Jane ní Dhulchaointigh’s glue has gained legions of fans who use it to seal cracks, fix busted bathroom fixtures or, in the case of a British TV show, affix their cameras to the outside of a small rocket that they then launched into space. A farmer even used it to make and attach a prosthetic leg to one of his chickens, who got nipped by a fox. And ní Dhulchaointigh knows all this because people tweet and Instagram and YouTube their crafts — it’s an online community driven by the question, “What else can this stuff hold?” But this booming business almost didn’t happen, because ní Dhulchaointigh, a London-based product designer, wanted to just sell the thing off.
The project first started small: She was creating an ergonomic knife handle with a mixture of silicone caulk and sawdust. Then she spent six years experimenting with 5,000 different variations of her formula until she had made a moldable, rubberized glue, which she planned to sell to a large multinational like 3M. But it was 2008 and the recession stopped that idea cold. “A lot of experienced people told me that I had to partner with a big company to succeed,” she says. “But, often things have to go really bad for us to have the confidence to do something different. We didn’t have a choice but to go and do it on our own.”
It worked: Last year, her revenues doubled to $4 million. Here’s how she got there:
Step 1. Think internationally.
As soon as she had a working product, her business partner insisted they file for patent protection across Europe, the U.S., China and India. “Even though we’ve only been selling Sugru in America since 2014, we knew almost six years before then that we would,” she says. “Having that protection made it much easier to find investors who would let us scale manufacturing to meet demand.”
Step 2. Launch a community.
“When we started, we made it very user oriented, not necessarily application oriented,” she says. “We let the users tell us how Sugru could work.” The company showed off users’ photos online, and eventually launched a blog and a page where anyone could ask the company how to fix anything with Sugru. Users ran with this, trading their own tips and insights.
Step 3. Follow the data.
When Sugru first went on sale through Amazon U.K., half of its orders came from the U.S. After a few years, ní Dhulchaointigh had sales data proving that Americans were interested, which helped her break into the market.
Step 4. Lock up capital to fund rapid growth.
To help fund Sugru’s U.S. expansion, the company launched an equity crowdfunding campaign in 2014. (The U.K. has allowed this kind of fundraising for three years, and the U.S. followed last summer.) Sugru asked for £1 million, and hit its goal in just four days. It went on to raise £3.4 million ($5.2 million).
Step 5. Remember your strength.
“We’re in a category where not much new or innovative takes place, and the space is dominated by companies like 3M,” ní Dhulchaointigh says. Buyers are intrigued, but she knows they won’t sign right away; they may not see a need. So she keeps the conversation open. It took about a year to finally get orders from Target and Lowe’s — but now she’s there, on the shelves next to 3M products.
Sell, Improve, Repeat: Once ní Dhulchaointigh developed the first version of Sugru — what she considered a minimum viable product — she put it up for sale online and closely followed early users’ responses. Her team never stopped iterating based on that feedback. Sugru’s shelf life has improved from six months to 13, and they’re now working on a version with no chemicals so it can be used in hospitals, and so parents feel okay about using it on children’s toys.