Avril O’Neil and John Nussey were finalists in the first ever Design Council Spark programme in 2015 with ‘Ding’, the smart doorbell that rings through to your mobile phone. They were one of three Spark finalists awarded a share of the £150k prize money, and went onto be offered a place with John Lewis’ JLab before achieving 200% funding on Kickstarter.

We caught up with the Ding duo to find out how their Spark journey shaped the development of their new business. 

Many of the products on the Design Council Spark programme, such as Rockit  or Tickletec, were conceived by their creators after they encountered a problem in their own lives. For designers Avril O’Neil and John Nussey it was quite different - they were looking for an idea for a product that they could develop, and improve upon, themselves. However, it wasn’t until their doorbell broke that they found the right inspiration.

“Like everyone else when their doorbell stops working, we went straight down the hardware store,” says Avril. “But all we could find were horrible grey boxes with a variety of terrible chimes. At the other end of the spectrum are smart doorbells full of features that no one would ever use. We decided that this was our chance to design something that we really wanted, and see if we could take it to market.”


Avril O'Neil in her office working on Ding, the smart doorbell that became a Spark finalist in 2015.

The Ding doorbell was born. In its now almost fully developed form it sets off a chime in the user’s home and extends a voice call to their mobile phone, allowing them to talk to their visitor from wherever they are in the world.

At the time that Avril and John came up with the idea they were running their own design consultancy, ONN Studio, researching and generating product ideas for clients. They’d always wanted to develop one of their own ideas, but time was always an issue. At around the time they conceived of Ding, they also stumbled across the Design Council’s Spark programme.

As a small agency applying for such programmes would ordinarily have been prohibitively time consuming but the Spark application process was refreshingly simple so we were able to take that first step much more easily.

Avril O'Neil, Ding

“As a small agency applying for such programmes would ordinarily have been  prohibitively time consuming,” says Avril. “The Spark application process was refreshingly simple so we were able to take that first step much more easily. Once we got onto the programme the validation of our idea, the mentoring and the funding was the support we needed to actually dedicate more time to the project.”

Spark helped Avril and John work out how to turn their idea for a product into an idea for a business. “We already had most of the design side of things covered,” says Avril, “and we understood how to run a consultancy business as designers. But flipping that to understanding how to run a product venture in consumer electronics as founders, that was a challenge. During the programme we put together a business plan, costings, and cash flow analyses.”

This work was to form the bedrock of their new venture. They were chosen as awardees by the Spark investment panel, and were able to use the funding (a share of £150k) to fully flesh out the user research and development they had done in the accelerator, changing the product design significantly as a result.

If I had to give someone on Spark one piece of advice it would be to think about what you aren’t good at while you are on the programme... take advantage of all the other expertise that is on offer. Utilise the programme, ask questions, push for the help that you really need.

Avril O'Neil, Ding

Their experience at Spark also set them up well to apply to other programmes. They took part in J-Lab, run by John Lewis and were able to further develop the product with the John Lewis technology team. After finishing as J-Lab finalists, they Kickstarted Ding and raised £30,000 of their £50,000 target in just one day. To this day they have now reached over 200% of their funding target on Kickstarter.

“If I had to give someone on Spark one piece of advice,” says Avril, “it would be to think about what you aren’t good at while you are on the programme. If, like us, you already have a grounding in design, then don’t spend your time on the programme refining that. Instead take advantage of all the other expertise that is on offer. Utilise the programme, ask questions, push for the help that you really need. For us that was the business skills and financial stuff.”

Avril and John’s journey from consultancy to product owners has changed their viewpoint on running a business. “As a consultancy we were paid by clients as we did the work. With Ding, and with any product start-up, I would say that the biggest challenge is keeping the funding coming in,” she says. “For us it started with Spark and Kickstarter and now we are looking for potential investors and grants.”

The product will launch at the end of the year, initially fulfilling their Kickstarter pre-orders, but quickly moving to direct sales. They are also talking to some interested retail partners and aim to have Ding on the high street by 2018.

“The other thing,” Avril continues, “is having to do not just one, two or even three different job roles, but absolutely everything! It’s so challenging flipping your brain between finance, design, product and so on. What’s great for us is that we are now starting to be able to recruit people and outsource some of that. We have just taken on a great software developer, and we have started working with a manufacturing partner as well.”   

Avril and John now work predominantly on Ding and only use their consultancy work to support the project financially. They are already thinking about new products that will eventually be part of the Ding portfolio, but at the moment their main focus is on getting the doorbell to market. The product will launch at the end of the year, initially fulfilling their Kickstarter pre-orders, but quickly moving to direct sales. They are also talking to some  interested retail partners and aim to have Ding on the high street by 2018.

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