A lot goes into creating a new product before it hits the shelf - especially if it's changing the game. Catherine Bedford is the founder of Dashel, creators of urban cycle helmets with a ground-breaking difference; they are designed and made in the UK using innovative materials, to ensure that they are lightweight, slim and long-lasting. We chatted to Catherine about going from design, to manufacture, to test, and finally to selling.
What was the process of designing your helmets like?
I knew the look that I wanted to create. I was inspired by the 1960s Vespa helmets – specifically Everoak and the cap-style moped helmets that you see in Vietnam. My design had to change early on, as it became clear that the cap-style peak didn’t meet the safety standards, so it was shortened.
I researched materials myself and commissioned a CAD drawing. I could have gone from there onto tooling and testing. However, the materials I had chosen to make the helmet slim and light were expensive. So I wanted to ensure the design was the best it could be.
At that stage I took the helmet to the industrial design team Map. Their brief was to ensure the internal fit was good and adjustable for different shaped heads. I also asked them to cast a critical eye over the aesthetic. They changed the venting arrangement, tweaked the silhouette and added the leather carrying loop at the back. I’m glad that I gave away the design at that stage, as it came back looking better than ever. If you are asking people to invest in a premium product, you need to be confident that every element has been considered. Similarly I came up with the brand name myself - it is Cornish for thistle, but I got an agency Studio Twig to do the typography as I loved their work for jewellery brands. I wanted to create a brand that could stretch beyond bike store retail.
What was the process of testing the helmets like?
Lengthy and expensive. The helmets are crashed front, back, sides and top on both flat surfaces and kerbs. These crashes are undertaken at a range of extreme temperatures ranging from -20 degrees to + 50 degrees, and after being artificially-aged and water-treated. Once a weak spot is uncovered it can take 8 weeks to get another prototype, then it is back to the test rigs to see if your solution has worked. I always wished that I had more funds, so that I could test two or more variants at once. However, having read Dysons’ inspirational book Against the Odds recently, he praises a linear approach to product design, and I can see how much I have learnt throughout the process.
How did you find a manufacturer and what were the key things you looked for?
It took 9 months. There is some helmet manufacturing in the UK: equestrian, military, builders. However, I obviously didn’t manage to convince them of the urban cycle boom so they didn’t see it as a project they’d be interested in. My IP lawyer Matt Hives trained as an engineer and is good at thinking laterally; it was him that spotted Gecko Headgear, who make helmets for the RNLI & marine industry. I went to Cornwall to meet with them and persuaded them to take the project on.
Who were the people who helped you on this process and how did you find them?
Matt Hives, as mentioned above. Try and find an engineer in your network if you are creating a product - their take on manufacturing processes is invaluable.
It has been a lonely process at times - I still don’t know anyone who’d want to hear me debating the pros and cons of different foam densities! But I’ll be forever grateful to family, friends and acquaintances who haven’t shied away from asking how it’s going over the past five years, and have been there with tea and sympathy when needed.
There are so many inspiring UK entrepreneurs who have launched successful businesses in crowded markets, by ensuring that their product is the best it can be. I used my network to get introductions to some of them and their encouragement was a great help - specifically Simon Duffy of Bulldog Skincare, Franco Fubini of Natoora, Kate Shapland of Legology, Nancy Cruickshank of My Showcase, and Simon Stilwell of Liberum.
Finally Will Butler-Adams, the CEO of Brompton, helped when things hit their lowest point. I introduced myself to him at Cycle Revolution, an exhibition at The Design Museum that featured my helmets as prototypes, alongside established cycling icons like Brompton. After that he agreed to meet up to give advice on UK manufacturing and funding. Months later I thought I was close to launch, but then a safety test house conducted the wrong tests on my helmets and smashed them up. This prevented any chance of launching for Christmas 2016 and I had to sell everything I owned, just to stay afloat. Will offered free desk space at Brompton, so that I could have some moral support. It’s been amazing going in to work at their new HQ & factory. It’s an inspirational set-up, staffed by kindred spirits.
What are the top 3 things you learned?
That manufacturing issues will never cease to unravel. It’s not a question of getting a product finished and then moving on to sales and marketing. Research and development will always be at the heart of a safety product. Work with the issues that crop up, to refine your product and improve your competitive advantage.
Read every contract and its Terms & Conditions thoroughly. Too many companies have put in clauses that would have taken ownership of my design, simply for supplying a service or component.
Debt is terrifying, but it’s also a great motivator. Over the past 5 years people often asked why I didn’t give up, but I couldn’t waste savings it’d taken a decade to save, or renege on friends and family loans. I have recommended Virgin StartUp to so many others. The structure of the loan application and support provided since receiving it has been brilliant.
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