Interview With Jon Penn From Spinninghat

by Waikit Chung on April 6, 2009

Spinning Hat is a gift design company that invents fun product concepts and transform these creative ideas into exciting new consumer products.

They are well known for producing innovative men’s gifts, but they also do a wide range of work on other consumer product areas, and work with retailers to design exclusive product ranges for them.

Spinning Hat started out in 2004, when Jon and Damon launched the world’s first counting bottle opener.

Here we are talking with Jon about his company business and design approach.

Thank you for your time for this interview at Product Design Hub.

Could you please tell us more about yourself and your business partner and how you got into your business?

Damon and I first met when we studied a degree in Business Information Systems Management at Bournemouth University.  After leaving university I went off into the Financial IT market whilst Damon continued his studies gaining a Masters in European Business.

Within one year of working in the corporate world we both decided that we wanted something more from life.  All throughout university we talked about running our own company but never really sat down and analyzed it in much detail.  So when we finally got round to putting our heads together, we had the mammoth task of deciding what it was our company would do.

As we find is still the case, most of our best ideas and brainstorming sessions involve a beer…or two.  So, it was in the pub that we decided to have our first attempt at working out what our business was going to be.  Fortunately for us it was some time before we fell upon our first idea (and a lot of beers later), and hence was born the BottleSpy.  This was a bottle opener that not only opened your beers but also reminded you of how many you have managed to knock back in one sitting. The product testing of this product has been the most fun to date!

After the launch of the BottleSpy we soon realized we had to have a much larger catalog of products in order to supply the larger retailers, so it was at this stage we decided to have a combination of sourced products and own designed lines. We started traveling to trade shows all round the world looking for products that we could distribute in Europe.  Of all our distributed lines, our best selling to date has been the Swiss Tech Utili-key, which we exclusively distribute throughout Europe.

More recently we have moved away from the distribution model and focused solely on developing our own ideas with the long term aim of achieving a well recognized high street brand.  This gives us much more freedom in terms of the direction of our product development, the management of product costs, and the scope of our market, which is now worldwide as opposed to just UK and Europe.

The coming year is an exciting time for Spinning Hat, as we are launching a huge amount of products which are all in-house designed.  Some examples of the these new lines include the Twisted Ties, Blood Bath Shower curtain and Bath Mat.

What does design mean to your company?

From the experience I have had so far, I believe the key to a successful design, from a business point of view, has to be “fit for purpose”.  It’s no good having an intricately designed product which uses only the most expensive materials if there is no profitable market for it.  All businesses exist to make money, and this must be stuck to in all designs – not just in terms of the end result but also the management of time spent within the design process itself.

The products that Spinning Hat sell are predominantly aimed at the £9.99 price point which means that managing the profitability of designs is critical to our success.  Packaging design plays a key role at these price points and requires a careful balance between cost control and packaging aesthetics.  Getting it right for us means creating enough intrigue about a product, whilst not eroding the product’s profitability.  In a high street retail environment it’s fundamental that the consumer is attracted to your product and not a competitor’s, and secondly that they understand the product concept within a matter of seconds.

Another area of design we are conscious of is the impact on transportation costs, both economically and environmentally.  Your product and its packaging need to make it to the customer without getting damaged, whilst not costing the earth to get it there.

Sometimes the best ideas are coming from a drink with your friends at a bar. Did the Beer Tracker come out from a bar?

Within Spinning Hat we try and encourage everyone to come up with ideas and to be part of the idea generation process.  The ideas themselves can come from anywhere and anyone.

We always try to get fresh eyes and brains into the design process whenever we can, whether it’s from around the office or from friends and family. No matter how good you are at designing, there’s still a tendency to develop occasional tunnel vision when you’ve been looking at the same product for so long and all it takes is another person’s input to regain peripheral. It’s also important to ensure that people outside of the process understand and appreciate the product before too much time and effort is spent on the development

The designers have sessions of ‘forced’ idea generation from a specific subject, object or scenario and brainstorm outwards from this, but often the best ideas appear when the last thing you’re trying to do is think of product ideas. (Favorites seem to be ‘sitting on the train’, ‘lying in bed trying to sleep’ and ‘down the pub with your mates’). We will also visit design shows, trade shows, galleries etc and anywhere else that interests us to spur on the inspirational brain activity.

There’s never a shortage of ideas, but we also resist the temptation to discount them too early. An idea may seem like nothing special at the outset, but all it takes is for someone to come up with one good design concept for that idea and it just snowballs. The Twisted Ties was a prime example of this!

What is your other best selling product and how did the design and business approach of it help succeeding?

Probably our best selling product at present is our blood bath range (Shower Curtain & Bath Mat) which has led to some phenomenal PR coverage recently.  At first we were a little unsure as to how the public would take to this product concept but we thought as long as we keep it light hearted then it has potential.

From a design point of view there wasn’t much development required to manufacture this product so I think it goes to show you how design really is about fit for purpose within the gift market.  Sometimes the simple ideas turn out to be the most successful ones!

How do you make sure your designs will sell well and not fail?

This part of the business is like a black art as you are effectively trying to predict what thousands of people will want and as much as you would like to please everyone out there actually making this happen is a very challenging task.

At Spinning Hat we go through a number of rigorous processes from the point of idea generation through to final selection.

The first process we go through is carrying out extensive market research on the idea/concept to identify if it is already in the market place.  I also think it is important to check what products your competitors are putting into the market place as well.  I guess it all depends on where you see yourself in the market place as at Spinning Hat we want to be remembered as the company that brings out fresh and exciting new products, not the company that copies company xyz etc.

Once we have shortlisted our favorite ideas/concepts we then put the ideas to the test by sending them out to a small focus group so we can get a better idea of how a consumer will perceive the product and most importantly will they buy it!  Again even though we may get some great feedback on a concept there is still no guarantee that the retail buyers will take stock of our product.

This then leads to the importance of working closely with your customers.  All throughout the design process we are keeping our customers updated with our new ideas and getting feedback on what is selling well and what is not.  Also, as each product enters the market place you start to learn about the other distribution issues that products will encounter such as breakage, ease of transporting, cost of transporting and packaging stability etc.  The more of this information you collect and understand the more chance you will have of your next product being a bigger success!

What are the biggest challenges in your business?

Since the start up of Spinning Hat in 2004 we have been faced with many different challenges each year such as whether we distribute or manufacture, do we keep the process in-house or outsource, can we replace that with an IT system etc…

Where the company is now, our next biggest challenge is going to be ensuring we have the right resource pool of talented people so we can continue bringing out fresh, exciting new ideas and that we can continue to deliver to our customer’s expectations.

Has your company been affected by the current economic crisis? What would you advice to aspiring designers and entrepreneurs who want to run their own design business during this time of economic instability?

I think everyone has been impacted by the current economic climate in some way or another.  As Spinning Hat is still a relatively new company it allows us to react much quicker to the external environment than perhaps a much larger well established company.  Also, as we are a growing company we still have much more growth potential so times like these can be considered a good opportunity rather than a major concern.  We plan to survive the recession through global sales growth and exciting product innovation.

From a product point of view our consumers will be looking for well designed, good value for money, medium price point products.

Where do you see yourself and your business in the next 5 years?

I would like to think that in 5 years from now Spinning Hat is a well established, recognized high street brand with its products being sold all over the world.  Within that time we should have built an experienced, talented design team that could allow us to move into other industries or areas within design.

What would you advice to upcoming designers who want to create fun gifts?

Only having experience within the gift market I would recommend that you:

  • Check what is already in the market place?
  • Identify who is going to buy your product?
  • Is the product design realistic?
  • Can you achieve the right price point with the chosen design?

Thank you for the interview, is there anything else you want to share with the community here?

I’m always looking to work with new designers so if you have an idea or would like to work together on a new project then please feel free to contact me on jon@spinninghat.com or visit our website at www.spinninghat.com

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