Fixing the world with mouldable glue
Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh talks to Dragon Rouge about how she has turned a university research project into an innovative business.
Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh joins us on the other end of the line, with the busy buzz of activity in the background at Sugru HQ in Hackney, London. There are so many pockets of interesting decisions, occurrences and opportunities that draw our attention to this business, not to mention the endless press coverage, impressive growth figures and awards. But what stands out most from our conversation is Ni Dhulchaointigh’s approach to making her business work, as a designer. And she is quick to point out, “I didn’t start out to set up a business. I was studying design and through an experimental process I came to the idea of Sugru.”
It seems an appropriate time to share exactly what this intriguing idea is… Scientifically known as Formerol, it is a unique self-setting silicone that is durable, waterproof and adhesive. In 2011, The Financial Times’ Jonathan Moules wrote, “Sugru looks like a piece of plasticine packaged up as a condom. But this brightly coloured smelly silicone blob has been described as a more earth-shattering invention than the iPad.”
Having discovered the material whilst studying at the Royal College of Art, Ni Dhulchaointigh realised the potential it had to change our relationship with our possessions. Judging by the reams of anecdotes and photographs on Sugru.com, it has certainly made an impact. From speaking with Ni Dhulchaointigh, it is clear that she is excited about the influence and benefits that the brand has on people, “to be more thoughtful around their consumption, be more creative with how they use their homes and make their homes and products work for them.” Her commitment to making Sugru a ‘helpful brand’ has meant that she has used the business as a means to an end.
It was the positive response from visitors at her degree show in 2004 that made Ni Dhulchaointigh even more determined to move the idea forward and meet people that could help progress the idea. Having little business experience on leaving the RCA didn’t hold her back. Meeting Roger Ashby, serial entrepreneur and Sugru co-founder at this point was instrumental in finding the right people for the scientific side of the business and securing a grant from innovation charity, NESTA in 2005.
Thinking about business as a creative discipline was encouraged through NESTA’s Creative Pioneers Programme, as it was set up on the basis that creative graduates should be great entrepreneurs, she explains, “As a creative person and a creative graduate, I was treating business in the same way as I did when learning about sculpture or learning about design, it was all about how does it work, how do other people do it and how might I do it differently.” Sharing a poetic snippet of what life as an entrepreneur entails, she says, “Everyday they start with a blank sheet of paper and create something”. She evidently thrives on creating something that perhaps didn’t exist before, solving problems and improving things.
Ashby also brought his experience and expertise in intellectual property rights, patents, accountancy and legalities. Ni Dhulchaointigh tells us that she firmly believes in working with the right people and explains, “It can’t all be about creativity in the end, without the heavy weight of operations, management and sales we’re not going to become a helpful brand.” Whether it’s hiring specialists or having people spring into the business at the right time, it’s down to the right people to change and develop it for the better.
As all good stories feature at least one memorable turning point, January 2009 did just that for the business. Ni Dhulchaointigh saw clarity and decided that it was time to be more confident with the business and what they were doing, with their own style, rather than following conventional rules of business. Ni Dhulchaointigh realised, “We don’t have to be a helpful brand on Day One but if we can make it something that’s really useful and resonating for ten people, then it’s going to resonate for a hundred and then we can build up to a thousand, then to ten thousand and so on.” She reveals that part of this was finding the right balance with how prescriptive the business was with how people interact with the product.
They felt that a liberal approach worked better for them and what followed was people reacting with the material in surprisingly creative and unexpectedly charming ways. A thrilled Ni Dhulchaointigh shares, “They loved taking photographs and having them featured online. Our customer base has really grown from there. It’s often about little households’ problems but now it’s not necessarily that people are motivated to share everything on Facebook but in the early days, that was very important.”
As Ni Dhulchaointigh’s role shifts to preserving the brand’s personality and driving it forward, she shares her appreciation and the value she places on the certainty that her team are genuinely behind the vision and the mission and are not just interested in the job or the money. She says, “It is very motivating for the team to be in a fast growing business where they can see change and they can see it growing up: being part of that and being part of something at an early stage is very exciting.” Ongoing dialogue with the team about directions and possibilities are at the business’ core and shows the creative spirit by which it functions.
The conversations extend to the lively community that evolves around the business. “They keep us really grounded: they certainly tell us when they don’t like something!” She exclaims and then continues to explain that when the brand was being developed, people weren’t really talking about fixing or the frustration with waste and consumerism. Social media as a whole wasn’t the influencer that it is today and bloggers weren’t quite the movers and shakers that they are now.
We talk about how the business progressed and Ni Dhulchaointigh reflects on when the recession hit and how it instigated a shift in people’s thinking. “People realized that a materialistic outlook is not all it is cracked up to be”. Following the financial crisis, the power of social media grew, as did e-commerce. This only strengthened the business and Ni Dhulchaointigh attributes the growth of the community to the fact that the business started out online.
As our conversation progresses, the multiple facets that have contributed to the business’ success become increasingly apparent, the transparency of the mission; the practicality of the product; a sense of individuality; sharing within a community; the feeling of pride and confidence that follows from fixing something and lastly, as Ni Dhulchaointigh puts it, “it’s about not taking things too seriously, not taking yourself seriously.”
The Sugru community clearly identifies with these attributes and this is why they are vital to the story. “We’ve been able to get a real glimpse into the types of people, how their lives are and their motivations for using the product so we can build on that in our communication.” As a designer might test and develop prototypes, the Sugru community are turned to in order to find out what might work at a greater scale. And Ni Dhulchaointigh appreciatively adds, “We get an incredible number of customers spreading the word for us.” The community now have another reason to spread the word. Sugru has recently used investment crowd funding platform ‘crowdcube’ to raise over three million pounds to help the business grow.
The community support and input also acts as a huge motivator for the team and Ni Dhulchaointigh says they love nothing more than when people share their stories. “Look, I’ve done this and I never would have thought I could do it but I am able to fix my kid’s shoes.” Feedback like this reminds the team about what they are achieving but also highlights the business’ greater purpose in helping people.
The words fixing, repairing and upcycling can’t really be used without the word ‘sustainability’ being uttered. So while some might suggest that Sugru’s popularity with improving and prolonging are a direct response to sustainability issues, the team have found that actually the motivations are a little closer to people’s everyday lives. “They are more interested in making their home work better, saving something that they care about or saving money.” Ni Dhulchaointigh doesn’t think that the growth in popularity of the business is due to the fact we are recovering from the recession but more because there is a shift in attitudes towards materialism. “What’s interesting about the “maker movement” or people’s desire to live a more hands on life, is that we’re seeing an increasing interest in cycling, hacking, knitting and all sorts of things.” People are moving away from spending their money on material goods and are looking for new and interesting experiences and Ni Dhulchaointigh thinks that Sugru fits in perfectly with this.
When we ask what the future might hold for the business, Ni Dhulchaointigh reveals that there is a whole side of the business that has been on hold for some time. We sit at the edge of our seats in anticipation and discover that development in the industrial potential of the material is in the very near future.
In creating Sugru, Formerol - an entirely new material to the silicon industry was discovered. Ni Dhulchaointigh suggests that it has the potential to be used in different ways, including healthcare, orthotics, prosthetics, encasing and toys. But until recently, they’ve responsibly had to say no to developing this part of the business and focus on the consumer product. Ni Dhulchaointigh says, “It would have been too much of a risk to have an R&D team working on industrial applications because there were too many important basics to follow through for the consumer product.” Five years later, with the consumer side of the business clearly doing well, they are developing the other side of the business. “We have the IP and it’s our obligation to commercialize this and to build our business as big as we can for our shareholders.”
It is clear that the team is fully committed to the human impact that the business has now and could have in the future. By keeping close to their purpose to help people, it is refreshing to see a simple material fuel happiness by encouraging people to engage in new activities. With its fun colours, effortless nature and a growing community championing it, it seems that Sugru has only just begun transforming our relationship with our possessions and the spaces we inhabit.