BoBo Buddies founder James Roupell is a born entrepreneur if ever there was one. “My father set up his business the year before I was born so I was brought up in a very entrepreneurial environment,” he says. “I’ve always known that I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and run my own business.”
Roupell, 26, was nevertheless eager to get on the entrepreneurial ladder at an earlier age than his dad. “I’d always known my father working for himself but he’d done so whilst also having the pressure of a family, a house and a wife to provide for,” Roupell reflects. “Because I’m still young, I have none of those responsibilities that come with later life.”
There’s also another family member to whom Roupell is grateful. When he was a child, his grandmother sewed a blanket into the soft toy that he carried everywhere with him. “It is still on my bed, tragically,” Roupell laughs. Little did he know then that it would inspire a product that is now stocked by Fenwick, Harvey Nichols, Liberty, Debenhams and P&O Ferries – and is selling in no less than eight countries.
Put simply, BoBo Buddies are soft toy animals that double up as backpacks, with one range coming complete with pillow and blanket. It’s rather fitting, therefore, that Roupell enlisted his gran to assist with their design. “It was quite nice that she had a big part to play in making the prototypes and getting me on my way with the business,” he says.
The name of the company has a story behind it too. Roupell explains that nobody ever calls him James, instead preferring Jimbo or, alternatively, Bobo. “It’s a nickname of a nickname,” he jokes. Whilst the BoBo part is relatively self-explanatory, more thought went into what follows it.
“Originally my parents would ask me how the BoBo Bags are going but BoBo Bag was a bit sterile so we wanted to come up with something a bit more fun and kid-friendly so BoBo Buddies just came and it worked,” he explains. “The whole concept of the original product was that it’s the child’s buddy wherever they go. It’s their connection to home when they to go to nursery school.”
Roupell’s journey thus far has certainly been a whirlwind. In January 2012, after leaving Becothings – an online retailer of eco-friendly baby products – Roupell took a holiday. It was on the flight back that he realised his grandmother may have helped him strike gold. “I saw all these kids with soft toy pillows and blankets with their parents lugging them around on a plane. It suddenly triggered the thought that I was brought up with a product that was really convenient, that held everything together.”
Two years at Becothings had given Roupell a decent grounding in the industry and he promptly set to work. But he needed a little extra help. “Not coming from a design background, I needed to understand the process that people go through,” he says. “I began to get a team of people who were able to really help me.”
And after some initial frustrations with time differences, he jumped on a plane to China to seal the deal on a factory. “I gave myself three weeks in China to meet everyone, not only to make sure that the factories were all good, professional outfits but I also wanted to look these people in the eye and make sure that I trusted them and that they trusted me.”
It was worth the trip. Roupell returned home with four prototypes and hit the button on the first shipment. “To go from an idea on a plane in January to launching the product nine months later was virtually unheard of but it was just something that I absolutely wouldn’t let go,” says Roupell.
Success was still far from certain though. As Roupell admits, “I was very nervous because I had ordered 4,000 units not knowing whether people were going to like them.”
However, after selling out at a multitude of Xmas fairs, Roupell knew he was onto a winner. When the retailers were also bowled over, he realised the time was nigh to seek some outside help. “The irony with any business is that the more business you get, the more money you need to supply that demand,” he says. It was only by chance that a BBC producer approached him at a show and suggested he enter the Den. “I needed a cash injection from somewhere so I thought Dragons’ Den might be the right route to go down.”
For those who didn’t see Roupell’s performance in front of the Dragons, a trip to Google is probably in order. It’s not often that all five investors are convinced to make an offer but Roupell had them chomping at the bit. He negotiated hard, eventually accepting a joint offer from Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden who offered £50,000 for a 40% stake, reducing to 30% upon the fulfilment of certain objectives. This was despite Roupell’s initial indication that he wouldn’t part with more than 25%. “I had a very clear idea of how much money I needed and what I was willing to give away. You then go into the Den and it is a very surreal environment. You are surrounded by film crew and cameras with these celebrities in front of you.”
As soon as he stepped into the lift, Roupell regretted his decision. He needed some advice. “I have a network of people who have helped me get to where we’ve gotten. I mentioned that I’d been in the Den and that I needed some money because I had some orders to fulfil.”
He ended up getting more than advice.
“One guy said he’d be more than happy to offer me the money as a loan with no equity involved. It was a no-brainer. I went back to the Dragons and they were very understanding, they were very kind and they have checked up on me since to see how I’m doing. There was no love lost.”
Roupell firmly believes he did what was best for his business. “I was quite excited by a lot of the aspects of working with them but ultimately I had to make the call and I always believed that I could make it without them,” he says. “My father owned 100% of his business when he sold it so I have always known the importance of keeping control of your own company, even if it might take longer and it might mean more hard work.”
Despite pulling out of the deal, Roupell has absolutely no regrets about the experience – and no wonder. He has worked with 300 retailers in the last 16 months and the product is reaching more kids and parents every day. “It has been absolutely amazing for my business,” he says emphatically.
That’s not to suggest it’s been an easy ride. Being on the shelf next to Winnie the Pooh and Disney come with its fair share of challenges. “These brands are chucking themselves in front of children on TV or wherever they are,” comments Roupell.
However, the young entrepreneur is optimistic that being a newcomer to the market – and one with a story to tell – puts BoBo Buddies in a solid position. “People like the fact that they can relate to it and think they are backing something that is growing as opposed to a big corporation that churns out products left, right and centre,” he says.
Such is his confidence in the product, Roupell has ambitions to team up with a larger toy brand in the future to help drive the BoBo brand forward. Until then, the focus is on improving the product where possible. “We want our toys to be softer, we want them to be cuter, we want them to be more functional than anything else out there.” There is also scope for new products under the BoBo brand.
Amazingly, Roupell still operates the company out of his home in Clapham, south London, but he is eyeing a move to a more central location soon. “The motivation for me is to see this thing evolve into something that begins to run itself with a fun, young group of people who all believe that we can take over the world with this brand.”