Maker Pro Q&A: Stuck on Sugru

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Maker Pro Q&A: Stuck on Sugru
Portraits of Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, inventor of Sugru
Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, inventor of Sugru

Sugru is a “moldable glue” that has found a place in many Maker toolboxes. Born in Ireland, inventor and chief executive Ní Dhulchaointigh developed the first version of Sugru in 2003 while studying at the Royal College of Art in London. After six years of R&D, her product finally launched in December 2009. The first batch sold out in six hours. Sugru now has 45 employees and hundreds of thousands of customers worldwide.

Could you have launched Sugru before the internet?
No way. Simple answer. In the past, for companies like us, the only way to reach customers was through retail. Trying to sell something as complicated as Sugru in a store is a challenge. The package has to explain a lot. I don’t think we would have been able to do it.

So Sugru is as much about communications as it is a chemical and product company.
Definitely. There are two sides to Sugru; one is the product, and one is the culture of using it, which we build through communication, whether it’s the users producing the communication or us. Without the community and the communication, none of the rest is possible. That’s what creates the whole demand for Sugru, and helps us get into the retailers: the brand, the way people are using it, and what they are saying about it.

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, inventor of Sugru

Did it take you a while to refine that bigger message?
No, that’s the whole reason I bothered to do Sugru. I spent five or six years developing the science before we launched. I wouldn’t have bothered to do that if I didn’t think it was important. I’m only doing it because I really believe the world will be a much better place if people have more confidence about fixing things and making things. We’ve lost so much in becoming a consumer society. There’s this rebellion now that says that’s not enough. That’s what the Maker Movement is all about. That’s why people are so into baking things and growing things. We’re all realizing that it’s not enough to just buy stuff in shops.

Community has been a huge part of Sugru’s success so far.
We never predicted just how vibrant the community would be. Our community has been teaching us what Sugru is good for, and what the problems are out there, which helps us focus on the things that really matter to people. It really helps with product development. That’s how we’ve learned which colors people use, and what package sizes they like, for example.

Giant U.S. retailers, like Target and Lowe’s, are now carrying Sugru. What effect has that had on the company?
It’s a huge step for us. The customer we’re speaking to is much more mainstream. They don’t call themselves Makers, but they are keen doers. They’re the people in their family who, when something needs fixing, when something goes wrong, they do something about it. They love home improvement. We’re getting more focused on that group. Makers are core to what we do, and everyday doers are an extension of this.

iphone 5 with cable

What’s your advice to other Makers working on potential products?
It’s much easier to get user engagement, and get people spreading the word, when you have a common goal and you really want to have a positive impact. Be open about your mission. Communicate it clearly and in a compelling way. Our customers know what we’re like. We put ourselves out there. We’ve done a lot of talks, blogged a lot, made a lot of videos. We’re not just trying to build a market, we have a mission: We’re trying to make the world a better place. At the end of the day, people like to be part of something. It’s important to be genuine. They can believe you’re genuine if you put yourself into the picture.

Are there lessons to be learned from duct tape?
Duct tape and super glue are the handiest things ever. That’s why they’re still here. That’s our ambition for Sugru. It’s super-inspiring that duct tape has been around since, I think, World War II. It’s in everyone’s kitchen drawer, and that’s where we want to be. It takes time to achieve that universal status — it’s a long game. Another thing is, we have a battle between versatility and simplicity. Versatility can be daunting to new people. What we need to remember is, “keep it simple.” People should know what Sugru’s good for and discover new uses over time.

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DC Denison is the co-editor of The Maker Pro Newsletter, which covers the intersection of makers and business. That means hardware startups, new products, and market trends.

DC manages customer stories at Acquia, the digital experience company.

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