As summer slipped quietly into Autumn, light rains began to leave the pavements of Bordeaux freckled like rustic eggs. Besides making me feel a bit homesick, these rains also brought something strange to my attention. Numerous citizens cycling around in the rain and keeping dry thanks to a little gizmo that attached their umbrellas to their handlebars. I quickly discovered that these umbrella holders were known as ‘Popins’ and were made by a start-up company here in Bordeaux.
Then one day I was just wandering around aimlessly and I came across a little Popins boutique.
I popped in (sorry couldn’t resist) and had a little look around. The small shop had the air of a design studio. I asked the man behind the counter if it would be possible to arrange an interview with the company’s founder. It turned out that his name was Thomas and he was just the guy I was looking for. So after giving me a magazine that had recently published an article about him and the world of Popins, we agreed to rendez-vous the next day.
I read the article in Bibiche Magazine and although it served as good background reading, it left me with some unanswered questions.
You can read the original article here, if you like. Alternatively this is my translated summary:
Thomas is the kind of guy who’d smoke a cigarette on discovering a bomb under his chair. He trained as a biological engineer but went on to do various things including opening a board-game cafe. In 2008 (or was it 2009?) he was cycling across Japan with his wife and children and he noticed local cyclists with umbrellas mounted on their bikes: to block the sun’s rays. Gregorian chants rang out in his head as he thought ‘Wait a minute, imagine taking this idea but to keep off the rain instead off the sun, I’m sure that would appeal to Europeans!’ He bought one as an example in Japan and when he eventually returned to France he set out to improve the design and spent two and a half years working up the perfect prototype: the original ‘porte parapluie’.
He chose the name Popins, reminiscent of Mary Poppins and with his friend began the adventure of starting a business out of the little boutique in the shadow of the Grosse Cloche. Jump forward to present day and Popins are sold online for less than €30, as well as being available in independent bike shops all over France and even some abroad. They also sell super-strength umbrellas and coming soon will be fully integrated Popins bikes and a newly designed Popins attachment that will fit wheelchairs and pushchairs.
Personally I am very interested entrepreneurial products for cyclists. I still believe my bicycle caravan could be a winner. So I wanted to dig deeper and find out exactly what steps Thomas took to go from idea, to design, to manufacture, to sale. Here’s the interview.
So in Japan people were cycling with umbrellas and that gave you the idea?
I crossed Japan on bicycle with my daughter we saw a system a bit like this [indicates a Popins] but it was for the sun because they don’t like to have the sun on their skin. And I said ‘but this is not for the sun, this is for the rain’ so the idea begun like this and after we said we must transform the accessory because when its raining generally there is wind, and we must adapt for european bikes because they are not the same as Japanese bikes.
And you bought one of the Japanese versions?
Yes, I bought one but it was not very strong, soon after it was broken.
Was it hand-made or factory made in Japan?
Neither! I think it was made by a factory… in China.
And then you started designing?
Did you have any training in design?
No. I was an engineer: a biological engineer. And then I stopped and opened a cafe. And when I was in my cafe I crossed Japan on bike and then I thought ‘when I go back to France I will do this’. I haven’t any experience.
So did you ask people for help?
Yes of course. It’s like when I stopped being an engineer I didn’t have any experience to open a cafe. But you learn. The internet is very good. I think that if I did this in the 1980’s it would not be possible because they had no internet. Now its very simple… Not very simple, but if you want you can.
It took you two years to make the perfect prototype, that seems like a long time?
One year to think, to think, to think, then one year and six months working all the day on it.
What was the most difficult aspect to get right at the design stage? What was hardest to achieve?
Nothing was that difficult. But now I think we made some errors because when I see him I say “oh shit we have to do it again” and now we begin to make the Popins 2. Perhaps if we had a more time we would not do this error. You see now it’s black. Before it was grey and not very, very nice. Now it is stronger and the paint is stronger too. Stronger against oxidation. So we progress but I think it is normal to work like this.
So I am interested in how you took the leap from design to production. How did you find the right manufacturer and did they become involved in the design?
Only with internet. For me, we are lucky. I think we found a good person and we didn’t search a lot. The first person we contacted at the very beginning is the person we work with now (we did contact others though). I don’t remember exactly how we found the factory in China. They worked with us to finalise the design. I said “I want this like this, like this, like this” and when they propose the first one I said “Oh its good” and we tested it and it was good, so it’s not very difficult. In the beginning we said we want umbrellas for bicycles, only bicycles and it was an error because there are lots of people who are interested in the product [think prams & wheelchairs]. So now it is more difficult because we must test on different vehicles.
Do you have a close relationship with the manufacturer?
We have some relationship but not too much because we want to stop to work with him. Why? No, he was very good but at the beginning, when we start, we want to do production in France but it was very, very, very expensive. And if in the beginning we would have made in France the product would have to cost €80. But now we can augment the production so we want to produce – maybe not in France – but in Europe and we can perhaps do that. At the beginning I had it in my head to make it entirely in Europe. So we don’t want to have too much relationship because after, voila! If I want to stop now I can because I have no ‘friend’ relationship. so we try to…
…keep a distance
Yes. After the next run, for example, I have some [business] cards. I want that the manufacturer is very implicated in the project but now I don’t want because for me it was only temporary because the goal of the game is to produce in Europe.
How many have you made so far?
Now, I think perhaps six or seven thousand.
And do you produce these umbrellas as well?
At the beginning the goal was only the umbrella holder but we decided we must also have good umbrellas. One, because its useful and two, when you have only the porte parapluie on the bike it’s not good for the brand visibility. The people don’t see it. But they see the umbrellas! And we said we must have a good umbrella. In the beginning we worked with a Dutch fabrication. They were not very, very good: We had some trouble [he laughs for a moment, reminiscing]. And now since 15 months we worked with a German company who make very, very, nice and very, very strong umbrellas.
Was the German company making them before?
I think so. I’m not sure because they don’t say really but I think.
But a Popins can fit any umbrella?
Not all – some have too thick a thick handle – but nearly all umbrellas, yes.
Now that you have designed one successful product do you start thinking of more products? Do you feel like an inventor now?
Yes. We start to work with a designer in Bordeaux on the Popins 2, he knows the new project, he only has to wait until we press the green button. But first we must sell some more to have some cash. And we have another accessory for bicycle coming soon, for me it’s very good. Not against the rain but it is for cyclists. It is a very complicated accessory, there are lots of parts. It’s an accessory that is very expensive to make the prototype so we wait until we have some cash or we try to think if we must try to send to another factory because it is very big project if we start to do it.
I read here [Bibiche magazine] that you were going to integrate the Popins into bikes.
No, its not really the truth. We met this person who lives in Strasbourg who makes bicycles using only European parts, nothing comes from China. And it is a friend now so we decide to sell here this bike and we want to have a Popins bike with the colour of Popins…
…Made by your friend but branded with Popins?
Exactly, but not integrated. Only integrated in that when you buy a Popins bike it comes fitted with the Popins attachment, but it’s not a part of the bicycle.
My final question is about the marketing, how did you push the product out in the beginning?
I had the product and I had the marketing tool: the story. Because for me and it’s like this in all the work I do it’s not just ‘make a product and sell’, we must say a story with a little bit of imagination. For me an umbrella on a bicycle is very smart… and very English. So I want to use some imagination when I start to find the name. I had in my head the word Pepin, it is a French word to say umbrella, but its a Argot word. Argot was the language of thieves who spoke like this so the police would not understand them. Now the people who speak like that have the same philosophy as the people that do hip-hop. At the start of the century it was a nasty word but now it is lovely. So we said “Pepin, Pepin, Pepin”. Then it came to me because I like very much – with my daughter – Mary Poppins and I said “ahh ha: Popins” because for me Popins is a very good word because it is international. We put only one P because its ‘Pop’ and its ‘In’.
At this point my recording stopped but I also asked about future plans. He said his aim was to get it sold in as many bike shops in as many countries as possible. Popins are already sold online but his priority is to get them sold in shops. I am keen to try out a Popins and hope to do so soon… and of course blog about the experience!
Personally I will keep an eye on this young, exciting company and am looking forward to seeing the new products. Looking around the shop there were little clues as to what might be coming next….
…but we shall have to wait and see.
I’d like to end here by thanking Thomas for being so generous with his time and for giving his first interview in English! For further information go to the official Popins website.