Business planning, Growth, How I did it, Innovation, Sell a business

From broken back to breakthrough global product: a local manufacturing startup’s story

Rose Powell /

When Alex John fractured his back on a home-made waterslide, he thought his life as he knew it could well be over. It was, but for reasons other than he first imagined.

 

While recovering in hospital, he was struck by an idea for a plumbing product.

 

After watching a doctor demonstrate what had happened to his back with a model of a spine, he realised the bendy material it was made of could be the breakthrough for thousands of plumbers who have to twist themselves into unusual positions to make sure sealant is properly applied.

 

The idea for what would become Bent-Over Silicone Nozzles was born. It went on to win Startup Hero at the 2014 StartupSmart awards.

 

But launching a manufacturing startup in Australian isn’t easy. John, with his wife and business partner Eve, began talking about the idea and running it past as many plumbers as they could.

 

“Alex got a lot of visitors from his union reps, and he was always talking about it from his hospital bed,” Eve says. “It’s not the best way to do market research but it was effective! We got it confirmed that it was a problem. Lots of tradies have burned eyebrows off or damaged their knees trying to make the existing tool work.”

 

The Johns knew they’d be up for a bit of a battle. Their main competitor was a free product, so they’d need to get it into the hands of plumbers to give it a whirl before they’d buy it.

 

Eve says they kept talking about it for years, as Alex recovered from his injuries, but it wasn’t until 2009 they decided to go for it.

 

“Our new baby was in hospital and we kept looking at each other grimly, and needed something to talk about to take our minds off it,” Eve says.

 

Several hundred sketches and a successfully filed patent later, the Johns located a small manufacturer in the Melbourne suburb of Eltham to start making prototypes.

 

They spent eight months in 2011 testing different materials and shapes as manufacturing’s decline sped up.

 

“Everyone kept saying it’d never work and it was impossible to compete with a free product. But I just kept hearing that and it made me know I had to do it,” Eve says.

 

While Eve was always confident, it took a phone call in 2013 from a retailer in the United Kingdom to convince Alex they were truly onto a good thing.

 

“It was still a bit slow here because getting new products in the door is hard, but the UK call really helped Alex see the potential,” Eve says. “It’s taken off here since then too.”

 

Bent-Over Silicone Nozzles places an order every second month. The most recent one was for more than 15,000.

 

The Johns are new to running a distribution business.

 

“Just knowing where to go next is tough. There is a lot of trial and error, and it’s hard to learn to trust yourself. I hear advice that is foreign and totally new to me, but we’re learning to trust the experts and those who have gone before us,” Eve says.

 

The Bent Over Silicone Nozzles team will receive 10 hours of business advisory services from major sponsor DFK Australian New Zealand.

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