Profile feature from ND125 catching up with the 2011 winner of The Apprentice Tom Pellereau
It may have been a high-risk strategy, but reality television helped Tom Pellereau to bring his product inventions to market
Many will recognize Tom Pellereau as the winner of the 2011 series of the BBC’s business reality show The Apprentice. He saw off competition from fifteen of the “brightest and best business talents” in tasks including branding a pet food, rubbish clearance, and designing a new biscuit. This was the first series of the show in which the winner gained a £250,000 investment and business partnership with Lord Sugar, rather than a ‘six figure salary’ job with one of the Amstrad founder’s companies.
Tom, an inventor and entrepreneur, used the investment to help bring his invention, the Stylfile – a curved nail file, to market. Building on this initial product launch, Pellereau has since expanded the Stylfile range and developed more of his ideas into commercial products.
During his school days, Tom, who describes himself as “very dyslexic”, gravitated towards the maths and design departments. After completing A-levels in Maths, Physics, and Design, he studied mechanical engineering with innovation and design at the University of Bath. “I loved that hands-on mechanical engineering,” he says. “And towards the end of the course I studied patents and how inventions came about.”
After graduating, Tom worked for the Ministry of Defence (who had sponsored him through his degree course) before moving to a design consultancy where he worked with a range of fashion and FMCG brands. Always interested in inventing, at the age of 26 Tom decided to take the plunge and to move to consulting part-time on order to focus the rest of his time on his inventions.
The idea for a curved nail file came from watching his sister file her nails. “I noticed that your nail is naturally curved and normal nail files are flat,” he comments. “I thought why not make a curve in the file. It would make it so much easier to file the nail.”
His first step was to go to a local chemist and buy several varieties of nail file. He realised that fundamentally the product was a core piece of plastic with a surface coating. He made a jig and using his oven reformed the flat plastic piece into a curve before replacing the filing covering. With these early prototypes he conducted some market research and discovered that people tended to be so pleased with the product that they were reluctant to give it back.
However, despite knowing he was on to a good idea, Tom hit the problem that so many inventors face – how to go about bringing the product to market. “The thing about inventing is that it takes so long and at the early stage there is just no money in it, only cost,” he says.
Just as Tom was about to give up on his inventing dreams and take what he calls a “proper job” he heard a radio piece about upcoming casting for The Apprentice. “I heard how the programme had changed and was now looking for people who wanted to start a business rather than just win a job,” he recalls. “The more I read about Lord Sugar, the more I realised he is an incredible product designer. He created products and brought them to market: what an amazing guy to be able to be in the same room as. I was supposed to be applying for proper jobs and ended up applying for a reality TV show instead.”
In the series final, Tom pitched to Lord Sugar a product innovation business within which the nail file was one possibility. Lord Sugar was particularly interested in the file’s potential and after ‘hiring’ Tom as his business partner, helped him to establish a business around nail care and beauty products.
Tom explains that whilst he had a good handle on the design, engineering, and manufacturing aspects of the business, Lord Sugar’s support in other areas was invaluable. “He advised on the finances – VAT, import duty and so on – and most helpfully the PR and the marketing side,” says Pellereau. “His experience of working with major retailers was hugely influential.”
Lord Sugar still has a role in the business to this day and recently, for example, engaged with buyers in the United States to promote Tom’s latest invention, the StylPro a device which cleans and dries makeup brushes in seconds. In addition to the StylPro, Stylfile and Stylfile Gel ranges, Tom has developed Timmy Tickle, an infant nail clipper which was launched with an accompany storytelling app designed by his sister Harriet Pellereau. And there are many more product ideas under development which, at the moment, cannot be divulged.
Asked the secret of being a successful inventor Tom says “a lot of hard work”. He continues: “Listening and understanding what people would like is important. Then making a couple of prototypes, going back, getting feedback, redesigning a bit and going back again. You need a thick skin and a propensity not to give up as well as creativity. I do believe that everyone has an invention inside of them, what to do about it is the tricky thing. My honest advice is to apply for the BBC Apprentice – applications are open now.”
“I would urge people to invent within a sphere they know about – or work with someone who is a specialist in their field if you aren’t one yourself.” he advises. “I would strongly encourage people to start early. It is amazing what you don’t know. Keep a safety blanket, but maybe have two or three days a week to follow your own dream as you never know in ten years it might be paying for everything. Reality TV certainly worked out for me but it’s quite a high-risk strategy!”