A swimming success story - Business Works
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A swimming success story

Lisa Irlam, CEO Swimovate A couple of triathletes were frustrated that there was no device they could use to help them monitor their swimming. From that frustration, and with a lot of perseverance and hard work, a new product and a new successful international small business has grown from nothing. Lisa Irlam, CEO of Swimovate, talks to Roger about how the idea came about and developed to a company now selling products in over 60 countries across the world.

q:  What made you start Swimovate?

a:  My husband and I are triathletes. We started running, did a few marathons and then decided to look for a new challenge and we settled on the triathlon - swimming, cycling and running.

We joined a triathlon club and started with some short courses. We enjoyed the training and used things like heart rate monitors and distance measuring devices, but we couldn't find anything on the market to help us with our swimming.

At the time, we were both in the electronics industry working for another company and we were looking to start a business of our own. Then we were both made redundant which was scary, but it turned out to be the catalyst to make us explore our options.

We talked to loads of swimmers and we found that we all forgot the number of laps we had done and we also wanted some sort of feedback from the training. Runners and cyclists know how fast they have been, how far they have gone and so on, but there just wasn't anything for swimmers. That's where the idea for a watch that could be used whilst swimming came from.

q:  How did you start?

British Library Business and IP Centre

a:  We went to the British Library and did a lot of research. There are lots of studies and market research on sport participation, so I started looking at triathlon, but quickly realised that swimming is the world's largest sport. There are 70 million regular swimmers in the USA alone - ones that swim regularly - not ones that just go while on holiday or a couple of times a year. The market is huge.

I spoke to as many people as I could. I spoke to shops and they all said that swimmers were always coming in looking for something they could use to help in their training.

So, we knew there was something there!

Jim luckily got another job so that we could pay the bills which was good. Then I was offered one and we had to decide if I should take it or give this product our full attention. It was the sort of 'how would you feel in two years time if someone else did it and you saw it on the shelf' sort of question.

We decided to give it a go. We felt it had to be worth the investment of a couple of years, even if it didn't go anywhere in the end.

q:  How did it go from the idea to being a product?

Swimovate watch

a:  Jim is an electronic engineer which is half the battle! He played around with various different technologies and we managed to create a prototype which we used to put in a mobile phone waterproof bag strapped to our arms with rubber bands.

We tested it in the pool and persuaded as many people as we could to test it out for us. We took it home and transferred the data to the computer and eventually got something that would count laps.

It took a fair time as we tried several different technologies and ended up back with the one we started with and had abandoned initially as it was difficult to get the data out.

q:  So what data does the device actually collect?

a:  It has accelerometers inside, so it measures the acceleration of your arm in three directions. We collect the signal from these and we developed software algorithms to translate the signals into strokes and laps.

We started with just front crawl - the favourite stroke of triathletes - but we then went on to all four strokes which would increase our market size dramatically. Just getting it to work with all four strokes took a further six months' software development work.

q:  How do you translate the data to distance and speed?

a:  You have to programme in the length of the pool before you get in. It senses the regular rhythm of your arm when you are stroking and at the turns there is always a longer gap and it senses the end of the lap.

From that you can calculate your speed, calories and efficiency - so you can improve your technique. Coaches use something called 'swim golf' which is basically stroke counting. You try to do a lap in the fastest speed with the lowest number of strokes. Efficiency is basically the number of strokes to do a measured lap plus the speed, so it is a trade - if you do it slower or use more strokes your reading will go up - of course, a low number is what you are aiming at!

q:  How do people analyse their data?

a:  We have different versions. Some have a log on the watch so you can read it off directly and others download to the computer so you can see your progress.

q:  How did you make the jump from the prototype in a plastic bag to a marketable product?

a:  We weren't sure what to do. We could licence it to a brand or manufacture and market it ourselves.

In my previous work I used to manage the manufacture of electronic products in factories in China. So, we knew there was nothing to be frightened of as they wanted our business as much as we wanted them to produce the products for us.

I researched possible manufacturers on the internet and made up a list. I e-mailed them with a little information. A lot didn't respond and others fell by the way - it was a matter of drip feeding them with little bits of information as too much scared them off. We developed relationships over e-mail which I think is very important with business in the far east.

Swimovate watch

Rather than flying out to visit, I did it slowly that way and I found one manufacturer that I thought would be OK. We got some watch cases and designed our product to fit them as that would avoid expensive tooling and development.

Once we had done that, we contacted them and told them we were ready to place our order and they suddenly upped the minimum from 1000 to 5000 units. We couldn't afford that and it also meant that we couldn't trust them if they played tricks like that, so we binned them and started again.

It took another few months, but that also gave us some extra time to think about things more carefully. My son was doing A Level product design at the time and he was learning CAD software, so he designed the case for us. We took that to another manufacturer and they were brilliant. I didn't realise, but I was talking to the owner of the firm and he was really keen to do business with western companies. Most of his existing business was indigenous to China and western business meant more profit potential, so he was really keen. He made a model of the watch for us free of charge prior to making the prototype and we got on very well.

q:  How did you develop the relationship just over e-mail?

a:  It took time to develop over e-mail to start with and then we did meet him at the big watch fair in Basel. We also got references from other western companies he was dealing with which also gave us some peace of mind. We identified the companies we approached for references by looking at catalogues and recognising products that he had obviously produced.

His command of English is really good, both spoken and written, which is very important. When we documented everything and developed the quality control procedures with him it was all OK. We built a software self-test routine within the watch so that when the battery is installed it does the test. That made it easy to see if the device is OK - we tried to leave as little as possible to chance.

We are still careful. We get our chips programmed in the UK and shipped to China rather than letting them have access to the software. It is important to keep your wits about you at all times and it is important that you appreciate the differences in the way business is done in different places.

q:  How did you try to avoid possible problems?

a:  We tackled it from the start. We built our own quality procedures and tests and left as little room as possible for any misinterpretation or mistakes. Obviously, they want to manufacture things at the lowest price, but quality is critical. It is a win-win in the end.

We have now visited the factory in China and we were very impressed. It was a lot bigger that we expected and it is well run. Visiting was easy - there was a bit of a change between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, but a good experience. The area is developing so fast, it is amazing.

q:  Are you developing more models?

Swimovae watch

a:  Yes. We have several models now and are developing more. It is difficult to know where to start with a new model - do you develop the case first or the electronics first. Of course, the electronics have to fit into the case, so we have a designer do an initial drawing and then it goes into the computer to make the 3D design.

q:  How did you protect your IP?

a:  We had to be really careful on that. We were developing the business on our own savings, so money was very limited. Again, I went to the British Library Business and IP Centre in London to do my research. We did a couple of seminars there and they showed me how to use the various databases and how to do Intellectual Property research. It was really useful and I would recommend other people to use their services.

Protecting our ideas wasn't as clear cut as I had expected either. We had to decide if patenting was the best option - there were already some patents that could be used for swimming watches although none had been tried commercially. The concept of a swimming watch couldn't be patented, so it was a decision as to whether you patent the actual way you do it and therefore disclose it, or if you keep it a secret (like Coca Cola has their 'formula') and then nobody will know.

We thought about it for a long time. There was no right or wrong idea, so we decided to patent what we had which would both add value to the company and also give us some formal protection if we wanted to license the technology to someone else in the future.

We were recommended an IP lawyer, but the cost was too much, so I did several weeks' research looking at all the patents in the field. That gave me the confidence to draft the patent myself. We ran it by the lawyer in the end and he was happy and we filed it. That way it only cost a few hundred pounds rather than thousands. We had to be creative with our money, so we had little choice!

q:  How did you market the product?

a:  When we had our first prototype, I contacted Dragons Den and went through all the preparation. It takes months - there is a lot of vetting and checking of IP and business plans. I was filmed, but they didn't invest in the end. In fact, it didn't even get shown on TV. Looking back, it was too early days for them and in the end it has worked out a lot better for us than giving away control and profits to outsiders.

Swimovate packaging So, initially, when we were ready to go to market, I designed the first packaging - the shape of the box and the initial graphics, but gradually we have now employed a graphic designer as money from sales came in. Our son helps us to write the software still and we did everything to save money to start with. It gave us a deep and important understanding of the business.

In terms of sales, I put a press release out on an internet site. We hoped to launch in the UK first and take it slowly as it was quite a risk. Within a week of putting out the press release, I had orders from Japan, Singapore, Brazil, all over the world. We sold more than we had ordered in the first batch before they were even made.

We now have retailers in about 60 countries around the world. Mostly they approach us to ask if they can sell our products. It is safe, as we take payments in advance and it works well. About 40% of our business is in the UK and the balance overseas.

We have sold over 55,000 watches in the last two years and we have now licensed our technology to Speedo. We hope they can open the market more as we are only a small business.

Swimovate in action

q:  Where do you go from here?

a:  As a small company coming from an electronics background, we look at things from a different perspective.

Jim is now working full-time for us as he gave up his job at the end of last year. We are developing new watches with such as heart rate monitors and have other products in mind. There is still such a lot out there that we can do!

For more information on Swimovate and Lisa's products, please visit: www.swimovate.com

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