The Ethical Way to Get Ahead in Business

Posted: 30 August 2009, in Sector News

If Sir Richard Branson is the archetypal businessman for the nineties — bearded, tie-less, making a fortune from his peers’ obsessions with travel, communication and leisure — Amanda Jones may turn out to be the flawless-skinned, corporate face of the noughties.

The Glasgow University graduate embodies the economic zeitgeist, melding philanthropy, environmentalism, globalisation and technology with a dash of reality television and the extraordinary confidence of youth. Jones, the 25-year-old founding partner of Dumbarton-based Red Button Design, is as comfortable sharing a podium with the prime minister as she is presenting her ideas to the United Nations, collecting a gong from The Wall Street Journal or pitching in the Dragons’ Den.

Along with James Brown, her partner, a product design engineer, Jones has come up with a water purification and storage system for the developing world. The most surprising thing about Ross, the Reverse Osmosis Sanitation System, is that nobody has thought of it before.

Ross looks like something used for fertilising lawns. It is basically a 50-litre plastic drum on wheels. The rotation of the wheels powers a filtration system that purifies contaminated water. Ross is simple to manufacture and light enough to be pushed by a malnourished eight-year-old girl in 40C heat. The filters only need changing yearly.

“We wanted to be the first design house developing products exclusively for the humanitarian market,” says Jones. “We aspire to drive change. This is about human need, not human want. It’s appropriate technology, it’s sustainable and it’s designed to deal with specific problems.”

Jones and Brown, who knew each other in school, took the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals as their starting point. One of those goals is access to clean water. Jones quickly realised that, without clean water, a basic necessity that 1.2 billion people lack, none of the other goals were achievable. “You can’t talk about education or food security or infant mortality until you address the issue of water,” says Jones.

Initially, the idea was developed for Brown’s final-year project. He graduated this summer in product design engineering, a degree run jointly by Glasgow University and Glasgow School of Art.

Jones, a philosophy and psychology graduate interested in international development, thought working on the project might help her to get a job. When she started her research among charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), she found huge pent-up demand.

The Ross system solves three problems: purification, transportation over long distances and safe storage in the home. With 10,000 deaths a day caused by unclean drinking water, the need was obvious.

“Before we had anything but a concept, the people we were approaching started to say: ‘Are you going to make this? Can we have this?’ We were getting instant feedback from the world’s biggest NGOs,” says Jones.

Glasgow University, realising the potential of the product, helped with the patenting. Professor Kofi Aidoo, of Glasgow Caledonian University, who works with the UN, became an adviser.

The awards started to flood in, including the The National Laboratory Service’s Innovation Award for Environmental Technology 2009, the national business plan competition run by Oxford University’s Said Business School, and Glasgow University’s Big Idea competition. Red Button were runners up for the John Logie Baird Young Innovators award, and The Wall Street Journal Technology Innovations awards.

“I never meant to become an entrepreneur,” says Jones, who studied dance before her degree. The three years since she graduated have been a surreal round of ceremonies and travel interspersed with living on a pittance. Like most young entrepreneurs, every available groat has been ploughed into the product.

“It’s the strangest dichotomy to go from flying into San Francisco for an award or meeting the Wall Street Journal people or going to Delhi with the prime minister to having to walk to meetings in town because you can’t afford the bus fare,” she says. “It’s like leading a parallel life.”

Jones, with her dark trouser suits and good grooming and dynamic presentation skills, is a world away from the sandal-wearing charity worker. She may be a social entrepreneur but she is as commercially minded as Sir Alan Sugar.

“We are absolutely staunchly for profit,” she says. “The five or six guys in Ghana who are helping to fabricate the parts there will have shareholdings and get dividends. What we’re doing is similar to Divine chocolate or Cafedirect. The problem we face is that investors think that because the product is ‘doing good in the world’, it must be loss-making.”

Investors only need to look at the order book. Ross should be on sale next year for just under £100. Red Button has orders for 70,000 units and that’s without marketing. It will be a registered supplier to the Red Cross and United Nations.

And, if that doesn’t convince hard-nosed investors, Red Button is one of the few companies on Dragons’ Den to attract support from all five Dragons. “I come from a theatrical family so I loved every minute of it but it is the scariest thing I have ever done in my life,” she says.

Such was the interest after the broadcast that the Red Button website collapsed under the weight of hits. Midge Ure, the co-founder of Band Aid, e-mailed encouragement. Jones was invited on a UK trade trip to India with the prime minister.

Red Button has raised £100,000 and is looking for another £200,000 to take the product to the next stage of testing and into production.

“The only way we have managed to do it is because of all the goodwill and in-kind work we’ve had. We would have gone under long ago if it hadn’t been for that. I haven’t had a wage in three years and that does terrible things to your bank balance and your social life. It does become really difficult but every time you get an email from somebody in Sierra Leone saying they are waiting for the product, you just stave off the debt repayment for another month.”

Jones has already had requests for customised versions of the Ross. “I just tell them to speak to their local co-operative and they will pimp it for them,” says Jones, who argues that using local workforces to make the Ross makes economic sense.

“People grossly underestimate the level of engineering skills there are in countries like Ghana,” she says. “People there are used to fixing things and the average layman has more knowledge than most second year engineering students here.”

Red Button may be pioneering a new business concept but Jones doesn’t see it like that. “It’s not about social enterprise being a new genre. It’s that everything will have to adapt to this new reality. You get greener or you fail.”