Kiddimoto founder Simon Booth chats to Rebecca Morley about his business of balance bikes.
“I was introduced to this concept of a balance bike about 16 years ago,” says founder Simon Booth. “At the time there was a tiny little German company making these very niche products. Virtually no one else in the world was making them, and I thought it was quite an interesting concept.”
Kiddimoto, ‘The UK’s original balance bike company’, was born after Booth built a wooden prototype in his flat in Axbridge, Somerset. “At the time I was a big motorbiker, and I thought: ‘You know what? These balance bikes need to look like motorbikes, that would make them much more interesting, much more colourful’,” he says. “That’s where it all started, and that’s where the name Kiddimoto came from as well. I produced one, and I hadn’t come from a toy or bike-making background, and I quickly realised that I had to get everything safety tested. “I sent this prototype bike that I’d made off to a safety testing lab, and it completely fell apart. So we went back to the drawing board. I’d made it out of MDF, which it is like cardboard, paper mache. I thought I’d like to make it out of really good quality wood.”
Booth then developed his product out of plywood, sent it back to get tested and this time it passed. He then made his way to a small motorcycle show in Exeter and took along six balance bikes that he had made in his front room, which he had painted different colours. He says: “Pretty much everybody pointed and went: ‘What is that?’, ‘Why has it got no pedals?’, ‘Where are the stabilisers?’, ‘I could make that in my shed’. But I managed to convince six people to buy them off me, and that was it, that was all my stock. I sold literally the six bikes that I had made.
“I knew nothing about business, I was making it up! I’d sold out my stock, but it also covered the cost of the show, the materials, which meant it broke even. That made me think I’d got a business, that this could be the start of something amazing. We all want to have our own business! That’s when the dream started to become a reality.”
Booth then attended a bigger show at the NEC, where he again managed to sell all of the bikes he had taken with him. What’s more, this time he received orders for more. “It was 200,000 visitors over 11 days, this absolute beast of a show,” he says. “This was in October 2004, and everybody who had placed the orders wanted them for Christmas. I was doing that on my own, I had my wife, my fiance at the time, to help me out. I got some friends too, so it was all hands on deck. But we managed to do it, I got them out for Christmas and they were all delivered.
“Christmas came and went and I didn’t get any complaints. I woke up on Boxing Day and thought: ‘What am I going to do now? Christmas is another year away’. So then I started going to kindergartens and nursery schools, just knocking on the doors there. I managed to sell quite a few to all the local nurseries. “I just thought: ‘I have to get out selling’. That was pretty much how it started.”
Slaying the Dragons
But the turning point for Booth’s business came in 2011 when he appeared on BBC TV show Dragons’ Den. “That’s a bit of a story as well,” he says. “It was about seven years ago, I’d been growing the business for six to seven years. I was doing PR, marketing, lots of shows, trying to get the brand out there and making sure it was in front of all of the right customers. I thought I knew my demographic, I was getting the message out there. This was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter and all of those things, so it was old school marketing.
“I was at a trade show talking to the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old that was a biker, and found that she had never heard of Kiddimoto. I thought: ‘How can this be? With all of the PR and the marketing that I’ve been doing, how is this possible? I’m obviously not doing enough’. I decided I needed to do something high-profile, a real ‘in-your-face’ marketing campaign.”
He reveals he had the idea to visit the Den when his wife left him in charge of the kids, his youngest being about five months old at the time. “It was the first time I got to stay at home with them,” he says. “I thought: ‘You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go on Dragons’ Den. It’s the only way I’m going to get a high profile campaign, I have to go on TV in front of millions of people’. So that’s what I did. I literally picked the laptop and applied, and two weeks later I was in front of the Dragons. That’s how quick it was. There was no preparation.”
Dragons’ Den is a BBC TV show where budding entrepreneurs get three minutes to pitch their business ideas to five multi-millionaires, in this case, Peter Jones, Deborah Meaden, Duncan Bannatyne, Hilary Devey and Theo Paphitis. After each pitch, the Dragons have the opportunity to ask questions about the venture. The entrepreneurs don’t always have to answer, but what they choose not to address could very well affect the outcome. The pitch is over when each Dragon declares: ‘I’m out.’
Booth appeared on the show with his three-year-old daughter Ruby, who demonstrated the pedal-free bike with a few demo laps in front of the Dragons. He delivered his three-minute pitch and asked for a £75,000 investment for a 10% stake in the business. “They thought I had a great idea, but there were a few little holes in the business. It’s a two-hour ordeal, the cameras don’t stop rolling, you don’t get a break. You don’t have access to any of your numbers or your spreadsheets or anything like that. You could probably say that it’s a form of torture. Deborah Meaden is the best at interrogating people for numbers, she absolutely tied me in knots. Apart from that, the response was really good. It was positive. They were on my side, I think I won them over.”
Meaden, however, was still less than impressed with Booth’s answers to her financial questions and was the first to go out. She was quickly followed by Jones and Paphitis. “I thought that was it,” Booth admits. “But then Duncan Bannatyne said: ‘I’m going to make you an offer’, and I thought: ‘I’m in!’.” Bannatyne, in fact, made two offers, the first was the full amount of money for a 30% stake of the company, and the second was half of the money for a 15% stake, the latter meaning Booth would need another Dragon to come in too. After asking a few more questions, Devey also made Booth the offer of the other half of the money for 15% in the business. Booth accepted the joint offer from both Dragons. “I thought: ‘I’ve just got to take it, I’ve got to say yes. I’m not going to negotiate on this. I’m going to be on TV, I’m going to get airtime’,” he says.
But despite shaking hands in front of the cameras, Booth didn’t actually end up taking the investments. “What happens next is a process of due diligence,” he explains. “The “yeses” and the handshakes are pretty much all TV stuff. Afterwards, it gets serious, you sit around a table and discuss what your plans are, what the business looks like and how you’ve got to where you are and where you’re going.
“It was decided that I probably didn’t need the investment at that point, and they felt it was better that I managed it and kept the business to myself rather than giving it away. They gave me the advice and decided that was the way to go. So we didn’t actually go through with the deal in the end but they gave me lots of advice and really pointed me in the right direction. I still have contact with Hilary Devey now, she mentioned us in her autobiography as well.
“It was the feature pitch on the episode it went out on, and it was on at the end for about 15 minutes,” Booth continues. “I think the viewing figures were about four and a half million for the first showing, and the repeat was about three and a half million. The next day we had phone calls from John Lewis, Toys R Us, Hamleys, Tesco, all the major toy retailers.”
This proved to be a major turning point for Booth, whose appearance on prime time TV grew his business substantially. “Oh my God, it was amazing!” he says. “I’d been growing the business quite steadily and quite well on my own, I love PR and building the brand through media but the TV grew the business that year by 400 per cent. It just went absolutely berserk.
“I learnt an awful lot through that process. From that moment it jumped massively. For a few years after that, it doubled in size year on year, and we had a massive growth plan. We’d moved to a really big new headquarters, offices and warehousing, to enable us to future proof the business.”
He admits that the in the last couple of years things have been a bit more difficult (due to a certain B-word, he says), but is optimistic about the business and the industry. He says it’s about developing new products that are innovative and interesting. “We’ve had to do a little bit of restructuring in terms of building the sales team, strengthening the marketing, and we’re looking more at developing the new products. We’ve got a new range of bicycles, kids bicycles. It’s the next step of the balance bike, we’re pushing our range to be able to offer older children our quality and innovation and our products. So we’ve got a range of bicycles, 16in, 20in and 24in that should be ready for Easter. We’ve been developing those for the last two to three years. They’re really interesting and exciting products. We’re going to get more and more kids going on bikes, that’s the idea.”
IBDs are the future
In addition to developing new products, Kiddimoto is also building a much more customer-focused way of working. Booth says: “We’re going to be working more closely with IBDs, developing relationships where we can serve them with the products that they need. We’re going to have marketing programmes that will be supporting the IBDs. I think it’s about really good IBD service, face to face with the customer. We’re building really good relationships so that we can service them, and we want a nice dealer network that we work closely with so that they then talk to the end-user.
“We work with them because they’re the experts, they’re talking to the end consumer so if we’ve got good relationships with them and we’re going and talking to them regularly, we’ve got the feedback to be able to develop the products that will actually work through them. We don’t want to be one of these online direct-to-consumer companies, we’re not going to be selling through the mass market, through the big chains, we’re purely going to be IBD-centric. That’s really our focus for the mid-to-long term.
“It’s probably against the grain of what everybody else is doing. We’ve bucked the trend forever, so we’ll keep doing it. That’s our thing, that we try to be a bit of a disruptor, trend-setter, leader and pioneer.”