Diary of a Start-Up: If Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Diary of a start-up - Week 3: If necessity is the mother of all invention...
By Alison Grieve on Apr 11, 10 04:14 PM

The Observer Book of Invention describes the difference between invention and innovation as this:

'Invention is turning money into ideas; innovation is turning ideas into money.'

When I went for my first surgery with Scottish Enterprise in 2009, they asked me whether we had considered licensing our idea to avoid the pain of both manufacturing and the commercialisation of a new product.

Whilst I understood the benefits of a grab-the-money-and-run method of getting Safetray produced and out into the marketplace, I did wonder what that said about our national psyche.

Are us Scots completely incapable of producing and commercialising products ourselves? Do we really want to define ourselves as a nation of consultants and service providers all selling to each other?

We are historically a nation of engineers, of ground-breaking scientists, of inventors who have shaped the world.

But none of these strokes of genius - from Dolly the Sheep to the advent of the television - would have been possible without the vision to communicate them beyond the confines of our shores .
In the context of Safetray, our product would remain dusty and bitterly abandoned on the shelves of an (un)fulfilment company's warehouse if we didn't have a clear and ambitious strategy for selling its benefits to the marketplace.

Having decided that licensing wasn't an option, we set about defining our value proposition.

The cost, danger and embarrassment of toppled trays very quickly became the three front runners for motivating the industry to engage with Safetray.

With our USP's down pat, I needed to find a way of putting ourselves in front of key industry players. After all, it's all fine and well to have slap-you-in-the-face USPs but if you don't back them up with sales activity, the words would remain redundant on a website that nobody ever looks at.

With this in mind, I trawled through the internet hunting for events that would provide the greatest amount of exposure.

I found the British Hospitality Association's website an invaluable source and I found the Hospitality Action Suppliers Forum advertised under their events section.

The nine-hundred pound price tag was not to be taken lightly at a time when we're watching every single penny, but with fourteen guaranteed meetings with key industry buyers, our decision to attend was a no-brainer.

In past sales roles that required getting in front of senior decision makers within major blue-chip companies it would sometimes take me six months of steadily chipping away, using every conceivable angle and lashings of ingenuity, just to get through to them for a two minute phone call, let alone finding space in their diaries for a meeting.

With a prototype in hand, we sat down at The Hatton on Thursday morning of last week, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the delegation of key purchasers in charge of multi-million pound budgets.

I had no real expectations beyond the event being something of a fact finding mission and a way of gauging the industry's reaction.

It was certainly that... and a whole lot more.

From the very first meeting onwards the response was overwhelming. On the basis of a one minute pitch - it's not a difficult product to explain - we had guys jumping in their seats and telling us that we had made their day.

A promise of putting us in touch with two major catering companies was made almost immediately and the tone of what was to be an exceptional day was set.

We had top buyers taking out their mobile phones and providing us with the personal numbers of MDs of the nation's biggest distributers.

We were given direct contact details for Operations Directors, Purchasing Managers and even CEOs.

We even had guys - substantial players in the industry - who I hadn't managed to get a pre-arranged meeting with coming up to me and asking to see the tray that everyone had been talking about throughout the day.

My favourite quote of the day was from a heavyweight buyer who was putting me in touch with the MD of their usual event rental equipment supplier:

"Use my name. Tell her I said that we need this in our business so she needs it in hers. It's non-negotiable."

The Sales Director of the Park Hyatt in Sydney - following a breakfast meeting arranged before the event - excitedly agreed to trial the tray in what is one of Australia's most exclusive hotels.

My head was buzzing by the end of the day and my book filled with the direct contact details for some of the biggest hospitality suppliers in Europe, as well as personal recommendations from some of their most important clients.

If Carlsberg did a day of selling...

I knew the second I thought of the idea that it was something special but it is easy to forget the excitement of that eureka moment when your head gets lost in financial forecasts of an imagined future and serial negotiations for loans, grants and support.

And I'm sorry to add, it's hard to keep up the momentum of ambition in a country so quick to focus on all the possible negatives.

Come on, Scotland, get it together and 'be a proud nation again'.

Connecting directly with the market has reminded me of all the reasons for inventing the tray in the first place and reconnected me to that intense feeling of excitement I had in Safetray's initial stages.

Invention may turn money into ideas but in the case of Safetray, the innovation part is looking more than a little bit juicy.

Posted on April 11, 2010 .