How I went from sleeping on my office floor to winning investment on Dragons’ Den

Having started with no money and equipment made from scrap, Rob Manley's business now features in prime-time TV shows. This is his inspiring story...

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Name: Rob Manley
Company: Illuminated Apparel
Company description: Illuminated Apparel creates unique, interactive glow-in-the-dark clothing which you can draw on using light. Your artwork will fade after, allowing you to draw again and again.
Started in: 2014
Find Illuminated Apparel here:

Describe your start-up barrier:

The business was started in my mum’s kitchen on a bootstrap budget, with printing machinery that I had made out of scrap wood and a rotisserie oven.

So when I decided to run the business full-time in February 2015, I not only needed to invest in equipment that could produce in high volumes of stock, but invest in premises. After a lot of deliberation, I decided on London as a base for the business.

After staying in hostels and on friends’ sofas, the need for me to put in longer hours meant that I ended up sleeping on my office floor and walking to a gym for a shower, which wasn’t ideal.

No only that, but the T-shirts were not selling as well as I had expected due to the quality of the print and and the amount of wastage I incurred, which meant that by the end of summer 2015 I was looking at having to close down the business.

What were the practical steps you took to ensure your start-up survived?

I had the choice to either close down the business and walk away, or find a solution to the manufacturing problem with whatever funds I had left. I would obviously take the more risky route!

Research is key

I was surprised how much information was online. I spent hours watching YouTube videos, scouring through forum posts to see how other people and companies got over certain issues. Although time-consuming, this was all free information which has been invaluable for getting over certain hurdles.

Changing Tactics

When trying to overcome the manufacturing problems, it was very easy to become narrow-minded and obsessed with trying to perfect a solution to the challenges of screen printing; which wasted a lot of time and money.

After a couple of months of not getting anywhere I decided to take the risk and completely stop all sales of the product while I perfected my new way of printing. This was a hard time for the business as there was very little income coming in, but I knew it was the right thing to do to move the business forwards.

Finding that solution

Through more endless research, I found a company in Europe which could create a heat transfer using our luminescent ink, and after a lot of trial and error we got the solution right. The production price did increase, however I could now offer a much higher quality product which also allowed me to offer a range of products.

More issues…

Now that I had the production method sorted, the time it took to print each T-shirt tripled – which really slowed down productivity and boosted the costs.

While trying to outsource production I found that printers usually used the method which had previously caused my issues, so I decided to take another risk and purchased a custom-made machine from China. The new machine quadrupled production, allowing us to print 1,500 T-shirts per week. This has really helped with scaling the business.

What was the outcome?

After finding that the new printing method worked, the new product received a great response and was stocked by two large gadget retailers in late 2015, and the product was featured on The Gadget Show Christmas Special.

We then had the opportunity to pitch our product on the latest series of Dragons’ Den, where Deborah Meaden offered us £50,000 investment, which I accepted

What three key questions should entrepreneurs ask themselves before starting a product business that requires manufacturing?

  • What is your plan to scale production in the future? Production can be very smooth to start with, but when you receive that large order how are you going to fulfill it?
  • What are the costs? If you do decide to change production methods, what are the costs? New machinery can be very expensive and time-consuming.
  • What are your backup options? It is always wise to have an outsource facility readily available; for example if your machines go down or you need help with an influx in orders.

What one piece of advice do you think aspiring business owners should take on board?

Persistence is key – a start-up business can be very draining and demands a lot of time and commitment. But don’t give up on your goal, it’s surprising what you can achieve.

Don’t sleep on your office floor. You need to find time to switch off and be able to take a step back.

Is there anything you would do differently?

On reflection, I should have had a plan in place for how I would scale production before I started taking orders, although when you start you can only speculate as to what those figures will be.

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