Reflections on 3 years as a small British manufacturer

Gemma Pearce avatar

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 Today a year ago, we raised the funding we needed to bring our loopwheels for wheelchairs into production. And three years ago (minus a week), we exhibited our small bike loopwheels in public for the first time, at the hand-made bike show Bespoked in Bristol. It was 12 April 2013, in fact.

These anniversaries give pause for thought. So I’m taking the liberty of sharing some reflections on being a small British manufacturer over the last 3 years. It’s a change from our usual short messages and I hope an interesting one. We at Loopwheels thank you for your support and for following our progress.

GEMMA – FROM THE LOOPWHEELS TEAM

A tiny British manufacturer making its way in the world.

Much is heard in the UK news about fundamental changes in our economy in the last 40 years. Some people speak of the death of British manufacturing, and others about its resurgence. We are a tiny British business which set out 4 years ago to bring an innovative new product to market, and we decided we wanted to manufacture it ourselves rather than license the technology to a big company or have it made elsewhere. The product was a wheel with integral suspension. The idea was not a new one; in fact people had been trying to develop such a “resilient” wheel for 150 years. But no one had succeeded. The difference for us was that we took technology from archery bows, used very modern materials, brought this into a wheel design, and then combined this with endless testing and modification. So our springs were made from a carbon composite material, and we tested over a 100 different designs and combinations of materials to get the performance needed to provide shock-absorption without too much bounce, and to provide strength and resilience without losing suspension. At that stage, we were desperate for our idea to succeed. We had little money and a lot of determination. We were a team of two: husband and wife, and we had had some disappointments in trying to sell the idea to other people and big companies. Big companies take a long time to make decisions, and they don’t like a risk. We decided that the only way we could bring loopwheels to market was to do it ourselves. And that actually that this would be a better way.

Today, that is all history.

In short, we launched our first suspension wheels for bikes in 2013, raising funding through rewards-based crowdfunding site Kickstarter, plus our own savings and with the generosity of friends and family. That was enough to get the product and the Loopwheels name out into the world. Reinventing the wheel does have a certain ring to it and we got great publicity. People loved the idea and they loved the product. It’s eye-catching and it works well.

Loopwheels for wheelchairs 

Grants and loans

Right from launch day in 2013, people asked us if we could design a loopwheel for wheelchairs. That took a lot of time and perseverance too. This time around, we researched grant funding and were successful in applying for a central government grant to help towards R&D costs of our wheelchair wheel. Later, our local Nottinghamshire county council approved a grant for the capital costs of new manufacturing equipment for our bigger wheel. Without that government support, we could not have raised the funding we needed to develop new products so quickly after launch of our first product. The bank was sympathetic and kind, but we stopped short of agreeing to offer our home as security. There is often a fine line between risk and foolhardiness! The upfront costs of manufacturing are huge, and the really big bills all come at the point that you have no revenue and can’t prove the market. So help to get off the starting blocks is essential. Innovate UK and other government funders play a crucial role for companies with innovative ideas.

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding through sites like Kickstarter are a tremendous tool for launching a new product, market-testing and getting publicity. But you have to work hard at it. One of the key messages if you’re considering crowd-funding of any kind (and there are several kinds) is “You have to bring your own crowd”. You can’t rely on people who don’t know you finding you and supporting you – you need to build up a following of interested people first, and then others will join and pledge support too.

Through our campaign to bring shock-absorbing loopwheels for wheelchairs into production last year, we met some lovely people. They could see exactly what our wheels could do and were generous with their support. Thank you, all. 

Most people who pre-order products in the form of crowdfunding understand that there are inherent risks in developing and launching a new product, and that the timescales may slip. For our first campaign, in 2013, we were slower than we’d anticipated delivering the first products and people were incredibly understanding. Two years later, for our second campaign, some backers were less sympathetic, even though we actually delivered ahead of our forecasts. I think perhaps crowdfunding has become more mainstream, and those who pledge are not limited to risk-takers. It still remains a vital source of getting your first orders for a product and I would definitely recommend it however.

With the funds raised through Kickstarter, we were able to order our first batches of components, and manufacture our first true production batch of loopwheels, which we delivered to backers – with other rewards – last summer.  In June we launched our new website and started selling loopwheels for wheelchairs direct from our site https://loopwheels.com/products/wheelchairs/

What’s happened over the last year?

So much! A year on, we’re selling our wheels to customers around the world, and have stockists in 12 countries. You can find a list of them on our website here https://loopwheels.com/stockists/

Last April, just after completing our Kickstarter campaign, we exhibited at the Naidex show at the UK’s National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. We were awarded “best product in show”! That felt amazing and was a total surprise. We’re back at Naidex this year (27-28 April) and, like last year, we’ll be exhibiting at The Mobility Roadshow too  – it’s 26-28 May 2016 at Silverstone Circuit, Northamptonshire. If you’re interested in trying out loopwheels for wheelchairs and able to get to one of these shows, we’d love to say hello. Before then, our Italian distributor BODYTECH will show Loopwheels on their stand at the 20th EXPOSANITA trade show 18-20 May in Bologna.

In the past year, we’ve learned a lot. We’ve talked to many customers with spinal cord injury (and other reasons for using a wheelchair), so we understand more about what they need and want. We’ve made some subtle alterations to the product. We’ve fine-tuned our manufacturing process to iron out some early teething problems. We’ve grown our business relationships and understand more about selling in UK and non-UK markets. We’ve shortened the time from order to dispatch from 3 weeks to 48 hours, for standard products. Amazon now sell our wheels in the UK, which means if customers want to buy from Amazon, they can spread the cost of the purchase through a payment plan. (I suspect we all have a love/hate relationship with big sellers like Amazon, but they can offer flexibility which we can’t match as a small business.) And we’re still learning and working to improve all the time.

New products . . . 

We have just introduced new ergonomic push rims as a further option on our wheelchair loopwheels: Curve and Curve Grip are a beautiful, well designed product from Germany made by a company called Carbolife, and they are shaped to fit the contour of the human hand much better than standard push rims. They’re designed in particular for people with limited or no finger movement. Carbolife are a young company too and have some further exciting new additions to their range this year, so we’re very excited to be working with them and bringing their push rims to the UK. You can meet them at Naidex – Stand M9.

. . . And old favourites too.

We still make our smaller loopwheels for folding bikes and recumbent trikes, launched through our first Kickstarter campaign in 2013. These small loopwheels will soon have been providing welcome suspension to their owners for three years! The bikes are a lot of fun to ride – they really take a small folding commuter bike to places you’d never expect them to go.

Bespoked 2013 – 2016

We’re looking forward to be back in Bristol visiting the hand-made bike show Bespoked again in a couple of weeks to see the beautiful Forager bike made by Sven Cycles for River Cottage and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsall. The show is a celebration of handmade bicycles and those who make them. It’s Europe’s premier handmade bicycle show, attracting exhibitors, visitors and press from around the world. If you are interested in having a bicycle made especially for you to perfectly match the type of rider you are then Bespoked is the place for you to meet the person who will make your dream bicycle into a reality!

We launched our first loopwheels at Bespoked in 2013, so it was there that we began the public part of our roller-coaster journey of a micro-business trying to do our bit to boost British manufacturing. We could not have foretold what the next three years would bring – excitement, despair, frustration, delight, awards, rewards, exhaustion, determination, elation . . . but above all, a feeling of immense pride in our achievements.

MTB wheel next?

We’ve not forgotten the mountain bike loopwheel – put on hold in 2014 when we decided to focus on developing and testing the loopwheel for wheelchairs, much to the disappointment of a whole group of our followers, I know!  We aim to launch our bigger bike wheel in 2017.

The journey to a smoother ride continues.

We hope you’ll keep rolling along with us to see what the next three years bring!

Thanks for following and supporting us.

Gemma.

EXHIBITION & SHOW DATES COMING UP

BESPOKED, HANDMADE BICYCLE SHOW, BRISTOL UK 15 -17 APRIL
NAIDEX MOBILITY BIRMINGHAM NEC UK 27-28 APRIL
EXPOSANITA, BOLOGNA ITALY 18-20 MAY
THE MOBILITY ROADSHOW, SILVERSTONE 26-28 MAY

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