You have to be fairly tough to brave the elements as a UK surfer all year round as Gideon Bright would tell you. ‘It’s a problem for everyone, that freezing cold changing in a car park,’ he says. It was these chilly experiences that led to Bright setting up Dryrobe, a business creating outdoor changing robes.
‘The idea came from a product my mum made for me when I was younger,’ the surfer says. ‘It was a variation of the towelling robe a lot of people use for changing on the beach. She noticed I was getting soaking wet when it rained and was still cold while wrapped up in it, so she made a version covered with tent material.’ It wasn’t until years later he decided to turn his mother’s creativity into a business. Even then he didn’t quite realise what the demand would be and not just in the surfing community. Bright doesn’t disclose the company’s turnover except to say it has surpassed the £1m mark.
Bright's first creation, courtesy of his mother, and the current Dryrobe product
Getting the initial product right took some work though. ‘I went to Australia and saw some people using a parka-like jacket, taking it on and off and going in and out of the water, so I looked at how its lining worked,’ he says. He experimented with a couple of towel lining versions and adapted his design with feedback from friends within the watersports community. Once he had a robe that worked, Bright soon found friends asking if they too, could get something similar.
He left his job as a film location manager in London and sold one of two holiday homes he owned to get the business going. The price of the robes might raise an eyebrow – they’re all around the £100 mark. Especially considering the only comparable products would be the much cheaper (though admittedly more basic) towelling robe. ‘It’s doubling in price mentally what people had associated with the products that would service that need,’ Bright agrees. ‘It found its own price though – I made it as cheaply as I could and thought I’ll add a bit to make sure we can make and sell it and not lose any money. When people tried it out, they came around.’
Bright found himself learning a lot on the go. ‘I started the business on a laptop, then moved it to the garden shed. It was getting a bit chaotic posting Christmas stock,’ he says of the early days. ‘I got a bookkeeper in to help me and within the first couple of days he said, "You realise you’re right at the point where you should be registered for VAT?" So there was a bit of a panic and he went from one day a week to pretty much full time sorting out the financial chaos that I hadn’t thought about.’
Interest in the product was building and he began to realise the potential of the business when touring triathlon shows. A Team GB performance director approached where Bright was exhibiting the product. ‘It was a freezing event and they just bought them off me then and there,’ he says. Olympic medallists Alistair and Jonny Brownlee were soon wrapped up in the robes. ‘They had to tape over the logos because of sponsorship, but it got a lot of chatter going and the guys have been using those ever since.’ Dryrobe now has deals with US Masters Swimming, UK obstacle course series Tough Mudder and the International Triathlon Union (ITU) to name a few. Bright can’t disclose many details yet, but also confirms that ‘Dryrobe will feature at the Olympics in Rio this summer’.
Exporting has been particularly exciting for Bright. He has a warehouse in Chicago and an office in New Jersey. ‘We’re also thinking about a warehouse in Canada as there has been a lot of interest there from kayakers and other sports,’ he explains. Although Bright designed the robe for outdoor wear, with surfers in mind, he says many people across different disciplines have bought them. ‘Everyone wants to stay warm, everyone wants to stay out of the wind and everyone wants to stay out of the rain,’ Bright notes. He does though, admit some of the day-to-day uses of Dryrobe have taken him by surprise – customers have whipped out their robes for school runs and dog walks too.
‘We’re making some tweaks for elite level swimmers that differs from our current offering, but in the main the same functions work for all applications,’ he says. ‘My thinking is if it’s not broke don’t fix it, and at the moment it seems to work for a lot of people.’