How innovation and social media fuelled CRIMPiTs success


Date: 1 July 2024

The story behind CRIMPiT

CRIMPiT was launched by Ian Critchlow and Mike Harper in late 2021. They started off selling CRIMPiT online, but things quickly picked up momentum on social media. Add in some celebrity fans and things have really taken off.

Half a million homes now own a CRIMPiT, and stockists include several high street stores. The business is about to launch its products in the USA. So where did the idea for CRIMPiT come from? What key startup challenges have co-founders Mike and Ian had to overcome? And how have they been able to become so successful so quickly?

Mike Harper, co-founder of CRIMPiT, answers our burning questions.

Episode transcript

Fiona Prior (FP): I wanted to start by asking about the products. For those who aren't familiar with CRIMPiT can you explain what they are and what makes them so special?

Mike Harper (MH): Absolutely. The key thing with our business is we've always wanted to launch innovative products. We didn't want to launch anything you could find anywhere else.

We have two products on the market at the moment. One of them is a CRIMPiT thin sealer. It essentially allows you to make toasties out of thin, square pieces of hundred-calorie bread, which you get in the UK supermarkets.

The other product is a CRIMPiT wrap sealer. It's for crimping tortillas or wraps. It's half-moon-shaped. You open it out, place your wrap in, pop your filling inside and fold it over. When it's crimped together, it creates a little sealed parcel, a bit like a Cornish pasty in a way. You can then heat it up any way you like. Most of our customers, use an air fryer.

Essentially, we've created our own little niche for crimp snacks at home.

FP: Can you tell us how the original toasty CRIMPiT was created?

MH: My business partner Ian's son is a competitive swimmer. He was training, six days a week and Ian was getting up at half four in the morning to go swimming. His son needed healthy, but high-energy snacks before swimming and he loved a peanut butter and banana toasty. That meant Ian was getting up half an hour earlier to make a toasty that he could eat on the way to swimming.

Ian thinks it's normal to go away and invent a product to make his life easier. But that's just who Ian is. He has that inventor mindset. So, that's how the initial product came about - the need for something quick and tasty on the move.

FP: The business was launched in 2021. What were you doing before you launched CRIMPiT?

MH: I had another business which I'd set up. It's a marketing agency providing consultancy, web and app developers and project managers for food and drinks businesses. So, I had a marketing background.

Ian contacted me in 2021 to ask about developing an app. We got talking and I asked him what he'd been up to. And that's when he mentioned the idea of this toasty maker. I asked if he had any more information and he'd created a little video with a quick demonstration of the product. I showed it to my wife, and she thought it was amazing. I sent it around three or four friends and they all came back saying, "where do I buy one"? That was product validation to me. So I called him back about two hours later and said, "Ian, let's do this".

I think we had the company registered that afternoon and we sort of kicked it all off.

Start Your Own Business podcast subscribe

FP: You started the business during COVID. Did that make things more difficult?

MH: COVID is an interesting one. When you look at the ecommerce industry, I think, everyone saw massive growth online.

I wish we'd launched a bit earlier in COVID, if anything, because the market scaled massively. But in terms of COVID and how it affected us, the biggest impact was around deliveries. We self-funded the business. We got the product initially made out in China because it was lower cost, and we could test the market.

That meant getting deliveries sent overseas which was challenging, obviously, because of COVID. But in terms of generating sales and revenue online, COVID didn't impact us.

FP: So, you have a background in market research. What other market research did you do before launching the product?

MH: The only other thing we did before we launched the first product was to speak to Warburton's. They're quite big in the thin bread market in terms of supply and supermarkets. We got the figures from them in terms of how many packets they sold per week. That gave us the confidence that the market's big enough. That, along with the feedback from friends and colleagues that it was worth trialling.

FP: Did you do any product testing with potential end users?

MH: So, it was started before I got involved. Ian spent the first six to nine months, product testing. The big thing in our products is the teeth. They change based on the product and the thickness of the bread, whether you're crimping wraps or thin bread. So there was a lot of product development and product testing.

We also tested it on friends and family. But outside of that, we didn't do anything with the general public.

FP: So you've talked about how the product is unique and how being innovative is really important to the business. What have you done in terms of protecting your intellectual property?

MH: We took a lot of advice when we started about what we could do in terms of protection. I think we've covered ourselves as far as we can. Both products are patent pending. We have registered designs, although they're called design patents in the US, and we have trademarks.

So, in the UK, Europe, Australia and America we're protected. We focused on picking our core markets and went for the protection there. But China has tried to copy the product, but they've copied it very poorly. We're now grateful for the IP protection because it means we can go on to sites and marketplaces and get them taken down.

But it's one of those things. If you create a success, then someone's going to try and copy you and take a piece of that market. And, when someone copies you and the product is not as good and they use our images and our videos, people think they're buying from us. So, it's not only damaging to revenue, it's also damaging to reputation. I would say it's absolutely critical to get the protection and to get the protection, early doors because most of this IP protection is only viable if it's done before the product enters the market.

FP: Did you get help getting your IP and patent protection in place?

MH: I was lucky. My dad's a lawyer so we went through his law firm and talked to specialists within the firm.

You can probably do it yourself, following guidance online. But when you start looking at registered designs and patents, you absolutely need the experts there.

FP: So, you know that there are copycats online. How do you go about enforcing your IP?

MH: If it's a small-scale problem, you can do it yourself. You just need the certificates of your trademarks or IP. You can just upload them and get the products taken down.

If the problem gets worse, then there are companies out there. We're using a company called Red Points, which is really good. They use a mixture of AI and software to find copycats online and automatically report them and upload the relevant documentation based on what type of issue it is, and what type of counterfeit.

FP: You've already told us how being innovative is important to the business. Did you go through a prototyping process?

MH: With the first product, Ian spent six to nine months going through various prototypes. We did it slightly differently with both products. With the first product, it was done on a budget because it was early days. Ian bought a 3D printer, and we used a designer we found on Fiverr to create the initial CADs. We were essentially printing out various versions and testing.

With the second product, because we were further along in the business journey, we engaged a product development agency. It meant we could turn the product around a lot faster, get a lot more testing done and produce higher-quality prototypes.

It's definitely a learning phase. With our product, the hardest part to manufacture is the teeth. It's amazing to go around the factories and have a look at them getting made. One thing you'll learn if you're dealing with manufacturers is that it's not an easy process and you will always have delays. So factor that into your planning.

FP: How did you find your manufacturers?

The first manufacturer was over in China. That was an introduction from the CAD designer from Fiverr. So, that just happened. When we hit all the issues with COVID, we brought manufacturing back to the UK. We got lucky in the UK too as we had an introduction to the manufacturer from another colleague. That's how the Stockport manufacturer came about.

We recently launched over in the US, and we have a manufacturer over there in Louisiana. We found them on a Google search. The company had a load of YouTube videos explaining the manufacturing process and walking around the factory. We just liked what we saw, flew over and spoke to them. That's how it all came about.

FP: How was the business funded?

MH: We're completely bootstrapped. Myself and Ian put the investment in at the start. It was a chunk of investment - a lot of our savings. So, we have put a lot on the line in terms of this business. But, as an entrepreneur, that's what you do. You believe in something, it doesn't matter if family and friends think you're crazy, you go ahead and take that leap. If you really believe in it, then I say go for it.

FP: Have you got any tips on how start ups can keep their costs down?

MH: I've had a service business and a product business on the past. Now for a service business, it's a lot easier. For example, if you're starting a marketing agency, you just need a laptop. You can pick up the phone and you can start your marketing agency.

With a product-based business, it's different because you need to make a product that you can sell. I would always say be frugal. Keep the cost down any way you can. Get a minimum viable product out there. It doesn't have to be the perfect finished item. It just needs to be something that works and can deliver value for your customers. Then, as you start making sales, you can reinvest profits. That's where you do the finishing touches or expand the product in one way or another.

FP: How important has CRIMPiT's online, social media presence been to the success?

MH: I have a background of digital marketing, so I see online presence as absolutely critical. I think there are different levels. So, we were a single-product business for the first 18 months and our website was a drag-and-drop website builder. It wasn't anything expensive. It wasn't anything flashy. It did the job, and it got our message across at the end of the day. If you've got a good product that provides value and you've got good messaging, then customers will buy from you.

That got us through the first 18 months. And then we moved over onto a bigger platform. So we're now on Shopify.

But in terms of online presence, there's so many different angles to this. I think what people see when they search for your products online is really important. So if someone types in CRIMPiT into Google, what appears at that point? Are they seeing retailers? Are they seeing ads for your products? Are they seeing reviews? Are they seeing influencer content? Are they seeing YouTube videos?

We were quite lucky because CRIMPiT was an unknown term before we started the brand. If you went to Google and searched for CRIMPiT, there was nothing there. There is a plumbing tool which has a similar name, but it wasn't very competitive so we could pretty much take over the whole of Google.

So I would say that's really important when you start. Spend a lot of time on GoDaddy searching for domain names and seeing if they're free. Then type them into Google and see what appears. You'll be able to tell how competitive it will be for you to get into that number one spot - or if not number one - two, three, four or five. And, if you can get other things ranking such as YouTube videos, even better.

Online presence is critical. The more people you can get creating content for you, the more videos that will appear, the more images that will appear. And it's a snowball effect, isn't it? I think people need to see you six or seven times before they buy. So, you need to be hitting every platform, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, your own website, you need to be all over the place essentially.

FP: You've got some celebrity fans on your side as well, which must help.

MH: Absolutely. In the early days, it was crazy. Mrs. Hinge was our dream influencer to get onside within the first five years. And she actually bought the initial product, the CRIMPiT thin sealer about four months after we started up. At that time, we were manufacturing in China, and we had zero product in the UK. It was the middle of Chinese New Year and Mrs. Hinge posted with five million followers.

We went from 200 orders on average to 20,000 orders that day. It was crazy. The website went down in six seconds and our web developer was saying that it's like the worst hack he's ever had to deal with, but they all want to spend money with you. It was crazy.

So the website broke, fulfilment broke, everything broke, but it was a good learning curve, and it was another driver to bring manufacturing to the UK. The other thing is that we got more product validation because we had no stock, and we still had this huge spike in sales. We changed our shipping to delivery within 30 days and people were still buying it.

FP: It sounds like it's been really exciting, despite all the challenges.

MH: It's been a really exciting journey. As an entrepreneur, I don't step aside and think back to what we've achieved and where we've got to. I think I always have the mindset of what's on today's list, get that done, whatever's not done on tomorrow's list. It's always about the next step and how do we keep all these plates spinning? But, yes, it's been really exciting.

FP: How did it make you feel, particularly when you had the backing from someone like Mrs. Hinch, in those early stages that you had something potentially big on your hands?

MH: I think you get a great buzz, obviously. When we did our first few thousand sales before Christmas and we sold those products over two or three days, that was like an incredible feeling because it validated that your product was right. The market was there.

The feeling very quickly turned into how are we going to get 2,000 products out the door into the post office? So it turned into stress and hard work very quickly, but it's definitely a good feeling.

FP: So, not only do you sell online. You're also stocked by a number of big high street stores. How did you achieve that? And what advice would you give to anyone else who wanted to get a product on the shelf of a supermarket or a high street store?

MH: There isn't one strategy I would say. I'm a very firm believer in building a brand and building direct to consumer first and then looking at retail like a secondary angle. If you look at cookware or the people that would buy kitchen gadgets in the top ten retailers across the UK, there's probably 30 people.

So, if I took the angle of going straight to retail before doing any online marketing, I'd have 30 people that I need to try and get in touch with that can then make the decision on whether the business takes off or not. Whereas we went down the angle of direct consumer and we probably had 50,000 customers before we even spoke to a retailer.

So then we get all the analytics, the data, plus the confidence. And we can say to the retailer that we've had 50,000 customers over the last three months. And straight away that sort of clicks in the retailer's mind that this product is a winning product.

We were very lucky initially. Our first retailer was Lakeland and they contacted us three months after we launched the business. I couldn't quite believe it, but it happened.

There are so many stories, but we went into those conversations so naïve. I had no understanding of retail at all. And we were very honest about that. It was a big learning experience, and they were great and really helped us.

Now the product is in every window of every Lakeland store across the UK, next to the air fryers. So that's how Lakeland came about. Oliver Bonas again, approached us, and got in touch with our support email. Robert Dias also came to us. The buyer there had a crimper at home and loved it.

FP: When you've got that many customers buying CRIMPiTs themselves, eventually you're going to get someone who's in one of the big firms who owns one. It's like, have you seen this? It's great.

MH: Yeah, absolutely. So, that's how we got in there. I've wanted to go into a big four grocer for years and the amount of messages I've sent and had nothing back. And I guess that's one of the entrepreneurial traits, isn't it? You just don't give up and keep going.

But actually, I'd say networking and speaking to as many people is really key because you can get introductions and that is so valuable, especially from business owners that are already doing it and already dealing with the big 4 grocers. That can open doors and that has opened doors for us.

A conversation I had this morning came off the back of some personal PR that I've been doing. We had a piece in the Metro a couple of weeks ago which turned into a conversation with another retailer. So, it's not one approach. You've got to be doing everything. So getting messages out on social, building your profile on LinkedIn, talking to other business owners, and you just got to keep going.

If you build a brand and you build a big customer base, you will get picked up by retail eventually.

And it's great to talk to the business owners because they're probably facing similar challenges, and they probably have similar ambitions and desires that you have. A lot of my good friends are business owners that I've met on the journey.

FP: Are there any mistakes that you made in the early days that you would do differently now, or any particular lessons that you can share with listeners in terms of things you wish you hadn't done or that you'd done differently or done further down the line.

MH: Yeah, I think the big thing that I would have done differently is build a team quicker. So, I was quite cautious about the fact that I wanted to build the business and try and get the business stable before we employed people because it never really sat well with me that I'd be employing people to take a risk in the business.

I'd rather be comfortable that I knew that the business was here to stay and was scaling and that we could do that. I think employing people faster. And I think, in terms of who to employ. I'd always look at the skill set that you lack or isn't your strong point.

Mine's always been around finance. So, bringing in a finance director has been game-changing for us. It's meant that I don't have to think about that or stress about it. They can explain things to you in ways that you understand and make it a lot easier. So yeah, I think building a team around you quicker. Obviously, there's a cost to that and there is also a risk to that.

I think in the early days, it's just get your hands dirty and do everything and spin those plates and get out and learn what you can online and just have a go. And when you get to the point where you can afford to bring people in, then you need to do it in a certain order but pick on the skill sets that you don't have.

FP: I think there's a real risk that you tend to be drawn to people who are like you. So you can end up with a team that all say yes to the same things. And sometimes what you need are those who will question your thinking, or bring in skills or viewpoints that you don't necessarily have because they can uncover opportunities that perhaps you hadn't thought of yourself.

MH: Yeah, absolutely. Again, people that think differently to you. I mean, bringing an FDM was interesting because before it was just us. You made a decision and it happened. Now you've actually got to give a reason as to why you're doing something, and you get challenged a little bit and that challenge is good because it makes you think about things carefully.

FP: Yes. You have to justify your decisions. I think we need to do this, and I've costed it up. This is what it's going to cost us, and this is where I think the potential growth is.

MH: Absolutely. Yes, it's definitely helped.

FP: I wanted to ask you about something that's a slight spin off to the business. There's a range of recipe books out with CRIMPiT. That's really interesting because there's all that social out there. We've talked about people sharing their recipes. It's a great idea to bring them all together. Whose idea was that?

MH: Yeah, so we've got a huge community online. After people buy the product, we link them through to a private Facebook community. So we've got 110,000 customers in there now, all sharing recipes. I don't know if I mentioned earlier, but our second product came from that community.

So, the benefit of having a community of brand fans is we can go to that community, and we can do a poll and we get information back very quickly. So the second product actually came from that community. Everyone was saying, can you make one for wraps? And you don't have to hear that too many times before you go. Actually, there's a product here and there's demand for it.

The same thing happened with the recipe book; people were asking for recipe books. That's one of the huge benefits we have from that community is we can see what customers would like, we know what they want as the next product, and we can use it to help in our marketing.

We did a poll on there asking, "when do you eat CRIMPiTs the most, breakfast, lunch, dinner?" The reason why we're asking that is we want to understand if it's heavily weighted towards a certain time of day because then we can put that into our marketing messages, through our tv adverts for example. So, it's a really good resource.

FP: Do you have someone managing that for you? How does that work?

MH: We used to manage it ourselves in-house, but we now have community managers, which are customers themselves. There's a group of customers that are highly engaged on the platform. So we send out new products to them and they do announcements and they're really helpful.

FP: So, big question. Do you have a favourite recipe?

MH: Yes. I've got a 10-month-old daughter and my wife, while she was pregnant, her favourite thing was a Greggs' sausage, bean and cheese pasty. So, we had a lot of those over nine months. And that trend has carried on, but we now make them with CRIMPiTs at home. They're a firm family favourite which is good.

FP: So, wrapping up, what three tips would you give to someone who was thinking of starting their own business?

MH: I think the first one is, start lean. So, like we were saying before, I think there's a misconception that because of programs like Dragons Den, you think you need to have a huge investment to start a business. And that's simply not true. My first business was started with a laptop and that was it.

You don't need a huge amount of money. Obviously, if you're doing a product-led business, you do need to invest at the start, but there are ways around that. Like we mentioned, waiting lists is a valid tactic. You can launch a video explaining the product that you're going to launch. You can get people to place orders up front. And that's a way of generating the revenue to then go and create the product. Or there's platforms like Kickstarter. There's all, there's all sorts of ways around it, but I'd say start lean. You can start a business without a lot of capital.

Networking is another big one. I know we've talked about that. People think of networking as going to an event and standing awkwardly in a hotel lobby, trying to get someone's attention. I think there are different ways of doing it now. And if you're nervous, there are communities and groups online.

I think finding communities and groups in areas where you need to increase your skillset. So, say Facebook advertising is critical to your business - it's how we generate the majority of our customers - there are groups online that specialise in that area with thousands of business owners. You can contact them through Slack. You can do a video call within minutes, and that's a different style of networking.

The other one is that I think people feel like you need to leave your job and sort of dive into starting your own business and dropping everything to do that. And I just don't think that's true. I think, I think you've got mornings, evenings, and weekends. I'm not saying you should do it on someone else's time, but I think you should have the stability of having an income covering your bills and not add to it.

Don't add unnecessary stress to starting a business. You'll know when the time feels right to leave work. I just don't think dropping everything and adding that stress to it is very helpful.

Want to hear more?

Find all previous episodes on the Start Your Own Business podcast online.

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.