As a rule, rucksacks have always been a hard item to get children excited about. Their association with the back-to-school shopping splurge and the dwindling remainder of the summer holidays can make an otherwise functional product seem more like shackles. YUUbags, the brainchild of entrepreneurs Gill Hayward and Kellie Forbes, have changed all that. “I remember my brother saying to me, ‘You are never going to get a child excited about a rucksack,’” laughs Forbes. “I’m going to remind him of that soon.”
YUU has been a long time in the offing. “We first met working for J Walter Thompson many moons ago, when we were 21,” explains Forbes. Even in the early days of their friendship, they shared a strong drive to start a business together. “After a few glasses of wine or a few whiskeys we often talked about doing something together.” Eventually, when Forbes’ husband moved overseas, she emigrated. Meanwhile, Hayward continued to work within the advertising industry. “I worked for ad agencies and media agencies and latterly I spent ten years at Viacom and a year working for Channel 5,” she says.
Despite the distance between them, they never stopped talking about potential entrepreneurial opportunities. “Gill started nagging me a little bit more,” Forbes says. “She kept saying, ‘We must do something.’ With her experience, she’d learned a really great way to market a product.”
By this stage Hayward had a huge amount of experience of working with other people’s brands and business models – suddenly, she began to feel that she’d rather be lining her own pockets than those of her bosses. “And it was just a lightbulb moment: why am I doing this for other people when I could be doing it for myself?”
By this stage, Forbes had already begun to ponder on an idea that would eventually grow into the YUUbag. One of the product’s key features is the YUUfun pack, an assortment of goodies including, among other things, coloured pencils, an A4 pad and a magnetic snakes and ladders set. Forbes explains this concept came from her times abroad with her children. “I used to always give them a fiver, let them go to WH Smith, pick up little bits and bobs and put it in their backpack,” she says. This was a key inspiration in the creation of the YUUbag. “When you’re a kid, the first thing you do when you get a new bag is you put stuff in it,” continues Hayward. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we just sell the whole bag filled with the stuff?’”
But neither of the partners wanted to prejudge what children would expect from the product. Hayward explains: “We had the principles of what we thought the bag would be, but we were very much: ‘This is about kids; let’s not assume we know what kids want.’” They entered a very intensive research and development phase; giving children free rein, the entrepreneurs asked what features they’d want in a bag. “We had all these ideas like a desk and a secret compartment and a lot of the kids actually put that in their backpacks,” comments Forbes. “It kind of confirmed really what we wanted to achieve.”
While the entrepreneurs’ marketing backgrounds were undoubtedly important in these design considerations, it was when it came to branding that their experience proved invaluable. Core to the business’s principles was that it was all about putting children at the centre of the process. “We wanted to find a name that was talking about them,” Forbes says. “Which is how we came up with the idea of YUU.” While the spelling was a necessity dictated by their desire to build an international brand – the word ‘you’ would mean little outside of English speaking countries – it quickly became integral and translated to other elements of the brand. “It allowed us to personify our bags,” Forbes continues. “We gave them names; we’ve got the pink bag – the HUUG bag – and we’ve got the bag with the bugs on called BUUZ – they’re all double U.”
When producing a physical product, it’s usually only so long before capital becomes an issue. Fortunately, the YUU partners were very lucky in this respect. “The development costs were pretty much negligible because my next-door neighbour happens to be a product designer, only one of a handful in the country who works purely on travel goods,” Hayward says. “We approached him with a revenue share idea.”
But, fortuitous though this was, the pair needed to raise funds to begin to place orders and design their website. Here, again, they were very lucky. “When I was made redundant and Viacom closed down its sales operation, I knew a day in advance of anyone else that this was going to happen,” Hayward says. She happened to have her employment contract in her desk drawer; she made some excuses and headed straight to the bank. “I went in with a healthy salary but was only going to have a healthy salary for 24 hours more.” She took out a loan. This wasn’t their only help with finances, as Forbes joshingly relates. “I used my divorce settlement,” she says. Hayward laughs at this. “That’s the benefit of having a nice wealthy ex-husband,” she agrees. “I wish I’d had one of those.”
Eventually drawing on help in the form of short-term loans from friends and family, the project made it to its launch. But even then they were still working on things right up to the wire. “It came together about five minutes before the first TV ad came out and the website went live.” But the payoff was almost instantaneous. “When we sold the product after launching, literally five minutes after, we were astounded,” she remembers. “We were ringing each other asking, ‘Was that one of your friends buying that one?’”
To say the product has captured people’s imaginations is something of an understatement. A glance at the ‘Who loves YUU?’ testimonials section of their site gives a taste of the sort of glowing praise the product receives, something which is emphasised by the extensive list of awards the product has won. However, perhaps the best example is the team’s recent appearance on Dragons’ Den.
Going into it the partners were far from lacking in confidence. “Initially we felt they couldn’t really rip our product apart,” remarks Forbes. “How could they? It had sold 13,000 units and we had good turnover.” But when actually standing only a few feet from the Dragons, it couldn’t have been more different. “All of a sudden that completely dissipates,” she continues. However, their familiarity with their figures won the investors over and suddenly they found themselves at the centre of bidding war. They eventually sided with a joint offer between Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones, feeling they best understood what the brand stood for. “It was a great experience but not for the faint-hearted,” says Hayward, before joking: “Anyone with a heart condition – just don’t send them in.”
While their sales have been very healthy since their launch, their encounter with the Dragons has marked the beginning of a new stage in YUU’s journey. The pair have very big dreams and this new investment is a useful launchpad.
“We want to be the one-stop shop for kids out and about globally,” says Forbes. Given that the YUUbag was developed with international markets in mind, the duo’s expansion plans hardly come as a significant surprise – the launch of the brand over in Australia is scheduled for the first quarter of 2013.
And as long as these entrepreneurs continue putting the things kids want at the centre of their products, it seems the world is truly within their grasp.