Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Blunt's Scott Kington on not being afraid to share

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. In this episode, Blunt umbrellas co-founder Scott Kington talks with Idealog's editor Henry Oliver.

Henry Oliver: Where did the idea for Blunt come from?

Scott Kington: The idea came from Greig [Brebner] actually who I co-founded the company with in 2004. Back in 1999, he was a young design engineer and he'd headed off on an OE, over to the UK, and being in a new environment, he was observing it differently and being quite tall, he was walking down the road and all these umbrellas were coming at his eyes. He has his eureka moment of 'I'm going to redesign the umbrella', thinking it was going to be quite an easy process. It was 1999, five years later I met him and thought it was an amazing product that he'd had at that point. It was a prototype really. We thought, let's go and take on the world.

What was happening in your professional life at the time?

In my life I'd come back from overseas and I was working in a business management role, setting up new businesses, bringing back products into New Zealand. I'd met Greg through that position. He'd come back to his family business to try and develop the product further. We set down and instead of talking about the business, as we should have, we started talking about umbrellas.

What about his umbrella made you think this could be a big business?

In what I was doing, I was bringing products back. If you bring the me-too product back, it's a little hard to sell. You've got to find the selling point. When he showed me his design, we just got talking and he said, 'Hey, look I'm doing this on the side. I'm doing this umbrella.' I had a look at it. Instantly, you just realized that's something you could take to shops. That's something you could take to people and they'll get it. It's different. This is an industry that when we looked into it, it had no innovation for years or centuries.

What choices do you have to make to get it to that state where you're going to commit to it, as a business idea?

Well, to commit to it full time, it took a lot of steps. It took probably another four or five years for us really. 2004-2005, we said, 'Hey, look. Let's set this up and let's set our business up and take on the world." The reality was it was just getting the design right. It was part time. It was at night. It was on kitchen tables. It was in his garage putting samples and prototypes together, testing them. Eventually we found a couple stores in Auckland that were willing to take on what we thought was a good product back then. They took them on. They sold them. We were like, 'Whoa, this is going to work.' It's one of those things, when we look back, they weren't the best product we were selling initially, and we've come so far. It was whole lot of sacrifice at night. It was part time until it became a full time entity.

Did you have to convince to anyone that it was worth that sacrifice?

Yeah, you have to convince your family. You have to convince yourself, too. When you start commercializing, you have to convince people that there's going to be some money into it. As Greg said to me, I was talking about this a few days ago, you've got two kinds of people. There's the people that you really will never be convinced, and especially in the early days, I think it's a pie in the sky sort of idea. It's crazy to have these big ideas. There's other people that think, 'Great! This is fantastic!' And they get it.

What did you tell your family, for example, that you're going to come home from work and start work again on this other project? What story did you tell them to show them that it was worth it?

You show them the scale of what it could be and the ultimate reward is the monetary award. When you first start out, you think a couple years and you're going to be retiring and you're going to be the millionaire, and life's going to be sweet. You'd sell them that story. Fifteen years later you're still selling the story, but it's getting closer each time. As long as they can see the progression, they're relatively happy.

Where does the motivation come from to keep going with it fifteen years?

It comes from, ten years for me, fifteen years for Greg. It probably comes from the fact that you didn't realize it was going to be so long. The motivation really is about you want to do something and take a bit of control of what you're doing. There's a product out there. You can do it with a product. Blunt's a fantastic product in an industry that's had no innovation. The motivation there is you're disrupting an industry and it's an industry, when you sit down and think about, is a throwaway industry. The whole thing's built around a product that you throw away. We're coming in with a product that lasts. Your motivation is you're doing a little good along the way.

What was a roadblock that slowed you down in the early stages? Were there any failures?

Talking to Greg there were a lot of failures in the design process. It's the old thousand prototype scenario. When we came to commercialize it, there were failures in trying to get people to invest. I remember talking to one investor in the early days and I took one of Greg's early prototypes, or later prototypes actually, went along and I was telling him it was going to be so good, and I've got this great product and he believed it too. I went out into his garden and I opened the umbrella up and the whole thing just flew apart in my hands. He didn't invest. He still thought it was a great product, but not for him.

There were other roadblocks along the way. When we first got our investment, we went overseas and we had to find the factory. There's the whole story there. We had this factory. I went to Europe and I went around to the largest distributors. I said, 'Hey look, we've got this umbrella. It's fantastic. It's going to revolutionize your industry.' They were like, 'Wow, that's a great umbrella.' They wanted nothing to do with it because these guys are selling, two, three, five, ten million umbrellas a year. It's all based on the umbrellas not lasting. We were coming along and showing them this product that would outlast anything they had. They liked it but they were never going to give us a hand in the industry.

That let us realize that it's actually the brand. We're going to have to come back and build a brand around it. A brand takes so much longer to develop then just going and selling a product to someone, but, in the end, we've realized too.

Where did the brand come from?

That was one of those in the part time years, when Greg had called the umbrella The Pointless Umbrella, which you know Blunt is quite ironic really because it doesn't have points. I didn't think the name was going to stand but he loved it. We had a couple of friends that we'd hired to look at doing a little bit of branding in the early days for us, one thing they come up with was the word Blunt. It just seemed to stick. It was this nice, short, five letter word that actually described the umbrella really well. Little did we know what it meant in the USA, that word. It has another meaning but anyway. That's the name that stuck and it's a good name I think.

What's the key thing you know now that would have made the biggest difference in your journey to get Blunt where it is now?

That it's going to take a lot longer so you probably budget it to take a lot longer, that's one thing. The key for us is to back yourself more. You go out in the early days. Especially get all this advice from people, but that's advice that's quite specific to the industry. The reality is you've got to back yourself and just try and just not give up.

What's the one piece of advice you give to someone who's got a really good idea, wants to turn it into a business but doesn't know how, doesn't know what steps to take?

It's not many people that can have the idea and turn it into a business and have all the whole skill set, in one person. That's quite unique. A lot of people that have the idea are a bit afraid of sharing it. What was good about Greg was that he noticed when I was here that I came with a whole energy to drive a business and he came with an energy to create this really good product. Just don't be afraid to share the rewards really.