While studying for my MA in product design at the RCA in London, I had a bit of a crisis. A niggling thought stopped me in my tracks. “Do I really want to design more products? There’s far too much waste in the world. I don’t want to buy new stuff all the time. What if I could fix and improve and reimagine the stuff I already have to make it work better for me?”
The invention of Sugru was a happy accident. It landed in the hands of a young woman with dreams for a smarter world.
If I’m honest, the first version of Sugru was pretty horrible – it was immensely sticky, smelled awful and had no chance of being industrially produced. But it did help me fix and improve things around the house! I imagined a sort of space-age rubber with amazing properties – super-easy to use, sticky and durable. I knew that if I cracked it, it would have a million uses! The only problem was… I gave up chemistry in school.
The idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I filled notebooks with thousands of little drawings of things people might do with it, from the practical to the downright absurd. I knew that by tapping into people’s innate creativity, all kinds of products could be fixed and reimagined. When the most common questions at my graduation show were “how much is it?” and “where can I get it?” I knew I was onto something.
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. And David, an awesome and wise patent lawyer.
We won our first funding, a small business grant to get us off the ground. We drank Champagne on a street bench to celebrate. After paying a contract lab a lot of money to do a few 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 two long, hard years of formulation work.
With our first successful results in the lab, and patent applications submitted, we got our first investment funding to take our product development to the next level. 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? Roger and I started making friends with the nice people at some of the world’s leading glue companies.
Back in the lab, 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 and family) grew to over 100 people. Their feedback was informing our lab work. Basically, everyone was saying “make it stick to more stuff”.
Five years later, I still hadn’t found a good name for it. One day in May, riding downhill on my bike, I thought of the word Sugru, inspired by the Irish word for ‘play’.
I fell in love with it.
The pace of developments with the big companies was very slow. 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 economic crash meant we unsuccessfully pitched to almost 100 investors.
The recession was getting deeper and we were scraping by on our overdraft. With no great signs from investors, we hit a low point.
Tears were shed.
Over the Christmas break I had time to meet with an old friend for a cup of tea, and she gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever had. I’d always wanted Sugru to be big – available in the shops for anyone to buy, like duct tape or post-it notes. I’d let this ambition for scale and ubiquity get in my way. Her advice was to “start small and make it good”.
I promptly made this my new year’s resolution.
At last, a private investor put up just enough funding for us to launch Sugru independently. We set ourselves a deadline of 6 months to make it happen. It was now or never. We worked day and night, and roped in family and friends to help too. We bought a mixing machine, engineered a packaging machine, designed and produced branding, packaging, a website with a web shop… and we got out and about telling people all about Sugru. Here we are at a music festival in Ireland that summer singing the virtues of fixing to anyone who would listen.
We’d sent out packs of Sugru to journalists to try out. Only one responded. He gave it a 10/10 review on one of the UK’s most popular news websites! Bloggers saw it and linked to our new site. Things started to go crazy. New links came thick and fast. Our first 1000 packs of Sugru sold out in 6 hours.
(This is me, on the floor, in shock.)
All of a sudden, we had our pick of some pretty awesome investors. The money helped us build the factory we needed and to start building our team. Now we had customers telling their friends about Sugru, we had to scale up!
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. Boom!
Back in March, a super-cool Sugru user called Eimear sent us an image of a 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 she got back in touch to ask for help. James was taking the customer support 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.
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 — especially by a jury composed of some of the most radical and famous designers in the world, including Thomas Heatherwick and Ron Arad.
I go to pick up the award at an exclusive ceremony in the Government buildings in Whitehall!
The dream from the start has been for Sugru to be in everyone's kitchen drawer, as useful as duct tape and super glue. To get there, we needed to get it into the big stores. We'd been trying for a while, and at last we made a huge leap by launching in over 300 B&Q stores across the UK and Ireland.
We got excited and hired a donkey for our launch video. (Get your ass down to B&Q and buy some Sugru.)
I started to get asked to share our story at various events, and one highlight was the prestigious 99U at the Lincoln Centre in New York City, the biggest I'd been invited to so far. 1500 people, all tops of their fields in the creative industries. Other speakers included Joe Gebbia from Airbnb and Michael Wolff from Wolff Olins. I was so nervous I did public speaking training for a few weeks beforehand. It paid off — for the first time ever, I enjoyed myself on stage. And when I finished my talk, the audience gave me the first standing ovation in the history of the conference. It was a moment I'll never forget.
After 10 years together, James and I finally got married! If I hadn't met him back when I was a naive and excitable design student, Sugru would likely have been just another interesting student project that never made it beyond the college walls. With his support, inspiration and unique enthusiasm and vision, we have built Sugru into an awesome product and brand that people love. Now finally, he's my husband!
Our expansion into stores in the USA continued with Sugru launching in almost 2000 Target Stores across the country! Our total number of stockists has grown from about 500 to an amazing 5000 now. In our mission to help people everywhere start fixing things again, listing in Target was a HUGE step. In both the UK and the US now, a pack of Sugru is never far away!
We needed funding to continue to grow. We’d been thinking about equity crowdfunding for a while, as our customers were always asking us if they could buy shares in Sugru. We finally took the plunge and opened up the chance for anyone to buy shares in our company. It was incredible! Our record-breaking campaign saw us reach our £1M target in 4 hours, and go on to raise more than £3M from over 2000 fans and investors in 64 countries.
Once people started sharing their fixes online, it never stopped. Today there are Sugru users in 175 countries around the world and, as a community, we’ve fixed more than 14 million things. Steadily, over the last few years, we’ve grown into an awesome team of around 70 people, mostly in London, and a small and growing number in North America too where more than 50% of our users live.
We’ve been thrilled at moments like getting listed as a top invention by TIME Magazine, bringing on awesome new retailers and breaking records for crowdfunding. Users give Sugru great reviews because we take so much care on the quality of everything we do. We’re growing the company steadily while keeping our mission at the heart of it. As a somewhat accidental entrepreneur, winning awards like the London Living Wage Company of the year has meant a lot to me, but the thing I’m most proud of is the incredible community of fixers we’ve built, and how they inspire us and others every day with their imagination and can-do spirit.
The dream is still the same… for Sugru Mouldable Glues to be the go-to fixing solution for this century.
And we’re only just getting started.