Game changers & entrepreneurs

The light fantastic

Emily Brooke’s degree project was a life-saving invention that’s been snapped up by Transport for London – and it now has global reach.

Were you always a cyclist?

I’d never actually been on a road bike, but at 25 I decided to cycle the length of the UK for charity. A girlfriend and I bought bikes, trained for four months, cycled 1,000 miles, fell in love with cycling and I’ve been on two wheels almost every day since.

Tell us about the inspiration for Blaze.

The week that ride finished, I began my final year studying product design at university. I chose the theme ‘urban cycling’ and wanted to identify then tackle the biggest challenge for city cyclists. Straight away, personal safety was shown to be the key issue: the greatest worry for those who do cycle, the biggest barrier for those who don’t.

Emily and her inspired project

A blaze of glory: Emily and her inspired project – a light that projects a glowing shape on the road so traffic knows you’re there. Photography: Tom Stockill/Camera Press

How did you go about your research? What are the main issues around vehicles and lights?

I did six weeks of intensive research before I came close to a solution: interviewing cyclists, working with the local bus company, hours of cycling with a GoPro camera strapped to my helmet, plus data analysis into the statistics of road accidents. That and working with a driving psychologist (who analyses accidents) proved the most fruitful. One statistic really jumped out: 79% of cyclists involved in an accident are hit travelling straight ahead, with someone manoeuvring into them. This accounts for the side turn blind spot issue, as well as the second most common cause of cycling accidents, a vehicle pulling out of a junction right in front of a cyclist. In both, the threat is in front of the bike. Cycling in town, I started to wish I had a ‘virtual me’ up ahead to warn drivers of my approach.

You initially raised money through Kickstarter?

We were one of their first projects to be launched in the UK, and raised an amazing £1.5m. But I also found a fantastic mentor through the accelerator Entrepreneur First. He is Dave Easton, simply a super-bright guy who asks the hard questions, who I met at the very beginning and who’s also become an investor, director of Blaze and friend.

What was the biggest design challenge?

Sourcing the technology. The crystals in a laser pointer make it very sensitive to temperature and vibration; not great for a bike light! So we use a direct diode, a newish technology developed for LED pico projectors in mobile phones, which is stable, robust and tiny. The thing is, now it’s been shown not many mobiles need pico projectors, the technology is quite tricky to get hold of!

How did it feel to be a very small company working with big suppliers?

Surprisingly collaborative and exciting! As a tiny, fast moving, innovative company, I think we were a refreshing change for Serco, TfL and Santander (who sponsor TfL’s bikes) to work with. At times it was challenging, but in the end it was extremely rewarding for all the stakeholders involved.

And how was it to work with Santander bikes?

TfL first commissioned the Transport Research Laboratory to test the effectiveness of our Blaze Laserlight. They conducted 12 weeks of detailed analysis, testing the visibility of a bike with and without the light around a bus, van, car and HGV, in different light conditions. Extremely nervewracking, but the result was a 92-page document for which I am incredibly grateful – it contains statements such as “a Laserlight decreases the blind spot of an HGV by over 25% and of a van by over 30%”. It showed that a bike with a Laserlight in pitch dark was more visible to a driver than a bike without in broad daylight. Amazing data.

Anything you’d change with hindsight, or advice for would-be entrepreneurs?

I spent my first year terrified, always worried if I was doing things the right way. It took me a while to realise that there are many ways to do things and no one right way – in reality you learn so much more by doing than thinking about doing.

And what’s your current focus?

We’re working on a new bike for London with Serco and bikemaker Pashley, but we’re also integrating our technology into bike-sharing schemes around the world; we’re planning to ship to more than 55 countries, with New York about to get its first Blaze devices for its Citi Bike system. We want to become technology partners for bike sharing, providing not just lighting but much more – and while we’re growing our product design team, to keep coming up with products for consumer cyclists. Basically, I just keep pedalling!



Portfolio Profile

Angus Thirwell

Hotel Chocolat has been the most tasteful achievement for its CEO. Jude Rogers discovers how a canny university dropout became the cocoa king

A 91% pre-tax rise in profits in your first year as a newly-listed company – any CEO would consider that a delicious result. But Angus Thirlwell of luxury chocolate retailer Hotel Chocolat hasn’t simply got lucky. The platinum-haired, 53-year-old entrepreneur may be a charismatic, slyly rebellious character, but he’s also someone who pays scrupulous attention to detail, has faith and persistence in new markets, and has an obsession with his product that is reaping rather tasty rewards.

It’d be fair to say that genes gave Thirlwell a good start. His father is Edwin Thirlwell, founder of ice cream brand Mr Whippy, as well as Kall Kwik and Prontaprint, businesses that did remarkably well for this North-East of England family in the late 20th century. “The fact that my dad really loves what he does was very infectious and inspirational,” Thirlwell jnr told the Guardian in September 2016 – his childhood was filled with conversations about Dad’s work around the dining table. (Dad’s now in his eighties and they’re still very close – Edwin is chairman of Hotel Chocolat’s cocoa plantation in St Lucia.)

Angus Thirlwell

Thirlwell effectively began his own business building small-scale, however, selling hot buttered toast to fellow pupils in the dorms at his public school. The rebel in him kept going and took over. He dropped out of a French and Economics degree after turning a degree work placement in Lille into a new market research and export business arm for the company. When he returned home in 1988, he began a corporate gifts firm with his friend Peter Harris – The Mint Marketing Company, which sold mints branded with company logos. It was funded by £10,000 of personal loans and they soon amassed a £3m turnover. In the 1990s, The Mint Marketing Company became Choc Express and in 2003 became Hotel Chocolat.

“We realised we wanted to be a proper luxury player,” Thirlwell explained in 2008, as the company celebrated its fifth anniversary under its new name. “Building the new brand was one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve ever done. It made the first 15 years in business seem like an apprenticeship – but you can’t start a company like Hotel Chocolat from scratch. Those first 15 years gave us the capital, the momentum and the customer base.”

CV

1963

Born in West Boldon, Tyne and Wear

1984

Drops out of French and Economics degree at Sheffield University to build export arm of software firm in Lille

1988

Co-founds The Mint Marketing Company with Peter Harris

1993

Runs one of the first companies to sell chocolates online

2003

Rebrands business as Hotel Chocolat

2004

Opens Hotel chocolate shop in Watford

2006

Buys cocoa plantation

2016

Floats company on stock market, profits rise 91% in first year

Thirlwell’s passion since the beginning has been in the quality of his product. In the early days of Choc Express he went on a “Flanders quest” of Belgian chocolatiers, signing up only the best producers for work. In 1998, he started an online chocolate-tasting club, where 30,000 members would taste-test his new products. Indeed, Hotel Chocolat began as a digital business, weathered the dotcom crash well and still thrives there – online sales went up 20% last year.

Thirlwell also realised that buying a cocoa plantation would ensure the quality of his products long term: 167 farmers on St Lucia’s 130-acre Rabot Estate began working for him in 2006. Two years earlier, Hotel Chocolat’s first shop had opened in Watford – the location a deliberate decision, rather than a launch in the city nearest their headquarters in Cambridge, because Thirlwell “didn’t want people to just buy stuff because they felt sorry for us”. He added wryly, “We thought if we could make it in Watford, we could make it anywhere!” And they certainly made it.

Hotel Chocolat’s empire now consists of 81 UK shops (including one in Cambridge), three in Copenhagen, flagship restaurants in London and Leeds, and a luxury hotel on the Rabot Estate plantation. The tasting club still thrives too, with over 100,000 members, brand loyalty being harnessed further through bond investments whose annual returns are chocolate treats. And even though Thirlwell made £20m out of the stock market flotation, he still shares a 66.6% stake in the company with Harris, ensuring firm hands are kept on brand development and business strategy.

This characterful CEO even told Retail Week last year how an unusual mentor keeps him looking forward: David Bowie. “He’s an artist who kept evolving, but kept the quality there. He always stayed one step ahead, surprised people in a big way, and transformed markets.” Rebel Rebel may be the song Angus Thirlwell is singing in business, but this year’s success has certainly ensured his stardom.



William Chase

Lightbulb Moment

William Chase

Upmarket crisp guy

William Chase is a multimillionaire, and has the assurance of a man who’s always been successful. Interesting, then, to learn his story. Chase bought his father’s Herefordshire potato farm at 20, selling to supermarkets. But the big stores demanded cosmetically perfect potatoes, rejecting any with knobbles. Downcast and beaten, his life-changing moment came in 2002, when he realised rejected potatoes were being bought by the UK arm of US crisp-maker Kettle, a new company making ‘posh crisps’ – cut a little thicker, fried by hand. After research in the US, Chase began making his own crisps at the farm, called Tyrells from the name of the property. He sold the business in 2008 for almost £40m, and has subsequently bought a distillation system, turning spuds into luxury Chase vodka. Now also making gin and whisky, Chase Distillery sells 10,000 bottles a week. The spirits go down well with a crisp. Nostrovia!

Photography: Bloomberg / Contributor
Illustration: Lee Martin

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