Idealog digs deep into the world’s smartest wheelbarrow (and the Kiwi who designed it)

Apparently, the wheelbarrow industry has been ripe for innovation all this time. Personally, I didn’t pick it.

That’s how it is however, and one person who did pick it, is 24 year old builder and inventor, Gene Gibson.

Gibson has developed a smart wheelbarrow – called Buster – which has now been signed to one of the world’s largest retailers, Bunnings.

With the product now on the shelves here and with one eye on the Australian market, we contacted Gibson to find out just where the idea came from, why it’s called ‘Buster’ and what it takes to get a clever new piece of hardware off the blueprint and onto the shop floor.

Idealog: So why does the world need another barrow? I thought we had the whole barrowing issue sorted?

Gibson: The spark for this idea came about while on a building site out on Waiheke Island. It was a cold winter’s morning, the concrete truck had arrived and was ready to pour a fireplace hearth. Myself, being an apprentice, was first to running the barrows down the hill, into the house and pouring into the hearth. My second barrow load in and I lost control of it while going down the hill. This not only made me fall over, sustaining an injury, and losing the load of concrete, but was very embarrassing for me in front of my co-workers. Luckily though, one of the other guys on site did the same thing not long after. After that day at work, I went home to my girlfriend and told her I wanted to introduce a braked wheelbarrow into the New Zealand and Australian markets, as this safety hazard happens on a regular basis on building sites. 

If you look at the current wheelbarrow range on the market today, with exception to a select few wheelbarrow that have been over-engineered – and therefore over-priced – all of the product range is standard wheelbarrows, similar to what we were using 20 years ago! Times change, the economy changes, innovative products develop and smarter way of doing things are founded. My scope was to create an affordable, simple, yet safe product.  



What’s so smart about this one?

It’s light-weight, top-quality, trade and DIY spec and most importantly it has a drum brake mechanism attached, designed to control the unit when in a vulnerable situation such as going down hills, navigating around formwork and shifting the firewood at home. 

How long was your R&D process?

It’s been over two years of R&D, seeking reputable manufacturers that make quality products and good representatives acting on behalf of Smart Barrows in China. A lot of Skype calls, emails, conferences and phone calls to get the product where it is today. We have been through 4 samples to get the product right to not only my “trade” spec expectations, but also my retailer customers’ expectations.

How did you support yourself while working on it?

I was still working full-time as a builder to support my family and pay our weekly overheads, doing my apprenticeship and my fiancée and I had our first gorgeous daughter, all while I was developing this product. It consisted of a lot of long nights and weekends. 

What were the toughest parts about the development stage?

The toughest parts of the development was the breakdown of communication between myself and the Chinese manufacturers, I consistently received samples that were broken, not to spec and not what were agreed on. Throughout this procedure however I got in touch with a great representative company that speaks both languages fluently. 



How hard was it to get to the prototype stage? 

This consisted of a lot of negotiation, being a novel product for both our market and the Chinese market, it was the first for them and the first for us, although I knew what I was after in terms of product, it was very hard to get them to understand even over Skype. The cost to air freight one prototype was around $2000 so it was imperative we got the product right before I received the prototype, although it took four samples and two manufacturers to get the product right. I got personal loans to pay for my prototypes as I was only on an apprentice wage, paying high rent and supporting my family. 

What goes into dealing with China? What are the barriers that have to be overcome? How did you overcome them?

Basically they will all email you back within hours of sending them an email in the early introduction stage, but the more and more detailed you get, the more they tend to “put it in the hard basket”, so as nice and polite as they are, you need to be on your game and make sure what you ask for is what they are doing, in the most polite manner of course.

Communication and quality control are huge factors in dealings with China, I overcame these barriers by seeking reputable manufacturers and under-going detailed QC systems prior to my customers receiving the product. 



You’ve got your product into Bunnings. Many people have that dream, but how did you actually make it happen? What are the steps?

I firstly got Bunnings to sign an NDA, then I elaborated on my product and its features over the phone. I was invited to their national support centre in Mt Wellington for a presentation and to showcase my prototype and product to two of the top managers for New Zealand.

After that meeting they declined my product and said they wanted parts changed before talking further, so I went back to my manufacturers and made adjustments that took around five months to get completed. I made sure I kept in contact with them and updated them on the product so they didn’t forget about me, then they invited me in for another meeting with the new and improved product. After some negotiations on the cost, they decided to commit to a full container load to stock 25 of their 53 stores nationwide. Once they committed to the product, we had to undergo major legal documentation and due diligence paperwork which took the best part of six months, then once I was accepted as an official supplier to Bunnings New Zealand, I was issued with a purchase order – this was one of the most happiest and rewarding moments of my life to date, apart from the birth of my daughter. 

Was there ever a moment where you thought ‘all is lost’? What was it? Why didn’t it all end then?

When I had my first meeting with Bunnings, they weren’t convinced that my product was up to scratch and although they told me to go off and make changes, they certainly didn’t invite me back for the second meeting! So I could have done all that work and they could have simply said, “Thanks, but no thanks”. But with consistent contact, realistic quotation and quality assurance, they gave me a second chance to make those changes. 

And you’ve been working with Callaghan? How did you get them on board? How have they helped?

I have been working closely with a representative from Callaghan and although he advised that we could get our next project granted, I made the choice of holding off for now, and working on my current product in order to fund the next product or products. Although they grant 40% of R&D, I don’t want to over-commit and get too big too soon, as that’s where the risk factor comes in. 

So what’s next?

Since the product is now established and in the market for retail here in NZ, I am channelling larger international markets with the scope to expand the product range and grow an international corporation company. With the next products being innovative garden hand tools.

Before we finish, I have to ask: why did you call it Buster?

Buster was the name of my fiancé and I’s first dog, a French Bulldog that we adopted and loved like a child. After spending a year in Sydney a few years back, we flew back home so I could complete my apprenticeship. Obviously we flew our beloved dog back with us, we arrived to the airport to wait for him, all excited to see him again after a week. Waiting to see him arrive at the farm at the airport, I got a call from Jetpets, advising me he arrived into Auckland deceased. We both broke down, that was the hardest thing I have endured to date taking him home in a blanket. So this first product is in his memory.