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I love a great new idea and I love new product Start-Ups. The energy, excitement, potential and a clean slate to work with is really appealing. Through designing several pushchairs and over 30 other products in the nursery sector we had built up a network of impressive global contacts such as manufacturers, distributors and suppliers. And so we decided to design our own pushchair.
I’d had three boys who had just moved out of the buggy stage but we’d been through four different pushchairs and all were rubbish in their own special way. We did an innovation workshop as a team and came up with a whole load of ideas including these really funky wheels that had been used on forestry equipment.
We were going to white label the final 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. And lots of brands look for new products to do this with in the nursery sector. We see brand representatives all the time at nursery show going round the trade stands of the Chinese factories asking them what is new that they have designed that they can stick their colours and logos onto and sell as their own. And that was what we were going to do.
Development went well but then we decided it was too good to let another brand have and we wanted to launch our own brand instead. I guess we had become attached to our baby and the general excitement around this great new product and wanted control over it’s destiny.
In retrospect we were naïve and really we should have stuck with what we knew best – outstanding product design and developing innovative products. Let someone else do the marketing and brand stuff. I also met a highly experienced ex. big brand marketing director who was keen to get involved and handle the sales and marketing side of the business. It seemed like a dream partnership.
So we cracked on and aimed to launch the product and our new shiny brand at one of the three biggest global nursery shows: Kind Und Jugend in Cologne Germany in 2017.
For this we needed the following:
So we got some investment and started building the prototypes. Costings weren’t a problem as we had factory contacts already and they helped with the production plan as well. Points 4-6 were where the problem really lay. We argued about the best way to achieve this and in the end decided to spend quite a bit of money with an expensive branding agency.
Well £30k into this branding work we suddenly were told that without spending another £70k we wouldn’t actually have the necessary brand assets for our launch. Apparently, we had committed £30k for just the concept work! The work was good and there was some interesting thinking but this was big news to us and a real problem. We ended up raising more money, by giving up more shares in the business, and trusting their judgement that they knew what was right.
We paid the costs, let them get on and we focused on the necessary product prototypes for the show and planning the launch event. We got invites out to critical people in the industry and excitement was building!
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. So there was a lot riding on the response of around 30 key figures in the international nursery market. 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. This left me holding the shattered pieces of this big dream.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’d signed off on the preliminary brand work, I liked a lot of it and I’d got carried away. In all the excitement of the brand development work and all the ideas and exciting things we could do, I had lost track of our customer. I lost track of what was important to them and I was far to introspective getting all exciting about our brand.
We should have put earlier stage brand work to our target market and got feedback. I was blinded by the glossy Agency with awards all over their studio and the We’re the experts rhetoric coming from their team. But not once during the 4 or 5 months did they ever speak to or speak about our customer and that should have been a massive red flag.
We did do focus groups as part of the development of the pushchair product but we didn’t do this for the brand work.
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 then landed John Lewis. A pretty major moment and made it all worth-while.
The story since then is less positive with Covid hitting sales really hard. Our marketing strategy revolved round consumer shows that shut for 18 months and so we missed our John Lewis sales targets and were dropped from their stores and website. But we did land a UK distributor who took over our sales, marketing and distribution functions freeing us up to design the next pushchair in the range due for launch shortly.
Find out more about developing a physical new product for start-ups: Product Design for Start-Ups
Take a look at the website for our Start-Up here: Ark Pushchairs
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Article written by Phil Staunton, managing director of D2M Innovation.
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