Rob Law has conquered more challenges than most, including family tragedy, personal illness and humiliation on national TV. Here, Rob reveals the tools he uses to dance around seemingly immovable obstacles and we uncover why having these tools in your kitbag is often the difference between success and failure…
It couldn’t have gone any worse really. When you appear on Dragons’ Den and your product breaks at the vital moment, you know it’s not your day. Perhaps not even your decade. “The Dragons rounded on me like chimpanzees,” recalls Rob. “It reminded me of being bullied at school. I thought: if they’re going to treat me like this now, how good would they be as partners?” Needless to say, Rob went home empty-handed. Without a pet Dragon.
Here’s what happened: in 2006, Rob took his invention, the Trunki – a ride-on, wheeled, colourful suitcase for toddlers (chances are you’ve seen them at the airport) – into the Den. While testing the product – somewhat vigorously – Theo Paphitis broke the fixing that attaches the strap to the case. A thunder of Dragons instantly turned on Rob. Despite the entrepreneur’s calmness in the face of fire and his assurances – accurate as it turned out – that the problem was easy to fix, none of them invested. Moreover, all except Richard Farley were scathing. Indeed, Peter Jones couldn’t resist telling Rob that his company was “worthless”.
“It was extremely demoralising,” says Trunki’s founder.
But Rob was not going to give up. Rather than letting the Dragons’ punchy words deliver a KO blow, he used the experience to drive him forward. He says: “I left with nothing except a nasty feeling. However, on the plus side, I knew that it would be several months until the programme aired and I’d just taken a purchase order from the Museum of Modern Art in New York – my first international customer. I had a couple of other interesting leads, too. So I tried to put the Den out of my mind and focus on the positives.”
It was the right approach. Today, Trunki’s sales stand at £9.5m and Rob’s products – his range has grown – are distributed by over 50 official distributors and are available in more than 100 countries. What’s more, Trunki’s Amazon reviews average 4.6 stars across ten countries. Theo and his friends may now have a regret or two…
One reason Rob was able to recover so quickly from his Dragons’ Den nightmare is his iron resilience, an attribute he’s built up over the years. “The Dragons’ Den thing may seem like a big knock,” he says, “but I’ve had worse.”
That’s putting it lightly. This entrepreneur not only lives with cystic fibrosis but he also lost his twin sister to the disease aged 17. Such earth-shattering experiences put business woes into clear perspective and help to create awe-inspiring coping mechanisms.
How to keep going
So, how has he managed to build a multimillion-pound brand in the face of huge hurdles? Rob says: “Over the years, I’ve learned that challenges are finite. You’ve just got to keep pushing forward and finding new ways around obstacles. The quicker you embrace them, the faster you can get to the other side and keep growing.”
He continues: “When going through a rough patch, if you keep telling yourself that it will eventually be over – and may even lead to opportunities – you build a positive mindset. To ride the storm you need all your mental energy so its essential to focus on the problems you can solve and try to ignore the rest. Don’t worry about the things out of your control, try and block those thoughts out. I find that it also helps to stop occasionally to deliberately take pleasure in what you’ve already got. So with the on-going Covid crisis and the impending economic problems, for example, I often take my mind out of it all to be present and appreciate the here and now.”
Use your energy well
Living with a chronic, long-term health condition, far from making Rob weaker, has given him extra resilience. Here’s how he puts it:
“I was born with cystic fibrosis, so it’s my normal, but there are tough moments. When growing up, life sometimes felt particularly hard. But when I moaned, Mum would remind me that many people are worse off than me. That limited my self-pity and today I rarely go down the self-pity route. How does that help me in business? Well, when things go pear-shaped, I don’t dwell on what’s happening but instead, focus on how to solve it. You can waste lots of energy blaming other people and feeling sorry for yourself. If possible, it’s better to use that energy to conquer the challenge. I learned that lesson most powerfully when I lost my twin sister to cystic fibrosis. I could either succumb to it; or use the experience to understand that life is short and try to make the most of it.”
Rob has needed every ounce of his ingenuity and durability to build Trunki. As with many entrepreneurs, his journey has been less of a golden path to Utopia; more of a sinkhole-strewn street to Scarsville. That moment in the Den was just one more crater to clamber out of.
Two weeks before meeting the Dragons, Rob was a full-time design consultant – with a container of Trunkis on order. When they arrived, he quit his job, founded his company and tried to sell them. But at first, no one wanted them – luggage-buyers classed them as toys; toy-buyers classed them as luggage.
Even before that, things had not gone smoothly. In 2003, supported by The Prince’s Trust, Rob had hired a toy firm to make Trunki under license. In 2005, the company went bust, leaving his hopes of earning royalties cheques gone. After deciding to reposition Trunki as a consumer lifesyle brand (and not a toy), the first batch to arrive in the UK came with a technical problem that caused the catches to pop open.
Then, in 2006, a few months after Dragons’ Den, just as Rob was beginning to make good progress, the UK Government banned hand-luggage on flights due to the height of terrorism threats. Rob remembers: “Suddenly, my product – designed for air travel – was not fit for its core purpose. That certainly stopped me worrying about when Dragons’ Den was going to air!”
The hand-luggage ban lasted two months but, once again, Rob managed to turn this potential death knell into a positive. He says: “The ban was a lesson in the power of customer service. We worked hard to support our customers and they appreciated it. The ban also taught me to focus on things I could control. I couldn’t control Government policy, but I could manage our costs and marketing message, so I started talking about staycations and camping trips. I also focused on exporting to markets where there was no ban. I made it through because I was fluid in my thinking and I worked hard to find opportunities in the darkness – a powerful message which resonates with today’s Covid-19 situation.”
Negatives into positives
Finding opportunities in the darkness. Is there a better definition of what a successful entrepreneur does? Rob discovers gems in the gloom better than most – and against a particularly tough backdrop. By sticking to that task, he eventually won his big break – a meeting with John Lewis’s luggage buyer, which soon led to national distribution across the retailer’s entire chain of shops. “We couldn’t keep up with demand for three years,” he says. And from there, the brand has continued to grow in value and find customers in more and more countries. Today, Rob is well placed to achieve his goal of becoming the global leader in children’s travel gear.
A mere trifle
When looking at the Trunki story, it’s easy to focus on the Dragons’ rejection of Rob. However, in reality, that’s a mere trifle in the Rob Law narrative. After all, here is a man who’s dealt with far more significant challenges than dramatic televisual humiliation. Moreover, there’s another moment in the story that deserves greater attention – a moment that’s both inspiring and telling.
True moment of inspiration
While waiting for his programme to air, Rob would visit his local newsagents every Tuesday to buy the Radio Times to see if his Dragons’ Den was scheduled. One morning, his heart sank. Coming up at 9pm on BBC2 that week was an episode entitled ‘Wheelie Rubbish’. The time had come. But rather than going home, drawing the curtains and going to bed, here’s what Rob did: he quickly created a customer survey on his website. Thousands of new people would soon visit the Trunki site, so this was the perfect chance to harvest some extra insight. “That night, more than 2000 people filled in my survey with words of support,” says Rob. “Most said they loved the product as it was. It was hugely motivating.”
If there’s ever an example of turning a negative into a positive – of finding opportunity in the darkness – Rob’s story is it. Anyone looking for inspiration in tough times should look no further…
Rob’s latest book ’65 Roses and a Trunki: Defying the Odds in Life and Business’ can be purchased here.