The Blunt Journey

The Blunt umbrella took new engineering thinking of a below-radar product to a surprised world. The 100 year old design of an umbrella was totally re-thought and the world’s best umbrella created, to the acclaim of many design awards and dry owners. The Blunt umbrella is now stocked in 1500 stores in over 30 countries – but it almost died in utero.

To understand how close this start-up came to failure, I asked founders Greig Brebner and Scott Kington what were the barriers to launch and how they overcame them.

1. From 1999 to 2007 Blunt was a development project – a prototype product looking for commercialization. What were your main obstacles, Greig?

Biggest obstacle for me was re-designing a product that had effectively remained unchanged for decades if not centuries. There were many phases of idea, design and prototyping that went nowhere – this happened for a couple of years before anything came to light. Persistence eventually paid off.

Money for development and initial IP protection was a big challenge back then. I was throwing my house deposit and some at a very high risk dream. I was incredibly naive but believed that having got so far down a path there is no turning back and I had to keep the faith.

Once I had a working prototype, I hit a wall. I had no knowledge of how to take a product to market. I knew what I had would eventually be valuable however no path to take to make it happen. Very frustrating after years of toil. To top it off, the feedback I got from within the industry at the time was that the umbrella business was run like the Mafia and good luck to you if you think from little old NZ you can enter the Dragons’ Den and not get eaten alive.

2. Why do think it was so hard? What were the turning points? It was so hard because I chose a product that was very challenging in a design sense. However my instinct told me that if I could crack it then the chances of it being a winner commercially were quite good. My value to the world at the time was only in product design and my thinking was if I was to be commercially successful then I had Formatted: Right better raise the bar. Although persistence was a key factor in eventually getting a design together, it was not the hardest bit. Once you start a project like this, after a year or so it gets its own momentum and you can’t let it go. From that point forward, I never contemplated quitting.

The big turning point in these early years was meeting Scott. His instant passion for the product and his understanding approach to me in wanting to be involved was fantastic. I had an instant trust in him. To spread the load of responsibility to make this thing a success was very welcomed. By nature I am more the inventor and Scott by nature is more the entrepreneur so together we created a winning team – it has just taken a few years to prove it!

We then had to prove commercial acceptance of the product so that backers would invest. That required our committing to expensive injection moulded tools when money wasn’t really available for that. This enabled us to make umbrellas in NZ (in Greig’s workshop and on Scott’s kitchen table). We managed to then convince a couple of stores in Auckland to stock these first umbrellas – and they sold – thus proving that there could be a market if scaled and managed properly.

The other big turning point for us was meeting David Haythornthwaite in China. David is a Kiwi who had done a fair amount of time in the umbrella industry before we met him in 2007. His knowledge and contacts within the industry have saved us years of heartache and possibly even saved our existence. Without a quality manufacturing setup, we were going nowhere. Given the general state of the global umbrella industry, it is quite amazing things turned out as well as they have for us.

3. Did you find your angel? We found our angel investors in New Zealand. Knowing that we were entering into a relationship that would go way beyond the first initial investment, we were quite cautious in choosing who we went with. Early in the process we dabbled with getting a larger group of investors investing a lesser amount each, so reducing everyone’s risk. Luckily we did not choose this path as it would have been mission impossible keeping all parties happy – especially given the length of time it has required to develop the business and the additional funding required to do so. In the end we went with personal contacts who have 100% believed in the potential of what we have and have had the patience and wisdom to realise the time it takes to develop anything of substance on an international scale.

4. With skills and backing secured, what then, Scott? The next challenging stage was efficient production. From Day One we knew China had the expertise and the scalability. We didn’t want to (nor could we) be manufacturers of umbrellas. We simply wanted to create and sell an umbrella. The challenge was to convince a factory to take us seriously – David Haythornthwaite helped us greatly with that. We had to convince them to put the time and effort into us – considering our volumes at that stage were minuscule. This achievement of mutual understandings, expectations and standards took 24 months – the most costly and trying effort of Blunt’s journey so far. That highlights another key learning we’ve made along the journey – loyalty. China is a place Western business often goes for cutting price, with loyalty not high on that agenda. But if you go there and are loyal to your manufacturer – where the conversation is about quality not price, and they realise your true intentions are for a long term relationship – then you will get the quality you seek and the help when you need it. It just takes persistence and time!

Having established our first commercial production, the next headache became how to create our own distributor network. After our initial visits to distributors in Europe (who sell tens of millions of umbrellas a year), we concluded that an upstart technology was unwelcome alongside their current offerings of disposable throwaway products. So identifying distributors became a big challenge which has taken a number of years (and lessons) to learn what works for us. For our product, our brand, our positioning – we’ve had to find distributors that are foremost passionate about what we have to offer. Distributors willing to invest time,money and effort explaining to their markets. We learned the hard way that without that passion we just became another product languishing in their portfolio. Finding those distributors is almost impossible from NZ – so the key we learned was to make a tonne of noise (via blogs, reviews, awards, targeted key stores, trade shows, etc.). The noise attracts distributors seeking new and innovative products – they come to us.

5. Can you share some lessons?

– Obviously the old saying that cashflow is king. You burn through a considerable amount of cash developing a product, a brand, a manufacturing relationship, a distribution network, and a viable presence in retail. Plus all the internal resources, logistics and fulfilment capability. Our burn rate, due largely to delays, worried us greatly at times.

– With regards to people, that loyalty and respect go a long way. That when people believe in your story and what you have to offer they will put more effort in. And when they realise you are there to work with them for the long term – that goes a long way too. Our distributors say they feel like they belong to a Blunt family.

– Regarding IP protection, it’s a must. Especially on a unique technology. Both actual and perceived protection. And it is a value to the company as we transition from patent value to trademark value as well. But also when manufacturing in another country you must own the brand to be able to export it.

6. Looking ahead?

We really have only just scratched the surface with this umbrella. In its current configuration, we are probably a niche umbrella in an industry of volume. Yet it is a volume niche (an example we often use are the statistics for the Japanese market, which imports 120 million umbrellas every year). The umbrella industry unfortunately stands out as a beacon of the throwaway consumer culture. One of our goals is to make Blunt a symbol for a “product done right”, with respect to people and planet. By that I mean the end customer gets a product that basically works and continues to work for them – being designed right and then being produced to a standard that complements the great design. We want them to receive an umbrella that outperforms and outlasts anything on the market so they then want to tell everyone about it. This strategy means a longer time to develop markets but it should result in great brand loyalty. By people we also mean everyone in the supply chain is cared for. That is the next stage we are trying to ensure and it is as big a goal for us as building market share and happy end customers. Because in the end a brand should not just be the fluff on the surface – but something of substance. The brand will then have much greater value and be a much more worthwhile endeavour to sink a whole lot of your time and effort into. This focus on the hidden stuff behind the product is where loyalty and respect fit in. And by planet we mean a product that goes against this culture of built-in obsolescence and throwaway cheapness – as too many products you simply hold onto for a ridiculously short period of time before sending themto a landfill. Serial entrepreneurs – probably but at this stage there is still so much to do to achieve those goals that to lose focus now would be an injustice to the revolutionary design.

An exciting risky journey, with a lot of travel ahead! Thank you so much, Greig and Scott, for sharing these insights with us. Formatted: Centered