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ENTREPRENEUR an early love of music, Hugh also developed an interest in designing things and went to Loughborough University to study engineering design. By this time, he knew it was theoretically possible to make a plastic instrument – and wrote his degree dissertation to that effect. But it was only when he found himself struggling on his course that he decided to see if he could make his idea a reality. “I wasn’t doing very well on my course, because I was spending too much time playing music. Then this idea came along – and I managed to salvage my degree.” As he delved further into the idea of actually making a plastic trombone, Hugh discovered that people within the music industry had been testing the idea of plastic instruments

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since the 1970s. “But it wasn’t the right time,” he says. “The materials weren’t stable and there wasn’t the modern technology around, namely ‘rapid prototyping’. There was also people’s perception of a musical instrument made out of plastic that had to be overcome.” Hugh candidly admits that when he first decided to make a plastic trombone, in 2006, it was a bit of fun. “I’d heard a good brass player make a hosepipe sound fantastic,” he explains, “so it wasn’t so much a case of ‘can it be done?’ as ‘why not do it?’ But the commercial element was unfocused – I didn’t know if it would turn into something that was sold.” Yet the question he came up against most was ‘why would you want to do it?’ Even a

Why plastic was a sound investment Although no one had ever made a commercial success out of a trombone made of plastic, Steven Greenall spotted pBone’s business potential immediately. He first heard of it when his old music teacher, Simon Hogg, called to tell him. “I thought it was brilliant,” remembers Steven, an accomplished brass player himself and owner of Coventry-based Warwick Music, which specialises in music for brass and wind instruments. However, the commercial aspect wasn’t Steven’s first consideration: the initial aim was to bring to market a funky, relatively inexpensive and lightweight instrument that would encourage children and young people to take up the trombone, which had been slipping out of fashion. Even as he realised the full potential, Steven also understood Hugh’s need for time and space to develop the plastic trombone without commercial pressure. “When a young entrepreneur is going through that process, if you hammer them too much, it can be counter-productive. I knew the design element was good enough for people to want to play it.” Steven, who’s also a funding specialist and a former non-executive director of Advantage Creative Fund (ACF), found the money to allow Hugh to continue to develop and refine pBone. “I was working for ACF at the time and managed to secure seed capital from them to the tune of £15,000, because at that stage Hugh hadn’t actually made a plastic instrument and had no idea if it would be commercially viable. What it did was allow him to go off and make a prototype.” Five years later, in 2012, Steven secured additional funding from HSBC in the form of £350,000 worth of invoice financing. In the initial business plan, Steven and Chris Fower, the directors of Warwick Music, predicted just 6,000 unit sales over three years, but since clinching an exclusive, five-year worldwide distribution deal with Conn-Selmer, part of Steinway, in April 2011, more than 76,000 have been snapped up. “Things are going really well,” says Steven. “We’re focused on creating a sustainable business – we don’t want to be a one-trick pony. We’re going to concentrate on making great, innovative products.”

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musician he particularly admired wondered ‘why bother?’ “But I wanted to prove that it could be done,” says Hugh, “and so I persevered with it. I never doubted that it was possible, although there were lots of frustrations along the way.” Once he’d decided it was worth doing, Hugh set about working out exactly how to do it. The process of turning theory into commercial reality took more than five years. “Even then, I was still crying over this thing that wasn’t quite working,” says Hugh. “Having started out as a bit of a gimmick, it had become the most serious thing in the world. “But the crucial thing was that I was given a lot of time. I got the initial investment in 2007, after I’d been working on it for a year. After that, every day, every week and every month I was working my way around the instrument, solving this problem and solving that one.” The biggest challenge Hugh encountered was what to do about the trombone slide, which was initially made of solid plastic, but was inhibiting the instrument’s acoustics. “The point where it all came together was when I switched from solid plastic to a glass fibre tube, which made all the difference to the sound,” he explains. “The first eight inches of the slide are crucial, because that’s where the sound is created. The rest of it is amplification. Once I switched to fibre glass the sound quality improved dramatically.” It was when he joined forces with Steven Greenall, also a trombonist and the owner of Warwick Music, that the project finally gelled. “Through writing my dissertation, I interviewed a number of people, including my old music teacher Simon Hogg, who also happened to be Steven’s old teacher and a good friend, and both were involved in Warwick Music. “Simon spoke to Steven and Steven phoned me up. As a result, I secured the investment needed to make the prototype. Someone putting their money where my mouth was gave me quite a strange feeling and was a reality check – now I really had to do it.” The making of pBone was “quite a learning experience”, admits Hugh. “What I did was to phone lots of people and ask for help. For instance, I called a company in Leicester that specialised in glues and bonding materials. If

BQ WEST MIDLANDS issue 1  
BQ WEST MIDLANDS issue 1