Interview: Rob Law MBE: Founder, Trunki

By Ashley Coates. Published: 13/01/2013

“I just got on with it”.

Having been laughed off Dragons’ Den in an episode called “Wheelie Rubbish”, Rob Law’s luggage business has gone from strength to strength. Two years after his 2006 disaster in the den, Trunkis were selling at the rate of one every 3.5 minutes but it was a hard won victory. Rob entered Dragon’s Den optimistic that an investment from one of the entrepreneurs could turn his fortunes around but he left thinking he had ruined his business.

In a memorable scene, Theo Paphitis snapped a piece of Trixi, the “female” Trunki and Deborah Meaden declared that there was no market for the case. Having aimed for a £100,000 investment for 10% of his business, Rob left with nothing.

Rob came up with the idea for Trunki while he was a student at Northumbria University.  While researching for a university competition he found the range of children’s luggage uninspiring and set about designing his own solution. Rodeo, as it was then known, was born but it would take several years for it to enter the market, during which time Rob worked as a product designer for a number of major brands.

In 2003, the first Trunkis began to be produced under a licensing relationship with a Chinese firm. It was unable to produce a marketable product and went into liquidation in 2005. Unexpectedly the publicity Rob gained from the den caught the attention of a number of retailers that declared their interest in the product.  By August 2008, over 120,000 Trunkis had been sold worldwide in 22 countries and they were becoming a ubiquitous presence at airports in the UK.

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What did you study at school?

I did Design, Physics and Maths at A-Level. At university I did Design for Industry which included product design.

Did you have a clear idea of where that might take you at that stage?

Yes, when I was fourteen I did work experience for a design consultancy and that’s where I decided I wanted to be a product designer. I went off and did the relevant qualifications and A-Levels I needed.

The idea for Trunki was born out of your university experience and it hummed away in the background for nine years. Were you happy working professionally or were you thinking “oh I should be pursuing this”?

I put it away for a couple of years while I worked in Taiwan and Australia. I worked in many parts of the world as a product design consultant. It was when I was going up the East Coast of Australia in a camper van meeting people who didn’t seem to know what to do with their lives, that I worked out exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to be a product designer.

I ended up developing the idea for a ride-on suitcase that I had at university a lot further while I was traveling. I have actually got sketches on the back of American Express letter-headed paper from when I was doing some temping work.

Did they not notice?

I was on the phone so I was just sketching away. Then when I came back in 2002 I approached the Prince’s Trust to help me get the business sorted.

What did the Prince’s Trust do for you at that stage?

I was living with my parents up in Chester so it was the Chester branch and I approached them just for some help really, just to try and get a bit of cash to get the business off the ground and get some advice. They helped me figure out the business plan which was to license the product to a manufacturer, it wasn’t to start up on my own.

That was quite a risky move for you, moving out of the licensing arrangement and starting Magmatic and doing it yourself.

Magmatic was first started for the licensing arrangement and that was in 2003. I licensed the design to a toy company at the beginning of 2003 and my entire £4000 Prince’s Trust loan went on solicitor fees drawing up the contract, so we use the solicitors very frugally these days.

There was a license deal for three years which finished when the company, the licensee, went into liquidation. Then I decided, having worked in Bristol quite a few times for some FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] brands that I was getting a bit bored of being a product designer. I thought what Trunki really needed was a really strong big brand behind it, the company I licensed it to they had sold us a cheap toy and they hadn’t sold us a lifestyle product.

Who were you working for before?

A company called Kinneir Dufort in Bristol.

What was there client base like?

I was managing a lot of Unilever work, so I was working with Lynx, Dove, Domestos, Persil, other projects for Durex. God, who else did I work with? M&Ms and Maltesers.

Did that help you focus in terms of how you would go about working independently?

Not working independently but more about getting the brand, messaging and marketing right.

Was it a struggle getting yourself organised once you had chosen to work for yourself?

My previous employer was very flexible and they let me take a day off a week to investigate the business plan and it wasn’t until the first stock arrived on 5th May 2006 that I could actually quit, having a basic income stream from the website sales and small independents.

In 2006, a lot of people watched as Theo Paphitis broke “Trixxie”, your pink Trunki. How big a set back did failure in the Dragons’ Den prove to be?

The exposure in the end turned into a phenomenal bit of marketing for us and I wouldn’t change a thing but at the time I left the den thinking I had ruined my business. The BBC advertised the episode as “Wheelie Rubbish” and it was a setback but I’d had a factory go bust in China where we had to rescue the tooling out and I’d had quite a few other setbacks such as the hand luggage ban in 2006, so I was used to getting a few knocks.

What drove you to continue?

I guess they never really knocked me down, you just carry on, keep trying to get it past that hurdle. It never really phased me too much, I just got on with it.

What do you say when you meet the dragons now, because you must encounter them every now and then? 

Yes, I tend to bump into them at big functions.

What is the sort of feedback you get from them because Duncan Bannatyne came out saying that you were the “one that got away”. 

He did but then he changed his mind and came out on Twitter saying that I was the worst possible figurehead for British business. I think he was on a bit of a bad day and he wanted to see our company accounts and we said he would have to wait until they are on Company’s House.

But generally I guess the feedback is a little more warm.

Yes I suppose the most poignant was from a few years ago when I went to pick up the Growing Business Award from New Product Company of the Year. Theo Paphitis was presenting the awards so I passed him on the steps on the way down the stage as I was going up to get my award.

What would your advice be to people who have got a product, or think they’ve got a product, and want to go out and sell something?

You’ve got to go in with your eyes wide open, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. I get contacted daily by inventors who think they’ve got a great idea but actually it’s an idea they think is great and no-one else does. Rule number one is to get your market research done and make sure that your target market think it’s a good idea and figure out what price they are prepared to pay for it.

If you have a brilliant idea that costs ten times more than what anyone is willing to pay, it’s a dead end. Also if you are up and running in business then you are going to get a few set backs and knocks. It’s a challenging environment but you’ve got to keep on being very driven and determined and that’s why most entrepreneurs who succeed are that kind of person.

What sort of things do people propose to you as business ideas?

We’ve got all sorts, we normally sign NDAs [Non Disclosure Agreements] with them, but things like a device for making sure your caravan is level through to various nursery products.

What are they expecting you to do with them?

Well if it fits our target market which is children’s travel products then we’re interested to hear more, so say out of a hundred ideas maybe ten fit that category, then we will find out a little bit more and offer some advice to go and do some research. Maybe three will come back and only one we’ll look at. We’ve looked seriously at about four or five designs and ended up taking three.

The odds of getting it to market aren’t favourable.

You could almost say that about five hundred inventors have contacted us and we’ve ended up taking three. That’s the success rate for a product really. We treat rough ideas all the time with my design background and my design team and it really is a hundred-to-one rule, you’ve got to have one hundred ideas to come up with one excellent one. We’ve now got a line of six product lines and each one of those has come from a massive array of ideas we’ve looked at over time.

Is there anything you can highlight in particular that you have learnt from being a business owner as opposed to working professionally? 

The biggest thing I have learnt from where I stand now is I’ve got a really good holistic view of the whole supply chain process from coming up with an idea, and knowing that process through to understanding manufacturing technologies and techniques to reduce price, through to the logistics of how much it costs to ship stuff and trying to get as much onto pallets and containers as possible, making things durable for shipping, all the way through to what it looks like on the shop shelf. Then you’ve got to factor in all the safety standards, and understanding those, and that parents and children want to find those products desirable so its a huge thing to take on.

So what’s been the highlight of your entrepreneurial career so far?

There’s been quite a few but I suppose getting an MBE from the Queen was quite a big one, winning SME of the Year at the National Business Awards this year, I could probably give you one per year actually!

Would you go about doing anything differently if you were to attempt the same work again?

I think you learn a lot from your mistakes so if you don’t make them earlier on then you may make even bigger ones later so I’m a big fan of saying “I wouldn’t change a thing”, life’s a learning process and it certainly is in business. There are things I may think I could have done differently but if I hadn’t done them I might not have learnt from those mistakes.

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