funky wheels that had been used on forestry equipment, but not pushchairs, and so we started designing the product from there. 

We were initially going to ‘white-label’ the product. This is a good option when you don’t have much money to launch a business as you piggyback off someone else’s brand. White-labelling is when you sell your product to a well-known company for them to sell under their own brand. However, the product development process went so well that we decided the design was too good to let another company have it!

Instead, we wanted to launch our own brand. In retrospect, this was naïve and really we should have stuck with what we knew best – outstanding product design and developing innovative products. We should have let someone else do the marketing and branding. 

This, really, was what led to a £100k mistake. I met a highly experienced ex-big-brand marketer who came on board to do this side of things. We felt having him on the team would make launching the brand a less risky option. 

We cracked on and aimed to launch the product and brand at one of the three biggest nursery shows: Kind Und Jugend 2018. 

For this we needed the following:
1. A really good prototype in each of the following three modes: forward-facing toddler seat, rear-facing toddler seat and pram mode
2. Manufacturing costings so that we could tell distributors the price they would have to buy it for
3. A plan and realistic, achievable timings for production units
4. Colour range
5. Initial marketing material showing how it could be promoted by the distributors
6. A brand

We managed to secure some investment and started building the prototypes. Manufacturing costings weren’t a problem as we had factory contacts and they helped with the production plan. Points 4, 5 and 6 were where the real problems lay. We debated the best way to achieve these points and, in the end, decided to spend quite a bit of money with an expensive branding agency.

£30k into the branding work, we were suddenly told that without spending another £70k, we wouldn’t have the necessary graphics for the show. Apparently, we had committed £30k just for the concept work! 

The work seemed decent, but this was such big news to us and a real problem. We ended up raising more money by giving up more shares in the business. 

We paid the costs and let them get on, whilst we focused on the necessary product prototypes for the show whilst planning the launch event. We sent invites to critical people in the industry and excitement was building!

We launched at the show as planned… But did it go well? 

So we spent £100k on all this brand material and we launched to a room full of international distributors with the power to launch us globally and double the value of our business overnight. We had around 14 investors at the time, a lot of whom were friends and family, and it had taken 18 months of hard work and effort to get to this point.

And it bombed.

All the feedback was that they loved the product but that they didn’t understand the BRAND. It was too complex, it was confusing, they didn’t get it and they weren’t going to order. My marketing director resigned the next day leaving me to pick up the pieces.

Now don’t get me wrong, I had signed off on the preliminary work – I liked a lot of it and I’d got carried away. In all the excitement of the brand development work, we had lost track of our customer. We lost track of what would be important to them and we were far too introspective as we were getting all excited about our brand.

What we should have done is put earlier stage work to our target market and got feedback from them. However, when doing this, confidentiality is crucial! You don’t want to reveal everything as this could prevent you from getting intellectual property protection in place. But you also don’t want to go too far the other way and lose incredibly valuable feedback by not asking for people’s opinions. 

In hindsight, I was blinded by the London agency and the ‘we’re the experts’ rhetoric coming from their team. But not once during the 4 months that we worked together did they ever speak about our customer and that should have been a huge red flag. 

We undertook focus groups as part of the development of the pushchair product, but we didn’t do this for the brand work. It can be hard with focus groups as people generally don’t want to offend anyone and so we’ve found that they are generally more positive than helpful.
Another important thing – Don’t Stop Asking Questions. 

You should bear this in mind throughout the development process! Once your idea comes to life in a prototype, you should check back with your customers to see if you hit the mark. Watching users test your solution is a critical experience, and often gives you vital information to create a great product. This can be done in a 1-1 interview basis or through a larger focus group.
The agency’s lack of focus on our target market was one red flag, but there were others.

They had won loads of awards. But the problem with design awards is that they’re usually judged by designers and commercial success is seldom part of the judging criteria. These awards look for stunning graphics, divergent thinking or newness. But do you want an arresting new concept or do you want something that will resonate with the target market and ensure you get sales?

I know what I wanted – and it wasn’t to be told by a number of distributors that they wouldn’t order until we changed the branding.

I learnt that minimum viable branding for launch doesn’t need to be £100k with a big fancy London agency.

After all, it would have been much better to spend £20k and be told it was wrong. Furthermore, we could have always gone to the big agency later on and spent £100k out of profit and not investment. 

I had a choice. Pack up and go home, move on, deliver the bad news to my investors and leave it there. Or, I could raise more money, redo the branding and relaunch. And that’s what I did. It cost me another 10% of my startup but we redid it all. 

And because of this we successfully landed retail giant John Lewis! A pretty major moment that made it all worthwhile. 

Then Covid struck and the baby shows were all cancelled and shops shut. Now this has several catastrophic impacts for us.

1. Expectant parents weren’t been exposed to Ark in stores that we had worked really hard to get into.
2. Our marketing launch strategy was destroyed instantly as it was based around physical baby shows and these were cancelled and only now are really starting up again.
3. John Lewis stores were closed and so we weren’t achieving the sales volumes they wanted to see in order to justify Ark remaining in store.
4. Potential buyers switched from buying new pushchairs to being cautious with their money and buying second hand.
5. Lots of people choose existing brands that friends or family had already used and didn’t risk anything that they didn’t know was a quality product because they now couldn’t go and see pushchairs in person.

All of this basically killed our sales. We pivoted and rapidly as start-ups can and began doing online demos, ramped up our social media and started more proactive engagement online with potential customers. But by this point we didn’t have much capital to do this with. It all had to be our time and with 3 children to now home educate and @D2MInnovation to continue running, this was only sustainable for a limited period of time.

After a few months it became too much, John Lewis dropped our brand and independents lost interest as they hadn’t sold Ark pushchairs for 6 months or so. Fortunately we were able to partner with a distributor who took over everything to do with sales, logistics and marketing. Had it not been for this, then Ark would have closed. The distributor has had their own struggles with the impact of Covid on their business coupled with the impact of Brexit. It’s fair to say it hasn’t gone as well as either party would have liked.

I remain positive for the future with Baby shows starting again and we will be at Excel Baby Show this weekend with our distributor trying to relaunch the brand. We’ve further developed and improved the product in the interim and refined our messaging, website and imagery. We haven’t sat back and licked our wounds but it feels like we are now back at the bottom of marketing mountain having already attempted the climb once already…


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