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Meet our employer partner, Giles Grover, founder of Small Machines

What is your business?

We design and make contemporary, laser-cut, hydraulic wooden toys that come in the form of construction kits. I started out Small Machines initially when I was a teacher and sold the kits through maker fairs. It was so successful that I decided to leave teaching to run the business full time. We’ve been going three years as a limited company.

Now Small Machines is the only toy-maker in Sheffield to carry the ‘Made in Sheffield’ brand, which puts us on a par with some of the biggest manufacturing companies in Sheffield. That’s the power of disruptive technology like laser cutting. It means I can produce wooden toys like they would be mass-produced in the Far East but much better quality.


Why hydraulic wooden toys?

I have three children and for 18 years I was a design technology teacher. As such, it was abundantly clear to me that people enjoy using wooden products – there’s a natural engagement with the material – and both children and adults like making things.

As a parent, I was fed-up of replacing batteries! With hydraulics, you just use tap water and science, there’s no cost, no inconvenience, it’s completely renewable. Then I wanted to take the time-honoured feel of a traditional wooden product and marry it up with state-of-the-art laser cutting technology to produce a toy.

Who buys your toys?

My youngest customer so far has been aged three and my oldest is probably in his late seventies – a retired hydraulics engineer who bought a desk lamp from me.

How did you build your client base?

I started by hiring a table top for a weekend event at Kelham Island. I turned up with the first batch of my toys.  They were great, but the instructions and the packaging left something to be desired! Nevertheless, they flew off the shelf, I sold everything. I then took some time to revise things – in particular, I asked a professional graphic designer to create a brand and packaging for me. Then I did 12 months of maker fairs, travelling the length and breadth of the country from Brighton to Edinburgh, from Liverpool to Nottingham. I used to pack up after school finished on Friday and travel off. That was my testing ground, that’s where you learn what customers are really looking for and how to sell.

How big are you now?

I’m running at 15 or 16 designs now. I’ve got as many again in my head. I have two people working for me a day a week doing the machining and fulfilment stuff. I’m taking that time for designing and organising the manufacturing. I’ve got a new contract with the Royal Armouries, who are moving into the High Street, so I’m having to look at a whole new generation of packaging to fit their criteria.

Where do you see yourself going?

I want to develop a company that pays for me and for staff, so it’s about going into retail and e-commerce.

Why did you get involved with UTC Sheffield?

An ex-colleague, who is now a member of staff at the UTC, contacted me. I’ve always been interested in the UTC because my background is design technology.  UTC plugs the hole that I felt has been ignored for years in the education system around high quality vocational learning in schools.

What have you done with the UTC?

I started off helping the UTC by participating in their employer mentoring events where you are matched with students who are interested in particular career path. Then I started giving live projects to the Creative and Digital Media students. I’ve got two students working on a project now, which is to help me develop my e-commerce marketing. I have an Etsy store and I’m also developing a presence within the Ethical e-commerce store called Ethical spend in the UK alone last year was £4 billion so it’s a great opportunity.

I’ve given a brief to two Year 12 UTC students to provide content, photographs and video editing. I’ve also commissioned a no-holds-barred, objective assessment of how one of my products will work with particular markets. I worked with the UTC students two years ago to input ideas for a new website that I was developing and I found it really useful, it helped me to consolidate my thoughts.

How do you think the UTC is different?

I like the immediacy of the UTC.  It’s on the corner of Shoreham Street, right in the middle of the creative sector, surrounded by creative workspaces and businesses, as well as Sheffield Hallam. It encourages the students to see themselves as part of the sector. A friend of mine opened a business nearby and he commented on the business dress of the students – not a uniform but more business-ready – and he liked that. The way that the building is laid out is different, the way students swipe themselves in and out, the roof-top games pitch – I think the UTC does a very good job at redefining what a school experience can be.

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