You often hear of inspiring rags-to-riches stories online, usually a guy from the streets with an unusual idea who, through sheer determination, pioneers a new industry and becomes a billionaire.
Well that’s not me, unfortunately.
We’re a small but focused and motivated team of misfits who have never lost our passion for creating something new.
The Humble Beginnings
The True Potential Group, our legal entity began with a university doodle back in 1998. I was enjoying the self-imposed challenge of designing a good old fashioned British teapot using the letters T-E-A-P-O-T. My aim was to get the first T to form a spout and the middle P to as the handle, and to do this without getting kicked out of my economics lecture.
The design itself is long-lost but I remember with pride how friends commented on how the design was bizarre but entertaining and despite their measly student budget, they’d definitely be interested in buying one. I never acted on the initial design but I unlocked a passion to design despite having the artistic ability of a tomato.
After university I travelled round Asia, visiting local craftsmen along my journey. I arrived in Thailand in 2001 and visited a local market here. I’m a guy, I don’t shop. I’ll wander around some stall, perhaps to glance at the impressive collection of flashlights, hunting knifes and pirate DVDs but the moment I find myself surrounded by female accessories I find it hard to breathe. I’m a functional shopper priding myself in the fact that I last bought myself trousers 5 years ago, buying 6 identical pairs and being out of the store in just 15 minutes.
Despite my abhorrence of all things shopping, there was one exhibit which quite literally blew me away (well perhaps not literally). In the far corner of the market, hidden well away from the tourists, there was a single statue. It was about 8ft tall, an Alien statue from the Hollywood movie. What floored me was that it was made entirely from scrap metal; nails for the teeth, pistons, connecting rods, springs and all manner of bits and bobs I’m far too dumb to name. The Alien grabbed my attention immediately – it’s not every day you encounter a giant monster with razor-sharp teeth standing in a market that’s otherwise preoccupied with selling silk ties, fake handbags and belts.
What was more fascinating though was how the other shoppers treated him. Tourists ran over to take photos with him, men would cross the busy marketplace and spent sometimes more than 10 minutes inspecting and identifying every component. Children would tiptoe up to it, fascinated yet too scared to get close.
I was certain that this work would be a huge success overseas. I had to know more and, with the help of my girlfriend we worked very hard to locate the artist.
Meeting The Artists
In 2001 there were 6 main workshops in Thailand specializing in scrap metal art. Over about 18 months I visited them all, as well as showrooms and stores throughout the country. We spoke with shop assistants who had be selling the large statues on a limited basis in Thailand and selling small statues to the tourists. Beyond the occasional souvenir shop (and a large showroom near the honeymoon islands) it didn’t seem like anybody here truly appreciated just how incredible this art was.
Most shopkeepers weren’t keen to discuss bulk orders. Despite my most charming smile they felt like I was trying to compete with them. Other artists were scared to deal with a westerner here, they were content making perhaps one large statue every 2-3 months and selling it locally. Anything more seemed like too much work.
Thankfully one artist seemed different, he was at the time the only artist to have an email account and despite my limited Thai we persevered for 2-3 months discussing how we could work together to develop his creations overseas. Unlike other artists, Phairote loved the idea of working with us.
He relished the idea of making his art available overseas and for every obstacle that other artists gave me, Phairote offered a solution. I will always remember one of the most reassuring communication I’ve ever had … “We’ll find a way” he said.
Phairote was as much a manger as an artist too. He ran his workshop well, despite it being small and under-developed. He pioneered some production methods completely unique in the industry and we won commission after commission from happy clients.
To address my need to create more statues, Phairote hired his long-time friend Noi, a mechanical engineer. Noi would soon come to open a second workshop, training semi-skilled artists to create many of our smaller statues, giving Phairote more time to spend on new designs and on larger creations.
Noi was an incredible asset to the partnership. In 2012 he was solely responsible for training 12 skilled, (but inexperienced) artists into completing an order of 5,000 1ft tall predator statues, – (all completely hand-made) in a temporary workshop no larger than squash court.
Including training time, he accomplished this in just 5 weeks!
The Growth of Art From Steel (The Company)
We began working with retailers in Australia, the USA, UK and Belgium and I had a great time working with the artists to design and develop some truly original pieces. I can’t take credit for the construction or with particular details but I was responsible for putting a system in place where any client worldwide could give us a vague idea of what they wanted and we’d draw up plans, blueprints, prototypes and proposals to create anything they required.
Initially we focused on working with large retail clients, but left many visitors frustrated that we weren’t able to provide them with smaller statues for their homes. In 2011 we began holding stock in the USA which we sold through our (old) website ArtFromSteel.com. Business boomed around Christmas time in 2013 and 2014.
My close friend was involved in a terrible accident in 2007. He was rushed to hospital in a coma, eventually awaking with severe head trauma and he was unable to leave his hospital bed for nearly a year; in fact he was barely able to move for much of this time.
We rallied round him, determined to find ways to lift his spirits and to furnish his room with visual reminders that we all cared about him.
It was then I realized how hard it was to find novel gifts that would cheer him up. The hospital gift shop had colorful balloons, flowers and some over-sized cards but we all knew that my friend, an avid athlete who prided himself on his physique and mental focus would never have chosen these items himself.
Why is it that there’s such a limited variety for gifts that cheer people up? Why are the symbols of our affection so often reduced to buying chocolates, flowers, balloons, cards or fluffy teddy bears?
At the time our workshop had about 450 statues in their portfolio and yet none were appropriate to gift to my friend. Granted he’d have loved one of our menacing Alien & Predator designs but his frail mother really wouldn’t have appreciated something so unwelcoming to be by his bedside.
The frustration inspired me to design my own line of unique gifts and with the help of Noi we created The Be Better Buddies collection – a set of 6 cute animals, all comically injured which people could gift to sick friend. I saw then how we could make our scrap metal artwork beautiful, personal, romantic and fun. From this tragic accident we chose to expand and to create new designs especially for sharing the love around.
We still have a fantastic relationship with our Art From Steel workshop and we realize that we can offer so much more to our clients. We are now reaching out to other manufacturers, designing more products that the market is woefully lacking and we’re working as designers, agent, importers and distributors depending on the product.
We are largely a business-to-business venture but we’ve not forgotten our roots nor our loyal customers who helped us to grow. We are focused on matching up a select few manufacturers with our sales reps and retailers.
Our goal is to become the leading provider of unique awesome-ware, to help fledgling artists reach a larger market and to provide retailers with a single resource where they can fill their store with hot-selling products they can grow their reputation from.