Making a business out of an invention

Tom Evans, founder of BleepBleeps, speaks to Your Ready Business about how he came up with the idea of creating this range of connected objects dedicated to making parenting easier, and transformed it into a business only weeks away from shipping its first products.

How did you get the idea for BleepBleeps?

One night, a few years ago, my daughter was poorly. She had a fever so I bleep bleeped her in the ear with my digital thermometer and it said 38.2 degrees. It was 3am, I wasn’t sure if that was high or low so took out my phone and Googled it. I found out it was a bit high and got some tips and advice on how to bring that down. I thought the situation was ridiculous: why wasn’t my device connected to my phone? This was before there was language around it like ‘connected devices’ and ‘internet of things’. I just knew there was something in this connected world that was going to be big.

When did you think that conditions were right to start this business?

I don’t think people hold back and think “right, now the timing is right”. It wasn’t as strategic as that: I just had an idea and it was made possible by emerging technology. Without that technology, I probably wouldn’t have had the idea. It is the right time now just because the culture and society is moving towards connected devices.

Our launch product is Sammy Screamer, a motion alarm device, now available for pre-order on our site. We’re due to start shipping in January, and it will be available at Colette in Paris and at the Design Museum shop. We’ve got a great relationship with Selfridges, having exhibited BleepBleeps at their Festival of Imagination in a category around Glimpse of the Future.

Did you invest as a start up and went straight into crowd funding?

I started off looking for money but it was too early, so I invested a lot of my own money and time. I went part time so I could do it in parallel to my job and eventually left my job so I could do full time.

We launched a KickStarter campaign earlier this year for Sammy Screamer and smashed our target on the first day, raising over four times our target. About a third of our Kickstarter backers are in the UK, a third in the US and the rest are all around the world.

We’ve been raising a round of seed money for the business recently and we’re pretty close to closing the round now, I hope. We have also just obtained a big grant from the Technology strategy board, that will give us an 18-month runway to release our next products, which we will crowd fund along the way.

Where have you got good business advice from?

There isn’t one particular place. I’ve spent the last few years immersing myself into start-up land, and there’s also been a few books.

I was a big fan of “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. It’s about getting to the minimum viable product as quickly as you can, rather than spending millions of pounds and years launching something to a deafening silence.  Create something next week, get it out there, in consumers’ hands, get feedback, tweak it, keep talking until you get it right. Don’t wait, ship as quickly as possible so you can learn and progress.

I also was really inspired by the DropBox minimum viable product: it was just a video which showed dragging a file from the desktop to the cloud. The film was very well received and created a lot of buzz around the product before they took it to the next stage and built the thing.

That’s why the first thing I did was to try telling a story around the vision for the brand and the platform we wanted to create for parents. Without that inspirational brand bits, I couldn’t have enrolled anyone to help me achieve that.

What have you learned from past failures (if any) and how have you developed as a businessperson over time?

Most things you do in life aren’t massive successes or massive failures. For example, iParent – the first iteration of BleepBleeps – was a bit too medical and had a name that I knew I had to change at some point: it wasn’t a failure but it wasn’t a success either. It was a stepping stone and a point in time along the way.

We’re still in R&D and shipping stages, so we reach roadblocks every day and every week that we try to get around. I’m sure we will have some failures along the way; maybe a few products here and there won’t work. With our Lean Startup approach though, we can find that out very quickly.

In other words, crowdfunding is a great way of validating a product or an idea and introducing people to your brand. It’s great to ask someone what they think of an idea and they might say they love it, but would they put 50 pounds for it? You don’t know that until you ask them to.

In your view, what do entrepreneurs need to do in order to go from successful idea to commercialisation?

In one word: people. Each time I realise I might be missing knowledge on certain things, I bring somebody into the business to help me do it. I would rather have less of something successful rather than 100% of something that doesn’t exist.  You end up being somewhat of a conductor or orchestrator to some people who can play amazing instruments.

How have you succeeded in finding the right business partners?

Because I worked in communications, digital and advertising for 15 years or so, I already had a big network, and that was my first pool of resources. I also had strong links to places like the Royal College of Art, places where people studying Masters in interaction design and engineering. I knew a bunch of developers, motion designers, and graphic designers who can help me create the brand, content and design of the products at a surface level.

The next phase was dipping into the connected world. I did a lot of talks at places like IOT London meet ups and Hardware Startup Lab, or at technology/trends conferences. People would come up to me afterwards showing interest and I’ll ask them what they do. I’ll meet them for a coffee and enrol them.

We now have a core team of 6 and about 14 other people working on different aspects, like content, social or retail etc. Either they’ve known me for 10 or 15 years and have worked with me before, or they understand the BleepBleeps brand and know what we’re trying to do, so we’re pretty solid.

We all work virtually, using Slack, which allows us to privately instant message individuals or chat around different work streams that we’re all working on and syncs up really nicely with Dropbox, Google Drive, Hangout, Twitter etc. Even when we do get an office I want to hang on to that lean and agile approach to creativity.

Entrepreneurs invest heavily in the development of their ideas, emotionally and financially. How do you balance the need to move forward and manage the need to avoid risks?

There is a risk to anything people do. At the moment, it’s still really early days for us. It takes a really long time, particularly since most of the team are moonlighting or freelancing and doing things on a Sunday morning or Tuesday night. It’s slower but the risk is made smaller by the better relationships you have with the consumer. When we go to conferences or when we do shows we get positive feedback. That keeps us going.

The risks are comparatively small when compared to big businesses. We’re not spending that much money, we raised some production capital when we started to do our first products, so they’re incremental, tiny risks that we’re taking.

There’s a book called “Small Bets” which is about doing lots of little things, and then test, learn and repeat; find the things that work and invest more. Within this vertical of parenting, we’re trying things out and seeing what works. I guess we’ve got a good aesthetic vision as well –  we want to be desired and cool. It’s not just about the functionality. Our job is to find that market fit and that traction.

Are you working on other inventions?

There’s a whole collection of products under BleepBleeps, 8 of which are already in the public domain, with a few more under wraps. I also work with another startup; I am a consultant and freelance creative director and teach for professional training development, Design and Art Directors Association.

I’m not taking a salary from BleepBleeps yet but will when we grow. I need all these activities to make ends meet and will dial them down as we raise.

A lot of people are starting to work like that now. They are more like hired guns instead of the traditional 9-5 and work your way up to CEO type careers. The generation behind me have a much more mercenary approach and ethical approach to what kind of businesses they want to work for and why.

Learn more about BleepBleeps here.