I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Sumroy. Jon is the CEO of Carfoldio Ltd. and the inventor of the mifold® grab-and-go booster seat®. mifold was launched in 2016 and is the most advanced, compact and portable car seat ever invented. It even led to the creation of the Ultra-Compact Car Seat Category. It’s more than 10x smaller than a regular booster seat, but just as safe. Jon started his career as a pharmaceutical chemist and then worked as a marketeer, senior executive and CEO in several multi-national consumer goods companies on three continents. Jon came to the world of child passenger safety through his experiences with his own children. In 2001, he had a vision to create a child car safety seat that was so compact and portable, his own children could keep one with them all the time, and be safe, no matter whose car they were in. It took a few years, and now his children are too old for booster seats. However, he is delighted that hundreds of thousands of other parents and caregivers all over the world are benefitting from the innovation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I am very blessed having enjoyed a varied career with challenging roles, across a range of industries, in different countries …. and there are more exciting opportunities to come.
I was born in 1967 and I grew up in Leeds, England. After a gap year in Israel studying, volunteering and traveling as part of an international youth leadership program; I graduated from the Victoria University of Manchester as a pharmaceutical chemist. My first role was in retail pharmacy, for Boots in the UK and I assumed that would be my career, but I didn’t enjoy the work and decided to reboot. Moving to Unilever, I trained in classical consumer goods marketing and 25-year later my career includes senior executive roles with large established companies like Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, with digital pioneers like 888 Holdings PLC, as well as tiny start-ups and many consulting clients.
My current career as an inventor and entrepreneur, leading my own company was not planned. I stumbled into it when a homemade prototype of canvas mats, straps and mountain climbing clips, morphed from a hobby into the mifold Grab-and-Go Booster.
In a few short years we’ve built a business, which is disrupting the very traditional car seat industry with some radical innovation. We recently shipped our half a millionth seat, selling to more than 150 countries. We also launched the most successfully crowdfunding campaign ever for a juvenile product.
All while saving the lives of children in cars …
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As a company, we have fun. I’m very proud of the team and, as we grow, we are managing to maintain the casual, open, friendly start-up atmosphere of the early days. One downside for me is everyone’s comfort reminding me of my embarrassing mistakes. I’ll share one.
At last year’s JPMA Show in California (the Juvenile Product Manufacturer’s Association) we had been selling the mifold Grab-and-Go seat for about one year, and we were nominated for an Innovation Award in the car seat category: I was confident to win. At the award ceremony, when they announced the car seat category winner, we didn’t even come third! I was so pissed and really upset. I turned to Matt, my VP Sales for North America and said, “Come on, let’s get a beer” and we walked away. A moment later, I heard “… and the winner is mifold!” I’d left before the end and missed that we won the overall Best in Show Innovation Award. I rushed back to join my more professional, less emotional team on the stage! I’m proud of the award, but not proud of my initial reaction.
At that show we also won the Parent’s Pick Innovation Award. And so far, mifold has been honored with twelve US and international, innovation, design and consumer awards: including one from NASA, the TechBriefs Consumer Innovation Award.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We sell a mifold seat somewhere in the world every 80-seconds!
Advances in out-sourcing, remote working, crowdfunding and digital marketing have revolutionized the opportunities for innovators to bring ideas to market. Today, anyone can conceive, design, develop and market, crowdfund, manufacture and ship their ideas from almost anywhere in the world. The barriers that limited innovation and new product development to large organizations have gone. This was a major factor in enabling us to bring the mifold Grab-and-Go Booster seat from idea to market in two years and pre-selling nearly $3 million on the Indiegogo crowdfunding platform.
There are three things that makes us stand out.
Firstly, we delivered our crowdfunding pre-orders! And we delivered (almost) on time to more than 30,000 customers in nearly 150 countries. This is not to be taken lightly! The annals of crowdfunding history are littered with many failed campaigns; especially huge, multi-million-dollar campaigns.
Secondly, we transitioned from a crowdfunding project into a regular company. Many entrepreneurs kick-start their ideas with crowdfunding. However, too many become one-hit-wonders and quickly fade away. Crowdfunding was only ever a marketing channel for us. We had already closed a seed round from angles and a A-round led by JamJar Investments, a London-based VC firm. As a business we quickly grew from the crowd funding project to where we are today: selling mifold in all the leading US retailers (Amazon, Target, BuyBuyBaby, Walmart.com, Nordstrom and more) while in parallel, developing an international network of distribution partners covering fifty countries. We created a global manufacturing, supply chain and logistics system, invested in advertising, sales and marketing and built a globally recognized brand.
Finally, we have evolved from a precarious single product company: we have launched new offerings into the ultra-compact car seat category. This requires long term vision and the confidence to invest in new product development.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
mifold is the only company globally preparing for the future of personal transportation … with children.
In an urban, mobile and asset light world, transportation is about ‘use’ not ‘ownership’. Uber, Lyft, Gett, Grab and other ride hailing apps have exploded. This will only increase as fleets of autonomous vehicles roam the streets, letting us hop on and off.
As I hinted before, we have just launched two new mifold versions. The gorgeous mifold® Sport™: the most luxurious, compact, portable booster seat ever. And mifold® One™: the first non-folding mifold with a larger seat for extra comfort, and still as storable as the original.
In terms of completely new products, we have an aggressive pipeline for the next two years. Later this year, we will be launching a completely new, innovative child restraint. Development work is almost completed, and initial crash-testing is very positive. Watch this space! We have also started working on new innovations for 2019 and beyond. It’s in the very early stages and is equally exciting.
We are planning how children will travel in this future right now! The child restraint needs to stay with the child, not in the car: ultra-compact, portable, quick and easy to use and universal for all cars. We’re leading with new business models. mifold is already in every single one of the 10,000 Grab Taxis (www.grab.com) in their home market of Singapore. We supply Sheprd (www.sheprd.com) and other Jaguar Land Rover backed stealth start-ups (https://www.inmotionventures.com).
Our vision is for a child restraint for every child, in every car, on every journey, every time. How exciting is that?!
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Thankfully, this is not rocket science. I have been an employee most of my career and I have suffered terrible bosses in wonderful roles and enjoyed wonderful bosses in positions I hated. My advice to a CEO is make sure you know what is important to each member of your team: learn what people want from work. If you can provide an environment where they are happy, then your employees will thrive. If you can’t, then they will not be a good fit and, one way or another, it will not work out.
In my team I have people that a love their specific tasks and want appreciation for a job well done. Some are goal focused and need to see themselves accomplish more. Some people are energized by our community spirit and teamworking. In our case, everyone feels that they are contributing to something larger … we are passionate about child passenger safety and we are trying to save lives.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
The most important person has been my wife of 25-years, Rhoanna. Without her love, trust, support, council and shoulder, my journey would have been so much harder. Being CEO can often be lonely, stressful and frustrating. Even more so, when setting up a start-up and actually being alone! Rhoanna supported me, put up with me, cried with me and celebrated with me. Thank you, x.,
When I started mifold in 2013, I knew nothing about child passenger safety, design, engineering, material science, manufacturing, logistics, fundraising, crowdfunding and more. Dozens of people generously gave me their time, patience, experience and help and continue to do so today. You all know who you are, thank you!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We are actually saving the lives of children in cars!
You can read about our success stories in the mifold Hall of Fame: www.mifold.com/fame
Despite decades of improvements in child passenger safety, the simple fact is that today, there are still at least 20% of journeys where children do not have a car seat: in carpools, with grandparents or other relatives, in taxis, on vacations, in rental cars, when trying to sit three-in-a-row, and so on.
With mifold there is no longer any excuse. With a compact and portable device, a child can easily keep one with them all the time and drivers can keep spares, without cluttering up a car and losing cabin or luggage space.
With mifold, a child can always be safe no matter whose car they are in … and that was my vision!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. It’s never too late to start
I became an entrepreneur and CEO of my own company relatively late, at the age of 46. The classic myth, is of young 20-somethings, straight from college have all the advantages for being an entrepreneur: time, energy, least demands, lowest cost of failure, etc. They are more able to commit and focus 110%. This myth states that, on becoming a parent your responsibilities make it impossible to succeed.
I wish I had known earlier that this is not true. Older entrepreneurs actually have the advantage: experience (to make fewer mistakes), connections (to know who, what, how and where to get help) and support (from partners and older children). All of this more than compensates.
2. You don’t need to teach an old dog new tricks
I have no experience in many aspects of my business: design, engineering, material science, manufacturing, logistics, supply chain, etc. I assumed that I would have to learn.
Actually, I just needed talented people. I have the enthusiasm, vigor and zest to motivate a team. I’m humble enough to give credit where credit is due, my team know that they are driving our success and they are appreciated.
Whenever I hit a challenge with no idea what to do, I know that as a team we will overcome it.
3. Find a mentor
Reading previous ‘5 things’ interviews, this is consistently on the list.
One of my angel investor, and a close friend, evolved into my mentor. He asks the tough questions and keeps squeezing for a real answer. A great mentor will peel away the enthusiasm, push back on the hype and the strip bare a story to make sure you are really addressing the truth.
This is sometimes uncomfortable, and always valuable. Mentors should have an interest in the success of the business and in the success of the CEO so that everyone’s objectives are aligned.
4. To look after yourself, mix don’t balance
Another myth, is life/work balance. A life/work balance is a bad thing! A balance is precarious and unstable. Slightly too much on one side, is at the expense of the other. When the balance is offset, you deliberately focus on the opposite side, to restore the equilibrium … even if that’s not the ‘right’ thing to do.
Life and work cannot be separated into exclusive areas, with different demands that can somehow be balanced. So, mix it up! Merge life and work. Promise your partner and kids that you will always be there and ask them to understand when you need to answer a call, shoot off that mail, make a quick diversion.
During the week, I never completely disconnect. So, in principal I dedicate early mornings for my personal, physical and spiritual activities and evenings are for family and friends. Then I often mix in an early morning video conference with Asia on an elliptical machine and late-night calls with the West Coast.
I do have one very strict rule … a full 24 hours each Saturday off the grid. I completely disconnect; no phone, no computer, no TV, no podcasts. I am with my family, I read, and I relax.
5. Sometimes you have to fight Goliath
Early on, mifold received a terrible review in an established, reputable and respected European consumer magazine. They not only rated the product poorly, they also questioned our safety credentials. For a child restraint, questions about safety are a death knell.
The claims were completely untrue, and it was a terrible low point. We have independent scientific data to disprove every one of their accusations. So, we tried to contact the organization to discuss, unsuccessfully. Our only option was to sue.
A letter on headed paper from a firm, way out of our league, had the desired effect. The article was taken down, a meeting arranged, the information shared, and a new, accurate, fair replacement published.
It was an expensive, time consuming and frustrating process. However, word quickly spread, the precedent was set, and we have not seen other inaccurate reviews since.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” ~ Helen Keller.
My family started living our lives by this motto in 2002. My first start-up imploded with the dot.com bubble. Living in New Jersey with a mortgage, car leases, school fees and no income was a challenge!
We decided to see the positives. Free of responsibilities, we packed up the house, sold everything, took the kids out of school and bought a thirty-two-foot RV. With my wife and three little boys aged 7, 5 and 2 we set off on a road trip through nineteen US states from East to West. You can still check it out at www.sumroy.com … which I think this may the first ever digital travel blog, a decade before The Bucket List Family (who carry mifold seats with them, for their kids!). We had to stop every few days at a Kinkos, connect a dial-up modem and upload the latest installments.
The life lesson was very clear to us, instead of fear and despair we chose excitement and adventure. After several months, Johnson & Jonson contacted me and offered me chance to lead one of their failing businesses: “Turn it around or shut it down” was the brief and so started the next adventure.
My kids have grown up with this attitude and see that failure should be expected and embraced as an opportunity to learn. As they now enter adulthood, they all make me proud with their audacious ambitions, enthusiasm and thirst for adventure. After all, life is either a daring adventure or nothing!
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
In the early ’90s as I started my marketing career with Unilever, I remember the first advertising campaigns for the Dyson DC01 Vacuum Cleaner. Industry pressure somehow banned Dyson from advertising the main benefit, being bag-less. Through wonderful design, excellent engineering, creative marketing and courageous disdain for his competitors, Sir James Dyson still managed to take the DC01 to market domination in a very short time. 25-years later he’s built Dyson into one of the most successful product companies worldwide.
The mifold Grab-and-Go Booster seat was designed to save lives. It’s successful and a worthy cause that everyone should embrace. However, as we disrupt the child passenger safety industry, we have faced incredible pressure from many established players. I’d love to be mentored by Sir James Dyson as I steer mifold through our next phase of growth.