In tough times, many companies still operate with a ‘business as usual’ mindset. Market expert Ron Immink warns this is dangerous. We look at firms thinking outside the box
Wendy McCaughan came up with a simple yet obviously sensible idea back in 2004 — to use the expertise developed to protect
racing motorcyclists to provide similarly effective protection for horse riders.
But she did not expect that it would take four years of effort to get her product to the market.
Kan Body Protectors
Until Wendy came up with her proposal for the Kan body protectors, horse riders had to wear very bulky and stiff foam garments that made it difficult for them to breathe or move and even caused problems with controlling their horses. Traditional protection equipment is ‘like wearing a carpet’, says McCaughan.
Wendy also believes that the Kan product is far superior in terms of safety and protection — a view shared by riders who have survived falls while wearing Kan equipment.
The secret of the Kan product is that it uses a different type of foam made from polyurethane. Traditional horse riding protection has PVC Nitrile foam that relies on air bubbles to protect the rider when they fall.
Stylish Riding Suits
Working with leading motorcycle rider protection providers Knox, Wendy developed stylish riding suits that fit riders' natural body shapes — unlike traditional styles, which can be very uncomfortable for women, in particular.
“Ours is shaped beautifully: the rider can draw a breath and the body protector expands and contracts with any movement, it also supports the back and aids position,” says Wendy. “It uses a ‘smart' foam that hardens on impact. It's moulded so it holds its shape and accommodates the female bust.” It can also be reused after an impact because the foam has a memory and restores itself — unlike traditional riding protection, which is recommended for replacement following a fall.
A Very Serious Problem
Despite the quality of the product and the experience of Wendy's manufacturing partner, Knox, in related products, the Kan equipment hit a very serious problem — licensing. While motorcycle accidents have greater impact than those of horse riding, the safety equipment used for horse riding must meet a higher standard than that for motorcycling.
And the standards used for horse riding equipment were drawn up on the assumption that manufacturers would use flat foam with no differentiation for male and female bodies — part of the requirement for standards compliance is the dimension of the garment. This created a problem for Wendy as her innovative product differentiated itself by being moulded and shaped for the female body. The foam had to be redesigned and remanufactured several times to overcome the problems.
Worse still for Wendy and Knox, the standard specification is open to interpretation. Knox operates on a European basis and submitted its specially designed foam for standards approval in Italy. It was approved by the standards agency in Italy in 2007 and Wendy started selling the Kan products in Germany and much of Northern Europe in that year.
But it also had to gain approval in the UK if Kan was to get into shops in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Although the testing was against the same European standard, it took another year before the standards agency in the UK was satisfied and gave the necessary approval.
Sales in the UK grew fast last year and the County Down-based Kan Teq took on three staff, as well as Wendy, and the product quickly gained a healthy foothold in the market. But then the recession hit. “Last winter was very scary: retailers didn't want to carry stock,” explains Wendy. “We had hugely reduced sales during the recession.” To survive, Wendy had to let two of her three employees go and cut back on non-essential costs.
Things are now looking up, with the recession lifting and retailers indicating they are willing to restock. Learning from her previous experience, though, Wendy has invested in website development and intends to sell directly online to reduce retailer dependence.
With new marketing plans in place, Kan Teq is ready to expand again next year. But let no one say that setting up a new business is easy: Wendy can testify that it can require determination to succeed.
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