Martha Silcott is a force to be reckoned with. This is how she pitches her product to a roomful of 40 male investors. “I choose one of them to do a demo at the front. I give them a tampon, give them a toilet roll and say, ‘Okay, you’re perched on a toilet and you have to wrap this up in one hand and get it into a bin.’” Woah! They do that? “No-one’s refused me yet.”
“Then I give them the FabLittleBag and say – ‘Right, now try this.’ It completely changes the experience. As soon as they do it they sit back and say, ‘I get it.’ I don’t need to stand there and talk all day about my product. They experience the practicality. It breaks the ice and it gets the point across: you’re not allowed to be weird about this because it’s a normal part of life.”
Silcott won the George Bernard Shaw Unreasonable Person Award in this year’s Real Innovation Awards. “When I feel I have to do something, I don’t let go of it,” says Silcott. “I’m definitely tenacious. I don’t give up and I don’t really know how to cut my losses.”
Jeff Skinner, Executive Director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, one of the awards’ judges, agrees: “Martha promotes her little bags shamelessly – with the assurance, zeal and stubbornness of someone who knows that they’ve hit on a fabulous product and it’s a purely a matter of time until it sweeps the world.”
Disposing of used sanitary products is awkward. Flushing them away leads to aquatic pollution but the alternative is fiddly and embarrassing. Silcott’s invention, FabLittleBag, is a patented, small, opaque biodegradable plastic bag that you can open with one hand, which seals the offending items away neatly and easily. “I couldn’t find a solution so I invented one myself,” she says. “I want to replace the unpleasant, awkward feelings at that moment of disposal with feel-good emotions. Our customer feedback is that Fabbing transforms their disposal experience from awkward to awesome.”
Her first step, back in the late 1990s, was the British Library’s IP and business centre. As the main breadwinner (her husband was retraining as a criminal barrister), she couldn’t ditch the day job. While getting her innovation off the ground she was working full-time – first running her own practice as an independent financial advisor and then setting up a new venture within Experian and raising two young children.
By 2006 she had applied for a patent and visited nine different UK factories who said they couldn’t produce the bags. Finally the patent was granted in November 2013. “That was an amazing day,” she says. “I felt proud of myself and at the same time absolutely terrified. It meant, either do it or drop it. I thought, ‘Now I’ve got to focus.’” She went back to one of the manufacturers, a family business whose new leadership were enthusiastic. They became her founding shareholders and connected her to a machine manufacturer in Malaysia.
Then they built a new machine from scratch. “I had to learn all about, films, microns, biodegradable plastics, manufacturing and adhesives. Not to mention branding marketing, packaging. Everything was completely new. I made lots of mistakes but I didn’t really have a choice – I was doing all of it.”
Thankfully her boss at the time was very entrepreneurial, too, and he got what she was doing. “He allowed me to reduce my working week over a period of time so I didn’t have to go cold turkey, which was very helpful.” Her husband got it, too – fortunately. “I was obsessed by it,” she admits. “It does completely consume you.”
She approached 11 water companies to collaborate. “It costs them £88 million a year to get rid of all the waste that gets stuck in the sewers,” she explains. “I emailed the CEOs directly and three out of 11 responded promptly. My proposition to them was simple: you have this problem that costs you money. Here’s a solution that can change people’s habits.” Initially the products were handed to water-company customers at education events.
Now she has customers all over the world, shipping FabLittleBag direct from www.fablittlebag.com to the US Virgin Islands, China, Japan, Europe andCanada. She has distributors in Australia and the US. In the UK they’re available from Ocado, Wholefoods, Waitrose and others. “It took a huge amount of effort to finally get each buyer appointment,” she recalls. “So many emails, so many phone calls. You just have to keep on going. You don’t get instant results.”
Introducing a new product in a new category in a taboo subject in the UK has been really hard work, says Silcott. She raised £400,000 in 2016 to invest in strategy, branding marketing and IP. “It doesn’t go very far – you have to be smart. I’m not taking money from the business yet. The stock manufacturing has been the hugest stress. I hate it. You have to spend so much upfront and then wait for the stock and then wait again to sell it to get your money back. So there’s a huge cashflow issue that you have to manage while continuing to grow.”
1. Network strategically. “I wasted a lot of time at the start. There are a lot of people who puff their chests out and say, ‘Yes that’s a marvellous idea, but it’s just hot air.’ Do some research and be focused. What is it you want out of it: investment, clients, customers, mentorship, professional services? As a female, women’s networking groups can be a good first-stage environment, without all the bravado. But what matters is, is this person going to deliver, or are they all talk and no action?”
2. Do your research. “There’s a difference between a great idea and one that’s physically possible and commercially viable. Research your idea (the British Library IP and Business centre is a great place for this), research the market and then test it out with people who don’t know you. Not your family or your mates, because no matter how much you say, ‘Be honest’, they won’t be. Do focus groups. You can be completely convinced and then a bunch of strangers who don’t give a monkeys will tell you it’s crap. And that’s devastating. So you might as well find that out early, before you’ve invested a whole lot of money and time.
3. Believe in your idea. “If you don’t believe it, why should anyone else? Make sure your belief is real. Then, develop the skin of two rhinos. The amount of rejection you get along the way is of epic proportion. It’s hard to absorb and you have to toughen up to cope with it. It never gets easy but you don’t crumple on the floor. You need a ridiculous amount of positivity to counteract the negativity. You’ve got to reject people in your circle who are zapping your energy. Smile and move on.”
4. Find the right name for your product. “I had 30 or 40 suggestions for names and I wasn’t really feeling it with any of them. Then a friend’s husband asked, ‘Martha, what the hell is it?’ ‘It’s just a FabLittleBag!’ I said – and that was it. That’s exactly what it is and the name has had a great response.”
5. Be yourself. “When we were asking angels for investment we asked people in the VC world to feedback on our pitch. A few of them said we’d underplayed it. We’d intentionally been cautious with the numbers – we didn’t bullshit. We didn’t inflate the figures. I didn’t want to take money from someone who wasn’t as passionate about the product as us. I wanted emotional commitment from the investors. Ultimately they’re investing in you at that stage.”
What’s next? “We’re trialling a beautiful dispenser in the British Library and the Ecology Building. We’ll learn from that, see what we need to tweak and what we need to get better and then we’ll make an investment in tooling and manufacturing. That will open up the B2B market.” She also wants to go 100% sustainable (the products are already partially sustainable and biodegradable).
She also wants to take on more staff to free up her time to do what she does best – advocating, finding out the key markets, contacting people in those markets, developing the B2B relationships, selling. “I want to convert every flusher to a binner,” she says. “And I want more time to think. I have a lot more ideas and inventions in my head and I need to figure out what/when/why/if those come out. When you become CEO and you’re running everything, you lose creative thinking time. I plan to get some back.”
For more on Martha Silcott and Real Innovation Awards' winners, watch this film:
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Introducing a new product in a new category in a taboo subject in the UK has been really hard work, says Silcott. She raised £400,000 in 2016 to invest in strategy, branding marketing and IP. “It doesn’t go very far – you have to be smart.