One of the first things you learn when you travel extensively is not to check your luggage. You don't want to lose it, and you don't want to wait around for it to come off the baggage carousel. For when you're travelling on a short-haul, waiting half an hour is a long time - and then inevitably you find all the taxis have gone.
I used to travel extensively when I was with Schlumberger, the world's biggest oil services company. I spent at least two weeks a month flying to different cities. I used to try to pack all my papers and clothes in a single bag.
The trouble was my shirt would get wrinkled. I wanted a shirt case the size of the Economist, but maybe two or three inches high, that would also hold socks, underpants, ties and cufflinks.
I looked all over for a compact case that would solve the problem but there was nothing on the market.
I must have thought of the idea for Stuffed Shirt in 1987, but I didn't do anything about it for quite a while. Over the next few years I moved from London to Nigeria and then to Milan. I had been with Schlumberger ever since I left university with an electrical engin- eering degree 20 years earlier.
But in 1993, I left to take a job with Agip, an Italian oil company. It took a long time for the contract to come through from them and while I was waiting I started thinking about going into business for myself.
I had several ideas, including doing something in the oil business but that would have had a fairly small market. We had moved back to England, to Sedbergh in Cumbria, to be close to our sons' school. So while I was waiting for Agip to get the paperwork in order, I started to look around the country to see if anyone was making the kind of case I was thinking of. There still wasn't anything out there.
It took me about a week to complete the design. The core element is a polypropylene shirt frame with a series of partial hinges in the middle. It allows the shirt to be folded easily around it and when doubled over at the hinge, is ready to pack into its covering case, which holds the shirt on the frame and prevents it becoming crushed. It's about the size of an A4 sheet of paper and six centimetres deep. My wife Rose sewed the prototype, cut from thin polyester, on the kitchen table.
The first thing I did with the prototype was to take it to a patent agent. I also registered the trade mark and set up a company through my accountant for pounds 1,200 to pounds 1,300. You can do it more cheaply, but I didn't want to go into business and find out later that I'd missed an essential point.
Thinking up the name took almost as long as making the prototype. The suggestions came and went with alarming ease. Most were functional, like Executive Traveller but when someone described a character they had met as a stuffed shirt I knew immediately that the name would work for our product. It led naturally to tongue-in-cheek slogans like "You don't have to be one to need one".
I took the prototype to Harrods, Thomas Pink and other retailers. Harrods was the first one to place an order. I had found a manufacturer in Walsall, which had said it could make them for me. Our first order was delivered to Harrods in March 1994, a year after starting. With no publicity, it sold slowly and after two months Harrods still had half its initial stock. But the day after the product was mentioned in a piece in the Evening Standard, which called it the "snappiest invention since the suitcase", it was sold out. The next year we were named Gift of the Year at the International Spring Fair, which also help-ed a great deal.
The company that I initially asked to make the cases could only turn out 70 a week. But the first Christmas several orders were delayed, and deliveries became difficult. It was never so bad that we lost customers, but it was our biggest worry. Now we get them made by two companies in China, one in Egypt and we are looking at Portugal and Britain again. The new manufacturers have cut the retail price from pounds 70 to pounds 50 and shortened the turnaround time.
Britain is a fairly small market for something like this, so I wanted to get the product on sale around the world as quickly as possible. Patenting the idea was fine, but it's better to be first on the market than to go to court to chase someone who has copied your idea. There is one company now producing a product similar to ours, although it doesn't have the internal frame. We're negotiating to try to get this firm to buy our design rather than taking legal action, although that remains an option.
I've been fortunate that two former colleagues from Schlumberger saw the potential and agreed to join me and my wife as company directors. Between us, we've lived in about 25 countries, so we have lots of international experience.
It takes most companies years to get into the United States but we managed to set up there in four or five months. We use distributors in different countries, and some of them have worked out very well. Others have died on the vine, so to speak. We've had to drop a couple and replace them with people prepared to do more with the idea.
Starting the business cost me about pounds 100,000 in the first year, and my partners and I have put in another pounds 300,000 since. There are a lot of things we can do with this concept. If it were made out of cardboard, the frame could be used by shirt manufacturers, for example.
If I had one piece of advice for other people thinking of becoming entrepreneurs it would be to have a clear idea of what you intend to do, and to have a clear understanding of your market. That's been the secret of our success.
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