It seems like an obvious thing to do. You spend time with a company – as a manager perhaps, or a technician – and when the time comes to go it alone and start a business, you set out your stall in the same sector.
There are several advantages to leaving a big company and launching a business that might ultimately become a competitor. You know the industry and you’re up speed with how things are done. And perhaps you have also identified the practices that can be improved. Equally – and this is not something your former bosses will be overly keen on – you may well have some handy customer contacts.
But starting up in the same sector can also be tough, particularly if you have been working for a business is that produces iconic products that are also expensive to produce. How many former Apple employees would even contemplate launching a rival to the iPhone? In terms of gaining market traction, there would be a mountain to climb.
In some respects, Lucas Horne and Pablo Montero are setting out to ascend a similar peak. Both men are alumni of Dyson Technology, a company celebrated around the world for taking a utilitarian consumer product – the humble vacuum cleaner – and reimagining it as something desirable, trendy and just a bit space-age – albeit at a premium price.
As co-founders of Lupe Technology, Horne and Montero have just launched their own vacuum cleaner on the back of a crowdfunding campaign. When I spoke to Montero I was keen to ask about the realities of stepping out of the Dyson shadow and finding a niche in the market.
Meeting In The Queue
The story begins when both men were embarking on their tenure at Dyson. “We met on our first day when we queuing for security passes,” says Montero.
Montero – an aerospace engineer by training – completed a project at the company then moved on, but the two men stayed in touch. “I met Lucas at a later date and he told me he had an idea for a vacuum cleaner,” says Montero.
So why did they press ahead with the idea in a market dominated by well-funded incumbents, including Dyson. One answer is that they felt their design could offer improved performance. What’s more they could bring a different approach to the table. “It was clear to us that we wanted to do things differently,” says Montero.
So what did that mean in practice? As Montero tells it, the engineering teams at Dyson tend to start the design of every new vacuum with a blank sheet of paper. “They design from scratch,” says Montero. On the plus side, this keeps the designs fresh and arguably fresh designs drive the appetite of consumers. In Montero’s view, there was another way to do things. “We wanted to make something that was more durable,” he says.
Perhaps more importantly, the goal of durability went hand in hand with a manufacturing and design philosophy that runs counter the consumer trends we’ve been seeing over the last forty or fifty years. All the components in the Lupe machines are replaceable. In other words, they are designed to be repairable. Montero believes this in tune with the times. “People are beginning to want longer-lasting products,” he says.
In terms of branding, the focus was on performance and elegance. “What we didn’t do was glorify the technology,” he says. That was another point of differentiation from Dyson.
The consumer product market is notoriously cash hungry, but the company successfully raised around £1.8 million from a mix of loans, grants and private investment, with Britain’s innovation agency Innovate U.K. providing the initial sum needed to get things up and running. This year the company has secured £620,000 through the Seedrs equity crowdfunding platform.
But it is early days. When I speak to Montero the Lupe was in the process of delivering vacuums to Kickstarter backers. The ongoing aim is to sell about 10,000 units per year. That’s a modest target by the standards of most manufacturers but the company does seem to be targeting the upscale end of the market with an asking price of £699.
So is it a good idea to enter a mature market dominated by well-established consumer brands. Montero says insider industry knowledge is immensely helpful. “When you work for a big company you can see what works well and what doesn’t.”