Student startups: have speakers, will travel

Entrepreneur Chris Longbottom is combining vintage style with high-tech sound

Go back in time a decade or two and tell people they'd soon live in a world with suitcases that played music and you'd probably be taken about as seriously as that episode of Tomorrow's World that introduced viewers to the suitcase that turned into a car. Fast forward to the present day though, and  Loudist's Dubcase makes this concept a reality (the musical suitcase that is, not the car!)

While the music industry continues to wrestle with the impact of the internet, speakers and headphones seem to be undergoing a Dr Dre-led renaissance. Given this, it's hardly surprising Chris Longbottom saw a potential business opportunity in his brother-in-law's portable Bluetooth speakers. Having studied computer science at the University of Stirling, Chris was fairly confident that not only could he build his own set, but he could build something better than was already available on the UK market.

Where did the idea for the Dubcase come from?

When I saw my brother-in-law's portable Bluetooth speakers, I got thinking about making one myself. I quite enjoy DIY projects and systems like this consist of little else besides a battery, some speakers and a Bluetooth module. I began to research the idea and, although I found US and Australian companies making speaker/suitcase systems, I realised nobody was doing this in the UK.

So why turn it into a business?

I've always enjoyed looking at things from a commercial angle, and when I saw this idea I felt it was something that could really work commercially. The genius of the product is it takes high-quality British speakers from yesteryear and re-uses them, cased in vintage luggage which people already love at the moment.

I brought on a friend, Matt Miller, as a business partner. He works in very high-end clothing, and I felt he'd be a good judge on whether there was a market for this product. When we put the numbers together, it seemed to be a very viable opportunity to make some money.

How do you source the speakers and suitcases?

We have a supplier in Wales who has two floors absolutely filled with vintage suitcases. At the moment we have between twenty and thirty cases ready to be converted. Sourcing speakers has proven to be much more challenging as second-hand stores don't tend to stock electrical items. As we want the product to be high fidelity, we're limiting ourselves in the types of speakers we use. It means that sometimes you get a set and think they're going to be brilliant, only to take them apart and discover they're poorly constructed. A lot of speakers are effectively made out of paper and cloth so they're a bit delicate.

To assemble the Dubcases, we're currently setting up a workshop at an old industrial unit in Sheffield, though it needs some work doing to it. Hopefully over the next couple of weeks we'll be able to move everything into there.

How have you been financing the business? Any outside investors?

So far we've split costs between us. We haven't had any outside investment as it's quite early days for it really. At the moment, Matt buys all the cases, as he's more adept at handling the look and brand of the business. I focus on the technical aspects and source the speakers. It tends to balance out fairly evenly.

What technical challenges have you encountered so far?

We've faced a few interesting challenges. One of the foreign makers of a similar product says theirs can't be used while it's charging, whereas we want the Dubcase to be able to be used like a laptop: you can either plug it in and use it or you can take it on the move and rely on the battery. Making that design change has taken some fine tuning.

We've also found that different inputs (iPod, Android phone, computer) all come with their own challenges which require different solutions. Apple devices are very powerful so they tend to be a lot louder than the others. When an Android phone is used, the output circuit on the phone turns itself off once the music stops, resulting in a low buzzing noise. We have to take problems like these as they come, breaking them down into small, manageable challenges.

How did you approach the branding and marketing?

We wanted a company name that didn't tie us to one individual product, as there are other product ideas we're exploring too. That led to the split between the company name, Loudist, with the implications of sound and audibility that offers, and the product name Dubcase. To market the product, Matt got in touch with contacts of his who are professional photographers and designers. They helped with the design and photography of the products, and I used my computer science background to throw the website together.

What reactions have people had to the product?

I think most of our generation gets it, especially those who are design-focused. We've been quite fortunate as Oliver Proudlock from Made In Chelsea has seen the product and is dead excited about it. As a result, he has offered assistance in promoting it, which is great as that's obviously the market we're going for.

What's the next step for the business?

Eventually, once we've standardised the design, we want to bring someone else on board to help with the build side. At the moment we're working on bringing the price down a bit more ahead of mass manufacturing which is tricky as it's a bespoke, premium product. Only the electronics inside are repeatable from one case to another. We've got an initial small number of cases nearly ready for retail. Depending on their profit margin, we'll make a decision about the speed at which we want to grow the business.