This much I know: Emily Brooke
Emily Brooke, CEO and founder of Blaze, believes that the most important thing to building a valuable and meaningful business is to solve a real problem
I know that sounds rather obvious, but it’s amazing how often it’s missed. I nearly missed it.
My company, Blaze, creates products for urban cyclists. Our flagship product, the Laserlight, tackles the greatest cause of cyclist fatality – ‘being caught in the blind spot’, or vehicles turning across an unseen bike.
Laserlight is a front, white, bike light, required by law, but it also has a laser, which projects the symbol of a cyclist down onto the road ahead. It alerts drivers in front of the bike of its presence and prevents them turning across the cyclist’s path. It gives the cyclist a bigger footprint on the road and helps them to be seen in time.
Blaze started as a university project. I began reading Physics at Oxford University, but left to pursue Product Design in Brighton. During my studies, having never been on a road bike, I decided to cycle the length of the UK for charity. I got the biking bug badly and have cycled nearly every day since.
I returned to my final year with the task of designing a product from concept to marketable consumer offering. Having spent the summer training and cycling, I realised biking in the countryside was peaceful, beautiful and relaxing, but the cities were dangerous, exhausting and stressful. I gave myself the theme ‘Urban Cycling’ and wanted to identify, then tackle the greatest challenge for city cyclists.
I built a prototype, and I patented it. Within two days of my final year exhibition, it was on every cycling blog in the UK
I already had the idea! I knew exactly what urban bicycles needed – brake lights! It was brilliant. They’re essential for cars, why not bikes? I even knew how to do it – with an accelerometer and integrated LEDs… I was excited and ready to get going.
I rushed gushing into my course leader, Mr Morris’s, office, told him of my idea, and he said, “No. I don’t believe you”. He asked, “Are you solving a real problem? Do people actually need that? Or are you just starting at the end with an idea you think would be cool?”. He told me I needed to go away and find, then deeply understand, the actual problem I wanted to solve first, before I came up with a single solution for it.
Disappointed, yet still determined that I wanted to make a ‘meaningful’ product, I listened. The first thing I did was speak to as many cyclists as possible. Straight away it was blaringly obvious personal safety was by far the biggest challenge. This didn’t write off my brake light idea, I thought.
However, I then spent the next six months working with a driving psychologist (someone who analyses vehicle accidents for a living), and the Bus Company, deep-diving into the statistics. I learned a tiny percentage of cyclists are actually hit from behind, not seeing a cyclist is slowing was apparently not a significant problem.
In fact, by far, the most common cause of cyclist fatality was the ‘side-sweeping’ incident, or vehicles turning across an unseen bike. The classic ‘blind spot’ scenario. There was one statistic that stuck in my mind proving this; “79% of cyclists hit are travelling straight ahead and a vehicle manoeuvres into them”. This was the biggest problem and the one I wanted to tackle.
I was soon cycling around town and found myself in this exact scenario thinking, “That truck, (two yards ahead) cannot see me. If it suddenly turns now, I’m squished. I wish I was there (five yards ahead)… Ah ha! I could project a presence of myself there.”
I developed the idea at university with a team of experts – I built a prototype, and I patented it. Within two days of my final year exhibition, it was on every cycling blog in the UK and in the Sydney Morning Herald by the end of the week! I knew this was a simple idea to a very big problem, which needed to somehow become a reality. It took me a while to come to terms that it would be me to do it.
The next two years have been a roller coaster. I started my own company, and launched the concept on crowd-funding site Kickstarter. We were one of the first UK projects and did it to prove the concept more than for the money. We wanted to raise £25,000 in a month, we did this in less than 5 days and went on to raise £55,000.
But the very best part of any of this, is hearing the stories from our customers
I’ve since raised further seed investment from some valuable parties, including Index Ventures and the Branson family. We have a small, cycle-mad team in London and our flagship product, the Laserlight, is in full-scale manufacture and shipping around the world. We have an exclusive retail deal for this season with Evans Cycles, the biggest bicycle retailer in the UK. We have delivered all our Kickstarter lights, as well as the first batch of pre-order customers, the next batch is sold out and we’re awaiting delivery of the third.
But the very best part of any of this, is hearing the stories from our customers. From all sorts of amazing places, stories of how the Laserlight helped them be seen in situations they otherwise would not be.
I have to thank Mr Morris for teaching me the lesson of properly understanding the problem first, before you try and solve it. I believe this lead to a vastly more valuable product. Although we are tiny and only at the very beginning of our journey, a simple solution to a real problem has carried us this far.
I had no idea what I was doing when I started. I’d certainly never built a company, grown a team, raised money, sourced manufacturing, built a brand or marketed a product. My advice to anyone thinking of starting a business is to go and ask others who have! Whatever you’re trying to achieve, someone will have a lot more experience than you. Be appreciative of their time and go ask them questions. I feel incredibly grateful to be in a position where I learn so much every day.
Articles are written by independent journalists and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of O2.