On September 7, 2006, inventor Rob Law sat at home, watching himself pitch his business to five experienced investors on Dragons’ Den — the UK version of the hit American reality series Shark Tank. For the first few minutes, Law’s pitch seemed to be going well. He had a cute product (a ride-on suitcase for kids called Trunki) and had established a good rapport with the investors. But then, things started to unravel.
One of the investors, Theo Paphitis, who is known for his physical product tests, tore the strap from the suitcase and sat, staring at Law, with a quizzical expression on his face. Law fumbled for an explanation, eventually blaming the factory in China that had designed the strap’s hook.
The pitch quickly disintegrated from there and all five investors dropped out one-by-one. As Law walked from the studio empty-handed, neither he nor the investors suspected he would go on to sell millions of Trunkis to kids around the world.
Law accidentally chose one of the worst times in history to launch his business. In 2006, at the height of the terrorist threat in England, the government banned hand luggage on airplanes. Law’s market vanished overnight, leaving him wondering what to do with a kid’s suitcase that you couldn’t take on vacation.
“I changed my marketing message,” Law told Financial Times in 2014. “Trunki was not just for air travel, but domestic travel too.” The marketing tweak helped boost sales but not by much. Domestic travel was a fraction of the total vacation market and Law knew that a slow trickle of Trunki sales wouldn’t sustain his young business for long.
Looking to drum up some interest in his product, Law applied to Dragon’s Den and was accepted onto the show’s third season. Unfortunately, his disastrous performance didn’t end with Paphitis’ tough product testing. A second investor, Peter Jones, unleashed a vicious salvo of verbal abuse. “I meet people like you all the time, you all think you have something. I tell you, you don't,” railed Jones. “Within seven days I could do a better job than that. Your company is currently worthless."
Law believed the show, combined with the government’s luggage restrictions, would spell disaster for his fledgling company. “After I left the studio, I remember meeting a friend in a pub and telling him that I’d just ruined my business, and I’m out of job,” Law told The Telegraph in 2016. But he was wrong. The show’s audience—some 3.3 million people—saw through the carefully edited segment and spotted the quality product underneath.
The show’s publicity helped raise Trunki’s profile, which was instrumental in Law securing his first retail deals with John Lewis, Toys ‘R’ Us and Walmart. When the British government eventually rolled back their luggage restrictions in the fall of 2006, Trunkis started flying off the shelves.
But success brought its own challenges. After seeing Trunki’s ballooning sales, copycat competitors entered the market in droves, nibbling away at Trunki’s market share. For product-based businesses like Trunki, copycat brands can pose an existential threat.
If a competitor can copy your product and get better market traction, there’s nothing stopping them eclipsing your business. One way of protecting your business is through a patent, which legally blocks competitors from copying your designs.
Law, however, chose not to pursue patents at all. “[Patents] are very expensive for what they provide,” he told Startups in 2011. Business owners, he explained, frequently become fixated on protecting their idea and dedicate huge amounts of time and resources to intellectual property protection. In doing so, they often ignore more important business operations like actually making it to market.
In 1983, over 20 years before Law founded Trunki, inventor Stuart Anders cut a short section of metal off a retractable measuring tape. He slapped the short metal ruler against his wrist and watched as it wrapped round into a bracelet. Anders had just accidentally invented the slap bracelet, one of the most popular toys of the 1990s.
But Anders was an inventor and lacked the business sense to turn his new toy into a commercial success. So he recruited two toy industry veterans, who recommended he secure a patent for the slap bracelet. But the patent process is long and while Anders’ business partners were arranging the complicated paperwork, their competitors got their hands on an early prototype of the slap bracelet. They copied the design, found a manufacturer and beat Anders to market.
“Literally every store you went into had some,” Anders explained to Gimlet Media. “Every grocery store, every place that sold anything anywhere had them there. Gas stations. Every place.” It didn’t matter that the knockoffs weren’t the originals, they were the first to market and they sold like wildfire. When the genuine slap bracelet eventually made it into stores, the craze had died down and kids had moved on to the next craze. Anders didn’t make a dime from his invention and most of his initial batch of slap bracelets still sit in a Hong Kong warehouse to this day.
But not every company followed Anders’ lead. CEO of Calla Shoes, Jennifer Bailey, decided not to pursue a patent for her niche footwear. Application costs make patents prohibitively expensive for most companies. And even when you do secure one, defending them is notoriously difficult and expensive.
Bailey poured her resources into brand building, product development and expansion. “Our vision is to build trust quickly in the brand and always look to improve on our already excellent quality and customer service levels to create barriers to market for new entrants,” says Bailey.
Bailey believes business owners should consider her approach, at least as an option. “You could spend a lot of time and money applying for your patent when the product isn't actually what your customer wants or it gets to market too late,” says Bailey. “It might be better to get it to market and race to become market leader based on brand.”
In Law’s case, instead of chasing patents, he focused on reaching new markets as quickly as possible. He decided to build his expansion strategy around international distributors to facilitate simultaneous expansion into as many different territories as possible. However, working with a distributor meant relinquishing much of the control, so Law knew selecting the right distribution partners would be key.
“We were aiming to build a global brand, so marketing was key – and distributors have the marketing expertise,” Law told Great Business. “We also built up a great questionnaire about how to filter through and appraise distributors.” Law’s questionnaire proved an invaluable tool as dozens of distributors vied for Trunki’s business in each region. In Australia alone, they received proposals from 30 different firms. Law’s questionnaire allowed him to quickly evaluate prospective distributors and find partners with the right mix of industry and marketing experience.
Law’s export strategy allowed expansion into dozens of countries at once – and the results were spectacular. Five years after his disastrous pitch on Dragons’ Den, Law had secured distribution deals in over 50 different countries and reported a turnover of $9.7 million. After five more, he had distribution deals in over one hundred countries and a turnover of $12.2 million.
By the time Law’s copycat competitors caught up, Law’s distributor network had already established Trunki as an international brand and the clear leader in the product category. The battle was over and Law had already won.
Feature Image, Image 1: via Trunki