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Designer frames for export

Wellington designers Phil and Nina Bracen have cleverly re-designed the traditional walking frame concept and are tackling the challenge of marketing their brand worldwide.

They grew up in different worlds, share a common passion for market-leading design, and now Wellington couple Phil and Nina Bracen have completely transformed the uninspiring traditional walking frame.

And people are loving it.

The product of their combined passion for design is the ‘NIP Glide’ – an innovative lifestyle walking frame for the disabled and the elderly – aka NIP ‘New Independent People’.

Phil and Nina spent three years developing their stylish fold-up walker – complete with patented auto brake technology, hidden brake cables, adjustable handles and built-in seat.

So how exactly did two talented designers end up becoming a major disruptive influence on the local walking frame market?

First, wind back several years to when the couple first met at phil&teds (that’s another Phil, by the way!) in Wellington.

Nina, who grew up in South Korea, harbouring a love for automotive design, ended up at the innovative buggy manufacturer after studying industrial design at Victoria University.

Phil had been in the design game longer and also studied design at the same university.

He remembers walking from the Engineering Studies Department to compare the Architectural Studies Department and literally stumbling upon the Design Department.

“It seemed to me at the time a great mix of both,” he says. So design became his vocation, pretty much by accident!

Phil’s main claim to fame was as co-designer (with good friend Adrian Sargeant) of Fisher & Paykel’s revolutionary DishDrawer.

“It taught me that ‘if you can dream it, you can achieve it with the right mindset’,” he says.

More importantly, he has already lived the designer’s dream of seeing a concept turned into a spectacular commercial success.

Now, together with Nina, Phil’s looking to do it all over again. But this time it’s their own baby; their own company – BC2 Limited.

And he’s sharing the responsibility of sales and marketing.

It’s fair to say the walking frame market has been somewhat neglected over time and was ripe for a fresh approach. Two events were the primary triggers for Phil and Nina to take up the challenge.

The first was a conversation Nina had at a design conference in 2006.

“A gentleman, upon learning that I worked at phil&teds, asked if I could design beautiful walking frames. He had a friend who was sensitive about his appearance and hated his ugly walker.”

The second trigger was a night out at a restaurant, when the couple noticed an elderly diner sitting uncomfortably on her walker. “It was hard to adjust and looked wrong in that environment,” Nina remembers.

The two designers discussed how they could improve the traditional walker both aesthetically and functionally, and immediately went to work.

“Even with all our buggy design experience, it proved a challenge,” recalls Nina.

So they gathered as much feedback as they could. The goal was to make the newly-christened NIP Glide affordable (it retails for $379), without compromising on quality.

“Our idea was to approach the walking frame as lifestyle mobility, rather than medical mobility,” explains Phil.

In New Zealand medical equipment is heavily funded by the government, so many people end up with free generic walkers through medical practitioners, he says.

“The brief was to make the NIP Glide simple, elegant and extremely functional, because everyone, young or old, sick or disabled, wants to look and feel good about themselves,” says Nina.

 

Mission almost accomplished

Three years after those original ‘ahah’ moments, the NIP Glide is selling well in New Zealand, primarily through lifeunlimitedstore.co.nz.

A story in Wellington’s Dominion Post gave sales a recent boost – but it’s still early days.

Having a great factory relationship has been critical to their success, say the couple. Their manufacturer is a ‘friend of a friend’ who built his factory from scratch and launched his own brand of mobility scooter into China. Understandably, he knows exactly what the two Wellington designers are going through.

The Bracens have been encouraged by positive feedback from buyers too. “People are usually attracted to the product at first sight,” says Nina. “They love the look, the proper seat, and appreciate its ease of use and adjustability compared to other walkers.”

People can be sceptical about the auto-braking feature, adds Phil, but a demonstration usually sees the ‘penny drop’ quickly. “People are genuinely impressed.”

Considering that in New Zealand alone there are more than 600,000 people aged over 65, with that figure expected to more than double by 2038, the couple are confident sales will quickly grow. They believe the NIP Glide sells itself, thanks to the positive experiences people have with them.

They also have their sights set on export markets, and are confident their journey with the NIP Glide will one day be worthy of winning export awards.

With the product passing safety standards in Australia, the bigger market across the Tasman is in Phil and Nina’s sights – as is Europe, where they regard international trade shows as the best pathway, and the US market.

Meantime, the plan is to expand the NIP Glide family of products and grow the BC2 brand locally. That, in itself, is a major ask. As Phil points out, their skills are very broad; they’ve been able to act as creators, inventors, developers, engineers and users. But now it’s all about sales and marketing. They’re having to up-skill fast, and are open to offers of support.

“Building a brand [from scratch] is harder than selling a product under an established brand, so we know there are many dilemmas ahead,” admits Nina.

“We’re new to running a business, so we invited a number of people with strong local business experience to advise and mentor us.

“They’ve been absolutely brilliant and supportive and have taught us a lot.”

The baby steps are behind them. Now with their innovative walker well accepted, the Bracens are ready to run hard with it.

This article by Glenn Baker first appeared in the September 2017 issue of NZBusiness magazine.

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