Hi Guys, Had the opportunity to interview Adam Robinson, A graduate from leeds university mastering in product design how an opportunity to travel and study abroad breathed life to his startup Plus Minus Design
Enjoy the interview
HI Adam, How are you doing today? It’s great to have you on YHP, Can you quickly give us some background information about yourself?
Hi, yes my name is Adam Robinson and I am 24 and one of the co-founders of Plus Minus Design. I am a graduate from the University of Leeds completing a masters in Product Design in June 2009 and originally from Highburton a small village in West Yorkshire close to Huddersfield.
How did you get involved with plus minus design?
I met Henry James, one of the co-founders of Plus Minus Design, on the first day of University, since then we were always a formidable team on our degree course. With Henry having considerable creative design talent, and myself skilled in detailed design and commercialisation, working together we were an unbeatable team. Outside studies we had always talked of establishing a business after university.
This was originally going to be TOFU - a designer/maker business of high-end sustainable furniture. In our final year of University however we worked with several multinational clients on commercial design projects and from their feedback we were convinced to entre into design consultancy. This was when Plus Minus Design was formed.
Why start a business? What inspired or motivated you towards taking that action?
In our third year of university Henry and myself took an opportunity to travel to and Study at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada.
To be honest our main motivation for this was to snowboard between classes however when we arrived there we meet a man who inspired us – Brian Burns. Brian is a leading academic figure in Sustainable design principles and it was under his guidance that we research, co-authored and published a text book on sustainable design – EcoSuss.
This experience, coupled with our already strong design skills gave us the expertise to be world leaders at delivering sustainable innovation. Couple this with the relationship we had established with blue chip design buyers and the decision to establish a business was easy.
You run the company with two other co-founders right? How did you guys meet each other?
That’s right I have already mentioned Henry James who I met on the first day of University. The other co-founder is Thomas Eales. Henry and myself met Tom during our final year of studying a Masters in Product Design at the University of Leeds.
Do you think running the business with two other people has helped your business grow or even helped you guys individually?
Most defiantly. One of the reasons we went into business together was because of our complimentary skill sets. Henry is one of the most talented conceptual designers I have ever met. Tom is excellent with new technologies and emerging innovations and personally I complimented for my analytical business leadership, detailed design for manufacture skills and eye for commercialisation. Working together we have built a highly desirable design service working with world leading businesses all over the world. Individually I doubt we could be any more then junior designers.
Let’s take a step back a bit, can you tell a bit about what your company does and what role you play in the business?
Plus Minus Design provides disruptive innovation that maximises social impact and minimises environmental impact– (Plus Minus – You can see where the name comes from now!) What that means is that we provide product ideas that truly change market places. A good example is the apple Ipod, that completely changed the personal music market forever or the Dyson vacuum cleaner that did the same in home cleaning.
This is the type innovative, market-leading design we practise. We couple this with an expert knowledge of environmental principles to minimise impact and maximise on the social and financial benefits.
Personally I am Managing Director of Plus Minus Design and provide both business leadership and project management. I am then supported by Henry in creative design and corporate relationship and Tom in technology and marketing.
What value does your company add to the environment and society?
With the risk of making gross generalisations, many people preaching sustainability are focused on the reduction of consumption – using and buying less. This concept while based on admirable ethics is in itself unsustainable. We live in a global economy that is tied to the consumption of goods and products and have a global economy expanding faster every day.
For people to maintain a good level of living we have to have more consumption not less. This leaves us with one option – improving what we buy. That’s where we come in.
I love products and I love buying the latest gadgets and I’m sure the vast majority of us are the same. For this reason we preach more of the same but better. Every product we design is focused on the improvement of people’s lives while minimising the impact it causes. Zero impact in product design is some way off but we promise zero unnecessary impact.
What would you say was key in getting you guys off your feet, starting this business?
It goes without saying that our expertise and experience with multinational clients was high beneficial. That considered however I would say the key was hard work and determination couple with an excellent support network from the university, our contacts and government schemes. At times in the first 6 months the motivation to keep going was hard to find and we had many setbacks but having a team for three people at least on of use was always in a position to re-motivate the other two and keep driving things forwards.
How were you able to get funding for your business?
The majority of funding for our business was provided by ourselves and a grant from Leeds Universities start-up agency – SPARK.
What role did going to the university have on you guys starting a business? What help and assistance did they make available?
When we started and throughout the history of the business the University of Leeds have been very supportive providing business set-up guidance, proving us with business contacts and support on funding. These services were all provide through the universities business start-up program – SPARK who assistance especially in the early stages was invaluable.
From a commercial aspect they have provided us with contracts from both their own clients and themselves. In addition to this we are regularly invited to high profile networking events operated for Leeds University associates.
What is your aim, what are you looking to achieve with plus minus design?
The aim for Plus Minus Design is to be world leaders at delivering disruptive innovation with a studio presence in Australia, Europe, South Africa and North America. In addition to this however we aim to have a portfolio of world leading product innovations that we have designed and launched for ourselves not just clients, one of which is the Solar Pebble.
So tell us about solar pebble? What was the inspiration behind it?
The Solar Pebble was actually inspired by a fact we heard. “1 person in developing nations dies every 20 seconds from the use of kerosene lighting” that statistic by itself is staggering however after a bit of research we found a bit more… over 50% of green house gasses from developing nation is from burning fuels such as kerosene for lighting and cooking.
Kerosene for lighting costs people over £80 every year (that’s over 1/3 of an average families income). Education is significantly restricted due to the inability to read and work at night. Education about AID and other viruses is highly ineffective due to lack of working radios.
With so many green and safe technologies available in the western world this appalled us and we started work on what evolved in to the Solar Pebble. The Solar Pebble offers users a light source that is 10x’s more powerful then a kerosene lantern, is infinitely safer, can power radios and costs just £5! It charges during the day through a small efficient solar panel and provides light in the evening through 9 LED’s and also powers phones and radios.
What are your next steps now for the solar pebble?
Right now we are exploring licensing opportunities with manufactures who can get this product both out to the markets where it is desperate needed and also to Western markets to be sold as a home, camping and festival accessory. We are in a number of negotiations but if any one is interested please contact me.
What should we be expecting from you in the future?
Most of that’s top secret! What I can say is right now we are exploring a number of app’s to help people save power and help them build contacts when starting a business. Also google “Just Add Water from Plus Minus” a product combating the negative impacts of the bottled water industry. If you will pardon the pun, it just made a big splash on the design blogs!
Do you have any tips for young and aspiring entrepreneurs?
If you have an idea that’s not going to put you in jail, just go for it you will never have a better opportunity. Right now most young people have very little to lose and few family restrictions meaning the only way is up! When we started we were heavily in debt from education and nothing to our names. Most people saw this as a restriction and said we needed to work for a few years to get some working capital together. We saw it as an opportunity – with nothing to lose there’s only one direction!
Thanks for your time Adam, good luck!