Nick has designs on the future
Every household needs a vacuum cleaner. And with more than 27 million households in the UK, that’s why there are a lot of wellknown brands on the market. There are more than enough customers to go around.
But do vacuum cleaners need to be increasingly complex? Fundamentally, a vacuum cleaner just needs to suck up dirt effectively, get into nooks and crannies, not be too heavy to lift or have a flex long enough for the user to trip over or truss them up like a chicken.
I also don’t want a vacuum cleaner with the capability to power a satellite launcher, be turbo charged if it doesn’t need to be – or cost me a second mortgage to buy.
Nick Grey, the founder and brains behind Worcester-based Gtech, agrees. In fact, the company’s latest cordless vacuum cleaner, the Gtech Pro, launched last year, has gone back to the future, by bringing back the bag.
He says: “Vacuum cleaner designers went from removing one simple consumer irritant: the problem of having to choose the right vacuum cleaner bag from rows of expensive ones in store (and they could be £10 for three – a rip-off), to getting rid of them altogether. Us included.
“But bagless vacuum cleaners need more maintenance and the user is exposed to dirt and dust when they are emptied.
“The market had gone back decades in convenience. All Gtech needed to do was make bags easier to get, and more affordable, so that’s what we did. And our customers are loving the simplicity and convenience.”
Gtech dust bags cost £1 each. Nick says bagged vacuums need less emptying and spare bags can be ordered on a smart phone for next-day delivery by Amazon.
Solving problems by understanding consumer need
Nick has long been a disruptor in his chosen business sector of household appliances. In the early years of Gtech (he launched the business, which he still owns, in 2001), the company sold his unique cordless sweeper. At that time it was the only one on the market which could do the full cleaning job, he says. When others realised the appeal of what he’d designed, they followed.
But Nick isn’t just a household and garden appliance designer, he’s a problem solver.
“We want to design products that are simple to build and assemble, and we will continue to re-engineer them if necessary, making them even simpler and more effective, always taking into account why the customer needs a product,” he explains.
“We want Gtech products to be robust. It should be simple to extract a sock sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. Our hedge trimmer won’t break just because the user has chopped through barbed wire by accident.
“We want our products to be able to cope. And it gets more difficult as we all live a fast-paced life, but I want Gtech products to last.”
Long-term ambition to restore some manufacturing
Nick has ambitions to bring some product manufacturing back to the UK from the Far East, which is where most household appliances are made. I ask why.
“Some customers have asked us if we could manufacture here, and we are a company who rely on goodwill and want to respond to the customer and community.”
And it’s perfectly possible, he says. Another vacuum cleaner brand, Numatic, manufactures in Somerset.
But that ambition is on hold for a little longer. It’s been a tough year for the UK’s vacuum cleaner market, where sales volumes dropped in 2016 and 2017 as economic uncertainty bit following the Brexit vote. Householders are waiting longer to replace durable goods.
Nick saw the downturn coming at the beginning of 2018 – not long after the company was reporting record sales of £120 million, with global sales of more than £17 million, mainly drawn from the Far East.
He admits it was a tough beginning to the year. “Everyone was saying well done after our record results, but I knew it was going to be a difficult year. We’d also moved into a new factory and thrown resources at it.
“There was more going on and when we reviewed our business, not everything was adding value. So we regrouped, simplified the business and put those people who’ve been with us for a long time and know Gtech well, into key roles of responsibility.”
The long-standing Gtech model works well, says Nick. “We design great products, advertise them direct to the consumer, sell some retail, others direct and respond efficiently to customers.
“When we moved that got a little lost, so we’ve reorganised and are looking forward to 2019 with new products and planned growth. We’ve got a tighter team and removed complexity from the business.
“When I started Gtech 18 years ago, I’d planned on a 10-year project. But this is my favourite thing to do and I still love it.”
Gtech: The ideas factory
Gtech isn’t short of ideas. “I’m super proud of our new products and we have a number in the pipeline for 2019,” says Nick.
The business designs and sells not only vacuum cleaners, but also garden equipment such as hedge trimmers, lawn mowers and strimmers, and e-bikes.
I first interviewed Nick, in 2015, when he let me ride one of his funky e-bikes just before they were launched.
This interview also sees me try out a new product. This time it’s a massage bed which the team is still working on.
Designed by Nick to help solve his own low-level but persistent back pain, it’s based on the sort of hard foam roller seen in most gyms. This one is mounted on a very simple robotic device which rolls up and down underneath the low-level bed. The tension can be adjusted in a number of ways to fit the user’s requirements.
“It’s for anyone who has aches and pains and we are working on an extra attachment to suit the neck,” he says.
I tried it. It was fabulous feeling the roller run up and down my spine. But conducting an interview lying prone while experiencing a deep tissue massage is a little disconcerting.
“When we are deciding what to design, we look out for a need that’s not already catered for,” explains Nick.
“There are millions of people with bad backs and nowhere near enough therapists. The NHS is trying to offer hands off stretching as one solution, so we thought that’s the perfect thing a robot should be able to do.
“It’s hard, boring work for therapists to massage backs all day. Our bed is designed for those experiencing painful back pain from tension. Those who have serious back pain should go to a doctor to be properly diagnosed. They may suggest this – but you will need to check first.”
Learning from experience
What happens when a design idea fails? “You want it to fail early in order to move on fast with the next idea” says Nick. He’s also aware of the different capabilities of his design team. “Some love working on an idea which I have come up with. They enjoy that and thrive on making it better. Others want to come up with their own ideas and that’s great too.
“But as designers, we all have to understand that the consumer is always the boss and not all ideas will work. I’ve tried lots of things that haven’t worked. As a designer you have to be humble to be successful. We have to know that we don’t know everything, and good design is an iterative process. Is it a good idea. Does it work properly? Does it work for all aspects of the design? We have to be our own worst critics.”
One of Nick’s design failures came as he and his team tried to design the Best Ever Vacuum Cleaner. “We’d designed the BEV to do everything. It had bags that cleaned themselves, above the floor cleaning and performance was great.
“Then we used it, and it was like ‘this is awful’. It was heavy, clumsy and trying to be all things to all consumers. So we dumped it and I was very relieved. Vacuuming the floor and the walls and ceilings are totally different. And for a short while, we’d overlooked that. But as a designer you have to try everything.”
By Nicky Godding – Editor-in-Chief