Magic Whiteboard: Neil Westwood and Laura Westwood
The Magic Whiteboard founder on wowing the Dragons and discovering a passion for entrepreneurship
Few contestants get four Dragons’ Den panellists fighting to invest in their business, but Neil and Laura Westwood’s Magic Whiteboard, is one of the show’s rare genuine success stories. While countless entrepreneurs have seen their ideas ridiculed, and other ‘successful’ pitches have faded into insignificance, the Westwoods converted £100,000 of investment into a 50% profit margin in just two years.
Their simple, yet ground-breaking product allows you to create a portable whiteboard from a roll, anywhere, in seconds. The sheets of statically charged polypropylene film stick to any hard, flat surface without the need for tape or glue, ready to be written on then easily wiped clean.
Having worked for the NHS training nurses on wards for 15 years, Neil had grown tired of dragging whiteboards up and down the stairs all day. “It was driving me mad,” he says. “There was nothing like it in the market and so I was just addressing a problem I had.”
After several months of searching, the Westwoods eventually found a supplier in Europe that could produce what they wanted. Both Neil and Laura kept their day jobs, Neil at the local hospital and Laura at Worcester County Council, and used their savings to buy the rolls. “Initially we started in 2006 with £1000, selling via a low-cost website,” recalls Neil. “For two years we used our own money and took no money from the company. We kept our stock in the garage at home.”
But it was their inspiring pitch on Dragons’ Den in 2008 that saw the Westwoods’ enterprise finally take-off. After much enthusiasm from the Dragons and three hours of gruelling discussions, Neil and Laura chose Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis for investment and together the pair put up £100,000 for a 40% stake in the business.
Paphitis was an obvious choice. Having revived the failing stationary chain Ryman, he knew the market inside out and through him, Magic Whiteboard was rapidly launched into retail networks across the UK. But it was Meaden who provided the much-needed marketing and PR guidance, which Neil has since realised is the most effective way of publicising his products.
Thanks to Dragons’ Den, Magic Whiteboard has enjoyed invaluable global exposure. “The show is being broadcast abroad and has proved to be the most viral form of communication,” says Neil. “There was even a case where a businessman saw the show whilst flying with United Arab Emirates, and he got in touch, saying he wanted to bring it to the Middle East.”
In spite of the recent challenging economic climate, Magic Whiteboard has weathered the financial storm remarkably. “Our first board meeting with Deborah and Theo took place the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed,” he recalls. “I didn’t realise quite how serious the credit crunch was going to be, but we had a good product that people wanted to buy, so we were lucky.”
With a current turnover of £1.1m and profit last year reaching half a million pounds, Magic Whiteboard is booming. The industry awards are starting to flood in too, the most recent being the Most Promising New Business gong at the British Chambers of Commerce awards.
That’s not to say the recession hasn’t left it’s mark on the company however. “Perhaps our biggest knockback was in December 2008 when the exchange rate dropped and the pound massively de-valued. This made our product more expensive because it’s made in Europe.” As a result, the Westwoods had to ruthlessly assess their outgoings and eliminate any unnecessary costs but the strategy has paid off. Magic Whiteboard products can currently be found in a range of leading retailers; Ryman, Staples, Halfords, Boots and Amazon, to name a few. And as for conquering the world, they have taken their product into numerous other countries, such as Holland, Norway, Kuwait, Australia and South Africa.
With growth being the main focus now, the couple aim to introduce new goods to their range each year. So far they have launched a number of new products including the Blackout Blind, a temporary window blackout sheet. However, they maintain that they do not want to “confuse the market” by introducing too many products at once.
Neil projects turnover will increase to £5m in less than two years, a fairly conservative prediction bearing in mind revenue has trebled over the last year. “We are growing exponentially. I don’t even think we’ve touched 5% of the UK market, so when you consider how many offices, homes and schools that could use one of our products, it’s a no brainer.”
While there are no plans to sell while the economy remains uncertain, Neil admits there is an exit strategy, although not in the near future. But having been bitten by the business bug a sale would only be the catalyst to start over again. “I’d definitely like to try something new. I’m an entrepreneur now.”