While studying for my MA in Product Design (read ‘playing and experimenting with materials’) at the RCA in London, I had a bit of an idea. “I don’t want to buy new stuff all the time. I want to hack the stuff I already have so it works better for me.” (I didn’t really say it out loud. I just thought it.)
A partial visual history of sugru
From "hmm" to "yay" via "eureka" and "wow".
If I’m honest, the first version of sugru was pretty horrible — made from smelly silicone caulk and waste wood dust from the wood workshop. But it helped me hack my kitchen sink plug bigger, and make a knife more comfortable.
The smelly silicone I’d made back in February wouldn’t leave me alone. I knew it could be amazing. I pictured it as kind of space-age rubber — super easy to shape, sticky, and durable. I knew it needed to feel gorgeous and that, if I cracked it, it’d have a million uses.
But it was only an idea. I mean, I gave up chemistry in school!
As part of my Final Year project, I returned to the idea and got excited. This was bigger than just me. I got out my sketchbook and started imagining a world where this material existed.
I knew that, by tapping into people’s innate creativity, all kinds of products could be transformed and improved. I knew that we could adapt and improve almost anything mass produced.
I refined my prototype material with pigments and finer powders and presented it at my final exhibition. When the most common questions were ‘how much is it?’ and ‘where can I get it?’, I got even more excited, and decided I had to make my concept real.
I started gathering a team of specialists to help me turn this material into a real thing. The first were my partner James and my business partner Roger, then two incredible scientists, Ian and Steve, who had just retired from top jobs in the silicone industry. Then David, an awesome and wise patent lawyer.
Nesta, the UK’s innovation think tank, awarded the Company a £35,000 Creative Pioneer grant to get off the ground.
We drank champagne on a street bench to celebrate.
After paying a contract lab £5,000 to do 3 experiments, I realised the only way to develop this material was to do it myself.
With Steve’s help I set up a small laboratory, and learned the basics so I could start what was to be 2 long hard years of formulation work.
We had our first sucessful results in our chemical formulations, and applied for some patents.
This was enough to bring in some investment funding to take the product development to the next level. Thanks to the great guys at Lacomp who believed in us so early on. That night we drank Champagne in a little vietnamese restaurant.
Everyone knows a small company can’t build a household brand. You need to build a partnership with a big Multi-National Corporation, right?
Jane and Roger started making friends with the nice people at some of the world’s leading glue Companies.
We started exploring potential industrial uses for our materials with some really interesting brands.
For example, we worked on a cold curing grippy material for garden tools. And we worked with a top pencil manufacturer on some concepts for a new super-grippy premium range.
We started to get consistently strong and stable materials, but making sure the material stuck to lots of other materials was still a big challenge.
Our user trial group (mainly our friends) grew to over 100 people. Their feedback was feeding into our work. Basically everyone was saying “make it stick to more stuff”.
The pace of developments with the big Companies was very slow. My designer friends at Atto Partners had been nagging me for a while, and it began to sink in.
I started to feel that maybe we could build our own brand. Another friend told me “Start small and make it good”. The dream started coming back.
Five years later, and I’d never found a good name. One day around now, riding downhill on my bike I thought of the word sugru, inspired by the irish word for ‘play’.
I fell in love with it.
Our funding was running low, and we were still a way off with our development. We started pitching for investment again, but it was different this time, the recession meant we pitched to almost 100 investors.
With the recession getting deeper, we were scraping by on our overdraft. With no great signs from investors, we hit a low point.
Tears were shed.
I made a new years resolution.
Stop listening to other peoples advice. Go with my gut.
At last a private investor put up just enough funding for us to launch sugru ourselves.
We set ourselves a deadline of 6 months to make it happen. It was now or never.
We bought a small mixer and working with one of our engineer friends to design a packaging machine, we built it for £5,000 and it ran on an arduino.
We designed a brand to get ourselves excited. We made videos, designed packaging, and built a website.
Having converted our lab into a little factory, we spent days and nights making and packing sugru. All of our friends and family helped.
It took an entire month of blood, sweat, tears and favours to make our first 1000 packs.
We’d sent Harry Wallop at the Daily Telegraph Technology blog a pack to try out. He gave it a 10/10 review. Wired and Boing Boing saw it and linked to our new site.
Things started to go crazy. New links came thick and fast. Our first 1000 sold out in 6 hours.
(This is me, on the floor, in shock.)
We put another 2000 packs up for pre-order. We said that it’d take us months to ship the orders. They sold out in 10 hours.
Everything was different now. How could we make more?!
All of a sudden, we had our pick of some pretty awesome investors.
This influx of money would help us build the factory we needed, and to start building our team. We did just that.
While we were getting our factory and supply chain up and running, we started getting out – meeting our customers. The Newcastle and Bay Area Maker Faires were highlights – we loved meeting all the awesome people we’d talked to online.
After a 6 month ramp-up, we re-launched sales properly with an updated website and a warehouse full of sugru.
In the first week, we shipped to more than 40 countries. A lot of good people had been incredibly patient, and it felt great to share our idea with the world.
We started receiving hundreds of stories from new sugru users all over the world. So exciting. This is why I invented sugru in the first place.
We got an email from Rob, who had trekked to the North Pole with sugru grips on his ski poles. We realised we had customers in 6 of the 7 continents of the world. We asked the community if they had friends in Antarctica who would like some. They did.
Our first retailer, the London Design Museum, started stocking sugru.
TIME Magazine listed sugru alongside the iPad as one of the top 50 inventions of 2010.
The iPad was number 34, sugru was number 22.
Team sugru had grown from 2 people to 6. We had our Christmas party in our new factory.
The sugru community was growing — it was now in over 60 countries! My favourite part of every month was digging through community’s contributions before writing the monthly email update.
Over half of our community is in North America, so we set up a company there to speed up shipping, and to supply US-based retailers.
Our community hit the 50,000 people mark. We drink pints in our local pub to celebrate.
A little film inspired by a hack by a sugru user gets 50,000 views in a week.
It’s an amazing idea, and people are inspired.
sugru is featured in the V&A’s amazing exhibition the Power of Making. Team sugru grows to more than 10 people.
All of the community’s feedback and photos are showing us what sugru is really good for, and who finds it really useful.
All of the feedback makes us very confident that it’s not just for fun — it’s a great technical solution.
While continuing to keep community creativity at the heart of what we do, we get focused on bringing sugru to the next level, where more people can find it when they need it. When their cables break, or the fridge door cracks, or their hiking boots leak.
Hack of the month from Rob in sussex shows how to make glow in the dark tent pegs with sugru.
We evolve the sugru website to start sorting hacks, tips, information and inspiration by interest group. Lots more work continues behind the scenes.
Our network expands to lots of lovely resellers in the UK and the US, and we launch with our first large retail group, allowing customers in 50 UK towns and cities to buy sugru locally for the Christmas season.
The team reaches 15 people and we started to feel like…sardines in our space. For months we'd been trying to wrangle the empty unit next door… we finally get the keys! From the left: Roberto, Charlotte, Sal, Rodrigo, Nanette, Suki, Ben, James, Justyna, Me, Eva, Rafal, Madeleine, Tom. Missing = Roger, off doing his thing :)
We get lots of snowy images of fixes from the slopes - fixes and mods to snowboards, ski poles, gloves, boots and helmets. It's awesome to see sugru being trusted and performing well in extreme situations!
We're thrilled that sugru is one of the 50 winners of 'Britain's new Radicals' - a list compiled by the Observer and NESTA showcasing "the inspiring people and businesses that are changing the UK for the better" Even the UK Prime Minister commented :)
Hack of the month goes to @Robiot6 on our community forum for her clever thinking - "My fridge is not very practical for our family usage, I was missing a silly 0.5cm to be able to stack our yogurts - sugru fixed it for me!" A simple and elegant solution that would be difficult to do without sugru - awesome!
In the time since we launched, we'd had hundreds of emails asking for different colours, and the ability to mix a wider range of colours. It wasn't as easy as we hoped but after some great work in the labs, we finally cracked it... and as of april '12, sugru comes in primary colours!
Back in March, a super cool sugru user called Eimear sent us an image of a sugru repair she’d just done for one of her students, Foridha, whose wheelchair joy-stick controller kept breaking. It didn't hold up unfortunately so around now she got back in touch to ask for help. James was taking the community emails that day, and he noticed the postcode – Foridha and Eimear were only down the road! So he and Ben jumped on their bikes to give them a hand.
Our user community expands to over 100,000 customers, and our confidence in sugru is growing :) Our vision from the start has been to help get the world repairing and making again. This means appealing to not only fixers and DIYers, but people who don't yet fix. We decide to bring our mission to the fore, and we evolve our brand and our packaging accordingly. We love our new motto - The future needs fixing.
The fix of the month goes to Joanne who reminds us that sometimes a fix can make a big difference, not just a small one.
Her heart was set on competing in an epic canoe race up the yukon river - 700km long. But with no fingers on her left hand, it was looking impossible. A small modification to the paddle allows her not only to compete, but to finish the race - after 3 days and 3 nights straight paddling. She says she wouldn't have been able to do it without the mod.
We're blown away!
Being based in London, we've been getting excited about the Olympics for quite a while. We've also been working on a secret project with Leon Paul London, a leading fencing equipment brand to develop a foil handle that athletes can personalise for themselves. So we were absolutely thrilled when we learned that James Davis, the youngest member of the British Olympic fencing team, was so happy with his personalised foil that he would be competing with it in the Olympics!
A strong interest in sugru has been building in Scandinavia. We agree a partnership with some like-minded fixer entrepreneurs from Norway, Halvard and Edvard, to promote and distribute sugru in the Nordic region. They love sugru, and are passionate about the same stuff we are. It's fun already.
The inaugural London Design Festival 'Design Entrepreneur' award goes to...
ME! Woohoo! After moving into the various worlds of science and business, it's awesome to be recognised for our creative vision and achievements by a jury composed of some of the most radical and famous designers in the world including Thomas Heatherwick and Ron Arad.
Here's me accepting the award at an exclusive ceremony in an amazing hall in the Foreign and Commonwealth buildings in Whitehall!
The bits we don't have photos for:
The 500 emails Jane received from the first article about her idea in the British Airways Magazine. They gave her the conviction to make it real.
The 8,000 lab-hours we put in before we had a formulation ready to launch in September 2009.
The 3 fantastic funders & investors who invested before we'd proven anything.
The 25 amazing investors we found after we sold out of our first 2000 packs.
The countless friends and family who've helped us along the way.
The thousands of customers who've sent us pictures, stories and feedback since we launched.