how they roll
After his product FAILED on national television, Rob Law TURNED a disaster into a TRIUMPH. The founder of Trunki TRANSFORMED the luggage market – by LEAVING his emotional BAGGAGE behind.
It’s been more than 10 years since entrepreneur Rob Law experienced what he thought, at the time, was the worst moment of his career, when he appeared on the UK version of Dragons’ Den (similar to Shark Tank) to showcase his product – a rideon children’s suitcase called the Trunki. “At the start, everything in the den went perfectly,” he recalls. “I was pulling [one of the dragons] Richard Farleigh around on the Trunki. I thought there was no way I’d leave without investment.”
What happened next caused the television network to describe the episode as “wheelie rubbish” in its trailers. Another of the dragons, Theo Paphitis, pulled the towing strap – hard. “He thought he would strength test it, using his extremely strong Greek biceps,” groans Rob. “He managed to easily rip off the tow strap completely. The Dragons jumped on that as a quality issue. They said my company was worthless.”
Those investment experts couldn’t have been more wrong. By 2014, Trunki had sold more than two million ride-on suitcases, and its founder has since gone on to make a fortune. Indeed, that car-crash television appearance ended up being ratings gold for the company. “The night the episode aired I thought, it’s game over,” says Rob. “But we sold out of stock that day. The next day, everyone was talking about it at the coffee machine at work, whether they had kids or didn’t. And they saw through the theatrics.”
Shortly afterwards, Rob received a phone call from one of the largest department stores in the UK – who’d previously refused to take a meeting with him – saying they would love to discuss becoming a stockist.
Incredibly, it’s not the first time Trunki has survived a near-death experience. In fact, you could say that Rob is the unluckiest, luckiest entrepreneur on the planet – or at least the most determined.
After developing the idea for a ride-on suitcase in 1997, as part of a university competition (“I wanted to utilise the wasted space inside ride-on toys”), Rob sat on the idea for six years, before a grant from the Prince’s Trust allowed him to get the business off the ground. In 2005, while working as a design consultant, he signed a licensing deal with a Saudi Arabian toy company – which then went into liquidation.
So, the entrepreneur decided to go it alone, which led to his infamous appearance in the den. But then came another twist. “Shortly after filming, the British hand luggage ban came into place [after a foiled terrorist attack at a London airport],” says Rob. “I had parents phoning asking if they could check it in [to the hold]. We don’t recommend it because it can get bashed up by the big Samsonites.”
The ban lasted for six weeks, during which time Rob pivoted his business model – for the better.
“There were two solutions to the hand luggage ban, and one was exporting,” he says. “During that period I started talking to various people internationally. My first customer was the Museum of Modern Art in New York who’d spotted Trunki on a design blog.”
Instead of focusing on air travel, he also thought locally, asking: “How can we market Trunki more domestically for camping?” The result was a cow-print Trunki named Frieda, which quickly became a huge seller (and launched a farmyard of animal Trunkis). “Reflecting back, some of our greatest setbacks have led to our success,” he says. It’s a lesson for all entrepreneurs to remember in the face of adversity.
Fast-forward to the present day and Rob – who was single when he launched Trunki, but now has a family of his own – is incredibly proud of Trunki’s trajectory. Today, his company, which produces a range of children’s items is “dedicated to imagineering cool stuff that puts the brakes on tiring travel and the smiles back on family faces”.
In 2009, after securing US$200,000 in funding, Rob developed his first car seat, the BoostApak, which sold out within six hours of going on sale online. Following that, his company produced a teens’ version of the Trunki – the Jurni – after an incredibly successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. >
REFLECTING back, some of our greatest SETBACKS have led to our SUCCESS.
In 2011, Rob picked up an MBE from the Queen for ‘services to business’ (he even took a special corgi-shaped Trunki to accept it). Royal baby Princess Charlotte also received a customised ‘Boris Bus’ Trunki from London’s then-Mayor Boris Johnson.
“The UK is our largest market [for Trunki] and then China,” says Rob. “Russia and Central Europe are doing incredibly well. But, on the flip side, we’ve faced an awful lot of [counterfeit] cases we’re constantly fighting. Those who copy our intellectual property, which is the shape. There’s a lot of global websites, trade sites, where we find a lot of counterfeits. We use an online brand protection agency now that deal with a lot of that. We’ve taken over 5000 listings down now from global websites.”
Sadly, they don’t win them all. In March, 2016 they lost a legal case against Essex-based company, PMS International. The judgment followed a two-year campaign by Trunki to uphold a 2013 High Court ruling that their European design registration was infringed.
On the Trunki blog, Rob posted a call-to-action directed at entrepreneurs and creatives, titled ‘Help Trunki fight the fakes’. He wrote, “This battle has been hugely draining for us, both financially and emotionally. But it’s no longer just a fight to protect Trunki.”
To raise awareness of the vulnerability of all small businesses, they asked people to share their story using the hashtag #ProtectYourDesign across social media. They received support from highprofile entrepreneurs such as Sir Terence Conran, founder of the home-furnishing chain Habitat, as well as Adam Balon, co-founder of Innocent Drinks.
“The plus side is we’ve spawned a whole new category of ride-on suitcases,” says Rob, optimistically. “The thing about competition is you have to stay ahead of the game. Trunki is now on its fifth revision.” The latest, Mark Five, is completely plastic, recyclable and easy to assemble.
“We also launched our ‘Made for me’ platform,” says Rob. “It’s a fully bespoke, customisable platform for kids and their parents to design their own Trunki using 10 colours and nine parts. That was something I’d always wanted to do.”
The most heart-warming story on Trunki’s blog comes from a seven-yearold customer named Jessica, who has cerebral palsy and chronic lung disease and customised her Trunki to carry her oxygen tank. The charity Cerebra, who aim to improve the lives of children with brain-related conditions, have also modified another Trunki to have a supportive backrest, for a little girl named Chloe who also suffers from cerebral palsy.
“One of the highlights [of my career] was being able to pull my young daughter through Edinburgh airport when she was two,” says Rob. “It was a real proud moment. We’d had so many good reviews, but to actually personally use the product was great. We had a long walk and she loved it. I thought, blimey, no wonder we’ve sold so many!”
The THING about COMPETITION is you have to stay AHEAD of the GAME. Trunki is now on its FIFTH revision.
Trunki founder, Rob Law