The difficulties faced when disrupting two industries at the same time

If you haven’t heard of Trunki, the chances are that you’ve probably seen the products being used if you’ve had a holiday in recent years.

The firm’s flagship goods are children’s suitcases. Suitcases that come complete with vibrant designs, a solid structure and strategically placed handles to ensure kids can make the most of the wheels and sit on-board the case itself, effectively making the travel experience more tolerable for both youngsters and parents.

In the firm’s own words: “We have a team of talented imagineers that are dedicated to making travelling with tots a doddle. They use ingenious design (and a little bit of fairy dust) to create products for every journey, whether it’s a day trip to the zoo, or a round the world trip.”

Rob Law, CEO of Trunki, is the founding “imagineer” who created the firm. When studying product design at university in 1997, he found inspiration when observing both the luggage and the toy industries, and connected the dots by recognising that children get bored when they travel.

During the talk at Value Creation, Law revealed that early challenges were witnessed in the form of traditionalist firms failing to recognise the product’s potential.

“Luggage manufacturers thought it was a toy and toy manufacturers thought it was luggage. Not many were keen to licence it,” he revealed.

Undeterred, Law finally saw his product hit the market, growing from the UK and across Europe, Asia and the US. “ It seemed crystal clear Trunki needed to be a strong lifestyle brand,” he said of the company’s position.

Discussing another challenge the business faced, he said: “The biggest challenge was in the start of summer, which was peak season, back when the government banned hand luggage at the height of terrorism.”

But opening up on the more day-to-day challenges of going from a product designer and into a business owner, he said discovering how to lead different people was an experience.

“Early on I learned about leadership. It seemed pretty clear to hire the right people and those lessons have helped me move forward. It’s been a hard learning curve, trying to learn to work with people from different mindsets,” he explained, revealing that designers typically work long hours, while people from other areas are used to leaving at 5pm.

He explained that generating PR was of key importance for the business to thrive and cautioned the audience to be aware of that, but noted it’s “pretty easy” for the press to get wind of what you’re doing when you’re peddling brightly coloured cases for kids.

“[We] embraced social media early on. 95 per cent of our target demographic, mums with toddlers, are on Facebook. Our sales distribution channels include our online channel, wholesale to the UK high street, international channels and a special arrangement in the US where we licence to toy companies,” he said of further exposure.

Law went on to detail his experience of outsourcing manufacturing. “The initial strategy was just to outsource, but I got so frustrated with costs changing. With Chinese factories they constantly change costs and freight companies screw you over at Christmas.”

He went on to reshore to Europe and started to use a factory in Plymouth, but undesirable circumstances struck again when the manufacturer went into administration. Trunki went on to buy the warehouse.

As the company developed, former managing director of The Body Shop, Stuart Rose, joined Trunki as the company’s MD – an introduction that was made through the Business Growth Fund (BGF).

Explaining the choice to embrace the £3.9 million investment from BGF, Law, said: 
“Building the company up took us to deal with the BGF. They had a really passionate team as we were trying to grow the brand. I was looking for someone with a bit more grey hair, for someone with experience to guide us through growth.

“The thought process was that we had several strategies to take forward. Building in the US was one, as well as product developments and frustrations with international trade, which all required cash. Also, there was a huge risk to my personal wealth as a majority shareholder, so I wanted to derisk.”

He noted the investor has been very supportive, especially as one of the earliest decisions made during their partnership was to buy the factory – a decision that cost fourfold the expected amount of £500,000.

Other difficulties of blurring the lines between luggage and toys came from competitors that sensed an opportunity to copy the formula. It’s resulted in a fight against infringements in Southeast Asia and also at home in the UK. The British battle resulted in a High Court ruling in Trunki’s favour, which was appealed and overturned into the rival’s corner. The fight has now been taken to the Supreme Court.

Closing on the ambition for the future, Law said: “We want to be the global travel brand for children’s products and to create innovative pioneering products. We’re working on something very big and we’re also focusing on international growth in few key markets. There are big opportunities in China and the US.”

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