Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Gordon Macrae, Gripple. Leeds Inventors Group 17th October, 2012

Gripple® are an award-winning international company based in Sheffield. They are best known for their wire-tensioning device. Devised by Gripple’s founder, Hugh Facey, it is the product around which the company was originally built and which they are now selling in 35 countries at a rate of 30 million per year.

The Gripple company is employee-owned. All employees have to buy shares – the company loans staff the money and they pay it back. The shares are not quoted on the stock exchange and the articles of association state that the company can never be sold. They want a long-term business.

Gordon Macrae runs Gripple’s incubator – developing young businesses which they believe have potential. Gordon pointed out that quite often when developing a new product, what you come up with initially isn’t always the best solution to a problem. Ten years ago the company realised that simply by turning the Gripple tensioning device to a different angle it could be used to hang lights – thereby opening up a new market to the company. Another variation is the “Load Hog®” which fastens loads to transport.

Innovation is important to the company and they aim to get 25% of their turnover from backing new products. The incubator has been running for about 18 months. They take on inventors / entrepreneurs with an idea and help them develop it in their innovation centre. Successful inventors need to be visionaries.

Innovation can be a frustrating process. If your idea is just a slight improvement it will be hard to sell, whereas if you solve a problem your product will probably sell (provided that it works!) So find a problem to solve! Very often the first problem that an inventor sees is not the real problem and adaptability is really important. Any inventor should expect to fail numerous times on the way to a successful product – and any one product may require a good number of prototypes as you determine how it’s going to work and how it’s going to look. James Dyson tested thousands of prototypes before he settled on the final model. It’s cheaper to fail earlier in the process and iron out all the bugs that way.

Because a new product can change significantly during development choosing the right time to patent it can be tricky. If you patent it right at the start you may end up with a final product which is not covered by this patent. Gordon suggests filing the application initially without spending too much and then getting feedback. If you can find someone to work with in that market, all the better.

Gordon stressed how important it is to talk to customers. Gripple’s own design team does just that when developing products because they know that will result in a better product. Inventors should do the same – as far as he is concerned the best advice he can give to an inventor is that if you don’t understand your customers you will fail. You also need to test the product out on them and get feedback. Sometimes they will tell you things which you would never have thought of yourself. Building a relationship with customers not only leads to better products but can also result in you getting more business.

The product must work and you need a means of supply which can supply the product quickly. Sometimes finding a partner within the market in which you want to operate can be a good move.

The most important skill an inventor needs, in Gordon’s opinion, is the ability to sell. Inventors who just want to invent will probably never make a lot of money whereas inventor entrepreneurs are much more likely to make money.