Original article by Tim Goodfellow for C4DI
Lucy Blackley is the founder of Bombyx PLM, a manufacturing tech startup that has seen huge growth over the last 18 months. We sat down and chatted about where the business is now and how even in a digital company, the real world has a big role to play.
Three years ago Lucy Blackley moved back home to Hull with an idea.
That idea is now a reality that has caught the eye of large fashion and lifestyle brands and involves a growing team of people in the UK and around the world.
Bombyx PLM is the startup’s name and despite the challenges of the last 18 months, they’ve seen tremendous growth.
Part of that is down to the increase in remote working, presenting an increased need for an online, ‘single source of truth’.
This is what Bombyx PLM (the PLM stands for Product Lifecycle Management) is all about. Making information more accessible to manufacturing teams around the world.
And we’re talking more than just the color of the new pajama line.
It’s also about improving sustainability and working conditions for the many people involved in the manufacturing process.
This is a product that has the potential to change lives.
‘We couldn’t live without it’
‘It’s been a fantastic year for us,’ Lucy explains, as we chat in the boardroom of C4DI, where she has built the business over the last few years. ‘We’ve grown the team, both in the UK and in India.’
They’re now a team of 12 in total with 2 more on the way.
Whilst recognizing the challenges of the pandemic, she says it has ‘allowed people to see the potential of going digital with new ways of working flexibly or in a hybrid model.’
Recent wins include onboarding major new clients Cath Kidston, which has also led to them expanding their service offering. Other clients have had plenty of good things to say about Bombyx too.
Lucy recounts the story of one unexpected testimonial. ‘One day one of our North American clients phoned up, screaming down the phone, and I thought, oh, my goodness, what on earth is wrong?
‘In the end, they were just like, ‘we absolutely love Bombyx, and we couldn’t live without it. Just having that single source of truth, and all our information in one place, it just changes the way that we do business.’’
Another client has seen their productivity increase by 30% as a result of using the system.
What is PLM?
These client wins haven’t just come out of nowhere. PLM is an integral part of any manufacturing business and involves managing the entire lifecycle of a product
That’s right from inception, through engineering, design, product development, and manufacture, to the service and disposal of manufactured products.
It acts as a product information backbone for the manufacturing company and their extended enterprise, bringing together people, data, processes, and business systems.
When done well, PLM systems reduce time to market, improve product quality, reduce prototyping costs, identify potential sales opportunities, maintain operational serviceability, and reduce environmental impact.
All of this in turn should improve the working lives of the workers at the heart of manufacturing.
The importance of the physical in a digital world
Bombyx is at the forefront of a changing world, through their commitment to productivity and wellbeing and because their system has come at a good time for teams split apart by the pandemic.
Indeed, there are certain ways of working that will never be the same again.
Despite that, Lucy admits there are major benefits to having a physical team in person. ‘Having people in the office working with you and feeling the same energy you’re feeling. There’s nothing like it.
‘Being online, on Zoom or Teams or whatever is fantastic. But you’ll never get the same feeling as when you’re working with people in person.’
And being at C4DI and connecting with other people in that ecosystem has been pivotal to the growth of the company.
Safe to say the physical still has a role to play in the digital world.
The Birth of Bombyx PLM
We’ve spoken to Bombyx before but a lot has happened since last time. If this is the first time you’ve come across them, here’s a very brief history from Lucy herself.
Product Lifecycle Management, for those who don’t know, kind of does what it says on the tin.
The idea is that each employee has quick and easy access to all the information they need at any point in the manufacturing process.
A lot of the time, in Lucy’s experience, this was not the case.
She’d been working in Berlin as the head of product development for Menswear in Europe’s biggest online retailer at the time.
‘I was using systems that didn’t fit what I needed to develop my product, working from say, seven in the morning until 2 am, the next morning. When you’re doing that constantly for a year you get burnt out.’
‘The idea for Bombyx grew organically out of frustration. I wanted to create something which was simple, affordable, and scalable, so businesses could grow with it.’
‘The industry is so busy all the time… [Employees] are exhausted and I wanted to help change that and make product development easy for brands, whether they’re small or large corporations.’
The solution? That single source of truth we mentioned before, allowing suppliers and brands to collaborate in one place. A software that shifts and changes with your company but provides a clear and obvious way to access the information you need about a particular product.
More than just fashion
The gap in the market presented itself and it went from there. At first, Lucy spent late nights developing the idea and wireframes alongside the role in Berlin, then moved back to Hull and got stuck in at C4DI.
Although many of the problems the software is trying to solve are present in the fashion world, there’s no reason why it can’t be used in other areas of manufacturing. The opportunity to expand came with the arrival of one of their newest clients.
‘[Working with] Cath Kidston has diversified our product. We’ve gone from apparel to lifestyle, which then allows us to open up to other things because within their lifestyle brand, they do homeware, cosmetics, and toiletries. Eventually, we want to go into food and drink.’
They’ve also, perhaps unsurprisingly, been working with PPE companies recently too.
However, a big driving force behind the business is still the well-documented effect of the fashion industry on the planet and the people it relies on.
Sustainability and ethics: Buzzword bingo?
We’ve probably all seen an increased focus on the environmental impact of fashion, specifically ‘fast fashion’, through documentaries or social media posts.
There appears to have been a concerted response to this but Lucy is concerned this could be at the expense of worker wellbeing, one of the main things PLM is focused on improving?
In other words, it’s all very well trying to be sustainable but if that’s to the detriment of worker conditions or even work/life balance, then the true ethics of the company are questionable.
‘Right now, the biggest buzzword within the industry is sustainability. But you can’t get sustainability without being ethical. And I feel like, within the industry, there’s a lot of greenwashing, where people are saying they’re sustainable by using organic cotton or a certain dye process. But there’s a long way to go in terms of companies being fair trade and improving conditions for workers.
‘I’ve seen it in many countries I’ve been to in the Far East…they’re working nonstop.
‘I’ve seen bullying, I’ve seen health issues, I’ve seen buildings with no walls and holes in the floors, I’ve seen toilets, foot high in urine and feces, like, just horrific things for people to have to work through, walking barefoot, no safety.’
But it also affects the people working on the front end, be that in brand or retail, etc. In many ways that buzzword has become a box-ticking exercise, just another thing to add to the endless to-do list.
‘Because people get so busy within the industry, they don’t really look at it in the way that they should. They just want to tick off a list, get everything done and go home.’
‘If we can bring people back to a healthier work-life balance, we can then create a greater awareness of what’s going on, on the other side of manufacturing.’
In theory, Bombyx PLM can track ethical practices on the manufacturing side, which is often detached from the western world, such as making sure people are paid fairly.
‘I think we can only truly work towards sustainability when we look after people. If we just focus on sustainability, there’s a danger of not helping the people that work within the industry. It needs to go people, the planet, then profit. If we do that, the people are more likely to look after the planet, and then the profit will come from doing good and it’ll go full circle.’
On Hull as a tech hub
Some might think it odd that someone working in the fashion industry in Berlin would come to Hull to start a tech business.
But that’s what Lucy did. Of course, part of it was simply wanting a change in lifestyle but she’s also very positive about Hull and what it has to offer.
‘People wouldn’t think of [Hull] as a tech space. But it’s probably one of the most tech spaces I’ve ever been in. I think people underestimate Hull as a tech hub. But if people came to see, they’d understand that it’s a brilliant place to have a startup, it’s affordable, it’s a really cheap place to live if you’re going to bootstrap your business.’
And then there’s C4DI. She’s happy to admit that ‘without C4DI, their expertise, their background, their knowledge, and how they’ve worked with us…we wouldn’t be anywhere without them’ (we didn’t pay her to say that!)
‘I love the space. It’s just super collaborative… the people, the space, the encouragement that you get… If you work really hard and they can see that you are really passionate and you really want something, they’ll go to the ends of the earth for you.’
Lucy joined the community in 2018 and has since partnered with C4DI to grow the company.
‘Being part of C4DI ventures as a company has helped massively. We’ve got the chairman of C4DI (David Keel), who’s an expert in manufacturing, and just having those connections and allowing us to link up with but their network has been massive for us.’
Growing with a little help from friends
As anyone who uses the C4DI space will know, Lucy likes plants.
One way she’s given back to the community is by livening up the downstairs area with a little, well, a lot of greenery. And if she’s not growing the business, she can often be found watering the plants.
And just like the sunlight and water that a healthy plant needs, there are certain things that are also necessary for the growth of a business.
Her propensity for following her gut rather than the advice of others is tempered by an understanding that ‘there’s always going to be people with ideas and concepts that you haven’t necessarily thought about, to add to the product to make it better.
The biggest thing she’s learned over the last few years is that ‘you need a team. You can’t do everything on your own.’
If you head into C4DI to meet Lucy now you’ll notice she’s very much not on her own but surrounded by a growing team of employees that is only likely to expand in the years to come.
That and the plants, of course, you’ll notice plenty of plants.