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How We Scaled-up Our Start-up

Wed, 06 December 2017

Contributed by Michael Korn, founder of Kwickscreen and Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award Winner.
At KwickScreen we have developed and patented the world’s most portable, retractable portioning system which we sell to the NHS and other businesses and hospitals worldwide. 
 
I developed the product in my final year project at the Royal College of Art in 2008. I had no funds to start the business, but after patenting the product, the NHS commissioned me to develop a solution for isolating infected patients and I was able to keep the rights to what became the KwickScreen. Our first proper customer was New Cross Hospital intensive care department, and we now supply 175 NHS trusts, as well as many customers outside of healthcare.
 
For the first 6 years, my business partner and I were working out of spare rooms at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College. We subsidised our rent by offering our services to the Business School, giving talks and mentoring other start-up companies.
 
We’re now a team of 14, soon to be 16, with projected revenue this year of around £1.8m. We are selling into 10 countries, and 30% of revenue comes from exports, where together with new product development we see the biggest potential for growth. Internally, if we’re not challenged, we’re not growing – we embrace the struggle, and never accept the status quo!
 
How we scaled-up
 
Essential to the process of scaling-up for us was bringing production in-house. We originally outsourced manufacturing, so theoretically had unlimited infrastructure, however the critical factor for us was the speed of innovation, and we weren’t able to do this using a third party. Finally, we decided 2 years ago to take on our own space in a more convenient location and invest in recruiting, and so now we have complete control over everything, and are able to make changes more rapidly. R&D, sales, and production all work in a triangle together, and benefit from seeing each process first-hand.
 
Growing from self-funding meant that in the early days, we didn’t have all the resources we perhaps needed. We applied for lots of prizes however, which helped get early partners on board, gave us some funding, and a lot of PR – we were on the front page of Sky News, before we were manufacturing the product! We won the Shell Young Entrepreneur of the Year award and James Dyson award.
 
What we’ve learned along the way
 
I benefitted from a lot of support and inspiration from my industrial design engineering course, where there’s a whole history of teams and individuals who have invented products and taken them to market. The most successful of these really understand how the customer is using the product, and then make changes to it. The Lean Start-Up by Eric Ries resonated a lot with the way we worked, as did James Dyson’s approach to engineering (getting taped-up prototypes in front of people as soon as possible). Traction by Gino Wickman is another great book we’re trying to follow.
 
My ability to learn from my mistakes has definitely helped – and I make lots of mistakes so I’ve given myself lots of opportunities to learn! Tenacity kept me going to develop a unique product that wasn’t around before. I also support other people to work with me, by making them understand that they are a crucial part of the whole journey, and that they will directly benefit from the company’s growth.
 
I also know what I’m not good at – I’ve had great people fill those gaps, and create a rounded company. I have an excellent CEO and senior team able to constructively learn together and overcome challenges, and people have often remarked that there are no politics here, which is true.
 
With hindsight, we’ve learnt that it’s best to iterate product quickly, and we perhaps did it too slowly in the beginning as I was too nervous and a perfectionist. I didn’t realise that the biggest step was to have developed a unique product and sold it, and that we then just needed to focus 100% on that and grow it. It's a business that will last for generations because it’s patented. One of our core values is ‘focus’!
 
The future
 
We’re still very much in the process of scaling-up, and are in the specific situation of a manufacturing company with a turnover of around £1m, trying to get it to £5m, with an aim of £10m in 4 years’ time. The skills in the management team will have to adapt quickly as the company grows, and as I really benefit from meeting other entrepreneurs, I think a peer group would be a great support.
 
We are developing both new applications for our roll-up tubing technology and entirely new products. We have the space here to make these prototypes as a third of our building is devoted to future R&D.
 
We are also expanding into global markets – we’ve just been to Germany for a major European show, and sales in the US and Canada are growing rapidly. We are aiming to build relationships with distributors around the world, so that we can leverage off their already established networks.
 
Our product has the potential to be the global alternative to hospital curtains and leader in the supply of partition systems, and I believe that we are at an exciting tipping point to begin achieving this. 
 
To learn more about what we do, please see our website: http://kwickscreen.com/, and if you’d like to get in touch, drop us an email at: info@kwickscreen.com

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