Give a child a lump of clay and they will be busy for an hour. No one needs guidance when given a malleable medium with which you can express your ideas, and that’s why Sugru just works — you don’t need to know anything about design to put it to use. You just follow your instincts.
Sugru is a “moldable glue” that you can use to fix things or make things better. It’s is a silicone-based medium that you can shape like Play-Doh but, when left to sit for a day, hardens into flexible rubber. You can put it to a wide variety of uses, from fixing worn cables to protecting your gadgets and getting a grip on old faucets.
Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh first had the idea to create a do-it-all substance that anyone could use when she was studying product design. She wanted to “improve and reimagine” things she already owned, rather than just buying replacements for broken items. Years later, after a lot of experimentation and hard work put into creating a business, that school project is a popular solution to common household problems around the world. Evidently, Sugru is so versatile you can make an entire business out of it. We had a conversation with Jane to learn where the company is headed, how do to brew a proper cup of tea, and how she works.
Location: London most of the time, but travelling quite a bit as well.
Current gig: CEO of Sugru
Current mobile device: iPhone… I don’t even know what number it is. 5?
Current computer: MacBook Air
I wonder, and this isn’t about your daily tools or whatever, do you spend most of your time just trying to get the product out there and growing the business? Or are you trying to develop new products?
It’s quite a mix. I guess it’s probably different what we’re doing as a business and what I do day to day, because as a business we’re very focused on scaling, whether that means our distribution, getting into more retailers, and all the systems and everything — so like, we have a factory in London as well. It’s a factory [and] laboratory where all our science and product development happens, [as well as] all the sales and marketing and finance and all that kind of stuff. So it’s a really multidisciplinary team back in London.
In terms of personally what I focus on right now is making sure that we grow the brand so that we reach its potential. There’s all kinds of tension — in terms of getting the right balance — because our dream for Sugru is that it’s something that’s so mass that it’s in every home. But the mission about it is really about helping people see that they have the ability and creativity to solve problems in their everyday life.
So, you know, when you talk about operating in a mass retail context, they don’t necessarily get immediately that there’s all these possibilities of things you can do around Sugru rather than just letting it sit on a peg. So we’ve got to, all the time, be thinking about the commercial realities of growing the business. And at the same time, what makes Sugru special is the people that use it, and what they use it for, and the spirit of that sort of usage.
Right, so the tension is kind of like, you don’t want to just be a bucket of goo at the hardware store. You want to be a unique thing.
Exactly. Well it doesn’t necessarily have to be a unique thing, but it shouldn’t just sit in the hardware store and not get people’s imaginations going. So one thing that we love is when the whole thing kind of comes together. When you’ve got end users accessing their imaginations and kind of going “oh you know what, I’m going to fix this thing for my kid” or “I’m gonna upgrade my fridge by putting my bottle opener on [the front] so I can open my beer,” things like that. If we’re doing that online, the whole ecosystem works brilliantly because we can just talk directly with our customers. But it’s a big challenge now, how we’re trying to find the right retail partners who are able to get their staff thinking in the same way as well. So if it’s sitting in the hardware store, then fantastic, as long as the hardware store guys are able to go, “Hey, you know, maybe have you thought about doing this?” with Sugru.
I would imagine it’s easy if you’re working with Make Magazine or somewhere like that, they would already understand what it’s for, as opposed to a big retailer.
Yeah, but we do find that there are a whole bunch of big retailers now that do really get it. For example, here in the US, Target is actually really cool. And the Container Store is another one — the staff are brilliant; they win awards because they have such engaged staff that they’re able to understand all the products and make recommendations for their customers.
Are you keeping up with the demand? I would imagine there’s more demand. I don’t know what kind of scale you have.
Well, it is a challenge. We’re having to grow our manufacturing all the time to keep up with it, and it’s more complex than just plugging in machines. Because, of course, once you start dealing with big retailers, there’s also a whole load of supply chain stuff around that so you’ve got to have the right people.
You just wouldn’t believe the kind of detail that you’ve got to go through to get all the right contracts in place and all this kind of stuff, having the right people doing the right things in your warehouse with their warehouse, and all these practical nightmares. But we have really great people who know all about that stuff so I’m lucky that I don’t really have to think about it. But yeah, we’re keeping up with demand, but it’s definitely a challenge when we look forward to the next few years. We’re also looking forward to having a second manufacturing base, hopefully somewhere in North America or Latin America that can really help serve this market.
So I know the basic backstory of Sugru, but I’m wondering, when you first started thinking about this product, was there a moment when you realised the potential here? That it would grow to become this huge thing?
Well, I don’t know. I guess I’m sort of naive — I just thought from the start that it could be something huge. Just because I realised that if I could make it useful enough, and good enough quality that people could rely on it, then I think there are millions and millions of people that have enough desire and ability to solve problems. I just think there are people that are craving to actually solve problems with their hands, because they’re treated as if they have no ability to do this kind of stuff. And so, I guess I always thought that there would be a mass appeal
But the journey from taking it from that kind of essence of possibility to where it is now, and then the next ten years, is actually super hard, because although I might have believed it, I didn’t actually have any reason to believe it, because I didn’t have any idea of all the things that would have to click into place for it to function. I still feel that we’re at the beginning, even though we’ve got over a million users now around the world, it still feels like we’re just kind of getting started in a way.
So if you could choose one word to describe how you work, what would that word be?
I thought about it, because of [John Scalzi’s] clever “bathrobically” answer and I didn’t have any clever answers. But I think it people would think it was true of me to say that I work intuitively. It’s a lot about the feeling for things, and a feeling for a direction that kind of helps to guide things that might not necessarily always be clear to myself why I’m proposing something. People kind of bear with me and then make sense a few days later.
This whole thing kind of seems like an intuitive enterprise because you’re not a chemist or something like that, but you had an idea that you could make this thing, and that required a leap of faith on your part that you could figure it out eventually.
That’s right, and I think it’s a kind of sense for a need or a desire out there to get more on hands on things. I think that’s generally how I work, I kind of sense my way through things and then kind of figure it out a bit.
I’m sure you’re very busy managing your time, so what kind of apps or software do you use to actually manage your day?
Paper, pen, pretty much notebooks. We use all the Google apps as a team, Google Cal and Gmail and Google Docs. But in terms of time management, I have one to-do list app that I use that is called to TeuxDeux. It’s by a blogger friend, Swiss Miss; she teamed up with some people to make it. It’s super plain, it’s just black and white and you just put things on there and rub them out. So I use that on my computer basically formalising some of my scrappy notes.
Do you have anything specific thing you do to save time or automate things?
I don’t automate anything but I do take the time at the start of every day to just prioritise. Even if I might have fifteen things on my list, I’ll just circle the three or four that I know I really, really have to do. It’s just more about taking the time to think through the priorities.
What kind of office do you guys have? I imagine it’s an open space, but you’re probably beyond being in an industrial warehouse.
We are actually in an old building, because we’re got our factory and lab there, as well. Our office is basically one huge open plan space, which I don’t think is the best way to work. It’s pretty chaotic and it can get noisy. To be honest, none of us are happy with the office! It’s just a lot of people that are squished in like sardines trying to get their work done. We do have a plan to expand; we’re trying to get a new space. I think for our next space we’ll definitely try to have more private places and more places people can go — we’ve got a few sofas and everyone is always “I’m taking the sofa!” A lot of us tend to use headphones, just to kind of say, “hey, fuck off, I’m working.”
Aside from the phone and the computer, is there any other gadget that you can’t live without?
Maybe my headphones. They’re Bose noise-cancelling headphones, but I don’t know if I’d recommend them because I haven’t tried any others! I’m not big on stuff, you know what I mean. Once I find something that works I just stick with it.
Everyone says the Bose headphones are good so it’s probably a good choice! Are you the kind of person who is always working on something? Or when you finish a big project do you take a step back and let your mind wander?
For me it doesn’t really work in blocks like that. We’ve so many things going on all the time, and they all seem to be in parallel so even if one project is finishing there’s another one that’s just getting going. Our team is increasingly interesting and there’s lots of really great people. [But] I need to work alone quite a good proportion of the time, so what I find really handy is travelling. Now, for example, I’m away for a week and I can get to people by email or Skype if I want, but mainly I’m [here in New York] so they’re respecting that I’m away. Which is quite good because it means I can get blocks of hours, whether that’s on the plane, and the timezone is quite good as well because now I’m waking up really early in the morning so I’ve got a few hours before I get going where no one is after me for anything. So I tend to use travel like that, as my thinking time.
I kind of miss when you couldn’t get internet on aeroplanes.
I don’t get internet on aeroplanes! I didn’t know you could.
Maybe you can’t get it on those international flights, I don’t know!
Not on the flights I’m on. Or else I’m just too stingy.
You mentioned getting up early in the morning. What kind of sleep schedule do you have? Some CEOs keep really crazy hours. Are you kind of an early riser then?
Not so much. When I’m travelling I do like to get up early because either I can work or I can discover the place that I’m in. At home, I tend to get up at like 7-7:30, just normal time. I suppose in the early days I probably worked more chaotically, in terms of hours, but we’ve got to a certain stability in the business where — you know, I’ve realised that as a creative business we can create as much work as we want. A few years go past, and you kind of go, “well actually it’s quite important to just get away and walk the dog and sit around and make friends and stuff.” So I don’t tend to work chaotic hours except for when we we’ve got a major deadline or I’ve got a travel schedule, like if I’ve got to speak at a big conference or something like that, where there’s lots of social stuff involved as well. Then it can get quite tiring. But then I’ll really need to catch up on sleep or I’ll just be wrecked.
Speaking of walking the dog, how do you recharge when you step away from work?
Usually either by being totally on my own — like going for a walk with the dog, or reading books, or cooking or decorating, stuff like that. Or seeing friends and family. I travel back to Ireland every few weeks to see my sisters and see my family over there. That’s pretty important to me as well. I find that kind of grounding: you get out of your own world and into someone else’s world. It’s quite nice.
Do you listen to music when you’re working?
I listen to music, and sometimes I don’t listen to music and people think I’m listening to music but I’m just listening to nothing.
Me too! Is there any particular kind of music that helps you work?
I like all kinds; I like kind of folky music, but I actually do surprise myself — I like dancey music as well when somebody else educates me and tells me “you’re going to like this!” There’s a Danish DJ that one of our friends put us on that’s called Trentemoller. It’s kind of trancey. I like it, even though I wouldn’t listen to it all the time, but it sometimes helps you get into a zone.
Are you reading anything interesting right now that you like?
I’m reading this Dave Eggers book [Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?]. I’m not sure about it yet. But I really liked the last one he did. I liked The Circle, but there was one about a child soldier from Sudan who came as a refugee here that I thought was really good.
Is there any everyday thing that you’re better at than everyone else? Even if it doesn’t have to do with work.
Everyday thing that I’m better at? That’s hard.
Yeah, I wouldn’t know how to answer this question myself!
That’s cruel! I’m pretty good at making tea. It’s important to me because I’m addicted to tea.
Do you put the milk in first?
No! Oh my god. That’s just wrong. It has to be done at boiling point and you can’t have water at boiling point if you’ve already put in milk.
Right, but some people put the milk in the cup and then they pour the tea into the milk!
Oh so it’s already brewed. That’s ok, that’s forgivable, but it’s not as accurate because you’ve got to base the amount of milk that you put in on the density of the tea.
If you could have someone answer these questions about their work, who would you choose?
I was reading recently about some of the Founding Fathers and George Washington. Did you know that they were actually inventors? They built their own house and they invented all these pulley systems and stuff for getting things around — and you’re just like, you’re a president at the same time? I find it amazing when I read about people that have achieved a real diverse set of things in their life, how they figure out their time and how to go from one totally different activity to another.
And if they had Sugru they could have done so much more! So what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in art college I had a tutor that used to do my head in all the time because he would just always ask me, “why?” And what I learned from him was just ask why quite often; that’s been a really useful skill, not taking things on face value and looking behind things. And understanding different people’s motivations because so often there’s the story behind the story.
“Why” is good advice. Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?
I just want to say thanks to the Lifehacker community because Lifehacker’s been one of the most important communities that’s helped Sugru get out there. Just to say thanks.
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