Qualified massage therapist Una Tucker is both the founder and product designer for Kneads Must – an at-home massage tool to use in-between professional treatments. She talks about her inspiration and offers buckets of business advice.
Can you introduce us to Kneads Must and what the inspiration was behind your business?
In a nut shell, Kneads Must designs and manufactures easy-to-use, hand-held massage tools for both trade and public use. We’re on a mission to get everyone massaging regularly for a healthier way of life. There was more frustration than inspiration when I designed the Kneader (‘Kneads Must’ is my company and my creed)! I’m a registered massage therapist who couldn’t find any suitable massage tools to recommend to my clients to use at home in-between their treatments, so I designed my own and the Kneader was born.
I’m a registered massage therapist who couldn’t find any suitable massage tools to recommend to my clients to use at home in-between their treatments, so I designed my own…
Can you talk us through how you designed the ‘Kneader’ and what important features you wanted it to have?
I probably should say that it took ages and lots of sophisticated gear (which it did in the manufacturing, research and development stages) but the initial ‘eureka’ moment was both quick and simple. I was back home in Dublin on a visit and had been out at a party the night before. Standing around for hours in high heels left my back, legs and feet decidedly sore the next morning; so there I was pondering – again – on how great it would be to have a massage tool that did all the moves of a professional massage but could be used at home by everybody and the Kneader popped into my head – like a photograph. Of course, I had to make adjustments, but the picture I drew of it that morning is amazingly close to the finished product.
If a product is too complicated, customers won’t use it – there are plenty of other massage tools banished to the back of lonely drawers and wardrobes already.
For starters, the design had to be multi-functional and ergonomic – i.e. do all the major massage moves without pinching or prodding the recipient and the tool had to feel as good a human hand, which it really does. I also wanted the Kneader to be easy to use – the fact that every part of the Kneader is usable and there’s no right or wrong way to hold it eliminates people getting hung-up on semantics; because if a product is too complicated, customers won’t use it – there are plenty of other massage tools banished to the back of lonely drawers and wardrobes already. Our products come with a lot of instruction; just have a look at some of the Kneader moves on our DVD or the KML website or our YouTube channel and then it’s a case of whatever works for you! Finally, I wanted the Kneader to be affordable and top quality because I expect value for money, so I won’t sell anything that I wouldn’t first buy as a customer myself.
What challenges have you faced along the way and what lessons have you learnt from them?
Oh, the usual start-up/small business hurdles: not enough money or experience of running a company, timing issues and technological limitations (usually mine!).
A professional investor wouldn’t have given a massage therapist who wanted to start an international massage tool company a second look, so Kneads Must (like the majority of business start-ups) was funded by friends and family investment that came in small tranches over several years, which really slowed things down. My initial ‘eureka’ design moment in 2003 was followed by five years of research and development trying to prototype the tool, sort IP protection and acquire a manufacturer on a very limited budget.
Then, in 2008, the recession hit and the ensuing hard times ended a lot of start-ups. Kneads Must had to wait until 2011 to get manufactured and out there in the market. In the interim, advancing technology and the growth of the internet has changed everything in business. For instance, when we started in 2003, internet buying accounted for 10-15% of the market – now internet buying has overtaken high street shopping and the Kneader is primarily an internet product (sold through Amazon), which makes things a bit easier!
The trick is keeping up with market trends…
But sometimes it’s hard to keep up with change – the instructional DVD that comes with the Kneader made us pretty unique when we first hit the market, but now DVD players are nearly obsolete as everyone uses their tablets or smartphones to look at instructional stuff. The trick is keeping up with market trends, which is why I have created the Kneader On-Site Massage arm to the company. People now have more money than time, which is why services (i.e. a really good 15-30 minute chair massage can be done pretty much anywhere) is what’s really in demand – and the best way to sell a Kneader is to use it on someone!
As for advice on the lessons I have learned? Think things through! This is sort of hard to do when, as a small or slow-growing business, you are limited by time and resources. Sometimes I was so focussed on the ‘Next Step’ that I didn’t see the whole picture and made decisions that were good (or cheap) for the moment but had a very limited shelf life and had to be undone and then amended to a much greater cost down the line. For short-term goals, think the Nike ad of ‘Just Do It’, but always act in relation to a long-term plan and/or goals, otherwise you are just drifting. Finally, keep control of your shares – otherwise you can go from being the owner of a company to an employee in the blink of an eye! Thankfully, I did not learn this from personal experience but from watching the demise of others and it wasn’t pretty.
How do you find trade shows help your business and what tips would you give for ways to optimise them effectively?
Trade shows are a fun way to keep up with what’s going on in your marketplace but they are also of a bit of a numbers game and therefore a mixed bag. It’s very costly to exhibit – even a basic stand will run to nearly £5,000 when all is said and done – so smaller businesses that want to exhibit may have to focus on the market exposure rather than any sales they’d get at a show. People are always friendly and introductions do happen but real networking is hard when you are working a stand or, worse, when you are trying to engage a busy exhibitor in some chat. I just take lots of business cards and follow-up with an email or call a couple of days after the show for maximum impact. My philosophy with trade shows is to not expect anything but a good day out and then everything after that is a bonus.
What golden advice would you give to other budding entrepreneurs and product designers when starting out?
Well, whether it’s considered golden or something akin to a darker shade of brown is down to personal opinion, but my advice to entrepreneurs and designers is that one size does NOT fit all. Business seminars and professional investors tend to work by a set of rules, some of which are too general to work in the real world. So what if your business doesn’t take off into big money in three years? If it’s a good product or service that people actually want and you have the patience, discipline and determination to put in the time and resources, then why not row your own boat? My lack of business experience meant that I made my share of mistakes but I was prepared to soldier on and learn from each experience and that’s the way businesses, like people, grow. Technology and the internet today means that B2B connections are much easier to achieve, so just get your product made and out in the market sooner rather than later – just make sure you have your IP sorted first!
The second bit of advice is to make things personal, when appropriate, because business really is about people. The Kneader has always had its fans, and I have made great business friends along the way who gave me mate-rates (and often freebies) with regards to providing contacts, IP help, packaging design, photography, filming and manufacturing/logistical help etc,. I would therefore advise all small to medium start-ups to focus on finding familiar and friendly faces in their market – i.e. successful businesses and/or business people that started out the same way as you and appreciate the effort of you/your company’s journey. They will be the ones that will offer the encouragement and day-to-day help that is invaluable to your business survival and growth, not the big-boy players, who tend to be fickle and fixated mainly on profit.