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SurfaceScreen – Specialises In Nanotech Protective Coatings: Start-up Profile
By Michelle Hammond
A TV show about NASA spacesuits inspired Christian Le Loux to start his tech company, Fourteen92, which is releasing products under the registered trademark name of SurfaceScreen.
“Basically, we specialise in nanotech protective coatings for both the consumer and industrial markets,” Le Loux says.
The Sydney-based business was officially founded in 2011, but Le Loux and his business partner Pat Shiels have been working on the concept, and identifying trading partners, since 2009.
“We’ve now reached 130,000 views on YouTube,” Le Loux says.
Le Loux talks to StartupSmart about how NASA spacesuits served as inspiration for his business, and how he’s using YouTube to promote his products.
What prompted you to launch it? What niche did you identify?
Funnily enough, the inspiration came from watching a show on Discovery.
It was about how NASA was using a specialised spacesuit treatment derived from nanotechnology to keep suits clean and free from contamination.
So we knew the technology existed and set about researching how to commercialise it.
Given the nature of the products and the level of innovation they included, we were sure that we could develop a profitable niche.
My background is consulting. For the last six years, I have been working with companies to help define, build and implement sourcing strategies.
I left a senior management role with Ernst & Young in February to dedicate all of my time to Fourteen92 and mobilising SurfaceScreen.
How did you fund the business and what were your start-up costs?
The business has been funded out of savings and a small business overdraft. Initial investment was around $50,000.
We were adamant from the start that we did not want to dilute equity by offering investment opportunities.
As we scale and open manufacturing facilities on other continents we will look for investors, though for now it’s nice to have 100% control and ownership.
How many staff do you have?
Just the two of us at this stage. My partner is in charge of business development and sales, and I cover everything in between.
All of our manufacturing, bottling, storage and fulfillment is carried out by third-party contractors. We wanted to have a very flexible and low-cost supply chain to minimise overheads.
To date, this setup is working well, with almost every part of the process now fully integrated and automated.
How do you promote the business?
We promote SurfaceScreen mainly through online social channels. The usual suspects – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter – have all been very successful for us to date.
We went live with promoting the brand in late 2011 and so far have had over 65,000 views on YouTube and accumulated over 2,000 Facebook fans and over 2,000 Twitter followers.
Recently, we’ve had bloggers reposting our videos and providing a commentary on the products, which has been tops.
We’re now concentrating on print and online media channels to get the word out to the fashion community. We anticipate our biggest uptake being from this sector.
How do you stand out in the market? What’s your point/s of difference?
There is not a lot known about these sorts of products in Australia, so currently it’s not difficult to stand out.
Rather, the difficulty is in building the requisite consumer awareness and to develop a market pretty much from scratch.
Yes, there are products which purport to have similar benefits, though when you consider that our products are water-based and free from solvents, our point of difference becomes very clear.
The product is also completely invisible, 100% breathable and has no impact on the colour, texture or feel of the treated surface.
Having a product which can effectively protect suede and silk is also a huge selling point. Our YouTube videos have been a great medium for demonstrating how the product works.
When you run a pair of jeans under the tap and they don’t get wet – well, people become highly curious and very interested.
What are your revenue projections for 2011-2012?
We’re not aiming for the sky just yet. We want to build this slowly but surely. Our stretch target is to make 500,000 worth of sales in our first 12 months of operation.
Based on sales to date and international interest from trading companies, we feel that this is very achievable.
What’s the biggest risk you face?
There are many risks to our business. Namely though, it’s the current lack of consumer awareness and the threat of competition entering the local market over the coming two years.
We feel we have a strong first mover advantage and a solid media strategy in place. Both of these things will help mitigate potential risks.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
In short, heaps. This has been quite a rollercoaster ride dotted with a long series of mistakes and light bulb moments.
If I had this time over again, I would definitely outsource more of the process.
I found myself spending a lot of time on tasks that I didn’t necessarily have the right skills for, which was frustrating and time-consuming.
I also would have put more time into scoping the website and the eCommerce options. What you see now is actually the third iteration of the site.
Designers, creatives and developers are not cheap, so it pays to do your homework before going down the wrong path.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Don’t get stuck in the “idea cycle”.
Without the right planning and resources to execute, ideas will remain intangible. You’ve got to have a crack, stuff it up and keep on keeping on.
I also advocate starting small, seeking as much advice as you can from people who know the start-up game and acknowledging that you need to be the one to make it happen.
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