Having appeared on Dragons’ Den, and recently been retweeted by judge Theo Paphitis, Brian Smith is now working on a book for the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) with McFly’s Dougie Poynter, who introduced his ex-girlfriend Ellie Goulding to Smith’s pre-printed origami creations. Business Advice spoke to him about how his one-person business has achieved such traction.
The initial idea for his product came to Smith while he was working at a school in South Korea teaching arts and crafts to children there. “I had loads of yellow paper, and Pokémon was big at the time, so I made a Picachu face out of paper during a lesson,” he explained. “For weeks afterwards the kids would come straight into my classroom and ask me to make them, so I realised the concept was something that they really liked.”
When he returned to the UK and began working as a chemistry technician at a secondary school in West Sussex, Smith put on origami workshops for older children, and realised there was an even wider appeal for origami faces, spurring him to develop the first Popagami products – sheets of a paper with facial features printed on them, ready to be folded into the faces of a wide range of creatures.
In 2012, Smith applied to Dragons’ Den without giving the process much thought – spending five minutes completing the form and promptly forgetting about it. He said it was an “absolute shock” to be invited on to the show, and in retrospect thinks he was underprepared.
“When Evan Davis introduced me, he said I was a very brave entrepreneur. It was my first ever business pitch – I’d only just got started, really. If I’d had more sales under my belt I would have had a better opportunity.”
Though didn’t manage to convince them to invest in his business, Smith did succeed in getting all five judges to fold images of their faces into rabbits – and saw a big increase in sales after the show was broadcast.
The appearance also spurred him to think about protecting the intellectual property of his burgeoning business. “I’d just got confirmation that my patent was pending when I went on the show – I couldn’t have done it otherwise,” Smith said.
This area of the business has posed an array of challenges for the entrepreneur, who would like to see more government support for navigating the minefield. “You have to think about how you’re going to protect your ideas around the world, not just in the UK,” he explained.
Quitting his day job to focus on his business in 2015, Smith has pursued a wide range of channels for monetising his creative products, selling kits through notonthehighstreet.com as well as his own website, and self-publishing books containing a range of Popagami animals.
For one-person business owners in a similar position, Smith thinks “getting yourself out there” is key. While demonstrating his product to children at Chessington World of Adventures, he met Chelsea star John Terry and his wife – while a meeting with Paloma Faith has opened up the possibility of another charity collaboration.
The business owner has also benefitted from the connections he’s been able to build up through another self-employed income stream – working as a supporting artist, or “extra” in film and television productions. Appearing alongside Meryl Streep in Iron Lady, and in Me and the Apocalypse with Rob Lowe made him less phased by the business legends on Dragons’ Den – and a conversation with a celebrity minder on another production alerted him to the fact that Popagami samples he had sent to the cast of Downton Abbey had been placed all over the set by actors.
Smith’s glamorous connections haven’t meant his business journey has been without its challenges, however. Despite taking part in numerous pitching competitions, including Angels Den at The Business Show, for which Business Advice is headline digital media partner, he is still predominantly self-funded, attracting a small amount of investment from a friend who helped him prepare for the Dragons’ Den appearance.
Like many entrepreneurs, he has also had to balance the all-consuming demands of small business ownership with personal commitments. “I’m currently a full-time carer too, so working from home looking after my mum,” Smith explained.
For others weighing up the costs and benefits of taking the leap and committing to a business idea, Smith thinks caution is key. “Don’t quit your job straight way,” he said. “Really do your research first. If there’s something too similar, it’s not going to work.”
Looking to the future, the Popagami creator is focused on growing revenue through licensing agreements which make the most of his company’s intellectual property, having designed Popagami insets for fast food trays and masks for theatrical productions.
“If I can get some good licensing deals, it frees me up to work more on the creative side,” he explained. “When you’re running your own business you can get too suck into the commercial side and neglect other parts.”
Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest from Business Advice.