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Necessity was the mother of invention for Helen Daniels of Little Thurlow near Newmarket in Suffolk. To remove dust from under her TV, she created a pioneering duster from materials she found at home. Soon she had formed a business and was selling large volumes of her Flatmate Duster™ through the likes of Lakeland and John Lewis
"My husband's a gamekeeper and loves his job, but it's not well paid. To supplement our income after getting married and having children, I did interior design and painting and decorating part-time.
"One day I was tidying my home and noticed a build up of dust underneath the TV. It was almost impossible to clean unless I picked up the TV, which was heavy, so I wrapped a duster around a ruler, which was only partly successful. I decided to create something that would do a better job.
"I cut to shape a piece of curtain interlining and made a handle from electrical conduit to create a paddle-style duster. After a few modifications it worked a treat. I was confident other people would want to buy one, but I needed to check whether any similar products existed. I looked through catalogues and visited shops, but there was nothing. My son recommended I patent my idea.
"You should seek legal advice when registering a patent. It costs a fair bit - I paid about £600 when starting up - much more since then. The banks wouldn't lend me any money and because my husband was a gamekeeper, we lived in a tithe cottage, which meant we couldn't raise any capital against our home.
"I became really good at buying from car boot sales and selling on at a profit. I once bought a vase for £1 and sold it for £360. I also started to buy and sell at antique fares and that raised about £2,500, money that helped get my business off the ground. It cost us about £12,000 in all, so we had to make many sacrifices, including not really having a Christmas one year.
"The patent registration went through quickly. My local business support organisation gave me a lot of assistance when I was starting my business - they were unbelievably helpful. I sourced fabric from Germany, got a company to make the spines and we assembled the product in our house. Because I had to bulk-buy, I had enough fabric to make 10,000 dusters. There were 15 huge rolls of fabric stored in my house!
"I made a few hundred up and contacted some large retailers, but the response wasn't very good. A friend suggested I contact Lakeland, the kitchen and cookware retailer. I phoned them and was told to send in a sample. I didn't hear anything back for months. In the meantime, I took a job as a factory supervisor.
"Then, out of the blue, I received a phone call from Lakeland's merchandising buyer, who had literally just plucked my product out of a bin in her office. She was really impressed, wanted to stock it and said she'd send me a stock contract.
"The first order from Lakeland was for 250 units a month for six months and I was delighted because I thought, 'At least we'll get back the money we've invested'.
"I carried on with my factory job and one day my husband called to say there was a 'bit of a crisis'. He reassured me that no one was hurt or ill, but when I got home he told me Lakeland wanted 5,000 more dusters - immediately.
"We panicked, but friends and family mucked in by helping us to prepare more orders. I was doing 18-hour days, it was exhausting, but we did it. In fact, pretty soon we'd made another 12,000 dusters.
"We couldn't carry on that way, so we sourced a company that would make the stock for us. Their quality didn't live up to my expectations, so I found another company in Leamington Spa and we've been with them ever since.
"Lakeland have been excellent - we've sold many thousands of units through them. In fact, the Flatmate Duster became their third-best seller ever. For a while my products were available at John Lewis, but they ended up stocking a competitor's product, which happens. A US company created a product similar to mine, even though I thought our patent provided protection. Fighting these things can cost a lot of money.
"Large retailers usually drive a very hard bargain, but I stick to my prices - after all, I have overheads to cover. Over the years we must have had £80,000 in patent fees. Now we sell about 15,000 units a year and we've been in business since 1999, so we're doing OK. In the second year, we turned over £250,000, which was incredible. I probably should have sold the business at that point."
Helen's three key lessons
- "Seek professional legal advice about protecting your intellectual property (IP). Leave nothing to chance. Be aware that protecting your IP can be very costly."
- "Don't reveal your costs to buyers. If they insist, add at least 30 per cent to the figure. Then you have room for negotiation. Buyers will try to pin you right back on price."
- "When trying to get your product in front of large retail buyers, be bold. Don't expect them to come to you. Call them up - letters and emails are easy to ignore."