John Smith, on The Bum Box

When ideas man John Smith hit on a useful invention that was environmentally friendly and market savvy, he put his fledgling business in the box seat.  

 Anyone who has ever tried to get comfortable sitting on a picnic rug will quickly grasp the concept of the Bum Box, John Smith’s cardboard wonder. It’s a simple, portable device that opens up to provide a seat and a backrest, giving support to the sitter. The wonder is not so much the invention itself but why no one thought of it before. “The genius is in its simplicity,” says Smith. “There’s no instructions, there’s no tabs or slots to follow. All you have to do is push the corners in and plonk it down. People don’t want to spend ten minutes putting something together.”

As the founder of Box Clever, the business behind the Bum Box, Smith is no stranger to inventing things. His manufacturing background came from his previous business in the UK, making highly specific canvas products, from awnings for boats to set elements for BBC productions. “Each order we got had to be designed and manufactured to customer specifications,” he says. “I’d been doing that for 20 years before I came to Australia, so it was in my blood to look at things and design things and solve problems.”

Having immigrated to Australia a decade ago, Smith says he had plenty of other ideas—“literally thousands”—before the Bum Box, but none of them left the ground. “One was an energy-saving device. We were trailblazing it and nobody believed it would work. It was too complicated and the sales process took too long, quite the opposite to the Bum Box, which is not technical at all.”

The path to the Bum Box’s creation is one populated by friends and family. Smith’s friend Nick Leywood owns cardboard manufacturing company Specialised Packaging Services. Having helped out at Leywood’s factory, Smith says he constantly thought about making things out of cardboard. “Cardboard, because it’s biodegradable and environmentally friendly, is gradually replacing plastic. Cardboard is the new plastic,” he quips.

Smith also spent time with a friend, owner of Clonnies Restaurant at Clontarf on Sydney’s northern beaches. Sitting on a deck chair overlooking the beach, he’d watch mothers and their babies fidgeting on picnic rugs. Then one day his wife Carol came home with a canvas chair and the pieces came together. “At my manufacturing company, I could have made it out of canvas, but I started thinking about cardboard. Once I’d hit on the idea, I ran it by some people I knew in marketing and then ran it by my friend Nick in cardboard and the reaction was really positive. So I said ‘I’m going to do it and I’m going to commit money to it’.”

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Box of tricks

The first big outlay was hiring a law firm to do an infringement check, to see whether the idea had been registered before. When Smith found that it hadn’t, he quickly pushed through a patent. After Leywood and his daughter Natarsha had perfected the design, a design registration followed.

The strength of the Bum Box is in its three key features targeting the comfort of the sitter, the marketing potential of the seat backs and the environmental factor. For the sitter, the box is light and portable, opens easily and supports bodies up to 120 kilograms.

For advertisers, it’s a dream come true, reaching people at outdoor events that Australians love to attend. Box Clever launched the Bum Boxes in November 2007 and can already count big names like Layne Beachley, the Commonwealth Bank and Sony as clients. Smith cites the Australian of the Year Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Bank, as a good example of how the Bum Box can help advertisers and sponsors.

“I have images from 2007 showing the crowd, but who was the sponsor? I have another image, taken at the same angle with the Bum Boxes, at the 2008 event. It says everything; you have a sea of Commonwealth Bank ads and it’s better than the signage around the edges of the field,” he explains. “You don’t need any words to sell it. Those two images are what I’ve been after from the first moment I had the idea.”

The device also satisfies environmentally conscious customers as it is made of 70 percent recycled material and is itself wholly recyclable and biodegradable. And while not designed to be durable, the Bum Box is fairly robust, enduring light rain and long hours of use. Smith believes the average sitter could use it six-to-eight times before recycling it; good news for advertisers, whose message lasts a few more outings.

It took just six weeks from conception of the idea to delivery of the first batch of Bum Boxes; “probably a world record,” laughs Smith. Most of that time was spent waiting for the patent to come through, then the factory produced a few hundred for trial at the public screening of the 2007 Asian Cup, which ran over several days in Sydney’s Belmore Park. From that exposure, Smith gathered feedback and began to field corporate interest.

Beach bum

The first branded Bum Boxes appeared at the Beachley Classic surf event to advertise surfing champion Layne Beachley’s clothing brand Beachley Athletic. She’d heard about the Bum Box through Vida Marketing, who Smith had hired to spread the word. Smith took the opportunity to capitalise on the event by taking photos and asking Beachley for a testimonial to kick start his website. “It was good to get some images down there at the event,” he says. “We didn’t have any testimonials and without testimonials you have no ammunition.”

By its November launch, Box Clever came armed with a website (www.thebumbox.com.au) containing a few photos and some testimonials, and began to receive orders for big events like Tropfest and the Australian of the Year award ceremony. Considering the tight timeline between launch and the summer festival season, the period was more successful than Smith had hoped. “We were inundated,” he reports. “The other day I got a phone call from someone in Melbourne. Their client wants to sponsor Tropfest next year and they wanted the price of the Bum Boxes. We’re in for a busy year.”

Box Clever is now looking at other ways to expand on the concept, with a wine-carrying Bum Box in the works, which will appeal to wineries as a promotional item, and retailing Bum Boxes where outdoor goods are sold. International enquiries from Europe have also come via the website and Smith is looking into partnering with a manufacturer to service that region.

For now though, Box Clever consists of Smith, who deals with production, and Carol, who looks after the administration side of the business. The two silent partners are Smith’s two children, from whom he had to borrow money to create the company. By the way things are going, they shouldn’t have to wait long to see their funds again. Smith says: “I owe my 14 year old $4,000 and I owe my four year old $2,000—but they’ll get it back!”

Advice for other small business owners

* Do your homework first. Get input from people who aren’t friends or family; I ran it by three different people in marketing.

* Do the infringement search and, if that’s favourable, get your patent registered and your design registered and go from there.

* Back your own judgement and go with it. Spend your money, take a gamble.

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