Towards the end of 2016 we were introduced to Omnio, an innovative husband-and-wife-run product design company who were growing their business at a rapid rate. Their launch product, Omnio Stroller, had received far more interest than anticipated and their business plan had been thrown out of the window to accommodate new markets and increased orders.
We caught up with co-founder Markus Warwick to discuss their journey so far, the challenges of growth and the secret to their success.
Please give us a quick introduction Omnio:
The Omnio brand was established by myself and my wife Samantha. Our aim is to bring innovative products to parents and grandparents to make life easier when they’re out and about.
As well as being parents of young children ourselves, both Samantha and I have a real passion for design – for products that are functional but beautifully made as well. So we aim to bring these qualities into all our products and create items that are a little bit different to (and better than!) the standard offerings out there on the market.
Our launch product is Omnio Stroller – an innovative, wearable stroller that packs down into a backpack so parents don’t have to carry an awkward stroller around when their child isn’t using it.
How did the idea come about?
We were out on a family day out in Cardiff. Our son, Ben was 27 months old and wasn’t using a stroller every day. We had a really long walk back to our car (yes – I’ll admit this is down to my aversion to parking in multi-story car parks!) Anyway, he got really tired and we thought – if we could have had a stroller that was compact and easy to deploy when you needed it – well, that would have made a huge difference. As we walked back we started talking about what a good idea a stroller that could pack away into a backpack would be.
That was in 2012, and there was a year’s gestation period between then and when I started looking seriously at the business on paper, asking all those important questions like ‘was the business actually viable’ and ‘was someone else already doing it?’. We did a lot of initial patent searches before we got things going to check if there was anything in the pipeline that was similar. And there wasn’t – so, well, that’s where it all began.
It sounds like you approached the business in a very sensible way – was this your first foray into entrepreneurship?
One thing we’ve done at every stage during this process is to take what we’ve called reality checks. It’s all too easy to get carried away with an idea, but at every stage we’ve been careful to ask ourselves if it really is different, and if it really is something people want.
We ran a successful commercial Chocolate Fountain rental business a few years ago when we lived in New Zealand. We learnt a lot from that. So this is our second business together, but we’re lucky in that we have a lot of business experience. My background is in operations management, so I’m now transferring those skills I gained in running other people’s businesses into running my own. And Samantha’s background is in product design. I guess it was inevitable that we were going to run our own product business one day!
As any business owner knows, there’s a long journey between the idea and making it a reality. Can you talk a little about how that journey was for Omnio?
Yes – there are a lot of elements here. The first thing to talk about is the design itself and how that developed over time. We knew the idea of a wearable stroller was a good one, but we wanted to find as many points of difference as we could; to make the product function as well as possible and really stand out.
So at one point a member of our design team suggested using something called an Omni wheel – a multi directional wheel that’s usually used in robotics. We found that applying this to a stroller makes a huge difference to how easy it is to handle. And there have been a lot of iterations like this – tweaks we have made on the way to improve the design to where it is now – a really innovative and quality product that stands out against what’s currently available on the market. So yes – it started as just this one useful idea, but it’s become much more than that throughout the process of the design.
How about the finance for the business? Which route did you go down for this?
Initially we self-funded it, putting in the princely sum of £1,000 per month into the business. We used this to develop the concept and take it through very early prototyping as well. But we realised that if we carried on like this, even with a protected patent it would take 3 years to be ready to raise capital.
So then we looked at a lot of different ways to raise capital. I have to say no route is particularly easy. We worked with a consultant who has an investment background and he suggested CrowdCube – an equity investment crowdfunding platform. This took 5-6 months to prepare for and I think it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. You really do discover levels of resilience you didn’t know you had when you start to run your own business!
But to cut a very long story short, we got there in the end and we ended up raising £179,000 in the first round. Following this we started growing at a rate that was much quicker than we had expected and we did a second round of investment where we raised a further £440,000.
It sounds like there were a lot of iterations to your business plan as well?
It’s a good problem to have – to be expanding faster than you thought. One of the biggest changes in strategy has come from the interest we have received from abroad, so having to change quite quickly to become an export business. We initially drew up the business plan to be focussed on the UK, but we’re already selling in Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam. Omnio Stroller will be available shortly in Belgium and the Netherlands. We’re close to closing a contract with Germany, Austria and Switzerland. So yes – a lot of changes and we’ve had to be very flexible to adapt.
What do you think has been the secret to your success?
The one thing I have to stress is that I have a fantastic team of people around me. We’re a very small team, four of us run the business day to day. But our model is very much an outsource one, where we work with really great companies and individuals who have the skills we need to build the quality product we want. We have a partner in Hong Kong who is a master in supply chain logistics and he introduced us to our factory, who have just been incredible. They have a real eye for quality and design and they have worked very closely with us along the way. We also have a great sales and marketing team that we use. So all in all there are 15 – 18 people who help us make Omnio happen. It’s been about working with innovative and forward thinking companies who understand what we’re trying to achieve.
Talking of partners, it’s been a real pleasure for us at Jardine Norton to work with you and help you grow the business.
Likewise. As I said, we tend to partner with growing, dynamic businesses who we feel an affinity with and Jardine Norton are just that. Customer service ethics are spot on, the way that they work is highly professional and they have just been a breath of fresh air. I can’t recommend them enough – they were pivotal to us growing at the rate we have been able to do and they will continue to be.
Can you talk a little about the specifics behind how Jardine Norton helped you grow?
We had a situation a few months back where we sat down and looked at the figures with our accountant and it was pretty clear that we couldn’t fund the rate we were growing at without some form of credit. Our initial thought was that we would have to invoice factor, but I really wasn’t sure if this was something we wanted to do. With traditional invoice factoring companies you have to sign over control of all your invoices to them. The obvious problem with this is that it’s not very flexible, but there are a lot of business risks as well. So if for any reason they couldn’t fund one of our invoices we would have had a problem.
That’s why I say Jardine Norton were a breath of fresh air – because they allowed us to select only the invoices that we wanted to fund. We liked their approach because unlike the more traditional banks who only look at your cashflow, Jardine Norton were only concerned with the quality of our contracts, and we have very good quality contracts in place with our manufacturer and our distributors. It was a really quick process that ended up with the result we wanted.
It’s interesting, because whichever way we have funded this business, it hasn’t been through the traditional means. I think that with the flexibility of finance products like Jardine Norton on the market now we’ll see a lot more successful businesses doing just the same – working in this ‘lean’ way and finding funding via non-traditional methods.
So what’s next for Omnio?
We’re still looking to expand into other markets – China and the U.S are on the cards very soon! And I can’t say much more at this stage, but we have some very exciting products in the pipeline – ones that aren’t just based around children too. So keep an eye out!
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