Greig Brebner, designer of the Blunt Umbrella, talks about his journey developing the umbrella, design in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, and the various parts of the commercialization process.
1. Greig, Welcome to Design Droplets. Thank you for taking the time to chat, could you please give a quick introduction on yourself. (about a paragraph).
I am essentially a designer with a background in mechanical engineering design. I have always had a strong knowledge in plastic design and manufacture with my family owning a plastics manufacturing company. My professional background has seen me work for a major healthcare company in New Zealand and for a high tech company in Cambridge, UK developing wireless internet products. In this latter position as a mechanical design engineer my role was to design enclosures and antenna solutions for their technology. I would say that some of my ideas on the peculiarities of design aspects with regards to wind loadings were developed here. This proved helpful for designing the ultimate umbrella canopy!
My design philosophy it is “simple is better”. If you are struggling with a design that is becoming more and more complicated, more than often it isn’t going to work. And by work I mean in the entire sense, as a product that can be produced easily, as a product the end customer will appreciate and not struggle with. And the simple designs can be the hardest to come up with. They are the ones that when you look back you go why wasn’t that done years ago. And that is a real compliment when that is said about your design.
2. It has taken almost 10 years for you to create the Blunt Umbrella, can you share a broad brush overview of this journey with us?
It started when I arrived in London from New Zealand and I quickly realised how prolific umbrellas are in a large metropolitan city that relies heavily on public transport for commuting. Umbrellas there were more a necessity and more a part of a person’s attire. This intrigued me as did the fact they kept nearly taking my eyes out! I always look for things to design or change so I set myself the goal of developing a safer umbrella. When I started looking into umbrella design I reached the conclusion they weren’t maximising the canopy tension and this also went into the mix. As an umbrella canopy needs that tension to perform. So, it then took me approximately four years of countless prototypes until I arrived at the essence of the system we have now – which we term our radial tensioning system. Then it was a leap into first up tooling followed by the patent process.
I was then joined by Scott Kington who has a background in business development and together we formed a company about 5 years ago now. The idea was to get it to a point where we could decide whether to commercialize it through royalties or as our own brand. And since then it has been chasing significant investment, setting up manufacturing in China, refining the design into a production scale capable product and testing, testing, testing! Then came the branding and the first up marketing and the discussions with distributors, as well as our web presence to help push the interest through the early adopter community.. . .
3. You began the development of Blunt in the United Kingdom and then headed home to New Zealand to continue it, what are some of the differences between design and product development in the United Kingdom versus in New Zealand?
There are such huge differences between companies that it can be hard to determine whether the differences are company specific or country specific. I’ve worked for large companies and start ups. The large companies usually allow you the luxury of throwing resources, particularly money, into developing an answer. However, it can get bogged down in having to follow a structured team approach. Smaller companies require a more flexible approach which sometimes works out but then again sometimes it doesn’t. By this I mean, if resources are an issue then you look at reaching the product solution in as cost effective way as possible – and this can lead to very creative answers. However, there are certain applications where this can end up being a constraint. New Zealand is effectively quite isolated and is dominated my small scale businesses. Both these factors have pushed New Zealanders to become very adaptive to finding solutions. We are forced into undertaking many roles in the design process – whereas in my time in larger companies, and in the United Kingdom, we were more specific in our tasks.
4. You started off selling small quantities of blunt umbrellas in local Auckland stores and have now moved into much larger production (20,000+ umbrellas), what are some of the key differences that entrepreneurial designers need to be aware of when moving from boutique/batch production to large scale manufacturing?
I would say money and cashflow are key issues. That no matter how well connected and resourced you are, these things always take longer to scale up. Thus the focus shifts from being a design driven idea to a product that requires a business set up around it. And for designers like me that love to come up with unique and functional products, the business aspect can start consuming your time. So share your ideas and get people on board that have the passion for your product and the energy to set the business up around it.
5. Can you share as bit about your experience manufacturing in China? What were some of the challenges? What was expected and what was not?
The key for us was finding the right area of China to go to. As there are two distinct areas of China for umbrella manufacture with a definite delineation in the quality of umbrellas produced. The biggest reason we knew where to go is we tapped in to the expat community in China, who had already been there for many years – which meant we weren’t repeating mistakes that had been made in the past. We have a New Zealander who was the ex Design Director for a famous German umbrella brand and located right near our factory, who oversees a lot of our work there. So the greatest challenge to me would be identifying the right partner to work with – and we achieved that by tapping in to the knowledge of people that had gone there before.
6. Many Design Droplets readers are familiar with the process of designing a product (concepts, prototyping etc…) but can you give us some insight to the next step, the commercialisation process?
For the commercialization step you are going to need funding and it is as simple as that really. To get the funding you are going to need to convince your investors that your idea has potential to be a commercial success. And most will want to understand why your product is unique and will sell, and how you can protect that idea without the bigger companies coming along and simply getting that idea to market faster. i.e you will probably need some form of IP protection. And that requires more money! Unfortunately in the end it really is about the monetary value your idea or product can generate. Lots of good ideas will fail just because that funding source dries up. So, realize at the beginning it will take a lot more money than you think, longer than you think and find those investors that are going to support the idea long term.
7. Another major part of bringing a product to market is branding and positioning, what key things do you believe designers need to consider when they reach this stage?
Branding and positioning can be hard subjects to work through with their own unique issues. Branding can be a very confusing area as unlike in product design, where a solution either works or not, branding is very subjective. It’s more a feel. But even before you consider branding you need to consider your positioning and – more so for consumable products – you won’t be able to work your positioning out until you know your true costs for getting your product to market. So, work out where your product positions itself, then find someone that lives in the branding world that relates to where you think the product needs to be positioned. No point getting a Harvard educated professor to brand a product for skateboarders..and vice versa. And finally, remember simple is best. It can always go a different direction later but start with clean and simple.
8. So far what has been the biggest challenge of your journey with Blunt?
Just perseverance, looking back there a so many things that could stop the journey. From committing to the patent process, to the tooling costs, to chasing investment, to moving production to China. So many steps that without the belief that what you have is special would not make it possible. So you must believe 100% in your product being a better solution than anything else on the market.
9. What are your thoughts on the current state of design and innovation in New Zealand?
New Zealand has always been an innovative place because of the isolation factor. From the early days, it has always the mentality that anything can be fixed or made better. And there are some wonderful designers and design innovations stemming from New Zealand. Our big hurdle is translating that on the international scale. And the reality is, with a country our size, we require the help of countries that can manufacture to scale to make that happen. As with most countries though, not all companies are innovative, so I am really only talking about the ones that fall into that category that realize design can drive the business to new levels.
10. Greig, thanks for taking the time to talk with us here at Design Droplets. Do you have any final thoughts or advice for Design Droplets readers?
Thank you Raph. My last comment would be that if you are thinking commercialization with your idea make sure it passes that test of uniqueness. It’s a long road but if your product is truly unique enough then you’ll find fellow believers and the journey will be easier. Don’t hold it all to yourself unless you want a lot of not much. Be prepared to share the idea around. And keep being creative as it truly makes the world a more interesting and beautiful place.