Jane Rafter: From designer to big business

When accessories designer Jane Rafter stepped up with her ingenious Slinks sandals to face the Dragons on the BBC’s hit show this summer, it wasn’t just a pretty idea she was pitching.

Like most of the entrepreneurs appearing on Dragons Den, her 3-minute presentation represented an initial flash of inspiration as the foundation to a mountain of dedication and sheer hard work.

I know. Since 2003 I’ve been lucky enough to work with or interview some of the Den entrepreneurs and many others like them as they journey through transforming a new product or innovative business idea into commercial reality.

The challenge for many talented designers like Jane is in finding a way for their creative integrity to sit comfortably within a profitable and scalable commercial model.

In this 2-part video interview I captured with Jane at the British Invention Show (BIS) 2008, it’s clear she was still in full launch mode, deservedly proud of the Top Drawer award for Best New Jewellery Fashion Accessory Product won earlier that year, as well as the slew of great publicity in top publications and websites such as The Daily Telegraph and Easy Living magazine.

Jane stole the Platinum Consumer award at the BIS, and in June 2009 went on to win the award in the Exceptional Creative category at the BFIIN (British Female Inventors and Innovators Network) Awards organized by the Global Women Inventors and Innovators Network (GWIIN).

“I’m especially pleased to win in the this category” said Jane, “because creativity is so important to me as a designer.”

Clearly Jane’s Slinks with their patented system for interchanging beautifully made decorative uppers on a leather sandal base have won hearts for their innovative design and quality of presentation. But would her idea fare as well as an investible business for the Dragons when she faced them in summer 2009?

It’s significant to contrast Jane’s emphasis on the high-end boutique end of the market in these videos with a shift during her Den appearance towards high street retail. While Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones agreed that the high production cost and price point squeezed out any room for a return on investment, James Caan and Theo Paphitis were keen to offer £75,000 for a 40% stake in the business, on condition that the marketing strategy and pricing be refocused toward volume sales.

And Jane, showing herself as much a practical business woman as designer, quickly picked up on popularizing her Slinks as the way to go.

It’s a good lesson for all the aspiring designers among us. Whether in fashion, jewellery, accessories, giftwares or home interiors and handicrafts, having designed a quality handcrafted product for the high end of the market, it’s usually necessary to shift the vision to larger consumer markets to create a business that can show growth and attract investment. That’s if an enterprise is to move up a level from the irritatingly labelled “lifestyle business” – one that makes enough money for a business to tick along as a one-woman show – to one that returns enough profit to take on staff, scale up production, and take on funds in return for equity.

But before any creatives head straight for the mass markets with their designs in the hope of hitting the big time, it’s encouraging to note the edge that successful designers like Jane instinctively work into their business models.

They know that design integrity is everything. A reputation for quality, innovative design will give them the chance to become a brand in their own right. And protecting the Intellectual Property in their work by registering a patent, design or trademark shows they mean serious business.

Certainly for Jane, being true to her own creativity as a designer but wised up to the ingredients for big business looks set to reap just rewards.


About the Author: Cally Robson is a product development specialist and Founder of www.ShesIngenious.org, a network and online library resource for women developing and commercializing new product ideas and inventions. Cally runs regular events for enterprising women at the British Library Business & IP Centre in London.

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