Patrick Tonks of GreatBeanBags: Comfortably Out In Front

Businesses of a certain age go through many iterations to survive and thrive. GreatBeanBags is no exception.

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Businesses of a certain age go through many iterations to survive and thrive. GreatBeanBags is no exception.


Patrick Tonks of GreatBeanBags: Comfortably Out In Front

Businesses of a certain age go through many iterations to survive and thrive. GreatBeanBags is no exception.

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Patrick Tonks of GreatBeanBags: Comfortably Out In Front

Patrick Tonks, creative director at GreatBeanBags, describes the winding history of GreatBeanBags, a Nottinghamshire design and textiles fabrication business with origins in the early 1990s.

1. Describe your business

GreatBeanBags is an industrial/performance textiles fabrication and design company, making everything from bean bags to parachutes.

2. Where did you get the idea and why did you think there would be demand?

The joy of being a self-contained textiles company is that you can design, make and trial products in-house as required. Having made a couple of bean bags for ourselves and friends and getting hugely positive feedback we decided to start selling them as a business.

3. Plot the growth story to today. How many staff, what's the turnover and give us some idea of how your customer base has developed?

On 29 February, 1992, the company opened. At that time, the only thing we did was making and repairing parachute equipment, though this soon expanded to include other military equipment.

When we moved into our first factory, Peak Performance approached us about making sports and kayak equipment for them, which led onto manufacturing Gore-Tex mountain biking clothing for Polaris.

From here, a whole world of manufacturing for extreme sports opened up to us, including snow sports equipment and more.

Over the following years, we became better known as a company as more people heard about us and we had opportunities to manufacture different kinds of clothing and textiles for a range of sports and industries, from high-performance jackets for fishing to upholstery for the aerospace industry.


The team has grown a bit since the early days

The contacts we had built up over the 90s led to us repairing mattresses towards the end of that decade. Through this process, we developed covers for the mattresses, which led to our own development of foam-filled mattresses.

Around this time we also developed material for medical use, which is now widely used and manufactured. And finally, after making a few bean bags as one-offs, the feedback we received encouraged us to focus more on them, which led us to where we are today.

4. Is it a competitive market?

More and more people are coming into our sector, so it’s becoming tougher for new entrants. However, as exclusively British manufacturers we feel we have the edge on quality, service and turnaround time over our competitors, so we hope to continue growing off the back of top-class service and highly satisfied customers.

5. What have been the major bumps in the road?

Competing against cheap imports has been hard. Often the lack of quality in their products can be made up for by good imagery.

A few years back we had a problem with one courier company (who shall remain nameless).

We switched to them as they had great rates but after the sheer number of complaints - parcels left in the rain, lobbed over hedges, or left on the roadside - we switched back to our original courier company three days later.

It just goes to show you that get what you pay for!

6. How did you spread word about the business?

The biggest promo stunt we’ve done to date was where we made a modified bean bag out of ballistic nylon that was big enough for two people and paddled it down the National White Water Rapids course here in Nottingham!

7. What’s the hardest thing about running your own business and what makes it fulfilling?

Its tough at the top…the buck stops with you. You are responsible for the company’s performance. However, there are three partners in the company with a great diversity of skill sets, so we support each other.

One of the most fulfilling things is knowing that we are providing a stable income for 19 people (and hopefully more in the future).


8. What one thing would you change about doing business in the UK?

The amount of legislation. Or, more accurately, the complexity of the legislation.

9. What has been your biggest mistake as a business?

A number of years ago we ventured into importing. We went over to Vietnam to source rattan furniture to sell within the UK. We placed an order for a container's worth of various pieces of furniture, but when it arrived it was of such low quality we couldn't bring ourselves to try and sell it.

Since then we’ve vowed to manufacture all our own products and keep it British!

10. What sets your business apart from the rest and how have you nurtured that point of difference?

We manufacture to order. This way we don't have to hold any stock of beanbags, just the rolls of fabric. This allows us to have a huge diversity of products, sizes and colours. The fact we can manufacture the same day as the order comes in and ship it using a next day delivery service makes us really stand out against our competitors.

11. How have you developed your staff?

We have 4 staff who have been here for over 20 years, and 6 who have been here between 10 and 20 years. Our staff retention rates are high. We foster the ethos of respect in the factory and we also believe it's important to demonstrate the fruits of everyone's labours.

Every time a new product is made all the staff get to try it out, and every time a particularly good review is received or article comes out all the staff come up to the office to read it together.


Some people have been at GreatBeanBags for more than two decades

12. How do you rate government support for growing businesses and why?

The support is very good. We’ve had lots of help from “the growth hub” and a textiles growth grant.

13. What are your top three tips for people starting a business today?

-       Let the haters hate and ignore them. All you need is a little bit of luck and a whole heap of graft to succeed. There have been plenty of seemingly rubbish concepts that have become successes due to sheer force of will!

-       Put your tax money to one side! There's nothing worse than the thought of HMRC breathing down your neck when you don't have the funds to pay them.

-       Try not to use stock imagery on your website; people want to deal with a real company, warts and all.

For example, use your own staff in the “Contact Us” picture rather than the ridiculously good looking woman with the telephone headset and Hollywood smile that seems to be everywhere.

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Patrick Tonks of GreatBeanBags: Comfortably Out In Front

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