Douglas Hunt is one of those fortunate individuals who manage to transform a hobby into a viable business. Like many people before him, there has also been that defining point where you need to make the decision whether to 'go it' on your own. But, as you will also read, the Internet is also playing an important part in selling his ideas around the world.
Douglas, tell us about how you got started in the business of making Sunclocks.
My business actually started as a hobby! I had a general interest in Sundials, and (in 1983) there was a public meeting to discuss ideas for commemorating the 1884-1984 'centenary' of a local Park. If possible, any features had to have a time connection, be theft/vandal-proof, inexpensive to make, plus interesting to the local population. I put forward the idea of a large ground-level 'Human Sundial', which would use a person's shadow to tell correct time. My suggestion seemed to fit all the criteria - and, to cut a long story short, my first full-size prototype was made for me. In fact they also buried a time-capsule under it, not to be opened until the next centenary in 2084 - though I won't be around to see it of course!
How has the business developed over the years?
At that time, I had absolutely no business thoughts about this at all, but over the next two years or so I received so many comments from local people saying "What a great idea", that I wondered if there might be some profit potential. Having had a background in computing, I sat down and wrote my computer program which would calculate Layout Plans for these 'Human Sundials' (the program has been improved and extended since then to deal with things like the Southern Hemisphere, different Time-zones, and so on).
In the spring of 1987 I started advertising in gardening magazines, and soon had a paying hobby. I managed to get one into the National Garden Festival in Glasgow (1988), plus it was also approved by Which magazine in April 1989. However, what really changed it from a hobby into a full-time business was the 'New National Curriculum' for Schools, around 1991.
I suddenly found that I was getting lots of enquiries from Junior Schools who had realised that the "Sunclocks" were a perfect way to fulfil various requirements of the curriculum - as well as having a nice outdoor project, which would brighten-up the playground with a useful (and vandal-proof!) item.
At that time I was working as a Quality Assurance Manager but couldn't handle a full-time job in addition to all my "Sunclock" orders/enquiries. So I decided to see just how far it was possible to take this "Sunclock" business and so became self-employed. I must admit my wife was very dubious, plus my boss at the time thought that I was absolutely mad to leave my job to go selling 'Human Sundial' Plans!
However, luckily I am able to say that 'I have never looked back' and my "Sunclock" business now supplies Layout Plans all over the world. Any sunny level area is a potential customer and every "Sunclock" becomes its own advertisement - creating a 'chain-reaction' of future referral orders.
What are the particular problems or advantages you face as a rural business compared to your experiences of city life?
As a rural-based business - well right on the countryside edge of a small town actually - I can't think of any disadvantages. Because all I need are some computers and printers the business could operate anywhere. Likewise, there are no specific advantages (for me, anyway), but I prefer to see some green fields and trees around, rather than an urban landscape!
What are the biggest marketing challenges that face your business?
Initially, the main marketing challenge was making people aware of my business. As the concept was new, and there are no competitors, they did not have anything to gauge my business against. However, I decided to concentrate on a mix of the Educational Sector and 'public' locations - so that the Human Sundial concept wouldn't really need traditional marketing.
What sort of successes or failures have you had in marketing, or getting your products/services to market?
Probably my biggest marketing break-through was in realising that Indirect Marketing was the way to go. This is similar to a conventional mail-shot but with the advantage that the response-rate is very much higher, plus the normal postage costs are totally eliminated. However, it is really only suitable for unique items, which have no other competition.
Since establishing an Internet web-site I now find that the world (mainly the United States), is 'beating a path to my door'. That is the advantage of the Internet. It does not matter whether you are based in the country, or the middle of a city, your web-site 'shop' will be open 24 hours a day.
How, on a practical level, do you deal with getting payment from abroad?
About 85% of overseas customers (mainly the USA) pay by posting a cheque in their own currency - while the other 15% 'wire' it directly to my Bank account. In fact I wish more customers would take advantage of the wire system (international electronic bank transfer), as I can receive payment in Sterling, without losing about 5% in any 'conversion' or bank charges ! In addition, as well as being faster than airmailing a cheque, it is also much safer since there is no possibility of it being lost in the post.
For orders from Australia, my Distributor there collects all payments in Australian Dollars - and the total is then wired to me in Pounds Sterling.
As 90% of my customers are Schools there is little point in me offering a Credit Card payment service, because Schools don't pay using that method. However, if the demand for Credit Card payment increases, I will use the services of companies such as Netbanx or Worldpay who, for a fairly small percentage commission, would process any Credit Card payments via my web-site without me requiring to have my own e-commerce facilities.
What plans do you have for the future of the business? How do you see the business developing?
As regards future plans for my business - I am quite happy to let it develop in its own way. One thing that would help me - as well as helping other people too - is for me to find anyone who might like to make and/or install the 'component-parts' for my "Sunclocks". They could work in any materials of their choice (stone, wood, concrete, etc.), and sell the kits to people who want to own a 'Human Sundial' but who not a D-I-Y person. Currently, there is only a small handful of people producing such kits - but they can easily sell for 1000 Pounds, and all profit is theirs.
How do you perceive the general public regards the rural business community?
I imagine that the general public thinks of the rural community as little more than a mix of farmers, and related businesses. However, there is a growing trend towards teleworking, where any business does not have to be located in towns - but can operate efficiently from any location, by communicating with customers plus suppliers via E-mail and the Internet.
What tips or advice do you have for anyone who is thinking of setting up business in the countryside?
The only real advice I might give to a business thinking of setting up in the countryside is: 'integrate with the local community'. Depending on the exact nature of the business, there are bound to be 'opportunities' to provide services which may not otherwise be available to people in that area. Try to find mutually-beneficial business relationships which help you as well as your customers - and leads to word-of-mouth recommendation.
Contact: Douglas Hunt, Sunclocks
1 Love Street, Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland. KA13 7LQ.
Ph./Fax +44 (0)1294 552250 | e-mail Modern Sunclocks or visit their website
Countrylovers.co.uk would like to wish Douglas every success with his unusual venture and thank him for participating in our Country Profile section. If you'd like to brighten up your own garden space with one of these rather unusual sunclocks, why not drop Douglas an e-mail?
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