Tony Higson got fit by running to work but was fed up with ironing his suit that he carried in his backpack. Now he has invented a product for cyclists, bikers and air passengers – and it is about to take off in America. Stephen Eighteen spoke to him
The exhausting process of losing weight – and keeping it lost – helped inspire Tony Higson to invent a product that may well change the business world.
Mr Higson, Assistant Manager at Topps Tiles in Longfield Road, Tunbridge Wells, is on the verge of clinching a deal that would see his Freefold removable suit-carrier sold in major chain stores throughout the United States – potentially opening the door to untold riches as a bona fide international success story.
The 38-year-old entrepreneur’s long and tiring journey began in October 1999, when an inspirational talk at his then workplace, Dreams in Horsham, persuaded him to run his first marathon.
Measuring 6ft 2in and weighing 20 stone, this was no mean feat – but Mr Higson demonstrated the relentless work ethic that would eventually propel him to a shot at the big time.
Within six months he had completed the London Marathon of 2000, transforming himself physically and losing six stone in the process.
“Running the London Marathon was life-changing – when I crossed the line I realised I could do anything,” he said.
One of those ‘anythings’ stemmed from the many hours of pounding the streets to and from jobs – including as a retail branch manager – as part of his training regime.
“Every day I used to iron my suit before I went to work and carried it in my backpack. But by the time I got to work I used to have to iron it again,” he said.
“I thought to myself, ‘there must be a way that I can run to work without having to iron my suit again when I get there’.”
Mr Higson, who lives near Penshurst, admits that he is not well-educated and reading is not one of his strengths.
“But I am highly creative and good with people, with a commercial awareness bought on by all my years in retail sales.”
It was his recognition of a gap in the market for a removable suit carrier to go inside a backpack, or airline hand luggage, that motivated him for many hard years while holding down full-time jobs.
In 2010 he found a modicum of fame on the online version of Dragons’ Den, a spin-off from the BBC’s entrepreneurs’ show, on which he convinced business people Julie Meyer and Shaf Rasul to each invest £20,000 for a 30 per cent stake in his company, which at the time was selling backpacks containing a luggage piece that could keep suits crease-free. But the deal floundered and ‘not much happened, and after 12 months Julie said she wanted to prioritise her own business,’ he revealed.
“But I don’t mind. At the end of the day it was a PR stunt and I got another investor from it, which is all that matters.” He will not reveal the identity of his investor, stating only that he works in the financial industry.
Mr Higson said that the design presented to the Dragons had a key flaw. “I sold it as a backpack but people needed something removable.”
He came up with Freefold, containing ethylene vinyl acetate foam – used in swimming floats – which is placed on the inside of the shirt and jacket. Acting as an elaborate coathanger, Freefold allows suits to be folded without becoming creased.
“Instead of having a suit carrier that is 3kg, Freefold weighs 560g. Freefold is usable and removable from a businessman’s airline carry-on luggage,” he said.
“This is ten times cheaper, five times smaller and five times lighter than premium airline garment luggage currently available. The business market for those using airports is large.”
As well as plane passengers, Freefold – which is manufactured in China – can be used by runners, walkers, cyclists and motorcyclists.
Since late 2013, Mr Higson has sold more than 3,000 Freefold products, all of them waterproof, to customers across the world from his online shop – all without advertising.
“I work 20 hours a day, seven days a week; I have to work on it in the evenings, though in some respects this helps because lots of people abroad I need to talk to are awake at that time.”
His efforts won him a prize at the International Design Awards 2014, which may only be the beginning because from next month a leading American retailer is trialling 500 Freefold units in its stores for six weeks.
Should this prove a success, the chain would sell Freefold in all of its 300 branches, where there would be – Mr Higson believes – about 150,000 units stocked per year.
Freefold would then be known in many households and Tony would have the money to reinvest and develop the brand further.
“The trial has all been agreed and prepared for, so it’s going ahead. I have been approached by the military of some countries for their soldiers’ uniforms to place on the product, so this has army application possibilities, too.”
Mr Higson has two children, Callun, 13, and Hannah, four. “I am an inspiration to my son,” he said proudly. “He is already talking about wanting to go into business.”
Callun may have a tailor-made opportunity to follow suit in a thriving family firm.
For more information go to www.free-fold.com
WHERE IS THE FUNDING?
Tony Higson has questioned the British Government’s support for entrepreneurs after being frustrated in his efforts to secure funding for his Freehold venture.
Mr Higson said he has been unable to get a bank loan and grants are almost non-existent.
Instead, he has had to raise finance by doing up run-down properties and selling them on at a profit.
He has only been able to pursue his business dream thanks to the money that he has made from two houses in Crawley and a flat in Horsham, undertaking to do the renovations himself.
What most frustrates him is that he is prepared to create much-needed manufacturing jobs in the UK, but finds himself unable to raise the capital required for his own facilities. Instead, he has to import the products from China.
“I am surprised by how difficult it is to get any sort of finance for a company that could increase exports, manufacturing and employment in the UK,” he said. “I wrote a letter to Boris Johnson, but he didn’t even answer it himself.
“Every bank says I am a start-up and too much of a risk, but you would think that someone who has used their own money and is doing business with a major retailer would get some help.”
If he could manufacture in the UK, Mr Higson said he could produce a suit-carrier that would be ‘carbon neutral and under 150g, made of EPP [expanded polypropylene] foam’.
“This would make it lighter than a mobile phone and the lightest garment-packing system in the world.”