Becoming an entrepreneur is hard; if you’re after a nine-to-five job, then this isn’t for you. There will be a whole league of challenges to overcome and obstacles to face during the start-up phase and as the business progresses; you need to be prepared to make big decisions, as well as a few mistakes along the way.
As an amateur triathlete, I found myself constantly looking for a device that could keep track of my performance. After a lot of searching, I realised that there were plenty of products out there that had been adapted for runners and athletes, but nothing out there for swimmers; there was nothing that I wanted and a clear gap in the market.
Redundancy was the catalyst that made me realise the need to give proper attention to the business potential in my ideas. I had always been on the lookout for opportunities to give it a go, and finally I realised that I needed to be proactive. I had an idea that I thought would work and I suddenly thought, ‘how would I feel if someone else did it?’
Luckily my husband and I had savings and he carried on working throughout the product development so that we could pay the mortgage. With a limited budget and initially on our own, we devised much of the start up process with help from the Business & IP Centre at the British Library.
When starting up a business, it’s easy to spend around £100,000, particularly with a high tech product; we spent just £15,000. To keep costs minimal, we decided to do the majority of the product design at home, by ourselves. With a background in electronics, my husband and I created and designed the original PoolMate
between us. The development process took two years. We set up in 2007 before finally going to market in 2009.
Whilst researching, I was shocked to discover that swimming is the world’s biggest sport; there are 70 million swimmers in the US alone. At this point down the line, the PoolMate only really catered for triathletes, who swim using front crawl. In light of the huge potential target market, it made sense to target all swimmers rather than triathletes alone. After one more round of product development, we were ready to go.
I then had to think about patenting the product; that’s where the big money is for any tech business and I was keen to get on board quickly, however it’s an expensive process. After finding the information that I needed in the Library, I managed to get a clear idea of what I needed to do to get things moving. Drafting my own patent application, I took it to a patent lawyer who made some final changes and sent it off.
We got out the final prototype. Using friends in our local swimming club to test the PoolMate out, we got a good idea of the final changes that we needed to make and finally get the ball rolling.
The next challenge was marketing. Although we had talked to a number of different licensing companies, no one had the ability to get the product on the market as quickly as we wanted. For the second time, we took matters into our own hands.
Spending hours researching at the British Library, I learnt everything myself. It forced me to be very creative. I learnt about web design, graphic design and market trends. I spent hours using the wealth of resources in the Business & IP Centre
to research the market place and undergo further research in my own market to fill the gaps in my knowledge about the devices already available to athletes with competitors.
Even though we were a start-up with no money for research, the British Library gave us free access to the same amount of information as a multinational company! The British Library gives start-ups free access to £5 million worth of business and IP information, including market research reports. The extraordinary resources available taught me about the breakdown of shops, retailers and ecommerce. I took part in a range of practical workshops that helped me to structure the whole outlook of the business.
We got the website up and running, made YouTube videos to generate social-media buzz, went directly to retailers, spoke to sports magazines and wrote and submitted a press release to an online PR website. The launch was a great success.
Like us, I would recommend any one starting a business to get as much help as possible; the revered work that the British Library do proved to be an endlessly useful source of help. They can help drafting a good press release, assisting with competitor analysis and providing the right marketing tools.
Within three months, we had covered our development costs, finally reaping the rewards from all our hard work. Two years on and we have sold 35,000 products, the Swimovate brand is still growing and we have since developed the PoolMate Pro and a number of other products for athletes.
Starting your own business is hard; it isn’t an easy job. There are times when you’ll work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and it won’t feel like work; it will feel like your whole life. You need to be prepared to make it up as you go along and not follow the rules. You are, after all, your own boss. If you have the determination to succeed, then there are resources out there to ensure that your business is a success.
The main piece of advice that I could give to any aspiring entrepreneur would be to take all of the help, advice and guidance that you can find. Events such as those during Global Entrepreneurship Week are great places to find inspiration. Having attended a number of workshops there, I can vouch that it has the ability to give any hopeful entrepreneur the direction that they need to get their ideas off the ground. For that, I am nothing but grateful.