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One of the downsides of creating an innovative product is that everyone wants a piece of it.
After Rob Law launched Trunki, the ride-on luggage for kids, he was faced with copycat products popping up all over the globe, some even in big retailers such as Lidl and Aldi.
In his battle to protect his product against one of these copycats, he lost his court case on a technicality and was forced to pay out millions.
Despite this defeat, Rob learned to focus on putting more value into his brand, as this is something no one can replicate.
In this episode, we explore the process behind getting patents and IP protection, how to create a hit product and how to overcome manufacturing challenges.
Here’s his unfiltered advice below:
If you can’t find a manufacturer, why not give it a go yourself?
Well, it’s so nice to catch up with you, because there was a time in 2014, 2015, where we were speaking about two or three times a month. You were on the front cover of the small business section of The Telegraph. You were like my number one cover star.
So it’s great to be sitting here and find out what happened next.
But maybe we’ll start at the beginning.
So you are a true inventor. I think you came up with the idea for the Trunki at university. So how did you take that idea from just a complete wild thought to reality?
I came up with the idea back in ’97 while I was studying product design at university. So actually I was being trained in the skill set to be able to take ideas all the way through to being a physical product.
So I was able to create the product, design the product in CAD, and had a prototype that I handcrafted myself. And I pimped that around various manufacturers from luggage manufacturers, who politely told me I’d invented a toy and toy manufacturers told me I’d invented some luggage, and I really struggled to find anyone to take it on to license my idea.
Eventually I found a toy company to take it on. They didn’t do a very good job and went bust, and frustrated by this lack of success, I decided to have a go myself.
And on the 5th of May 2006, now celebrated as Trunki’s birthday. That’s when the first container of pink and blue Trunkis arrived in as Avonmouth dock.
I quit my job as a design consultant and started trading.
What did parents, what kids think about this product because there was nothing else like it around at the time, right?
Well, funnily enough, manufacturers didn’t get it. Retailers didn’t get it, investors didn’t get it.
But finally when I got in front of the target customer, they loved it.
So kids and parents absolutely loved the product, and that was proved in principle when I was rejected off Dragons Den’ but went on to sell quite a few of them.
From Wheelie Rubbish on Dragons’ Den to multimillion-pound company
Now, tell me about that experience, because Peter Jones called your company worthless.
Am I remembering this right? So what was the impact of being on the show?
I certainly remember that quote. It’s etched on my memory.
But the impact of the show was, it was six months before it actually aired, so I had a bit of time to build the business up. We literally, all fairness to the BBC, we only filmed that two weeks after that first container arrived.
So I still sat in my bedroom, a single man, one-man band trying to get Trunki into retailers and being passed around to all these different departments because no one would take the bloody product.
But Dragons’ Den was a great opening to get our brand out there.
And the next day after it aired, even though the BBC advertised the episode as Wheelie Rubbish, everyone was talking about Trunki around the coffee machine at work, and we started selling an absolute shed load, and retailers finally picked up the phone and invited me into pitch.
So that was a real turning point.
But did it give me any determination to succeed? Probably not because I’d faced so much adversity beforehand that this was just another challenge to overcome.
And by then I was fairly seasoned at just getting on with it and trying to overcome these curveballs I kept getting thrown.
Fighting copycat products—what’s the process?
Well, there was more adversity ahead because it could be said that all that attention perhaps drew some attention from some copycats, some people who thought, “I’ll have a slice of that. That’s doing really well.”
So what happened?
Well, it took a couple of years before I started seeing copies primarily because there’s quite a large investment in the steel tools that make a large plastic product like this.
So it was only when we started getting real success internationally that we started getting copied.
And we’ve had over 56 copies now from all over the world, mainly the Far East.
One particular copy was fashioned by a UK company, they’re renowned for copying people, and they copy anyone who’s successful.
And when I saw this on our home turf, I thought these could be quite a serious threat. So I was talking to my lawyers, we decided to send them a cease-and-desist letter, as they’re season professionals at copying, that means nothing to them.
And very early on, I was told that if I wanted to take these guys on, I should be prepared to take it all the way, and naively I didn’t quite realise that all the way might actually mean going all the way to the Supreme Court in London.
So we managed to get a European injunction against their product, which means they had to stop selling it all over Europe. We went to the High Court, and we won.
I thought that was game over.
But they appealed on a technicality. That technicality got overthrown, so then they won, and we owed them all their lost revenue from that European injunction and damages.
So that just felt really unfair.
So talking to my lawyers, it was like, “What can we do next?” And they’re like, “There’s only one more option here, and we just have to take it all the way to the Supreme Court.” And this would only be, I think, the second ever design case ever heard in the Supreme Court.
So we did a bit of a rallying cry, got some celebrity designers behind us from Kevin McCloud and Sir Terence Conran, and people to voice our concern over this interpretation on design law and how unfair it was.
And eventually we got our day in court.
So a very bizarre day or a couple of days sat with the most experienced judges in the land with all these brightly coloured suitcases around them, pondering over how to interpret design registrations. So that was interesting.
And a few months later when they handed down their judgment, we found out we had lost.
And it was an incredibly expensive court battle that cost well over a million pound, and it’s only the lawyers that win in the end. So that was really frustrating, but being hit by that, it was, “That’s the end of the road. There’s nowhere else I can take this.”
I could just cry in the corner forever, or I could just put it behind me, move on and carry on building my brand because at the end of the day, I’ve created a brand, not just a product. And everyone who has copied us has just created a product and not a brand.
So we have the strength of our brand.
And funnily enough, on the day the judgment was handed down, we featured in every single national newspaper with a full colour picture of our products talking about how damaging this was to the design community.
But not that we were just on the brink of going bust because we’d spent a million pound on these legal fees.
And it was really smart because that campaign that you mentioned where you’ve got the likes of Kevin McCloud, and it was the Brompton Bikes boss, Will Butler-Adams, Shaun Pulfrey from Tangle Teezer.
It was all these Great British designers saying, “If you don’t support British innovation, they’re all going to go out of business.” It was quite an amazing rallying cry for the whole industry.
What made you come up with that particular plan of attack because that was inspired?
Well, when they first came on the market, and we started getting people on Facebook saying, “Oh, my Trunki is broken.”
When it wasn’t a Trunki, it was one of these counterfeit products. I just felt I needed to let more people know.
And when we started talking to the press about this, it turned out that no brand really talks about being copied. So it was a whole new genre of discussion to be had with the press. And we got loads of column inches on the lead up to the various legal cases we had.
So knowing that we had that support from the media, it just felt that we should keep going down that route really.
And how did you come back from that challenging time?
Not just as a businessman, but as an individual because you’d spent two years fighting, as you mentioned, a huge amount of money, but massive distraction from the business, from your life.
So how did you regain your passion? How did you find the energy and the strength to keep going?
I remember when the judgment was handed down. I wasn’t in the UK, I was actually in Hong Kong on a trip to the Far East.
But I’d met up with a good university friend of mine who was living out there and drowned my sorrows for a night in Lan Kwai Fong. And then it was just, “Well, we’ve got a business to run, so let’s keep going.”
And there were still more opportunities.
That particular product was really bad quality, and they’d been kicked out of Tesco because they kept breaking. So I wasn’t too threatened by that product taking up much more of our market share.
The frustrating thing from losing that court battle was it made it much harder than to get other counterfeits taken down.
So the likes of Lidl and Aldi, they have created their own ones, and it’s quite funny. It looks like Lidl is copying Aldi or vice versa, and they just keep copying all our designs, fire engines, pirate ships.
So it’s just frustrating, but now it’s just part of being a successful brand, I guess.
Use your own personal experiences as a way to produce innovative ideas
But you went back to the drawing board and came up with another hit product that I see everywhere, the booster pack.
Tell me about how you came back using innovation, go back to the drawing board, back to your own innovative ideas to move the company forward.
The booster pack had been out for quite a while. I think that the scooters is a good example. So we got massively hit financially with those legal fees.
So I had to make a couple of redundancies, I had to lose my design team. I didn’t have the ability to develop products any more really.
But I had young kids at the time, and I was always using a Trunki toe strap when I was taking them out to the shops on their scooters and balance bikes and towing them along because they always got tired.
So then there was a slightly different moment for me where I actually discovered there was an opportunity through my personal experience rather than talking to parents about their travel woes and thought there’s a real opportunity to, although scooters and balance bikes are really cool products for kids, no one had actually really created a solution that addresses the parents’ need.
Which is why always have to throw these things over the buggies and the prams and kids get tired, so you need to pull them along.
So actually just something as simple as a Trunki toe strap to tow them along and then to allow a shoulder carrying solution and also something you could hook over the buggy, seemed like a great idea.
And playing around with these ideas that was just can be really hard to try and launch a product ourselves. It would take a huge amount of work and capital to bring us to market.
We didn’t know the sport and outdoor buyers of all the retailers, most of our distributors were in the baby space.
So thinking, “How can we try and get this to market?”
We came up with the idea of licensing the Trunki brand to a large retailer. So we talked to Halfords who are the biggest reseller of scooters in the UK, and they were really keen on the idea of partnering up with us.
So we jointly designed a folding scooter that used the Trunki toe strap to provide all these solutions for parents and went to market that way.
So it didn’t cost us a penny to bring that to market, other than my time.
And it was a big success.
And we’ve sold tens and tens of thousands of them since.
What are the costs and patents involved when inventing a new product?
And actually I’d like to talk a bit about how costly it is to invent new products because you mentioned not having a team behind you because you had cost to pay in the business.
So tell me why is it so expensive to invent new products and how you were found clever ways to mitigate those costs? I know that you were a big fan for a while of the R&D tax credit, for example.
Tell us a bit about that.
It’s very expensive to bring a product to market because you’ve got to invest that time and effort in developing that product, whether you do that internally with your own team or whether you outsource that to consultants, and there’s no guarantee that product’s going to be a success.
So you put all this time and effort into creating something, and you try and test the market throughout that process.
I think there’s a big falsity out there that when you come up with an idea, you’ve got to keep it quiet and not tell anyone and get all these patents and IP protection around them.
But if you don’t talk to people about your ideas, you don’t know if they can be commercially successful, and your idea is never the final idea.
You’ve got to keep iterating, a bit like software, go through alpha, beta, different stages of product development, and you can only go through those stages once you’ve gathered feedback from the target market.
So we’ve always had a very open approach to getting parental feedback, not being too worried about the high-level patentability of products to some extent because it’s just so expensive.
So once you’ve developed your product, if you do have a patentable aspect, this is another thing I think people just don’t quite understand.
And that is patents are incredibly expensive, and they’re only valid in the countries you apply for.
So if you have a UK patent, that means the rest of the world can copy your product, sell it in all the markets apart from the UK.
So then you’ve got a patent and product in every single market that you think is going to be commercially viable, mainly the UK, China, US, and Europe. And then you’re up to tens and tens of thousands of pounds per year just in patenting fees.
But I think for me, my advice really around intellectual property would be around, is the power of brand that is the most valuable aspect of your business. And if you can really drive the value of that brand and invest in the trademarking of that brand around the world, rather than so much patenting.
You can do a few design registrations to try and protect the shape of your product. And that’s what actually our big legal battle was all around.
But building a brand because that’s the value, that’s what people want to eventually acquire from you in the future is the brand, not so much the patents.
So for me, it was really important just to invest in the marketing aspect and building that brand and our customers who love the product and the brand.
That’s a really good point, especially for startup founders because even if they could afford to patent in all markets and had that resource, if someone infringes, you still have to have yet more money in the bank for legal fees in order to defend your patent.
So it’s not even that it’s a done and dusted thing.
Once you have your patent, you’re safe. There’s still whole other expensive world out there if there is an infringement.
So I love that advice to focus on your brand and to just stay in front of everyone else rather than trying to desperately defend your position.
One thing that I reflected on over this business journey of 17 years is actually being a product designer, you always want to innovate and create something really, really unique.
But actually you can do it in stages.
So a safer solution is to, if you spot a niche in the market or a gap in the market, to just bring out maybe a me-too product with one or two small improvements just to get going. A very low risk to entry solution with the idea of having something much more innovative to launch in the future.
And once you start building market traction and gaining some profitability, you can then start reinvesting that in doing the next iteration and the next iteration.
And actually, if you’re trying to stop people copying you, you can keep them having to copy previous versions all the time. And that may be a sensible solution to try and bring a product to market by doing it gradually.
Knowing when to pull a product line
And I suppose also being aware that if something isn’t selling, being quite quick to kill it as a product line, have you ever had to do that?
Yes. We had a teen Trunki called Journey, which we launched, and that was a huge investment back in 2017.
We raised loads of money on Indiegogo, and it was a sit on hard plastic suitcase for teenagers or tweens to keep their tech really easy to handle. It was really, really innovative, loads of cool features.
And it turned out adults, international business travellers really saw the opportunity, really liked the product, but it was only £80, and it was designed for kids, not for international business travellers.
So we started getting quite a few slating in our reviews because the wrong market was buying the product. And unfortunately it led to a bit of a falling out with my investors, and they decided we should can the product.
Well, that was a loaded question because I have a Journey. I still have it with its hot pink edging. I’ve had it for almost 10 years. So I was just looking, I was like, “Whatever happened to the journey?”
But it turns out mine is like a cult item now, they don’t make them anymore.
How a travel product survived the pandemic
You mentioned fighting adversity at every point in your business journey. And I have to ask about the pandemic because obviously your products are all about travel and suddenly there were no flights. All your products are pretty much, well, most of them, are in the travel space.
So how did you cope, and what did that experience teach you, and how did that make the business more resilient in the aftermath?
Well, I had a minor experience of that, way back in the day at the height of the terrorist threats, the government banned hand luggage because of the liquid bomb threats.
And the summer I launched Trunki, no one could take Trunki onboard as hand luggage because hand luggage was banned. And from that experience, I’ve really learned to cut costs and to try and pivot the marketing message.
So when Covid hit, we did see a bit of a canary in the coal mine.
We look at our rate sale data and on Amazon in Italy and Spain, we saw the sales just completely fall through the floor. And then it was just a matter of time. So we started planning sadly, to make some cuts and redundancies.
And literally a day before we were about to make the announcement, the chancellor announced the furlough scheme. So fortunately half the team were saved for a while.
But we had a huge drop in sales. I was actually surprised that we’re still selling any Trunki’s during Covid because no one was travelling. And then when people could get out of the house and start visiting grandparents and things, we saw a little bit of a bump.
But it was basically two years of just trying to ride it out.
Obviously I couldn’t influence when travel was going to be eased, so I was just trying to not worry too much about that and just try and make sure cash flow would last as long as possible and try and save as much cost.
And as much as I’d like to have marketed our brand still to homeschooling and trying to offer advice to parents, it just didn’t feel relevant anymore.
So we just had to go into hibernation for a while and just ride the storm. And then when sales started coming back, we were able to then pull some of the team back online and start trading again.
And how quickly did the revenues rise? There was a boom, wasn’t there when everyone was like, “Hooray, I’m free, get me out.”
But perhaps not so much parents with kids because you’re constrained a little bit. Summer holidays must be a massive boom time for you guys, right?
So seasonality wise, we see things pick up around Easter, and then it’s fairly constant with a bit more of a pickup for the lead up to the summer holidays, drops down a bit in October and then massively ramps up for a really big peak at Christmas.
So actually because manufacturing in the UK we were able to avoid the perfect storm of ridiculously high shipping costs. It cost a lot more than it cost to buy the Trunki to ship it back to the UK from China. But we weren’t doing that anymore, we were manufacturing in the UK.
And also the ramp up in demand was so quick that we had no idea it was going to bounce back so strong.
So domestically manufacturing, we were able to try and maximise the opportunity with being able to turn on the stock a lot quicker.
So if we were still manufacturing in China, we’d never have been able to meet the demand. It wouldn’t have been worth us meeting the demand because it would have cost so much to ship stuff. So actually the UK factory was an absolute lifesaver for us throughout Covid.
Why you should consider manufacturing in the UK
And tell me about that decision to manufacture in the UK.
You made that decision at a time when a lot of UK manufacturers were doing exactly the opposite, they were all outsourcing.
So what made you decide to go the perhaps slightly more expensive route, shall we say, and make things here?
I was just getting really frustrated in not seeing how much things were really costing me because of the exchange rate fluctuations, the shipping costs, the fuel surcharges. There are so many moving parts in this global supply chain.
And we had a few big hiccups with, I think it was 2009 when the US dollar massively depreciated against the pound, and we were finding our products were 50% more expensive to make in China.
So a couple of those learnings, it was like, “Well, let’s find out how much it actually does cost to manufacture in Europe?”
And we found a really competitive quote in the UK from a factory, and it was pretty much the same cost as our landed cost from China. So add on the cost of shipping and duty, and it came in around about the same.
So then it made sense to do it, we had to re-engineer the product to make it very cost-effective to make it in the UK.
So we took out all the metal parts, and it just snap fits together, so it’s very quick and easy to assemble.
And as a result we ended up with a great product that’s really environmentally friendly because it’s fully recyclable, 100% plastic, and it’s now manufactured using 100% green energy as well.
How selling your business can impact you as the founder
And you sold the business earlier this year. So tell me about that journey.
What made you decide to go that route? And I’m right in thinking that you are staying with the business post-deal, right?
So tell me a bit about your decision to sell and the impact on you as a founder when you’ve got hand over your baby.
Having gone through Covid, it put a few things in perspective and the business journey hadn’t been much fun for a while because of the way we had been funded, and it was just time to get rid of our previous investment partners and try and look to the future and move the business forward.
So we looked to sell the business last year, and we found a couple of really interesting companies that it wasn’t a traditional trade sale as we thought it might be.
There are these new Amazon aggregator-type businesses that buy brands that primarily sell on Amazon. And they had a very exciting technology-driven business, and they really saw the value of not just selling their products on Amazon but trying to sell them off Amazon, which is where we came in because we have a great network of retailers and distributors around the world.
So it was almost symbiotic to partner up with these guys.
So they acquired the business and invited me to stay on as General Manager and there’s still an unfinished goal of mine to conquer the US.
So with their backing, I was really keen to stick around and try and take on America for the third time and see if we could win this time round. And there’s still other products that are yet to be developed and launched under the Trunki brand.
So a bit like Steve Jobs, once said, I think, “It’s all about the journey and not the destination.”
So I’m just really enjoying the journey part and not thinking too much about the end.
Did you feel reinvigorated by that deal?
Because it’s a validation when you have people slapping their money on the table for everything that you’ve built up with the brand, but also then you’re sharing the risk a bit, you are sharing the burdens as well as the rewards.
All the challenges we’ve had over the years, it is nice to now not to have to bear the full responsibility of that and to have your hands freed up a bit more to finally focus in on a couple of areas that you’re really passionate about from e-commerce to product development and marketing.
So more of the back-office stuff is being taken care of, and we’re able to pioneer forward really looking to the future.
And I find it really fascinating speaking to founders and seeing who they lean on and who is almost like a silent or quiet partner that is supporting them over the long term.
And I did notice that you’ve had the same chairman for a decade or more, Trevor Bell.
Can you tell me about that, how you found him, the impact of that relationship?
Trevor joined the business just before we did a private equity round in 2012, I think. I pulled him in as an international sales consultant when we did the private equity deal.
He then joined the board as a non-exec and after the first chairman didn’t quite work out, he ended up jumping into the chairman’s shoes. I forget exactly how long ago, at least five plus years ago.
So he’s been really useful along with my MD as well, Andy Jones. The three of us ran the business together. So it was a really good partnership between the three of us.
65 Roses and Trunki
And just finally, Rob, if you could give the young version of yourself some advice on how to go on the journey with Magmatic again, but make fewer mistakes or have a smoother run, what would the advice be that you would give yourself?
Oh, that’s an easy one. You could just buy my book.
65 Roses and a Trunki.
Excellent promo there. Tell us about the book. Tell us about the book.
So the book is a rollercoaster ride that I’ve been on around my business journey, but also some deeper insights into my personal background.
So it’s called 65 Roses and a Trunki, because I actually have cystic fibrosis was born with the disease and children struggle with its pronunciation, so they quite often refer to it as 65 roses.
So it’s a story that starts with losing my twin sister when we were 16 to the disease and how that experience really shaped me and influenced me and gave me a very valuable life lesson that life is short, and you’ve got to make the most of it.
So ever since that time I’ve been very focused and determined to try and succeed and try and find my way in life. And that’s worked so many times with a lot of the adversity I’ve had to face.
It puts it into perspective to some extent, so you can just crack on and try and overcome it and not lose too much time worrying about stuff, I guess.
So there are quite a few interesting lessons in there that I’ve reflected back on and share in the book.
Because it’s true, I guess the death of a sibling and nothing else that you might experience when running a company, can come close, I would imagine.
And if you’ve managed to get through that time in your life and keep on fighting, you must feel like you can pretty much do anything.
It’s certainly given me a huge amount of tenacity and drive. And I probably do see things in slightly different light to most people. But it has definitely helped me just keep ploughing forward with all these challenges we faced.
And another really valuable lesson was just there are lots of things out there that you can’t influence and people trying to get through challenges requires a huge amount of mental determination and strength.
And if you waste it worrying about things you just have no influence on, then you’re just not going to have the resource and the internal power to get through the challenge that’s right in front of you.
So trying to block that out and not lose too much sleep over the things you can’t control, and really focusing on the ones that you actually can.
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