Tom Evans has had the kind of career that us here at D.A.D wished for when we were young. He’s worked with some of the biggest names in the design world (including digital design legend Malcolm Garrett), on some of the biggest, most sought after clients and most of this for the agency he started at the age of 25.
But now he’s turned his attention away from “making people want things” and instead to “making things people want.” His latest venture BleepBleeps is a range of fantastic looking, character-based, connected, parenting products that are already proving a huge success.
We had the chance to talk to him to find out a bit more about BleepBleeps and how he manages the work / family balance.
D.A.D: Hi Tom. Ok we’ll start with a really easy question. How many kids do you have and how old are they?
TE: I’ve got two kids. My youngest is seven, he’s called Ted, and my eldest, Lola happens to be 11 today.
D.A.D: Could you tell us a bit about your working background?
TE: I wasn’t particularly academic at school but I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a graphic designer. I was really into type and drawing, much more so than fine art. I ended up at the London College of Printing (now LCC) doing a degree in graphic and media design.
It was whilst I was at university that the consumer internet came about and I really fell in love with this new media and became kind of obsessed with where design and technology meet. I did an internship at one of the first digital agencies called AMX Digital and had a riot. I learned so much, it was a really prolific year out.
After leaving uni I quite quickly went on to set up my own agency called Mook, with some people I’d met at AMX. It sounds bizarre now, going straight from graduating to owning an agency but in those days it was possible because if you knew how to make websites and digital stuff, you were kind of the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. We started knocking out design and digital marketing for youth and entertainment brands for the likes of Glastonbury, MTV, Levis, BBC and Puma.
I was living the dream. It was great, and it was well before the idea of having kids had even entered my mind. It sounds clichéd, but it was work hard play hard and the agency felt like a big family.
Then in 2006 we sold Mook to a big advertising agency called Nitro and I became the integrated creative director. It was great for me as it meant that I could start to work on much broader, bigger clients beyond digital. But then Nitro sold to a bigger agency and I became slightly disenchanted with the whole agency thing. A quote of John V Willshere comes to mind: “I got tired of making people want things and wanted to make things people wanted.”
D.A.D: So was it around this time that the idea for BleepBleeps came along?
TE: Yes, pretty much. I was a relatively new dad and my daughter Lola was very poorly and crying late one night. I got the nudge, so went into her room all bleary-eyed to check on her and ended up having to stick one of those digital ear thermometers in her ear, which she wasn’t too happy about. It bleeped and said her temperature was 38.2 degrees. I had no idea what that meant. Was it high or low? Was it supposed to be 37 or 39? I’d probably taken a temperature maybe once or twice before that in my life, but never with the stakes that high. So I did what anyone would do; I pulled out my phone and Googled it. Turned out it was a bit high. But in that moment I thought, this is ridiculous, why aren’t these two things connected? Why isn’t my thermometer connected to my phone? And why isn’t there a relationship between these two devices?
So that was the starting point of the idea and it sort of snowballed a bit and became a suite of parenting products all designed to make parenting easier. But it sat in my bottom drawer for a while and I went off to work in fashion at Jack Wills.
D.A.D: That’s some idea to have sitting in a drawer. How long was it before it came back out?
TE: It wasn’t long. Turns out fashion wasn’t for me and I went back into advertising as executive creative director at TBWA. I managed to negotiate a four-day week so that I could work on my idea on the side. It took a pretty long time and a lot of hard work, but in 2014 we launched BleepBleeps on Kickstarter with our first product, Sammy Screamer.
D.A.D: Have all of the initial product ideas made the cut or did things change during the design process?
TE: One of the things that we learned through launching Sammy Screamer and more recently, our second product Suzy Snooze, is that we want to make products that people use every day. A lot of our early concepts were products you only use once or twice in a lifetime so very much around pregnancy and birth, but now we want to create what we’re calling a ‘Smart Family’ of products for smart families. The products that we’re making now and in the future are very much around the daily problems that parents face like sleep, oral hygiene, location tracking, mobility, travel and nutrition.
We’ve also learned that longevity is really important to us. I’ve become aware that there’s a lot of products that are hit-and-run. Products that families might find useful for a few days or a few weeks, maybe even a few months, but as your kids grow up or grow out of it and your life changes the product doesn’t evolve or grow with you. Whereas the products that we’re thinking about now, we very much want them to grow with kids and with families.
Suzy Snooze, for example can be used as a baby monitor, but you’ll probably only use her as a baby monitor for a limited time, so then she can work as a sleep trainer to help build a ritual for kids around bedtime, keeping them asleep through the night, and perhaps even keeping them in bed a little bit longer in the morning. Those are things that stay important for long after she’s served her use as a monitor.
D.A.D: The connected concept is obviously really important as well, especially given that that’s where the whole idea of BleepBleeps seems to have come from?
TE: Absolutely. Most people today have grown up with mobile phones being at the centre of their lives able to give us information, advice or directions at the push of a button. And when those people become parents they expect their phones to help them out with that too.
Most people today have grown up with mobile phones being at the centre of their lives… And when those people become parents they expect their phones to help them out with that too.
To be honest, I don’t think there are going to be very many consumer electronics products that don’t have some sort of connectivity element to them in the future. Essentially our products are a wonderful range of cute, playful characters in the physical world, but all the cleverness, the remote control, the connectivity and the content comes from the app side of things and the cloud side of things.
D.A.D: It’s also clear from looking at the products that design is very important to you. Did you have a clear vision for this from the beginning?
TE: Funny enough, I didn’t in the beginning. The first name I had for the brand was iParent, which obviously is very Apple-inspired. In my mind the products themselves were going to be very medical, very white, very iPod like; the Jony Ive reductive kind of thing but it lacked emotion.
I knew I hadn’t got the name and design direction right and then I saw a project called Absolut Choir by a fantastic Swedish agency called Teenage Engineering. It’s a family of speakers that were designed for the vodka brand Absolut. They really inspired me and got me thinking that our products could be a bunch of characters; they could have faces, a story and kind of interact with each other.
About the same time I also came across an app called Chirp that was a way of communicating data between two phones. They were using these kind of beepy sounds that I loved and thought would be really cool to have these bunch of characters that could all bleep at each other. That’s when the name BleepBleeps came about and the brand started to come together and the vision for the products that you see now was born.
D.A.D: What future plans do you have for BleepBleeps?
TE. Our plans are to create a Smart Family for smart families, basically. Suzy Snooze is about to start shipping and then we’ve got our third Kickstarter campaign planned for September for Benjamin Brush. We’ve also got plans for a digital thermometer, Tony Tempa (where it all started), and we’re working on a location tracking device. Then we’ve got four secret projects on the go; one that is around photography and video, one around nutrition, eating and food on the go, one that’s a wearable and one that’s about transportation.
As well as these, we’re also beginning to look at software on the mobile side, to make it easier for parents to ensure their kids online safety. A kind of curated mobile experience for kids.
D.A.D: Getting BleepBleeps started as well as doing the day job, must have been really demanding. Were you able to keep any semblance of work-life balance?
TE: I think so; I’ve definitely got it a lot more sorted now. Although going back to when I was working in advertising I was a very absent father, to be honest with you. I was doing a lot of traveling and when I wasn’t I’d probably leave the house before the kids got up in the morning and definitely be home after bedtime most evenings. And at weekends I’d be exhausted; it wasn’t a particularly nice time.
But then, because I went down to a four-day week to develop BleepBleeps, and eventually when I left to do BleepBleeps full-time, it became much easier. I was earning a lot less money which was a big challenge. But in terms of family time, things greatly improved. We don’t have an office so I work from home and get to do the school run every morning and even some afternoons, and unless I’m travelling to China to meet manufacturers I’m here most evenings as well. So things are much more balanced now.
One of my biggest challenges at the moment however is to try and wean myself off of my mobile phone when I’m not officially working.
One of my biggest challenges at the moment however is to try and wean myself off of my mobile phone when I’m not officially working. I used to keep it by my bed and it would be the last thing I looked at at night and the first thing in the morning and kids see that. Kids see you constantly looking at your phone and that becomes a way of living. So now I try, wherever possible, to leave it on the bureau in the hall after I finish my workday and not have it on quick-draw so much, so that when I’m with them I’m really there.
D.A.D: Are you encouraging your kids to pursue a career in the creative industries?
TE: Absolutely. My wife and I are both from creative backgrounds so the kids see that and are surrounded by it every day. In fact I’d be quite surprised if either of them turned around one day and said that they wanted to be an accountant. Ted is really into photography and one of the new product ideas that we’re working on is very much inspired by him.
D.A.D: That sounds great. Do you ever get the kids to help out in the design and ideas stage of projects?
TE: All the time. I mentioned at the beginning that the whole idea for BleepBleeps was inspired by Lola and I’m always showing them what we’re working on and listening to their ideas. Ted has had some particularly brilliant suggestions for the photography project I mentioned.
D.A.D: What’s your favourite place to take the kids as a family?
TE: My answer to that would be the local woods. But I’m sure my kids would say something different. I expect their answer would be Willows Activity Farm in Hertfordshire. They’ve got all the normal farm bits but more importantly for them, a huge play area with a foam shooting range. Thankfully they also have Wi-Fi, but the coffee is terrible!
D.A.D: And lastly, do you have any tips for aspiring parent entrepreneurs?
TE: Yes, in fact I happen to organise a parenting entrepreneur meetup in Shoreditch where you can get loads of advice from other people going through exactly the same things. It’s not hugely regular, but we get together and talk about cool things we’ve found, challenges we’re facing. Basically just support each other and try and help how we can. It’s called Entrepreneurs in Parenting and you can find it here.