Here our chat with Harry Stevens, Managing Director at Rugged Interactive.
Disrupt SW: As an intro, what does Rugged Interactive do, what stage are you at currently and what makes the business and your offering unique?
Harry Stevens: We are a small company, based in Cornwall and Bristol, that makes what we call ‘motivational fitness technology’. They are high tech, sensor-based products that use ‘gameification’ to encourage people to exercise – our principle is that if you turn a physical (or mental) challenge into an actual game, people will love doing it and work hard to succeed at it. So for example our main product is the ‘CardioWall’, an 8ft x 4ft reaction wall that we sell into gyms, sports clubs, schools, rehab centres and hospitals – and fairly recently we’ve found huge success in trampoline parks too. We also have interactive climbing walls and several other specific products for the trampolining or indoor adventure sector.
We started very much from scratch, initially as a one-man sports technology consultancy, then relaunching in 2012 to address multiple markets with just Simon Heap, the Founder and Designer, and myself as Commercial Director / MD and Salesperson. Since 2013 we’ve roughly doubled our turnover every year, but did so on a shoestring and only started paying ourselves salaries in early 2017. Happily we have really turned the corner now – we now have 9 staff, will turn over around £1.2m this financial year with quite a chunk of that coming from US and European exports, and thanks to really exciting demand we’re having to move to a much larger production site next February. So they’re exciting times for us.
Disrupt SW: Speaking of People, can you share some challenges you have faced, are facing or are anticipating around up-scaling and growing your team? And are there any top tips you could share with those faced with the same issues?
Harry Stevens: I think the challenge a small company has is not only to find and to be able to afford really good people, but also to retain them. We’re still growing rapidly, so that means that people’s roles are constantly evolving. Often they might start with multiple responsibilities (when you’re small, everyone has to do everything, pretty much!), and then gradually gain more focus on what they’re best at and hand over other activities as we hire in new people. We have generally found it most effective to employ young people – recent graduates and so forth – because they tend to be the most flexible, very energetic, and of course a bit cheaper!
However, one challenge for us, having our design and manufacturing in Cornwall, is that not every dynamic young graduate wants to spend their whole career down there – the bright lights of the cities are attractive too! And we have just lost one graphic designer who recently moved on – taking with her three years’ worth of invaluable knowledge and experience that we’d rather have hung on to. So now we have replaced her with someone a bit older who’s likely to want to build a long-term career with us. The flip side is – get the right person and retention can actually become easier.
Top tips? One principle we always try to follow is: only hire people who you think have the potential to be brilliant. “Good enough” is not good enough! A small, fast growing company is going to need people to adapt rapidly and be good at far more than just their initial job description. So really try hard to find people who have something about them, as they will achieve stuff that you can’t even imagine when you first take them on. The second thing I’d recommend is to look for assistance with recruitment.
Disrupt SW: Moving to Product, what is your approach to understanding and addressing implications of change around you?
Harry Stevens: You have to be constantly scanning the market and reading everything you can about your target markets and the world that influences them. Blogs, scientific journals, twitter, you name it – you have to take time out of the madly busy ‘busyness’ to be scanning, thinking and evolving. We deliberately make a point of investing time (and money) in going to trade shows or conferences where we might just hear an interesting talk or meet a person that can give us new insight - whilst recognising that it might produce nothing.
For us, we’re lucky because my business partner, Simon Heap, is very much a creative forward thinker who is brilliant at doing this. I think it really helps to have someone in the company for whom a key part of their role is to read, think and adapt strategically.
Technology is evolving so fast that we know we have to be ready to adapt and adjust our strategy constantly – and of course new technology offers new opportunities. For example, pervasive connectivity now enables our CardioWall customers to share scores, performances and challenges with their friends and followers online, which adds huge value to the product and how users can enjoy it.
Disrupt SW: Do you have any tips to ensure focus of planning and strategies on opportunities, options and possibilities when faced with change?
Harry Stevens: Getting a balance between making enough short-term sales to pay the bills, and developing the market sector or sectors that present the best opportunities, is really tricky. Especially when you’re a tiny company with hardly any people! But we have found that you have to be really persistent and to spread your efforts as widely as possible, always considering the long term view as well as the short term. So whilst we have to put energy into short-term sales, we also invest time and effort into building opportunities that may take much longer to come to fruition, but which could be transformational if and when they come off. For us, for example, we have a Clinical Psychologist in a brain injury hospital starting clinical research in March on the benefits of the CardioWall on both Cognitive Impairment (e.g. stroke, Alzheimers, traumatic brain injury) and Mood and Motivation. This could be of immense value for us – it should give us a way to break through into the NHS - and it’s a collaboration, so not costing us a penny, but it took at least 3 years of ‘putting it out there’ before we came across the right people to make this happen.
Disrupt SW: And then Potential, can you share some challenges or barriers you had to overcome to create a Product / Offering with potential?
Harry Stevens: The biggest barriers we have to overcome frequently involve people’s natural conservatism – many people can’t see the potential in novel solutions, so you have to put yourselves in front of LOTS of them to find the few open-minded early adopters who can give you the chance to prove your solution’s value.
But I think that if you can see a problem or issue that your product or service can address in a unique or novel way, and are sure that that issue is significant, widely understood and likely to exist long-term, plus is valuable to solve, then that can present an exciting opportunity that justifies a long-term investment in effort.
For example, obesity and inactivity is clearly a major problem in our modern world, it costs society a fortune, and is not going to disappear any time soon. Our CardioWall has a relatively unique way of addressing this problem – it uses games to motivate otherwise very sedentary or deconditioned people to take exercise - and whilst it’s not easy breaking through with a completely new approach, we have started to make real progress now through persistence; and we know that our persistence should pay off because the problem it addresses is so widespread and, increasingly now, widely recognised.
Disrupt SW: And finally, is there one piece of wisdom you could pass on and share with those that are part of a Disrupter Business...
Harry Stevens: Well, two actually. First, keep going! It took us five years of hard graft and commitment – and trying lots of things – before we really ‘broke through’, and you never know where your break is going to come from. And the second is – keep an open mind when looking at potential markets. Be prepared to kiss a lot of frogs, and put yourself out there. Exhibit – if you can – at lots of trade fairs, keep putting yourselves in front of people and building awareness, and that way you will stand the best chance of finding a market or key partner that can give you the platform you need to grow profitably.