Since launching in 2006, Trunki has grown a global brand with instant recognition in the travel space. Its eponymous product is a colourful, ride-on suitcase that’s become a travel staple for many families – one is sold every two minutes.
Trunki founder Rob Law had the idea for ride-on kids’ suitcases in a department store in 1997. He was studying product design and had entered a national luggage design competition.
“I was looking at adult luggage and drifted into the kids’ toy section. I remembered my brother had a ride-on tractor when he was younger and thought, ‘Why not make a toy that’s really functional too?’”
Rob’s innovative approach to product design is responsible for much of Trunki’s success. In the last 14 years, the team has developed an expansive fun-meets-function product range that is sold in retailers like John Lewis, Boots and Halfords.
The business now exports into 50 countries, employs 80 people across its Bristol-based office and Plymouth factory, hit a turnover of £9.5m in 2018 and sells a Trunki product every two minutes.
We sat down with Rob to talk about leadership challenges, building a team and how re-shoring Trunki’s manufacturing has impacted the business.
Tumultuous early days
In 2002, Rob received a grant from The Prince’s Trust to get his business up and running. He initially signed a licensing deal with a toy company, but it went into liquidation less than three years later. Rob decided to go it alone and pitched Trunki on Dragons’ Den in 2006, but left with no investment when the strap “popped off” and led the Dragons to question the product’s quality.
The biggest setback came when the government banned hand luggage on flights, at the height of the aircraft terrorist threats in 2006. It was weeks after Trunki had launched, so it was hard not to panic. Luckily, the ban was lifted within six weeks and Trunki could continue selling products.
Rob credits his problem-solving skills, which first attracted him to product design, with his ability to overcome these early challenges. Looking back, he believes they pushed him to become a better leader.
“I’ve always thought, ‘How can I become a strong leader and build the brand?’ I’ve had managers in the past who didn’t embrace leadership and that didn’t lead to happy memories. Those bad experiences and challenges always help shape you,” he said.
Local manufacturing benefits
Trunki was originally manufactured in China, but Rob made the decision to bring manufacturing back to the UK in 2012. The move established Trunki as a trailblazer and laid the groundwork for a resurgence in British manufacturing.
“We were early pioneers, but people really caught on after that. The story got picked up by news outlets like the BBC and Channel 4. They filmed the first Trunki coming off the manufacturing belt which, fittingly, was a London 2012 Olympics Trunki,” Rob said.
Rob is an advocate for local manufacturing and recommends other business owners consider the option. Although China is typically cheaper, the company has been able to offset the additional cost by having more control.
“When we started looking at bringing manufacturing home, we’d experienced a huge shift in the exchange rate. The pound had lost 20 per cent of its value against the dollar. We were working with a 120-day lead time. We knew we needed to have a more sustainable approach,” he explained.
Re-shoring back to the UK allowed Trunki to hold less inventory and free up cash flow. It helped them to forecast costs better since they could avoid China’s unpredictable wage inflation – at the time of their move, Chinese labour costs had tripled in six years.
Above all, local manufacturing meant Trunki could become more agile. With lower lead times, Trunki could solve issues with products quickly and respond to market trends.
Recognise strengths and weaknesses
To grow as a business, it’s important to be able to build on existing products or services. If you aren’t continually driving for improvement, you risk being leapfrogged by competitors.
“Having different products helps you grow as a global brand and build credibility. You find when you’ve got multiple products, larger distribution partners are more interested in working with you. Retailers want to have accounts so they can buy multiple products,” Rob said.
As a business leader, it can be hard to find the time to be creative and plan for the future. Building a team of people you trust can give you the space you need.
Trunki currently employs 80 people across its Bristol-based office and Plymouth factory. Rob believes that learning to delegate is a fundamental part of successful leadership. Recognise where your strengths lie and hire people who can provide expertise in the areas you’re weaker in.
“Try to get people on board who can take some of the responsibilities off you. I’ve built a very capable team, so I can delegate some of the commercial or finance things. It means I can spend a bit more time on the product side of the business,” he said.
Trunki has taken advantage of its Plymouth factory to improve product quality and create a fully customisable edition of the suitcase.
“We’ve been able to develop our printing technology to eliminate errors. Printing in China used to take a long time, whereas UK printing is much more flexible. We launched our customisation tool and had rapid growth. Most importantly, we’ve been able to respond to the demand,” Rob said.
Evolving as a business also means letting go of things that aren’t working or don’t support your future ambitions.
Trunki has been selling licensed suitcases since 2009, with brands like Gruffalo and Hello Kitty. Despite many of the licensed Trunkis selling well, Rob is keen to start moving away from these agreements in the future. He wants to put faith in the power of the Trunki brand and market position instead.
“You can do the licensing and cannibalise, or you can keep the whole cake,” he said.
Trunki’s next goal is to boost its online sales by working with leading online retailers. This should help to maximise the presence of Trunki internationally and double down on their growth in Europe. Trunki’s international sales currently make up around 64 per cent of the business.
As Rob explains, companies no longer have to put all their effort into acquiring traffic – there are big marketplaces like Amazon that already have the traffic you need. Instead, he wants to look at different advertising strategies and see how their marketing funnel can be applied.
“We’ll have been trading for 14 years in May 2020. The commercial landscape has completely changed. We used to work with distributors in every country, whereas now it’s all about direct-to-consumer brands,” Rob reflected.
“It’s easy to put all your energy into your online sales, but you still need to think about physical retail too. People want to be able to touch and feel the product. It’s a balancing act.”