Dave Roberts, founder and co-owner of So Float, talks quality over quantity and how he overcame production troubles in China.

What does your business do?

We sell a range of bean bags that float on water. We use marine-grade fabric and design a product that can both float on water and be used on dry land.

I started the business back in 2014 and we started with a Chinese-made product using slightly cheaper fabric, and that was all right but it struggled a little bit with New Zealand conditions so we had to upgrade our fabric, and now work with a Hawke's Bay-based manufacturer using an American-made fabric - the same material that the yachties use and is pretty widespread in the marine industry.

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What was the motivation for starting the business?

I was actually in the South of France and someone threw a standard bean bag on the swimming pool - an everyday bean bag will float on water but if you left it out in the weather and sun for a couple of weeks it would basically fall apart, and so I got fixated on making something that was both comfortable and could handle the elements.

What does a typical day look like for you?

We are a team of five based at Papamoa beach in Tauranga. I do a bit of everything but mostly take care of the website side of things; making sure the website is running smoothly, have a look at the analytics, taking care of our digital advertising on Facebook in different regions and checking different imagery and copy to see what will work, and working on our social media offering.

Social media is good for building up brand recognition, trust and credibility. Back when we first started out we were trying to squeeze out our social media platforms to customers but we're now using it to tell our story, and giving people a place to find out about our brand and what we've been up to.

How much competition are you facing?

There's definitely competition out there. When we first started there was very little competition but we've had a few copycats. However, most of them are using low-grade materials. Our product is one of the more expensive on the market so it's a constant battle trying to convey the quality through the website and educating people on the fabric and construction techniques used, and that's where having endorsements from big commercial players such as the Hilton really helps.

How large is your product range and how much does it cost?

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We have a small range of four products - three different colours but we usually introduce a new colour every season and phase one out if it hasn't been as popular. Our cheapest bean bag is $100 and our dearest one is $550. It's a seasonal product so Aussie customers started ordering a few weeks ago and New Zealand has only just started ordering.

So Float founder Dave Roberts and his wife. Photo / Supplied
So Float founder Dave Roberts and his wife. Photo / Supplied

What will you be focusing on in the New Year?

We're heading off to the United States next year to meet up with our key contacts in Fairmont in Arizona - our first customer from the Fairmont chain, to get more of a presence on the ground there.

We're pretty much all digital so we're looking to have an on-the-ground distributor in the States as it is obviously a lot bigger market than over here, and it is the bulk of our sales and also our digital traffic.

What are your long-term plans for the business?

We want to get more centred towards the commercial sector, particularly in hospitality and hotels. We're currently in about 10 of the Fairmont hotel chain hotels in the US - they buy them in bulk with a discount and it has been really good publicity for us. We're also in the Hilton Hotel in Taupo, and so we are really trying to align ourselves with premium hotel brands.

Tell me about your product manufacturing journey?

We started off manufacturing in China but we found a really good manufacturer in New Zealand who can meet the quality level we demand, and also do short runs for projects where we only need to make 20 or 30 pieces, and we can be a bit more nimble with customisations whereas when we were working with manufacturers in China we had to do at least 1000 pieces to make it viable.

Quality control in China was definitely challenging. We had to be on the ground there quite regularly to check on things or have a good set of eyes and ears over there which we eventually got but there were definitely a few nightmares such as product turning up in the wrong fabrics and shoddy construction techniques.

We learned lessons along the way which was an instigator for bringing manufacturing home and being able to support the New Zealand economy. Being able to manufacture here and ship around the world has been really cool.

What advice do you give to people thinking of starting their own business?

Get out there and have a try - you're never going to get it 100 per cent perfect but if you get it 80 per cent of the way and then keep trying to refine and improve what you're doing, you'll get there.