When we had the meeting with the patent lawyer we asked for his advice about getting the product into production and he gave us loads of tips and contacts one of which was the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS). I filed these notes away but MAS would come back to the fore some 18 months later…
Once we received our patent number that meant we could start speaking to manufacturers; we were essentially looking for some pieces of metal and some bolts – how hard could that be?
Well we were amazed at how hard that was in fact!
Firstly identifying the type of manufacturer was a battle; engineering companies cover a vast array of products and there are thousands in the UK! That’s great to hear from a UK manufacturing point of view but not so good when you’re trying to find one to make your product!
So I decided to start locally; we were in the Midlands the heart of engineering and manufacturing after all.
But after firing off numerous emails and making many many phone calls I kept hitting the same question ‘how many do you want to make?’
When you’ve just designed a product this is one of the hardest questions to answer. The response is ‘I want to sell millions’ of course but you only want to make a handful initially as it costs money! And particularly in manufacturing it’s the initial ‘tooling’ that costs the greatest amount. This is where the manufacturer actually designs the jig or tools to make your product on the factory floor and this can be expensive. It’s also generally not worth most companies time and effort to do this for small or irregular orders.
The fact is we had no clue how many we would need but it was apparent most companies only really wanted to get involved if we were talking thousands for the initial order and that equally would cost many thousands of pounds so we stalled at that stage and went back to the drawing board. Actually we were still awaiting notification of our patent so we decided to concentrate on other matters for the time being hoping fate my step in and she certainly did…
So here we were with an idea and absolutely no clue what to do next.
Our accounts were due and we were sat with our accountant and Lisa mentioned Letterblox thinking that they must work with manufacturers too. However it appeared we were moving too quickly and our accountant directed us to a patent lawyer first. He advised before speaking to anyone about the product we see whether we can patent it so that we can protect it. As it turned out one for the accountancy partners ‘collected’ patents and his lawyer came highly recommended.
Our accountant also told about a Government tax scheme called Patent Box whereby qualifying companies that hold a patent only pay 10% corporation tax! Wow what a bonus!
You can read more about Patent Box here:-
So that week we contacted the patent lawyer and arranged to meet him at our office.
We went through our story and showed him the product and like everyone who sees it remarked how simple it was and why had no one came up with the idea before!
We had discussions about what made the product unique and under what terms we could apply for a patent. You can’t simply patent an idea you have to patent elements of the product, it’s these elements that have to be unique to ensure you’re not stealing anyone else’s patent and also to protect yours. It’s actually quite tricky as you want it broad enough so that a minor tweak doesn’t mean anyone else can copy the overall design but also specific enough to ensure you get a patent.
It takes about 4 years typically to get a patent approved but you can do things to speed this up slightly and once you have your patent application number often called ‘patent pending’ you can start to talk to people and market your product.
It’s really important though that at application your patent is regarded as ‘secret’ in the public domain so ironically we actually couldn’t use our product until we had our patent number!
Lisa had done some research of UK, European and even worldwide patents looking for any similar designs that we might find ourselves at odds with. There were a couple of similar concepts of letterbox protection but none had the simplicity of our design or its unique features of not being attached to the door or existing letterplate and being reusable.
The patent lawyers then carried out their initial research and produced the same patents Lisa had found and agreed that we had a design that was unique enough to apply for a patent.
Its not a cheap exercise applying for a patent especially when you use a patent lawyer so you need to ensure you’re not wasting your time by paying for the initial research and doing as much as you can yourself beforehand to be sure.
So on 11th December 2012 our patent 1222216.2 was filed.
We then realised we might be on to something and hit the Internet again to try to find something similar.
Lisa put her detective skills to work and searched patent applications, etc. but could find nothing similar.
We spent the next few months perfecting the prototype and sought the advice of a patent attorney.
Their opinion was much like everyone we’ve shown it to, people can’t believe it’s not been invented before and that it’s so simple.
Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler. Albert Einstein
So we applied to patent the design, Stuart woke up one morning with the name Letterblox and here we are!
The next blog posts detail our journey through the patent process, trademarks and actually getting a product to manufacture which proved to be the hardest part till fate played her hand again…
First thing Stuart did was go to B&Q and buy a new letterbox. He then proceeded to bolt it together with flat headed bolts. It looked ugly and wasn’t great but it would do for a day or so.
I hit the internet again looking for a solution.
I found some clips you could attach to the door or letterbox but didn’t like the idea of ruining a perfectly good (and expensive!) door or letterbox for what was a temporary solution until the property was occupied again.
I found large fire prevention letter collection boxes and bags but they wouldn’t fit the design of door.
I was stuck and told Stuart he’d have to design something as there just didn’t seem to be a solution.
Stuart disappeared into the garage armed with various tools and then hot-footed it around to a local engineering firm to acquire some pieces of sheet metal. They were lovely and gave him several sheets all cut to size for nothing! We gave them ‘a drink’!
He came up with the first rudimentary design for Letterblox and, although basic, it did the job.
The chap said he knew his rights and he wasn’t going anywhere.
We called the police who arrived very quickly.
It turned out they knew this man and his friends and in fact he was tagged and shouldn’t even have been in the area! They also alerted us to the fact that he was a well-known high profile gang member and drug dealer. Great!
The police were brilliant though and they likely saved that man’s life as I was like a woman possessed! He even asked Stuart to ‘get your missus off me’ at one point!
The Police asked to see copies of our paperwork, tenancy, etc. and asked him to leave immediately which to be fair he did though not without making his feelings clear!
We immediately set about securing the property, we had the locks changed (having to sit and wait 6 hours for the locksmith to arrive) and tried to seal the letterbox for fear of reprisal.
Unfortunately this was where we hit a snag; it was of a design that meant we could not seal it on either side nor tape it up. This was the first time we’d come across not being able to seal a letterbox at all and I was very worried.
This was how and why Letterblox was born.
I gave up in the end finding something suitable but the Universe or fate or whatever you want to call it wasn’t done with us!
The issue stayed in the back of my mind until just 2012 when we had moved a nice young lady into one of our properties – a lovely coach house. Its quite unusual as the it has its own entrance on the ground floor (tucked into the corner in the photo) and you go upstairs and the rest of the property is laid out all on one floor across the front and rear.
After about a month of her moving in the gas certificate was due.
We tried to get hold of her for access to no avail; calls, texts, letters, gave no response so we popped by the property a few times but again no response.
We spotted that a window was open on one visit and days later was still open in the same position, concerned for her welfare, we gained access to the property.
When we entered we were surprised to see that there was no sign of the tenant but it seemed clear to us a man was living in the property. We left a note for him to call us as soon as possible. Within 30 minutes we received a call from a very abusive young man who told us it was his property and he wasn’t going anywhere interspersed with a load of expletives about what were we doing in his property!
We headed straight back to the property to find a rather threatening chap with several equally threatening friends standing at the front door. He told us his girlfriend was the previous occupant and that she had now moved to Spain and he had moved in…
And now for some humour!
There are plenty of letterbox ‘sealing’ mechanisms available however they all require attaching to the door or existing letterbox in some way making them one off use and potentially damaging the door or letterbox. Many aren’t suitable for all types of door and sizes of letterbox aperture too.
The USP of Letterblox is that it is reusable and doesn't damage the door or existing letterbox as that is removed for safe keeping and later re-use.
During my research I was amused to find a blog from a political campaigner bemoaning the ends homeowners will go to to prevent leafleting of political flyers.
So if you want to temporally stop those leaflets during the election run up then Letterblox is the perfect solution!
Once it’s all over just pop your old letterbox back in place and keep Letterblox safe till next time!
That’s a really scary statistic and the sad reality of letterbox vulnerability.
Yes that’s a whopping 97% of malicious house fires are caused via the letterbox!
That’s direct from the UK Fire Service.
I was already part of that statistic and having seen the insurance clause for me it wasn’t a risk I was willing to take going forwards.
So, I hot-footed it home and hit the internet looking for something far more secure than tape to seal the letterboxes on future empty properties.
To my surprise I couldn’t find anything!
We have found during our research since that an increasing number of homeowners are also now simply sealing up their letterboxes even when they’re living there. The reasons are all too sad to see;
And it’s not just fire; phishing for house and car keys and easy access to locks are also a weakness of letterbox openings.
The Police and Fire Service would like letterbox apertures via doors removed altogether but for the time being they are here to stay.
And most people simply remove the letterbox and board it up seal it with screws or nails or tape or anything they can get their hands on.
As it turned out our insurance policy had a clause in it that said that empty properties required the letterbox to be sealed. I’d never read the small print on the insurance policy and I had certainly never heard of this clause!
Since becoming a mortgage and insurance adviser I’ve seen similar clauses in almost every insurance policy and those that don’t contain the clause usually have other requirements such as weekly inspections of the property and removal of all junk mail and post from the letterbox area.
Now I’m not saying that insurance companies won’t pay up in the event of a similar claim but we are living proof that if they can find a way not to, especially on larger claims, that’s where they’ll use the small print.
Here’s typical advice you’ll find on an insurance website:-
“It is vital that your insurer is kept informed of the occupancy status of your property. The fact that a property has become unoccupied is a material fact, and must be disclosed to the insurer, or you may find that you do not have any cover at all.
Any fact which may affect an insurer’s view of a risk which is not disclosed to them may invalidate your policy completely. Once they have been advised, they may then decide to further restrict cover, or not to invite renewal of the policy at all.”
Here’s an example featured on the BBC;
In this case they simply didn’t have insurance that covered an empty property something I see all too often as an insurance broker and I know many investors particularly who have discovered they couldn’t claim for fire, theft or flood damage as their insurance didn’t cover an empty property.
The Fire Protection Association (FPA) estimates that fires, theft and malicious damage in empty premises causes losses in excess of £100m each year.
We contacted the insurance company, having already alerted them to the fire before we left, and they arranged an inspection of the property with one of their loss adjusters. This is normal with larger claims.
The loss adjuster attended and as soon as he entered the property he moved the fire damaged door to inspect it. He spotted what remained of the tape on the door and around the letterbox and his exact words were:-
“It’s just as well I can see that tape on the letterbox, because if I couldn't I would have no hesitation in refusing this claim.”
That came as quite a shock I can tell you! Especially as this claim was £37,000!
(We didn't do the work by the way, this was what the insurers own workmen claimed from the insurer to restore the property!)
That was the call we got from one of the neighbours of one of our rental houses; ‘your house is on fire!’
It was 29th August 2006 and on the 30th we were due to go on holiday to Florida.
We received a very early morning call from the neighbour to say that the Fire Brigade were in attendance at our property.
I cannot even begin to describe to you the fear and panic that strikes into you.
We drove there as quickly as we could (I’m a huge advocate of buying locally and its things like this that make me glad I stick to that!) to find the fire brigade finishing up and a very black house!
Luckily the neighbours had alerted the Fire Brigade quickly and much of the property was saved with most of the damage being to the front door and hallway and the rest of the house suffering from a lot of smoke damage. In fact I think more damage was caused by smoke and then water from the Fire Brigade but I’m not complaining!
I wish I’d taken more photos now but here’s one of the front door about to be boarded up and you can see how black it is inside with fire damage around the letterbox, at the base of the door and on the threshold; this will become significant later!