Sarah Giblin (Credit Graham Flack)
When Sarah Giblin needed a safer backpack for her commute, and couldn’t find one, she created RiutBag. Still a team of one despite having over 10,000 customers, BQ finds out how Sarah’s been doing things differently since day one.
Innovation is ‘matching what is possible with what is needed’, and RiutBag couldn’t be more that.
“I had the idea for my startup whilst working in financial services in an office job in Reading,” says Sarah. Before that, she worked as a classical singer, journalist and for a silversmith at times. “I’ve learnt something that’s helped me now in every job I’ve done along the way.”
Theft, specifically theft from bags, and even more specifically on public transport, is a known and recognised problem – one Sarah was keenly aware of.
“I’d had enough of checking my zips every time someone brushed against my backpack, which is a lot in our busy cities. I could see everywhere how irritated and hostile commuters and travelers can be when they feel suspicious of those around them.
“I understand why: our cities are growing and we cannot know everyone personally.”
Sarah also points out that the world is increasingly mobile, and we carry more technology - with access to more data - than we ever have before. With such fast moving lives, we don’t have time to lose our phones, wallets or passports. “But I feel that we should be able to enjoy city life,” she stresses, “and not feel micro-stress all the time.”
Sarah had a moment where she thought: what if my backpack was the other way around? No zips on the outside; they should all be against the back of the wearer.
That way, whenever you wear it, you know your belongings are safe.
“I tried to buy that backpack,” Sarah says, “and it just didn’t exist. Instead, all I found was a backpack with a net around it and a padlock through the net. Not what I was looking for.”
Making it happen
After sketching out the idea and continuing to search for it, she soon realised that this wasn’t something someone else was going to make. So, in a move that’s the mark of a true entrepreneur, she saved up and left her job to create a prototype and see whether she could make this safe, backwards backpack happen herself.
And she did.
So, what is Sarah’s job now? “I design backwards backpacks for secure urban travel called RiutBags. By ‘backwards’, I mean the person behind you can’t get in because there are no zips on the outer side; all the zips are hidden against your back.
“All RiutBags are designed using feedback from RiutBag users. I check each one personally at the factory, seam by seam, before selling them online at www.riut.co.uk.
“I’m the only employee at my business.”
Achieving great things for a small business, it’s not an easy thing to do totally alone. “When you start a business for the first time, you have to work out the chain of events that needs to take place to create and get your products to your customers - without ever having done it before,” she said.
So where do you get help? “I read countless blogs and Googled everything I didn’t know about. The Christmas before I left my job, I received the book “The Art of the Start” by Guy Kawasaki as a gift. This became my bible. It didn’t teach me what I needed to do, much more how to do it. It taught me not only to get started, but to finish each step, move fast and keep going until you reach break-even.
“I learnt the most from talking to and working with the companies I partnered with - freight, accountants, manufacturers - when I was there and we were actually working together. Even if you’re not quite ready yet, get on the phone to the kind of companies you need to be working with. You are a potential future client so let them help you.”
Finding the funding
Making products to sell involves a significant amount of working capital, and Sarah’s approach to the early stages of starting up was quite traditional – she simply saved. “My idea came to me whilst I was still in my office job. So first, I stopped spending my money and started saving it. I left my job only once I had enough money to a) prototype and b) survive for a year.
“But that’s not enough to start a company,” she concedes.
Sarah saw a few options. “I could have got a loan from the bank, but if they’d said “yes” I would have been £60,000 in debt with no customers on the first viable day of my business. That didn’t really appeal.
“I’d been approached by people saying they would like to invest. But I had a feeling that would mean doing things their way and not allowing me to experiment doing things in a totally new way that might be better.”
And so, Sarah decided to go direct to backpack users to ask them to pre-order RiutBags if they thought the idea was good. “I went on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform. As soon as the prototype was complete I made a video about it, had professional photos taken and set up my campaign.
“I had 30 days to try and raise £29,000 from individuals who had never come across my idea before. I reached my goal and exceeded it. In total, I raised £62,000 and I had found my first 1,000 customers.”
This customer interaction was crucial to the success of RiutBag. “They asked me questions, they challenged me, showed me the holes in my communication: what was I assuming but hadn’t shared with them? What was obvious for me - someone who has seen the RiutBag - but not for them?
“I sent them updates from my way to the airport, at the factory, when the freight from China arrived in London. They cheered me on and kept me on track.”
Sarah become a strong advocate of that approach, recognising it teaches you that you are making products for people who don’t know you, who are paying their own money for the product. “It seems high-risk, but it actually lowers your risk. If your product isn’t ready, or if you don’t yet know how to communicate it, then Kickstarter backers won’t back you.
“Kickstarter teaches you to put your customers first, to gain their trust and then try to attempt the physical reality of making your product. Making a product without knowing that your customers want it: that’s not a risk that a one-person startup wants to take.”
Revolution in user thinking
Now, whilst every production run is a colossal achievement, Sarah’s unerring attitude to quality means she continues to keep RiutBag users right in the forefront of her mind. “My first 11 months was the biggest achievement; I didn’t know how far I would get and I was in a race against time, every day my savings were dropping.
“In my first 11 months I left my job, created three prototypes, created a Kickstarter campaign, ran the 30-day campaign successfully, started my first production run and shipped out my first RiutBags.
“There were real RiutBag users roaming the cities across the planet within 11 months of me leaving my job. I’m glad I moved as fast as I did. It meant I had the real RiutBag in my hands and I could begin to see the real problems my design presents in practice: that’s how I’ve improved the design every production run and that’s what I continue to do now.”
Customer feedback improves all new RiutBag designs. Sarah calls this: Revolution in user thinking. That’s what Riut stands for. She reads every survey response and asks how she can solve the problems her customer face? Some problems are backpack related: ‘I want to fit a larger laptop in, I which I had more space’. But some are urban problems: ‘I hate rushing and being late. On my way to work I carry a lot and on my way home I don’t carry as much.’
“These peripheral issues are relevant too,” she recognises. “Is there something I can design in a RiutBag to help people with the wider issues they face?”
“I check every RiutBag seam by seam, zip by zip. All problems I encounter go back to the production line director to be fixed. We repeat this until every RiutBag is ready to my standards. It takes about three weeks of 12 hours days in the factories to complete.”
And so, Sarah’s plans for her business are focused on identifying and solving more of her customers’ problems. “The urban world is moving and changing at an ever-increasing rate. That means working, travelling patterns are going to change,” she says. “The technology we carry and interact with will transform in this time and perhaps even our bodies will too. I will be refining and designing RiutBags and coming up with new ideas.
“I will hopefully still be able to question everything and try totally new ideas out, just like the RiutBag: even if they are exactly the opposite of what everyone else expects.”