Why dressing as Spiderman and working with a NASA scientist are all in a day's work for Morphsuits

Co-founder Gregor Lawson says it’s not (just) for fun

You’ll have seen ridiculous spandex-clad figures at parties, on nights out and at sporting events but you’ve probably never thought much about the business behind Morphsuits.

With a £10.5m turnover, 25 staff and more than 250 costumes – thanks in part to £4.2m of investment received just over 6 months ago - the shape of the company is very different to when the founders started it five years ago.

Gregor Lawson and his two friends, brothers Ali and Frazer Smeaton, started Morphsuits in their front room in 2009, each initially investing £1,000.

It has since grown exponentially, buying tech-based costume business Digital Dudz, run by an ex-NASA scientist, and launching some other (less skin-tight) costumes too, under the Morph Costume Co brand. This includes human Tetris blocks, which led to the company’s World Record for the largest human Tetris gathering last month.

Yesterday, the business launched its umbrella brand, MorphCostumes, which includes Morphsuits, Digital Dudz and Morph Costume Co.

We chatted to marketing director Lawson, who was previously a brand manager on the likes of Gillette, Pringles and Pantene, about the company’s amazing growth and what it’s like running such a novel business.

Morphsuits

How did you come up with such an unusual idea?

You won’t be surprised to hear alcohol was involved! I lived in Dublin, was having a bunch of mates over and we had a fancy dress day out where you had to dress in one colour from head to toe. A guy rocked up in a similar sort of costume to a Morphsuit which he’d found on eBay. It didn’t really fit him very well and he couldn’t really see very well out of it, but he walked through Temple Bar that night and was like a superhero celebrity, and that was when the first lightbulb moment struck. I’ve worked on a lot of different brands over the years and I’ve never seen a response to a product like that.

Over the next few months we got some [costumes] ourselves and tried them out. We then went to [online supplier matching service] Alibaba, worked with some manufacturers for a few months getting the quality right - getting it so you could see out but no-one could see in, which is one of the key parts of the Morphsuit. We created a website for $400 and that was us, up and running.

Morphsuits

How did you build a company around just one initial product?

To be really clear, when we first launched we thought we were the only idiots in the world that really like this product, and there may be another 20,000 or so who might also like it. In which case, this could be something we do in our spare time and that could pay for the odd holiday. But it became quite clear, quite quickly, that that was not the case.

We started with six different coloured suits. The real point where we saw just how big this could be was during Halloween of 2009, when we were only selling in the UK and I remember one day we sold £20,000 worth. We were just amazed at that and really excited. From then we basically managed to get around the world pretty simply and quickly by taking what worked in the UK, such as the ecommerce platform that we had, and basically linking it up to warehouses in the other countries. That let us get to countries such as the US and Canada, and after that we went to Germany and France. There was a bit of a language barrier and some cultural stuff we had to get round but we crowd-sourced people from Facebook who still manage the business in those countries today.

Morphsuits

 

How do you stop people copying you?

We own the word “Morphsuits”, which is obviously our brand name, but it’s actually the category as well - a bit like the word Hoover. That gives us a lot of strength online. When people search on Google we’re at the top of the list, which is a powerful position to be in.

We do everything we can to protect it. We’d love a patented product that no-one in the world could make, but given the fact that we stumbled upon a product which was used for other things and wasn’t quite right, but it existed, there was no way that was ever going to be feasible.

Our most recent focus is licences. A huge proportion of the costume industry’s sales are around licenced products because people want to be the characters they watch in cartoons and films coming from Hollywood. So by having the Marvel licence, the Power Rangers licence, the Robocop licence, that means we’re combining with a huge business, a huge property, and we have something no-one else can have, which is a great way of protecting the business.

The other thing is we’re focussing on what the consumer wants - our Facebook page, which has nearly 1.5 million likes, is just a forum for banter [Ed - it’s true, we checked] and we get a huge amount of commentary from folk about ideas that they have for suits. We listen to all of that and often produce suits that have been suggested by our fans.

Morphsuits

Have you found it hard to be taken seriously as businesspeople with a hilarious product (no offence)?

I’ve not been asked this question before but I like it! The way I’d put it is: we sometimes find it hard to take ourselves seriously. After this call I’ll be with another bunch of guys from the office togged up in Spiderman, Captain America, Deadpool and Wolverine [Morphsuits] for a photoshoot. But that’s one of the reasons I love it - we do have a real lovely breadth of things we get to do. We’re a very professional organisation though and I think a lot of people realise getting to the scale we’ve got to doesn’t happen through luck. But a lot of people see we are commercially-minded and are really focused on trying to revolutionise the costume industry. I do still get the odd person who asks “what’s your real job?”, but that comes with the territory.

Morphsuits

How have you financed the business?

Initially we used our own money to start with, but the Business Growth Fund has been a big part of the business over the past couple of years. They’ve taken a minority stake for £4.2m and that’s enabled us to scale up in terms of the amount of people we have. We’ve gone from three to 25 in a very short period of time. We’ve gone from a living room to an office in Edinburgh and an office in London and we’ve also been able to chase after all these great licences. They’re three of the big wins but less visible is just the fact that we were, like so many young businesses, a bit wild when we first started out, so things like getting the systems up and running, that’s often secondary to trying to make products that people love and trying to tell people about them. The Business Growth Fund helped us shore up a lot of the stuff we needed to, around process and our systems. We now have board meetings, which are a great opportunity for us to take a step back from the day-to-day and talk about strategy and some of the longer-term things we need to do and trends we’re observing. It’s been a really good experience and, I must say, one I was a little bit wary of. You hear about how people take investment and then a big company comes in and basically chews you up and spits you out but it’s been incredibly collaborative and positive. 

What are you working on with ex-NASA scientist Mark Rober and how did it come about?

We were at the annual Halloween Show in Houston, Texas, and we stumbled upon his booth. We liked what he did, he liked what we did and we started talking. We went out for a steak and a beer and got on well and basically did the deal. [Rober worked at NASA for nine years, seven of those on the Curiosity Rover. He left NASA to start working on wearable tech – in particular, Halloween costumes.]

He was already doing the augmented reality designs and, in his boundless curiosity and big engineer brain, the previous year had created this costume which had two iPads which was incredible. He linked up the screen on the front iPad with the camera on the back iPad and vice versa, so it looked like he had a hole through his chest. He basically just dominated the party he was going to. Obviously not many people are going to go out wearing two iPads. However, most people have a smartphone with them and that’s where the Digital Dudz idea came from.

What’s next?

We launched Morph Costume Co last year, just before Halloween, and it’s got off to a great start. Basically, the driver behind it is that, as much as it galls me, spandex isn’t for everyone. There will be some people who don’t want to wear a Morphsuit because it covers their face, or because they’ve got long hair or are body-conscious, so we launched another range of costumes that are non-spandex but still have the same impact as a Morphsuit. Those products are now creeping into the top 10 products sold week-on-week on our website, which is really great.

Great, thanks Gregor.

Tweet me your thoughts on this interview @robynvinter

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