It was on a budget flight that Sarah Giblin had the idea for what is now her business, Riut. Despite having no background or training in design or manufacturing, the former professional classical singer decided to revolutionise the humble backpack.
On the packed flight she watched as a man struggled with the pockets and zips on his bag. Simultaneously feeling stressed about the safety of her own belongings, it struck her that the pockets and openings on backpacks face the wrong way.
“For hundreds of years, backpacks have been [one way] but we have never lived in such a densely populated world as we do now,” she says. “We carry around far more technology than ever before. It makes sense to have the backpack open the other way.”
After a year of unsuccessfully searching for a backpack that met her new requirements, she decided to design her own, with the help of prototype company, design2market. “We prototyped for six months to get this idea out of my head, out of my sketches and into a real thing – just to check if it actually made sense,” she says. “We improved it, and then improved it again.”
The RiutBag was born, with zips and pockets against the wearer’s back, rather than at the front of the bag. Riut (pronounced riot) stands for revolution in user thinking. “I called it that because I wanted to make it [clear] that I’m not an expert backpack designer, I’m just a user. I think that’s OK for normal people to spot problems, have an idea and have a go at solving it. Why should we leave innovation in the hands of the biggest companies in the world?”
Giblet was working as a communications manager in financial services at the time, in between her travels and classical singing tours, but handed in her resignation in March 2014. She had been planning to leave sooner, but a health scare – losing her hearing in one of her ears – stopped her. “I ripped up my resignation letter and thought, “Oh no, I can’t leave”. After my hearing came back, I then resigned and thought, “I am going to have to get it going as quickly as possible so Riut can look after me if I have any more problems”. I was so excited about my idea that I forgot to be scared about it really.
“Actually, it was working in financial services that inspired my Riut mantra,” she adds. “The financial regulator told banks to put customers at the centre of their business models from now on. My version of that [was] to revolve all my thinking around my users. All companies only exist because of their customers.”
Key to that has been sourcing extensive user engagement and feedback. Giblin launched a crowdfunding campaign in November 2014 and raised £63,000 from 1,060 investors.
It was a conscious decision to raise funds from the public, rather than apply to banks or angel investors. “It was terrifying but I wanted to be independent,” she says. “I didn’t want to get a loan and be £60,000 in debt with no customers on the first viable day of my business. The same would have happened with investors: if I successfully collected the funding from them, I would have been under pressure to make the RiutBag even if customers didn’t really want it.”
The first RiutBags arrived in February 2015 (“I actually hugged the boxes at Heathrow”) and after sending them to her Kickstarter backers, she asked for detailed feedback. There were changes to make, she admits, particularly concerning the size. “It was a lot larger than anyone thought it would be, and that wasn’t necessarily what people wanted for everyday life. So I made a slimmer and more compact version.”
She also changed some of the material and added inner straps to keep laptops in place. The new improved design was launched with a second Kickstarter campaign, at the end of September 2015, raising £158,000 from 1,500 backers. “I put them up with much more realistic pricing that actually covered costs,” Giblin says. “My first Kickstarter was not profitable. I had priced it all wrong.”
Last month, online orders tipped over 10,000 and sales in this year were just over £1m. The feedback has been “phenomenal”, she says, and there have been accolades from Barclays Entrepreneur Awards and the platinum gong at the A’Design Awards. Giblin is enjoying her life as an entrepreneur and doesn’t regret her move from singing. “I met my best friends in the world through singing but, oddly, I don’t miss it. Riut is all-consuming [and] it uses the creativity, courage, attention to detail and discipline that I learned and thrived on whilst singing. These days, if I sing at all it’s for psychedelic bands in basements in Berlin.”
Given the bag’s success, friends have warned her that it will probably be copied, but she admits she’ll be happy if that happens. “I built this company to turn the world’s urban backpacks around the right way. I am not going to do this alone. Just as there are thousands of backpack designs with zips on the outside; I just initiated the market for backpacks with zips at the back. But one company is not a market.”
Giblin hopes her story will inspire other ordinary people to solve problems with everyday products, adding: “I really think individuals – non-experts like me – are best placed to do this. If we lived in a world where users really tried to fix the problems around them, it would be a very different world.”
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