Spotlight On: Alison Grieve, Safetray Products Inventor and Entrepreneur
We catch up with local inventor and entrepreneur, Alison Grieve. She explains how one simple idea led her to create her revolutionary range of Safetray Products which are now available all over the world.
How long have you lived in Edinburgh and what brought you here?
I was Glasgow-born, but moved here when I was seven. I lived here until leaving school when I scooted off for the best part of a decade. I returned in 2004 to have my twin boys because there really is no place like home when you become a mama.
Tell me more about your business, Safetray Products
I used to run an events business. I invented the Safetray after witnessing a spectacular accident at one of our high-end events. A waitress lost control of her tray and dropped dozens of full champagne glasses all over the floor, smashing everywhere and causing embarrassment and expense. I started wondering why we still use the same old, dangerous design for carrying glasses and that’s when the idea for a discreet, retractable clip on the underside of the tray came to me. It slips between the server’s fingers and allows them to use their knuckles to help to control the tray, preventing it from overbalancing.
After patenting the invention and enlisting the help of Glasgow product designers, Fearsomengine, to source the manufacturer, we commenced production initially in China but then moved it to Scotland. The Safetray is now exported to 17 countries worldwide and is used in venues such as the Sofitel in Lyon, the Hyatt Regency in Dubai and Sodexo, USA.
We now have a few more products in development, including a mirror tray which looks as if stemmed glasses are magically floating through the air, and a disco tray with embedded LEDs.
Tell me more about the new G-Hold
Establishing Safetray internationally meant I needed to travel extensively. I bought a tablet to make working on the move easier but I found myself wishing that I could hold it single-handedly, like I could hold the Safetray. I searched for the phrase, ‘awkward to hold’ on Google, and the first thing that came up was ‘iPad awkward to hold’, the third was ‘Kindle awkward to hold’.
Having spent four years studying hands and the way that people hold objects, I realised that our expertise would be crucially valuable in the field of mobile technology. Although the G-Hold serves a very different purpose to the Safetray, and functions in its own way (it rotates and can come as a removable device) our experience has served us well and sparked interest from several of the biggest household names in tablet computers.
We took to the crowd-funding platform, Kickstarter to finance development and, after a successful campaign raising 130% of our goal, we are now entering into production. It was quite an emotional journey, being so connected to our backers and experiencing such overwhelming support from friends and strangers alike. We received orders from all over the world, with our removable Micro Suction G-Hold proving the most popular. The G-Hold Micro Suction uses a very funky, futuristic material which sticks onto flat surfaces using thousands of tiny little suckers, smaller than the eye can see, enabling the device to be peeled off again, leaving no marks.
Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
I did try employment in corporates but found that I always wanted to change things. I’m not much good at being a cog in a wheel but have a lot of respect for those who can be. It requires all types to make a wheel turn round.
My parents have a cassette tape recording of me when I was seven, being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied that I wanted to be an inventor. It may have taken me 25 years to get there but better late than never…
It seems to run in the family – a couple of years ago my son (who was seven at that time) announced one Saturday morning that he was going to set up a stall outside our flat and sell his old toys. He sat out there every Saturday from that day onwards, come rain or shine, until we moved last year. He is currently planning his next venture.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the diversity of the role, from building prototypes and witnessing them become real-life products to seeing them serve customers in venues all over the world, from setting up internship programmes for students to negotiating at board level with household name brands. It’s an incomparable adventure.
What has been your career highlight so far?
There are many moments, of which I am very proud, that are far too boring to mention in an article – moments where I have been forced through painful, frustrating, laborious, seemingly never-ending periods of time but ultimately coming out on top through sheer perseverance and determination.
However, in terms of utterly thrilling pinnacles, nothing can beat the eureka moments, when the ideas for Safetray and G-Hold struck me, with my first hashed together prototypes turning something from my brain into something I could hold. It’s always a special moment.
When you were starting out, was it easy to find business support in Edinburgh?
We were put on the High-Growth Pipeline of Business Gateway, providing access to financial and advisory support. Having consulted at Scottish-based business network, Thrive for Business I was fortunate enough to have access to a brilliant network of business owners and advisors. I wrote about the start-up phase in a blog over the first few months which can still be read here.
What advice would you give someone considering striking out on their own?
I am a big believer in knocking on doors to be heard when you’re starting out. I didn’t get onto the High Growth Pipeline initially but I kept going back until I met the criteria. I had a few funding applications turned down but I just kept applying. The Angel Syndicate that I first presented to for equity funding turned me down to begin with but I spent time understanding what would make them invest and, six months later, I returned with a revised plan and the deal was successful. For fear of sounding cheesy, I don’t believe in the word ‘no’ being absolute – just part of the journey towards a ‘yes’. Of course, there’s a fine line between persistence and stupidity and you have to be careful not to cross that border.
I would always advise sticking to an industry that you know and understand, and to ensure that you’re solving a real-life problem in a planned and meaningful way. It’s also crucial that you surround yourself with the best team of professional advisors, in my case Johnson Carmichael as accountants and MBM Commercial as lawyers. In both cases it’s the individuals that you work with that make the difference.
It’s important to remember that it is your own choice to start a business, nobody is forcing you into it. You have to take responsibility for that decision and for its consequences. It will not be an easy adventure but, if you really believe in what you’re doing, that will not put you off. I admit to having had a couple of days when, at the worst points of the journey, I just hid under the duvet in fear. But I had to get up, brush myself off and keep on trucking. It’s truly amazing what we can all achieve when we take away the option to give up.
A start-up feels like a love affair – or it should do – and that passion is infectious when you are communicating it in the early stages. As the company progresses, it feels a bit more like a marriage, requiring a whole new level of commitment and you have to work hard to keep that passion alive. New products and new territories really help to keep that passion alive for me.
Describe Edinburgh in three words
Enchanting, eclectic, home.
When you’re not working, where in Edinburgh do you head to relax and unwind?
Dynamic Earth is always fun to visit with my boys and in the summer we can be found playing keepy-uppies in Bruntsfield Links. For grown-up time I like catching up with friends at The Fountain in Fountainbridge. I’m excited to see that area transform. My default after-hours venue would be the Jazz Bar.
What’s your mantra when it comes to work?
As Coco Chanel said: ‘In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.’
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