“When faced with personal challenges and business challenges, it’s going to take a lot of energy to overcome them. So why not use that energy wisely and focus on the things you can influence and forget about the stuff you can’t?”
Rob Law, aka Trunki Daddy, has faced more personal and business challenges than most. In this conversation he talks about living with cystic fibrosis (or ’65 roses’, as children often put it), his extraordinary journey as an entrepreneur, and the power of writing as a way of sense-making personally and professionally.
Inspiring, challenging, and, as you’d expect from the Trunki Daddy, huge fun.
Rob’s site: https://www.roblaw.com/
Rob on Twitter: https://twitter.com/trunkidaddy
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Rob Law, MBE, who is the founder and CEO of Trunki, the brand behind the much-loved ride-on suitcases for tots. From one of the most infamous rejections ever on Dragons Den in 2006, his company has gone on to sell 4 million suitcases in over a hundred countries. And he himself has won over 120 awards, including an MBA, obviously, for services to business.
He’s also a speaker and author of Sixty-five Roses and a Trunki: Defying the odds in life and business, which has recently published by Wiley. And it’s a book that shows how anyone can overcome challenges and become more resilient. Welcome to the show, Rob.
Rob Law: Thanks, Alison. Thanks for inviting me.
Alison Jones: It’s great to have you here. I have been reading your book, I was saying to you just before we came on, I’m not gonna lie, I’ve been in tears a couple of times. It’s a deeply personal, very moving story. And clearly we could take half an hour just explaining the story because it’s big, but could you just for anybody who hasn’t read the book, give us the 30-second version. I know that’s a really hard ask.
Rob Law: Sure. Well, I invented the Trunki, it launched. It had lots of hurdles to overcome to get it to market. Luggage manufacturers told me I’d mentioned a toy and toy manufacturers told me I’d invented a piece of luggage. It was a real struggle to get it to market, and then I had quite a few challenges my early days of startup.
And I did quite a lot of business speaking and people always tell me I should write a story, and they’ve only heard the business side. So I wanted to tell my more personal side, about my personal battle with cystic fibrosis. The book title is 65 Roses because that’s what children call the crippling disease cystic fibrosis.
So yeah, I wanted to tell my true story and hopefully inspire other people to overcome their adversity.
Alison Jones: It is a wonderful title. It’s very arresting. It’s very intriguing. I’m guessing you had a few discussions about that title though, because it’s not your average business book title.
Rob Law: Yes. When I went to the publishers, the title was still a work in progress, but I wasn’t happy with it. It was Dragonslayer, very uncomfortable with that title, but we tried bouncing around lots of ideas and then came across this very poetic title, but it didn’t shout off the shelf what it exactly was as a product, so the subtitle became very important then.
Alison Jones: The subtitle, just to recap, is ‘defying the odds in life and business’. And for me, one of the big things that came out of it was I loved your point about problems. There are problems you can solve, there are problems you can’t, and I’ve heard this a few times. I’ve had lots of people on the podcast with, with really incredible sort of individual stories, it’s a very common theme. That sense that if you have an intractable problem, you almost, I mean, I’m sure there’s lots of different ways of responding to this, but one really interesting way is that you become extremely good at solving tractable problems. If that’s a word.
Rob Law: Yeah, I think my whole life I’ve been a natural problem solver. And when faced with personal challenges and business challenges, it’s more a case of, it’s going to take a lot of energy to overcome them. So why not use that energy wisely and just focus purely on the things you can influence and forget about the stuff you can’t?
So currently we’re in COVID, and I can’t influence when the government is going to ease lockdowns and international travel is going to resume or when I’m, as a shielded person, going to be able to go down to the local supermarket again. But I can focus on controlling my costs. I can focus on pivoting my marketing message to staycations and go to visit grandma, and look for those green shoots, those opportunities in the future with the leftover energy
Alison Jones: Yes, the whole travel thing. You faced this before, haven’t you, when hand luggage was banned.
Rob Law: That’s right. There’s a story in the book. So the peak summer sale sales season of my first year of trading, it was the height of the terrorist threats and the liquid bomb incident that listeners may recall, which was the instrumental point when we started having to use plastic bags to carry our liquids.
That was the time I was hoping to sell a few Trunkis for the summer holiday sale period and yeah, the government banned hand luggage so I had to ride that storm out.
Alison Jones: You say in the book, basically, if you’re willing to do whatever it takes, to work hard, to pivot on a dime, you know, start a company. If you’re not, work for a company, it did make me laugh. It’s very, well, this is how it is. You just have to think on your feet.
Rob Law: Yeah. I mean, it takes a particular level of determination and resilience to run a business because you’re going to get lots of knock-backs. So you’ve got to face up to these challenges, hit them head on. And quite often when you’re navigating these challenges, you, you, you thought you were trying to get from A to B, but actually you may end up going to C, and that’s not failure. That’s just trying to navigate over all these challenges and it’s not a straight line life, is it, from birth to death? It’s a very wiggly line. And you just got to find your way through it. I’ve referenced Sir Ken Robinson, who obviously I wasn’t aware of when I was growing up, but so much… things really fit into place about finding your passion and finding your element. And some of his teachings really resonate with me.
Alison Jones: Yeah, I love that stuff. And the fact that even as a child you were deconstructing Lego models and reinventing them and thinking about product design. But when you were writing this book – and I know that you wrote it with Peter Hughes, we’ll come back to that in a minute, actually, we’re going to talk about that process – but I just wanted to also explore… It is deeply personal, as we’ve said. And you talk particularly about the death of your twin sister, Kate, at such a tragically young age and, and also the resonance that had for you because she shared your diagnosis.
I’m trying to think how to phrase the question without sounding crass. I’m really sorry, but just sometimes when we write, we go to places that are deeply uncomfortable and it’s a very personal experience, but you’re writing for other people. How did you manage that in your head and what came, what did you learn from that process?
Rob Law: Well, in all honesty, I kind of approached this book when I decided to talk about my personal story as almost a form of therapy as well. So, yeah, back in what, 90, the mid nineties, my twin sister at 16 passed away to the same disease and I never got to see a psychologist, I never got counseling. I just had to deal with it on my own. It just wasn’t really done. So, yeah, there’s, there’s lots of feelings and emotions that I buried behind a wall. And I talk about that a bit in the book. So with Peter’s careful guidance, we traveled back in time and really explored some of those experiences and feelings in a very safe, open manner.
Alison Jones: And the way it comes across ,I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it feels as though you create a narrative that, I mean, you can’t make sense of stuff like this, obviously, but you draw meaning out of it and you create meaning around it, which I think is quite an empowering thing to do, isn’t it?
Rob Law: Yeah,
Alison Jones: I
Rob Law: guess I was stuck there having gone through that tragedy and to lose a twin who’s dying because they suffer from the same inherited genetic diseases, you… it doesn’t look so great, does it? And I thought, well, my innings might be shorter than most, but I’m going to try and make the most out of them.
And the book starts with me making a promise to my mother.
Alison Jones: And you have indeed defined the odds all over the place. You’ve had kids, you run marathons and triathlons and stuff, and there’s a, there’s a ‘Screw you, cystic fibrosis’ sort of moment quite often in the book. Isn’t there?
Rob Law: Yes. It’s something that… I’m always surprised actually, when I’m competing in some of these events, how. strong the mind can be and how much harder I can push my body beyond all limits by simply having a very strong mindset. To me it’s fighting against CF. So yeah, if I can run the extra mile or go that extra bit faster it’s just pushing my inevitable fate further down the road.
Alison Jones: Yes, you are a superhuman, you a highly evolved, and I’m giong to run a little bit harder tonight because I feel a bit lame, really. Um, let’s move on quickly and talk about the writing process. So you say, you know, with Peter’s help and support and so on, and you were dyslexic at school and writing clearly is not your – you have many superpowers, but writing wasn’t necessarily one of them. So when did you decide A. I’m going to get somebody to help with this and B. How did it go?
Rob Law: So I guess that the book journey was… having been told for the umpteenth time I should write a book, and part of my story is about wanting to free up some of my time to focus on the family, I was working three days a week, I had a bit more time on my hands, and it felt like the right time to explore a book.
So I was introduced through a good business contact of mine to an agent at Curtis Brown, and she really liked the idea of telling my story and then working with Curtis Brown to structure a story and a pitch to the publishers. That then involved getting a ghost writer, it wasn’t Peter at the time, someone else, to sit down with me and discuss my whole story and the key areas that I wanted to pull out.
And it became quite apparent that actually the story could follow all the challenges I’ve had to deal with. So we’ve talked about some of them in the early days, but more recently I’ve had massive problems with intellectual property theft and gone all the way to the Supreme court. I have had problems with running the factory and I’ve had problems with IVF and creating a family.
So we wanted to weave all that together in a narrative. And that created a synopsis and that was then pitched to publishers. And unfortunately we got rejection after rejection, kind rejections. I might add ,much kinder than on Dragons Den, but the feeling was clearly, I’m not famous enough to write a memoir and for it to sell millions and the book was structured in such a way that it wasn’t a business ‘how to’ with tick boxes and learning lessons pulled out in boxes. But I didn’t really didn’t want to go down that road. I wanted, I’m really passionate about storytelling and see it as such a powerful tool. So I wanted to create a business book that read more like a piece of fiction, that was a page-turner.
Alison Jones: You’re into category invention again, aren’t you. It’s exactly the same thing.
Rob Law: But the publishers didn’t see it. So, I was kind of licking my wounds a bit and trying to think whether I really wanted to go down this business, ‘how to’ book when out of the blue I was contacted by Wiley on LinkedIn who were looking for an entrepreneurship title.
So we quickly started chatting. They loved the format for the book and were actually incredibly open and supportive of the process and the direction we wanted to take it. So then I needed to find a new ghost writer because the guy who’d written the first bit wasn’t available and Curtis Brown mentioned Peter, we quickly got chatting and he’s, uh, he’s a marketeer, an entrepreneur and a doctor in psychology. So that kind of ticked quite a few of my boxes and, and we really got on and have quite a few similar worldviews. So yes, it was a great relationship we’ve built over the last probably year
Alison Jones: And I guess that relationship is unlike any other kind of business partnership you’ve ever had. What was interesting about it? What did you notice?
Rob Law: Well, very quickly, we established a good level of trust. So I felt very open to discuss some very deep things. I also have so many stories of my adventures, it was great to use him as a sounding board to really cherry pick the most relevant for the book and to keep the flow of the book going. And, and we did have arguments about certain adventures I really wanted to tell, and he would tell me that we need to make this a page-turner, we’ve got to keep the reader engaged, keep them wanting to learn more, and I think that story would just be too distracting from the general flow that he was trying to create.
Alison Jones: Oh, that’s so, I mean, you need an editor like that. You need somebody who’s working on behalf of the reader, but Oh, it’s a killer. Isn’t it? When you’ve got a story and you want to tell it, or it’s hilarious and they won’t let you.
Rob Law: And people who’ve been influential in my life, trying to shoehorn them into the story, but I trusted him. And actually the most uncomfortable part of the process was – and I kind of respected this from a creative discipline – it was let’s work on a chapter at a time. We’d have a pretty much half day, if not longer, chatting about a particular chapter, he would then go away and write it, send me the draft, but he didn’t want to reread it. He wanted to move on to the next chapter so that he could get the words down. So for a period of almost six months I had all these chapters that were covered in red that I wasn’t comfortable sharing with anyone because of the factual inaccuracies, to enable the story, to get something to then go back and edit. So we had to follow that process and, yeah, that was a bit uncomfortable, but I knew it was part of the creative process and that we would obviously revisit. So that was the only odd experience, but one that had to be done to get the creativity out.
Alison Jones: I do love the idea of you just sitting to frantically biting your lip trying to hold back all the corrections for six months, but I’m totally with Peter. You’ve got to blat it all down and then you can start reshaping. Because otherwise you end up endlessly refining chapter one, don’t you?
Rob Law: Yeah. And actually in the middle of the book is quite a poignant moment where I kind of reflect back and see what’s holding me back from the future, and that came out quite a lot later in the book, when I was telling Peter a story about a particular thing and, and that really felt like a great anchor point to get people to in the middle of the book, before we then move on into the future.
Alison Jones: Interesting. So you’re getting the narrative arc, and you’re right, sometimes you don’t realize until the end that there’s this pivotal point and that needs to go sooner. And it’s a real masterclass actually in interweaving the personal and the professional. I don’t know if you’ve read Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the Nike guy, yes? So it’s similar sort of feel to that. That’s like, he’s got nothing to prove, like you, you’re successful, you know, I can be honest and open, and it’s great from a personal perspective, but it’s also really down and dirty about the tough bits. And I really enjoyed that. I think that we need more of that kind of business biography.
Rob Law: Yeah, I think sugarcoating it doesn’t really help, other than feeding the ego. And I really wanted this book to be something that people really learn and reflect on. Um, so that meant, yeah, sharing warts and all.
Alison Jones: So before we get onto the… I’m going to ask you about a tip for writers in a minute, but I just wanted to just step away from the book for a minute and talk about fun because I mean, Trunki, I guess the whole brand is predicated on having a good time as a child and, and you really kind of bake that into everything you do. You know, the cover is colorful and fun and your office is called ‘the mother ship’ and that you just seem to have a lot of fun. Is that just you, or is it strategic – how does that work in the business?
Rob Law: Yes, it started off as me and I’ve always had a bit of a dry sense of humor. So when I was facing some of the earlier challenges, like a faulty Trunki product, Id tell a consumer that sounds like the Trunki has caught the sneezies and it’s got a bit of a cold and we’ll get it fixed. And I found that being human is a very powerful tool to overcome a lot of negativity in customer feedback.
And then I was hugely inspired by Innocent’s drinks at the time. This is 15 odd years ago and how they were quite pioneering in their HR approach. So yeah, we adopted some funky job titles. I’m Trunki Daddy, we’ve got Sales Extraordinaires and Sales Sheriffs, and Miss Moneypenny, things like this.
And yeah, just having a fun, open environment to work in as well. Having worked as a product designer, I’ve worked in some very creative workspaces and really wanted that to be reflective of our working environment because at the end of the day, people are the most important part of a business and you’ve got to create and foster an environment that they can think creatively and do their job really well.
So yeah, office design has been a key part of our journey. But later fun became one of our four core values of the business. And we’re always trying to have a bit of fun along the way. Some of the parties with us included sheep herding, for instance, running around fells herding sheep for a team activity.
And that actually scored one of the highest promoter scores that we’ve ever done within our team internally.
Alison Jones: Your Glassdoor rating must be off the scale. On a more serious note what does that… ha, ‘On a more serious note let’s talk about fun…’ What does fun do for you as a competitive advantage, do you think, as a company?
Rob Law: Well, I figure from a marketing point of view, it just gives us a dialogue we can have with our customers that helps us stand out a little bit, be a bit more memorable. I mean, it comes down to something as simple as even naming the Trunki. So each trunk has got a name. Way back in the day they actually had a Facebook page. It started expanding to more than five and that became a bit tricky. But yeah, we try to put personality into the product. We have two customers, we’ve got the parents who wants to buy functional, innovative products that provide utility, but we also have the child and we’ve got to remember that they want to fall in love with the products.
So we’ve got to create character and personality around them. So really understanding that two-customer point, it comes together with a bit of fun and humor. Yeah, that’s worked really well for us.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. And there’s a whole new podcast episode there around brand storytelling and content marketing and all that kind of good stuff as well, isn’t there -particularly visual content marketing, but we won’t go there because this is the Extraordinary Business Book Club, and I need to ask you what your best tip is for first time business book authors.
Rob Law: Well, maybe that’s my second book, but yeah, for authors, I guess if you are really clear on the product you’re wanting to create and the story you’re wanting to tell, then I guess my experience is stick to your guns. Try and find a supportive publisher or if you can’t then self publish, but be sure you’ve got the audience that are going to really engage with that.
And, yeah, just, just be true to what it is you’re trying to create. You can still be open to feedback and criticism. It’s the same as product development, you’ve got to iterate, you got to get an idea out there. Talk to people, getting feedback is great. But as long as you’re clear what you’re trying to achieve, stick to it, stick to your guns.
Alison Jones: Do you know, that’s a really, really good parallel, isn’t it? It is product development, because you’ve got a vision, but it might evolve as you go through, you need to take feedback, but you need also not to… because when you’re creating something new, particularly, many people just can’t see it., they can’t imagine it. And so they’re going to criticize from a place of not seeing your vision, and knowing when to take feedback and when not, I think, is an art.
Rob Law: Yeah, I mean, we talk about how to overcome quite a lot of preset judgments of people that people have in one of the chapters of the book. And then some of those key areas to try and get round availability bias and things like this. And, yeah, that’s, that’s an interesting chapter.
Alison Jones: Yeah, I don’t think there’s a dull chapter in here to be fair. I’d also like to know, I mean, I’m guessing you’re probably not a huge reader, but is there a business book that has stayed with you? I mean, you talk about the number of business books you can read in your lifetime and how it goes down if you’re dyslexic, but what’s the one that stayed with you?
Rob Law: Yeah, there’s a clear standout winner for me. And it came recommended from one of the business clubs I’m a member of, and it is Good to Great by Jim Collins. So many words on that page really resonated with me – that you’ve got to have a clear vision, a clear purpose, or why do people want to come and join your organization?
And for us, we don’t make plastic luggage for kids. We make products that allow parents and carers to take their kids off exploring the world, or just out of the front door. So that really worked for us and then having a clear value structure that allows you to delegate, so your team can make decisions around your core values, fun being one of them.
And, yeah, having a hairy, audacious goal. So, you know, we, we would like Trunkis to be used on trips to the moon.
Alison Jones: that’s your BHAG? That’s brilliant. What are you doing to further that?
Rob Law: Well, the mothership, our office is a converted chapel in Bristol, and that’s got a bit of a spaceship theme because that’s the ultimate form of space travel. But yeah, I’m, I’m really excited to follow the likes of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX and see what they’re up to. And actually a few years ago, I got to meet Richard Branson and created his bespoke, Virgin Galactic Trunki and presented it to him.
Alison Jones: And there’s a picture of that in the the book, great picture. That’s right. And of course you wanted to be an astronaut, so there’s enough circular coming back to the start there, isn’t there.
Rob Law: Yeah, there’s a, there’s quite a unique chapter at the end of the book, we don’t want to give too much away, but, yeah, it was a very progressive way to conclude a business book.
Alison Jones: Yeah, and I might have bawled a bit at that as well… But actually I’m going to slightly divert as well. I’d love to know what reading looks like for you. You know, what do you read and how do you read and do you do audio books and stuff? And what do books mean to you as an entrepreneur and as a human being?
Rob Law: Yeah, I guess now with with the kids and everything going on in life, I just listen to audio books and podcasts, and very rarely get a chance to actually pick up a book. Back in the day reading was really just for holidays, when I was able to take them – that’s what I could really get into a book, but, I have to confess, I don’t have a big bookshelf at home. I don’t read that much, but a great business podcast – other than this one – is How I built This hosted by Guy Raz, and that explores a lot of entrepreneurs from very big brands, mainly American, and their challenges and hurdles they had to overcome. So it’s very inspiring too.
Alison Jones: Oh, brilliant. Thank you for that recommendation. I’ll go check him out. So if people want to find out more about you more about Trunkis, more about Sixty-five Roses and a Trunki, where should they go?
Rob Law: Well head over to my website, Roblaw.com. And you can find out a bit more about my journey, about the book. Clearly it’s available to buy on Amazon and Waterstones and every major book reseller.
Alison Jones: Which are opening now, thank goodness.
Rob Law: Yes. And another thing I do as well as a lot of business speaking, keynotes and workshops for managers. So if that ticks a box for you, please get in contact.
Alison Jones: And I have to say, if you ever do get a chance to hear Rob speak, grab it with both hands because his story is absolutely extraordinary. Rob, it was just brilliant talking to you today. Thank you so much. And it’s such a pleasure always to get an insight into how it came about, you know, how that book that I’ve been reading happened, and meet the person behind it. It’s such a great honour doing this podcast. I love it. Thank you for your time.
Rob Law: Thanks.