Taking the plunge and a punt on making it yourself

Contrary to common perceptions, manufacturing offers opportunities for motivated entrepreneurs with a good product to make and sell, as Charles Orton-Jones discovers

Bored with your career? Then why not consider starting something up in the manufacturing sector. In theory this ought to set off all sorts of warning lights. Manufacturing? Now? In the UK? In fact, it’s never been easier or a better time to enter this rewarding sector.

Let first-time entrepreneur Sarah Brown convince you. She spent 15 years in public relations, including head of PR for Gallo wines. Ms Brown has sensitive skin and in 2007 plunged into the manufacturing sector with her own startup, Pai Skincare.

“My father said I was crazy. He told me: ‘You will really miss that pay cheque at the end of the month’. I hadn’t thought of that. And yes, it’s a shock,” she says.

But she went ahead all the same. “It was completely out of my comfort zone. I was self-funded. Nothing gets you out of bed faster than not knowing how you are going to pay your bills. It’s daunting, but that’s why it’s worth it. It’s why people climb Kilimanjaro.”

In manufacturing there are two choices. Either become a technical expert or hire one. Ms Brown chose the former. She enrolled on courses to learn the basics of cosmetics and skin biology. As her goal was to create a product ideal for her own troublesome skin, she had no shortage of motivation. “I did loads of research and experimentation. Then I brought in a cosmetic testing consultant to do the things I could not, such as exhaustive testing,” she says.

The first batch was mixed in her garage. By herself. “It was winter. I was freezing. Standing there with a whisk and a hairnet.”

Nothing gets you out of bed faster than not knowing how you are going to pay your bills

Long story short: her radically different product has been a smash hit. “The industry is full of virtual brands, where everything is outsourced. We are the opposite. We control everything. That’s why we make it ourselves. For example, certain ingredients have high omega content. Heating depletes it. By manufacturing Pai products ourselves we ensure the quality is really high,” she says.

Today Pai is made in a 6,000-square-foot factory in west London. Turnover is £1.3 million and half of sales are exports to 19 countries. “We make a profit too,” says Ms Brown. “Fun? It has been incredible.”

Or what about advertising man Tom Evans. After a pretty stellar career, including creative director at TBWA, he wanted something totally new. So he started BleepBleeps, which makes gizmos to help parents look after children. The first product, Sammy Screamer, is a red triangle-shaped device which sends a mobile phone notification when moved. Stick it on a fridge door, cot or bedroom door.

“People ask me how I got it made,” says Mr Evans. “I just turned into a serial networker. Never turned down a coffee or a Skype chat. Then I either enrolled them or they would say ‘You must meet so and so’.”

He has built a core team of five around him who compensate for his lack of knowledge in various areas. “The team has expertise way beyond me,” he says. “I know my limitations.”

The formula means Mr Evans has sketched out a diverse range of mobile-app connected products. “We are prototyping,” he says. “We are doing 3D-printed cases and using printed circuit boards. We hope to make it in the UK.”

Funding is coming via Mr Evans himself and a Kickstarter campaign. A goal of $20,000 has been hit and overshot, with $50,000 now pledged from 636 backers.

Why does he do it? After all, Mr Evans had a role he knew inside out in advertising. “It all came together when I found this great piece of advice for startups from Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator,” he says. “I was struck that it had tremendous parallels for the communications industry too. Graham says we must ‘Live in the future, then build what’s missing’. This is a great attitudinal approach that can apply to all areas of creativity.”

Common to so many tales of manufacturing startups is the role played by new low-cost prototyping and fabrication methods. 3D printing being the best known. To make use of these tools, without the capital outlay, visit a “fab lab”. These are workshops with tools and experts to allow the manufacture of technical parts.

When inventor Piers Ridyard wanted to make his Nifty MiniDrive, a MacBook storage booster device, he went to the Fab Lab Manchester. He printed out a 3D test model and put it in an ABS plastic case, both made at the Fab Lab.

“I was a cash-strapped trainee lawyer when I developed Nifty, with about £300 of my own funds,” says Mr Ridyard. “Fab Lab Manchester has been an invaluable resource. There are very few spaces where industry-spec equipment can be accessed by anyone with an idea, a little ambition and the motivation to learn something new. It provides a safe place for new inventors and designers to make the mistakes they need to in a supportive and solutions-focused environment.”

One final advantage: in an age where Google and Amazon are challenging whole industries, from journalism and book-selling to toy shops and map-making, manufacturing is a safe haven. Google can’t announce a new search function and put a manufacturer out of business. It’s a big plus in a world where the behemoths of the internet can crush all before them.

It’s hard to see how Google or Apple is of the slightest concern to Amy Hall Knitwear. Founder Amy Hall changed career to start her self-named high-end knitwear label. She launched in 2010. Today she designs and hand-makes skirts, dresses and jumpers that are regulars in the international fashion press. She uses a flexible workforce model, hiring technicians and knitters when needed to fulfil big orders.

Four years in and the financial side is OK. “I’m not in debt and the business is taking care of itself,” she says. Her verdict? “I was desperate for a change of scene. It was scary. Did I make the right decision? Definitely. There was nothing else I would rather do. Even when things are stressful I know I was right to take the risk. I love it.”