Just over three years ago, Tony Curtis’ business idea for heated sports gloves was given short shrift on TV’s Dragons’ Den. Those Dragons must be fuming now, because Alago Heated Gloves is now a huge success, with thousands of its heated gloves warming the hands of gardeners, cyclists, kayakers, tennis players, horse riders and players at many premier sports clubs.
Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Duncan Bannatyne!
Tony explains how determination, bad luck and some radical financing all played a part in his remarkable business journey.
“It started seven years ago when I was watching my 12-year-old son playing rugby. It was a freezing day, frost on the ground, no one could catch the ball, no one wanted to. He ran off the pitch at the end with blue hands and shoved them up my jumper for warmth. Once I’d got over the shock I said to myself, ‘he needs some heated gloves!’
“That was the lightbulb moment. I went online to buy some gloves, but there was nothing suitable. Everything had big bulky battery packs, electric cables, all totally useless for sport.
“So I thought I’d have a go at inventing something and spent six months playing around with gloves, some silicon tubing, a meat syringe and some heat packs in our kitchen at home. After destroying several kitchen appliances along the way I came up with something that I thought would actually work. I took it to a brilliant design company and we went forward to prototyping. That’s when it started costing money!”
How did you keep the wolf from the door during this development phase?
“I was working a day job but needed more money to pay the bills. I didn’t think about looking for investment at that time so I found another way. I bought a camera and some lenses and taught myself photography! I opened up a ‘spare time’ photography business: portraits, wedding, events and so on. I did that for four years while I paid for developments.”What sort of customers did you have at launch?
“We were focussed on rugby at the start and our mitts were sold to many junior and mini rugby clubs up and down the country. Gradually our full length gloves were picked up by professional clubs for warm-up and training. Then we got emails for salmon fishers, helicopter pilots, medic, classic car drivers, obstacle runners.”
Was there one moment that stands out as a breakthrough?
“We were asked onto Radio 4 drivetime show for a five-minute slot with Liza Tarbuck. Within 30 minutes of the interview our website crashed due to demand. We were getting all sorts of questions from people. ‘It says rugby gloves. Can I use it for this or that?’
“It was another crucial moment and overnight we changed everything: the website, product names, the packaging. What had been called ‘Rugby Mitts’ changed to ‘Classic Mitts’. We changed the descriptions, the positioning. Looking back it was such an obvious thing to do — but we hadn’t seen it until then.”
Any advice for others with a great idea but no capital to speak of?
“It’s all about paying for prototype manufacturing and product development. I needed to find money! I went on Dragons’ Den a couple of years ago. They just didn’t get it, so no luck there. Of course now I look back I’m glad they don’t own a piece of the business. For years I had no luck with the banks or other lenders.
“So I had to do something radical. I discovered that I could move my pension fund into a self-invested vehicle, investing that money into my business. This was a new idea at the time, and some said risky. But if you think about it, your pension is already being invested in someone’s business. Why not take it back and invest in your own business? It certainly keeps me focussed and motivated!”
What about marketing?
“We sell 95% of product through our website, the remainder is through Amazon. We don’t advertise.
“When we launched our cycling gloves I bought cheap train tickets to major cities like London, Newcastle, Manchester and so on and spent days and days putting credit card-sized leaflets onto bicycles. I must have walked for hundreds of miles with a heavy back-pack stuffed with leaflets and personally put them onto thousands of bikes. We sold three quarters of our stock on pre-order before the product was even in our warehouse.”
Alago Heated Gloves has taken a standard product, intelligently adapted it to a niche need, and delivered very high levels of customer service to make a successful business. The company is currently partnering with the University of the West of England on some very smart but hush-hush new applications of its technology.
Alago’s innovations in this area have already caught the attention of Lockheed, the British Army and a major car manufacturer, all of whom have signed development deals.