If there's one thing you need to bring a business idea to life, it's tenacity; and the entrepreneurs behind YUUWorld certainly prove this
Gill Hayward and Kellie Forbes had the idea for a new type of backpack in the school playground. They were frustrated by the sight of seeing young children (including their own) wearing backpacks slung low with no support.
Since launching the YUUbag in 2010, they have already sold over 75,000 units, including international sales in Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Benelux and Scandinavia. In fact, they now sell a bag every 12 minutes and they have also developed new lines, including a bag with GPS tracking.
How it started
"We wanted to create a bag that would be healthy for growing spines and which would also appeal to kids," says Hayward. After months of talking to children and their mums about what they wanted, they came up with was an activity bag for 7-12 year-olds - "an innovative two-in-one activity backpack that combines a portable entertainment station with a durable, premium quality ergonomic backpack".
In 2012, Hayward and Forbes presented their venture on Dragons' Den and got offers from all five Dragons, eventually choosing Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden as their new business partners.
Breathing life into a new product
However, perhaps the biggest challenge of all has been getting the production process right. "There are so many challenges for any small business bringing a new product to market," says Kellie Forbes. "How can I source a reputable factory? Can they handle scale up if needed? In our case, the prototyping of the YUU backpack range was both exciting and great fun."
Hayward and Forbes went to China to work with the factory team on various iterations. "It was a fascinating experience and a real eye opener - there were a vast number of individual processes required to create our activity backpacks," says Hayward. "At each step of the way, our baby was taking shape and then finally, after months of hard work, we signed off the final product."
Production lines roll
As the first few orders came off the production line, Hayward and Forbes felt it was time for "a virtual pat on the back". Their stock was selling fast and they were even taking pre-orders on their website; their supply chain was working efficiently; and any minor issues were being resolved quickly with their Chinese factory account manager.
But while it was tempting to take a "if it isn't broken don't try to fix it? approach, especially with limited time and resources, the pair returned regularly to the factory in China to ensure their product continued to meet customer needs.
It's good to talk
"It was tempting for us to manage new design developments with a quick Skype call with our factory team or to brief projects in by email," says Forbes. "However, from the earliest days of running YUUworld we decided to invest time and resource in regular visits to our factory."
"Many small businesses might question the value of travelling to China to check on the production, when to all intents and purposes everything was running smoothly," says Hayward.
"In our experience, we would say overwhelmingly it is most definitely worth it. Our advice would be a regular visit to your production partner could reap benefits that you may not have even envisaged. At YUUworld, we have been making at least yearly visits to China since launch, and often more frequently."
The YUU multi-functional backpacks are complex to produce both in terms of the materials and labour. "It was only on these regular visits, spending time with our production team, did the extent of this become fully apparent," says Forbes. "Sitting in a sample room going through the various production processes it became clear to us there were probably some simpler shortcuts or product amendments that could be made without fundamentally reducing the spec or quality of the range."
The visits also allowed Forbes and Hayward to work closely with the manufacturing specialists in order to make constant improvements to the process. "By analysing every single process, and each fabric or raw material, we collaborated in both reducing cost and improving the original product," says Forbes.
"And the benefits of face-to-face time with our factory team go much further than just product enhancement," she adds. "Over the past few years, we have developed brand new products in a fraction of the time by quickly moving from a technical design to working sample during our visits. This is a process that would have taken five or six months if we'd only communicated by email and sent samples back and forth."
During their most recent factory visit, the pair worked with the team to create the YUUbag Max range, a new line at a lower price point with fewer pockets and compartments. "We launched this nearly four months earlier than originally planned as the vast majority of the development was undertaken at the factory under our direction," says Hayward.
This in turn has allowed them to use the YUUbag Max range as the base for their latest product the YUUgo, a backpack with integrated GPS tracking - a world first for a kids' backpack.
"It was vital for us that the factory team understood the new complexities of integrating tech into the backpack and the importance of ensuring the testing and prototyping processes were agreed on and undertaken to our requirements," says Forbes. "Again, the few days invested in our trip has netted significant benefits in allowing us to be more agile in our product development."
Three tips from Gill and Kellie:
- Your factory or manufacturer is more than just a supplier. To create a sustainable and efficient supply chain you need to work in partnership - and good partnerships are nurtured through good communication.
- When considering whether to make the trip to China or elsewhere, think about the time-savings that will be made. It can take many emails and calls over weeks and months to achieve what can be communicated and acted upon during a single visit.
- Good relationships are vital - you never know when you are going to need a special favour, such as a rush order that needs to hit a particular deadline.
Company update, March 2019
Despite the popularity of its products, the backing of the Dragons, and its early success, this company struggled to generate the necessary profits and cashflow. It was closed down in March 2019. Nevertheless, this article remains a useful case study for other startups.