John Mills is sat in his office in Kentish Town. He’s deep in thought, hands pressed to temples.
I’m in the process of pitching a series of ideas to the chairman of JML, the company behind home innovations like the Ped Egg, Toasta Bag and Snuggie. I think they’ve got potential, but unfortunately, Mills doesn’t quite see it that way.
He’s already swatted aside my idea for jumpers for mugs (“It wouldn’t look right”) and a dashboard-mounted plug-in microwave for cars. But I think he might like this one.
“How about a shaving mask, to sculpt beard and moustache shapes?” I suggest, hoping that Mills spots a gap in the booming facial furnishings market.
“Well,” ponders the 76-year-old London native, who still lives in Camden Town, a short hop away from JML’s headquarters. “What percentage of the population has a beard or a moustache? I think it’s about 5-10% at most. There’s probably not wide enough appeal. You can see how difficult it is to find a product that works.”
If you don’t have something from JML’s extensive range of consumer products in your home, it’s almost certain that your mum does. The company’s range of products varies from the ingenious to the occasionally baffling – witness the self-erecting, self-inflating beds, or the light-up water bottles for cycling.
You’ve also probably seen the company’s distinctive promotional videos on TV or in shops. Sure, they’re a bit out-of-step with an advertising industry enthralled with ‘brand narratives’ and nudge-wink self-awareness. But I defy you to spend a morning watching them continuously and not to entertain the prospect of how an eight-in-one chopping receptacle or self-standing electrically powered clothes dryer might enhance your everyday life.
Mills reckons that he looks at upwards of 1,000 inventions a year, which get whittled down to 100 for trial. “When you trial them all about 80% of them don’t make it, so you’re down to about 20,” he says. “Then, after that, about four or five of them are actually capable of paying the rent. But if you don’t look at the 1,000 you don’t get the 100, and you don’t get the 20 and you don’t find the five.”
But for every ironing board cover or Ped Egg (which have sold 20 million and seven million units respectively) there are a few which don’t quite perform as well as he’d hoped.
“We’ve had one or two inexplicable disasters,” says Mills. “We had a very nice DIY product – a screwdriver, which could be used for cutting things. It was really nice and neatly designed. Absolutely nobody bought it. There was another one called the Topsy Turvey which grew tomatoes. For some reason which we still don’t understand, this product just absolutely tanked. By the time we got all the stocks back and cleared it all out the losses were enormous. We don’t always get it right.”
It turns out that would-be inventors face similar odds in trying to break into the big time as footballers, pop stars or actors. “The amount of inventions that make it which are fresh off somebody’s brainstorm are actually very low,” he says. “If you look at the statistics, if you take all the products which actually get to the market, 1-2% are still there five years later. The attrition rate is unbelievably high.”
Spending time with Mills is certainly an engaging experience. He’s a man of opinions which sometimes take you by surprise. He’s an outspoken supporter of, and big donor to, the Labour party, despite a public school and Oxbridge background. He enjoys aviation, jetting to business meetings and weekends away, but has a rather good grasp of what the ‘ordinary’ person wants.
“There are an awful lot of people around who have absolutely no idea of how a large section of the population lives,” he says of certain alumni of the public school system.
He believes his background in local government on Camden Borough Council has helped shape his personal and professional world views. “I’ve had consultations and had people with some really daunting problems coming along,” he recalls. “We have to sell to everybody. We’re not in the Armani business where we sell handbags that cost a small fortune and only a small percentage of the population are going to buy them. You have to put yourself into the mindset of the average consumer.”
He’s written several books on economics, and the latest, written with former Labour politician Bryan Gould, is on the way next year. It outlines what’s wrong with the economy at present, and what could be done about it. A lot of it comes down to manufacturing – or a lack of it.
“[Manufacturing] produces a much higher number of good-quality, blue-collar jobs than services do,” he says. “But without a good manufacturing base, a country like ours just can’t make its way in the world – you end up with a big balance of payment problems, you can’t expand the economy and you get deeper and deeper in debt, which is what has happened to us. It’s not just the UK – the whole of the western world has been mad to allow huge amounts of industrial expansion to take place along the Pacific rim, while de-industrialising the west.”
It might not chime well for people who take regular holidays abroad, but Mills believes weakening the pound is the key to readdressing the balance. “I think the pound has been far too strong for too long, which has made it impossible to run some manufacturing businesses profitably in the UK,” he says.
“But there’s lots more to do with the economy than just making the exchange rate more competitive – and unless we sort it out we’re up for a pretty gloomy period ahead. It’s not terribly gloomy for most people who are well off – but it is very gloomy for the bottom half of the socio-economic groups who are in insecure jobs, or unemployed, on low wages, zero-hour contracts. It’s really, really tough for them.”
At 76, it’s safe to say that Mills has now achieved ‘veteran’ status. But if he’s slowing down, he isn’t showing any signs of it yet. Retiring? He won’t hear a word of it, and is pretty sure he isn’t alone.
“People who have been around the block and have accumulated a bit of experience and knowledge are very valuable,” he says. “Some people are forced into working because otherwise they can’t make ends meets. But for quite a lot of people, working on is something they quite enjoy… including me.
“I think there are undoubtedly going to be longer working lives for people, just look at people’s increasing longevity,” he says. “I think the reason people live much longer is that they are much healthier, and therefore they’re in a better position to carry on working. Although some people just really look forward to retirement and not having to get up in the morning… I hate the idea. I couldn’t think of anything worse!”