Innovators inspired by the infinite possibilities of technology

ALISON Nicolson and Andy Smith both have inspiring – but very different – business success stories. But are Nicolson’s iPad “super-protection system” fatframe and Smith’s software product ICEFLO really that different? They both created tailored products for specific markets, finding innovative solutions to problems and improving the client experience.

Picture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL

And both are tenacious in pursuit of business success, as a seminar, hosted in Edinburgh by Scottish Enterprise under their Infinite Possibilities banner, demonstrated.

Nicolson sums up her fatframe philosophy like this: “It’s a continual process of having a go, learning from your mistakes and never giving up until your idea is a product customers will pay for. Then keep on going.…”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Her son Guy, who is now six, inspired fatframe. “My two kids both have special needs. Guy does not speak and he would prefer to sit in a corner twirling toys – then we got an iPad and he started doing things we didn’t think possible. He put objects in sequence, taught himself the alphabet and numbers and how to write letters.

“But when he finished, he just dropped the iPad. If he had a meltdown he might throw it. We had a lot of broken screens, some beyond repair.”

Nicolson could see what was needed; a lightweight, easy-to-hold, durable frame that protected the iPad and didn’t need removing for charging. “The market dynamics were great [at that time the iPad market includes about two million family users in the UK] and the competitive environment was in my favour as there was nothing quite right on the market,” she says.

In hindsight, her timings were ambit-ious: “I thought I could get to market in six to nine months and it took 18 months. I had an idea on paper and knew what I wanted but didn’t know where to start. I went to a design house, then to Scottish Enterprise where I was referred to the innovation team.”

Nicolson was then confronted with “The Big List” – everything she needed to consider to get fatframe to market: design, intellectual property, materials, manufacturing, branding, packaging, logistics, storage, funding, marketing, sales, distribution.

It was daunting, and she quickly realised two things; she couldn’t expect absolute perfection in the early product design phases and couldn’t make the final fatframe product in Scotland, although she really wanted to.

“I wasn’t happy with the prototype in Scotland. The material wasn’t right for fatframe and so the finish was awful, like a car tyre. The economics also didn’t work, I would have had to pay £20 per unit for something I would be retailing at £19.99.”

Research identified a medical device company in China whose material seemed to fit the bill: “They were coming to a trade show in Berlin so I went to see them. Their prototype was a much better texture, it was lightweight and had a great finish,

What was next? “I had my design, so I design registered my product for £60 after free advice from Scottish Enterprise. You don’t need to spend a lot of money – you can pull in a lot of support from different avenues.”

Nicolson was making real progress, but pulling together a logo, website and packaging from different suppliers ended up with inconsistent branding and she did see the value in spending on strong brand advice.

Working with a specialist in consumer brands he simplified the logo and created a series of key messages, including “I bounce if dropped” and “I’m as light as a feather” – now used on all marketing of “the kid-friendly, iPad super-protection system”.

She has learned a lot along the way: PR is essential (even at such an early stage) as it got fatframe into more people’s minds and hands; multi-channel selling and great customer service are really important; and you must stay ahead of the game.

There are about a dozen products on the market now, but Nicolson has continued to innovate with fatframe attach, fatframe stand and the fatframe bag (which is in design at present) – and she’s done it all while holding down a senior corporate job.

“If I stand still, competitors will overtake me,” she says. “The market has already become more competitive, so always be looking ahead at what will be your next USP.”

Andy Smith, founder of Agenor Technology, is also a restless innovator. The mechanical engineer who moved into IT always thought he would set up his own company.

He worked for himself for a long period, but formed Agenor when he saw that major IT systems changes for big companies were fraught with risk and relied on long hours (often working through the night) using information on a basic spreadsheet.

Smith thought this could be done much more effectively and created 
ICEFLO, Agenor’s signature software package, “a real-time, cloud-based solution that helps our clients deliver change and manage the inevitable risks”.

He says: “Using spreadsheets, we had no clear view if major upgrades would complete on time – there was just too much risk. It was an act of blind conviction but we identified a specific problem and created ICEFLO to deliver the solution – there just had to be a better way.

“ICEFLO also gave us a USP – we innovated to make ourselves different. But innovation is not just a new product – it’s a base requirement. But it’s tough – it takes confidence, conviction and money.”

Agenor made slow, steady progress from 2006 but has seen exceptional growth in the last few years and is the fastest-growing IT company in Scotland and seventh fastest in the UK, employing more than 100 people to service sectors including finance, healthcare, telecoms and airlines.

But Smith admits that in 2009 it would have been easy to give up: 
“ICEFLO was a drain on our resources but then along came 2010 which was a tipping point; I went to an entrepreneurial development programme in Boston and found it inspirational – a chance to reflect personally and professionally. The US mindset helped – it made me believe it was possible, to take the attitude ‘Why wouldn’t we do this?’”

Smith saw no reason why ICEFLO wouldn’t work in the global market – and put significant resources into tapping into overseas opportunities which has included Agenor opening an office in Amsterdam.

So why did Agenor succeed? “We had a good product to sell, which solved a big problem. It was on the cloud, it has a USP and there was no reason it couldn’t go global.”

On a personal level, he says: “People trusted me and knew I could deliver projects.”

He has also benefited from a streak of adventure: “I have always had an appetite for risk. I’m confident enough to innovate and not afraid to fail. It’s not been a short or easy journey but my only regret is what I haven’t done.”

David McHoul, an innovation specialist with Scottish Enterprise, says: “Innovation without value can be pointless. We think of products and services, but they need to be set in a commercial vehicle.”

He continued: “You have to tackle the big list – if you ignore it, you will fail. Some people think there is a market based on their opinions alone.”

Export adviser Stephen Mitchell says the Scotland brand plays well for those looking to sell overseas: “Scotland has been exporting for hundreds of years – we are seen as trusted and professional.” Smith agrees: “Scots are trusted and have a reputation for getting things done.”

But innovation and exports ultimately mean something very simple to Smith: “It’s not about financial gain or global markets – it’s about doing something that makes me happy.”