Accelerate - June 2014

The jump from being an engineer to an entrepreneur

open this image in new window: Springfree's Professor Keith Alexander

The challenges of an inventor attempting to morph into an entrepreneur-come-businessperson have been well documented.

As a mechanical engineer with a mindset better equipped to solve technical issues around physics, dynamics, stress and deformation, Keith Alexander appreciates that people with a market and consumer focus bring a different view of product requirements to a business.

He is now a professor within the University of Canterbury’s (UC) College of Engineering and in addition to this major role is a consultant and ‘research fellow’ (as he tries to nail a term) with Springfree Trampoline.

Using a design that eliminates the danger of falling off or onto a trampoline’s frame, Springfree Trampoline was a joint UC and Keith Alexander patent. When the university went searching for commercialisation partners in the late 1990s, they eventually attracted a Canadian investor and entrepreneur and brought him on board.

This has proven to be a fruitful partnership all round, for a product that sells for between $1200 and $2500 in New Zealand (US$500+) compared with cheaper trampolines of between $200 and $300. Last year, more than 40,000 of the Chinese-made, Christchurch-designed and engineered products were sold around the world.

Alexander says the decision to spend considerably more on a Springfree Trampoline, compared with a cheaper, but less safe trampoline, can be a tricky one for young families. However, those parents and grandparents who are aware of safety issues are willing to pay more, but also expect good quality and something that will last for 10 years or more.

Along the marketing journey, Alexander’s enjoyed the adaptation he’s had to make to his own thinking – designing and redesigning the original patent idea – “using a cantilever element compared with tension springs to tension the mat” – to protect and expand the trampoline’s intellectual property.

What was originally one patent is now 14. This makes any potential imitator’s job much more difficult, but also provides a strongly defendable position, should Springfree need to go to court. After 10 years of production, such defence is just starting to become necessary.

“When we first made the trampoline, we knew it would inevitably be more expensive,” says Alexander. “But I blindly believed there would be people who wanted to buy a safer option.”

The Canadian investor “complained about the higher cost and being forced to enter a market where everyone was competing on price, but he was clever enough to structure the messaging and the product so that people would understand the value and buy into it.”

The investor demanded a raft of modifications, including a (fortuitously) flexible net enclosure that broadened its appeal, and he provided a homely story that worked in different markets and different ways of distribution.

One of the changes was to construct the frame from powder-coated steel. The original galvanised frame “was too agricultural-looking for the North American market”, says Alexander.

Different distribution models have been applied in different markets, from selling largely through the internet in Australia, to setting up of Springfree’s own retail outlets in America.

Both countries have ‘Experience Centres’ set up, where potential customers, and their children, can “go and have a bounce, and maybe buy too”, he says.

Springfree has now reached a stage where it is beginning to operate more as a global entity, instead of having separate regional offices doing different things.

“This involves having common messaging, common marketing themes and common processes – a change from the entrepreneurial start-up that Springfree was. It is quite amazing to see this transition after knowing it as a start-up.”

His own consultant role is also morphing. Beginning in February, for an initial six-month period, Keith has taken two days a week out of his university job to work with the company in his ‘research fellow’ role.

“I’m a mentor, with some of the original experience of how and what we did in the past, to a team of five relatively new fulltime engineers,” he says.

Wearing his UC College of Engineering hat, he says there are a couple of other potential products that could be commercialised – though whether they’d be as successful as Springfree is an interesting question.

“You know the old story. An inventor creates something that’s successful. He thinks he knows it all, but, having had a ride through the commercialisation process beside a competent entrepreneur, I realise I’m still an amateur at most of this. It needs a team, and the team will decide what works and what doesn’t.”

Updated: 4 September 2015