Doing a job that revolves around toilet paper, nappies and incontinence products would be likely to make most of us daydream about an alternative nine-to-five.
Few, though, would be able to follow the example of South African Howard Harrison and turn that daydream into an internationally known accessories brand, Knomo. In the early 2000s, the lawyer-turned-banker found himself in the deals department of Kimberly-Clark — the US giant behind Kleenex and Huggies — spending his evenings brainstorming business ideas with his Venezuelan wife, Ana Maria.
Luckily, inspiration struck when his mind drifted to the boring, black laptop bag which he had been given by his employer but was gathering dust under his desk.
One day, I was in an airport and realised everyone’s bag looked the same. I thought, ‘why are all these people, who can clearly afford to spend money on their suits and shoes, happy to carry this really ugly bag around?’”
The former Iron Man competitor decided there was a gap in the market for a product that fused fashion and functionality.
“Fashion designers come through Central Saint Martins, and their whole focus is on seasonality and trends, while luggage is driven by industrial design like cars. My thinking at the time was that you could combine those skills to create something that’s desirable to carry, truly fit for purpose and well-designed,” Harrison says.
Despite his self-confessed naivety and awareness that most people didn’t give much thought to how they carried their laptop, he persevered with the concept and recruited university friend Benoit Ruscoe to help bring it to life. (Ruscoe and another co-founder, Alistair Hops, have since left the business to return to South Africa.)
Their products, boasting a clean exterior disguising handy pockets and sleeves for devices and travel essentials like passports, were first put to the test at a Derby trade fair in summer 2004. They sold just 14 bags, which barely covered the costs of attending, but piqued the interest of a Selfridges buyer.
The door didn’t open immediately — every day they called buyers at Selfridges, John Lewis and Harrods, causing the latter to request they never get in contact again — but by the end of 2004 they had secured spots in all three stores.
There were hiccups in the early days. Production delays had buyers threatening to cancel shipments but they managed to despatch the orders at the eleventh hour.
Then half of a batch of 500 bags they launched with were returned after their cool-looking but, as it turned out, very flimsy Italian locks broke in a “painful” lesson about product testing. (Today every bag is dropped 5000 times with 15kg inside during quality control.) But Knomo, a combination of the words knowledge and mobility, made it through — and its products, such as the best-selling £149 Beauchamp backpack, are now stocked in about 2000 shops in almost 30 countries. Around 40% of sales are made online, with a third of cust
In fact, Harrison is so confident that he is taking the plunge on Knomo’s first stand-alone retail store. The idea was trialled when a small slice of Knomo’s office was converted into retail space, which has helped staff connect with customers. He expects to sign a deal for a W1 property and open the store, which will also house a coffee shop, by the summer. Ultimately, he wants five branches in the capital.
In the meantime, Knomo products are likely to get a tech upgrade. Some already include in-built device chargers, but it is patenting its DropGo wireless in-bag charging tool that allows wearers to power up on the move.
It is hoped that Apple’s next iPhone, expected in September, will have similar technology — known as inductive charging — built in.
Knomo is currently testing demand for such sophisticated accessories via a Kickstarter fundraising for its £162 #LiveFree backpack. The bag has a side pocket for inductive charging and contains blue-tooth tracking in case the item is misplaced. It also features Knomo’s signature hard-wearing, water-repellent British fabric, device protection and organisation system. With five days to go, the Kickstarter campaign has raised more than £83,000, well past its goal of £50,000.
Though Harrison admits there have been a few scrapes along the way, he clearly has no regrets about turning his back on the steady, corporate job.
On the way out of Knomo’s headquarters, the company’s proudly displayed mission statement sums up why. It reads: “An average life isn’t for us.”
Harrison, who self-funded the business until angels and private-equity firm Rockpool invested, describes the company as a “slow build” but thinks it’s about to come into its own as working days become more flexible and working from home more prevalent. That’s the way Knomo staff are encouraged to operate, particularly as it’s getting harder to squeeze them all into its Great Portland Street base.