So me, and Geoff, as moral support and "my bodyguard" went along this evening to Bob's offices in the Docklands near the London Arena.
When someone who introduces themselves with "I'm a Virgo and that explains a lot about me" you know you're going to be in for an interesting meeting. What Bob meant by that is that he's a perfectionist but a bit of a butterfly, flitting from project to project and having a strong identification of self through their work.
He joked "Now I'd be described as an entrepreneur, but that was before I knew how to spell it!"
Bob explained that the bags were an idea that came out of a drink in the pub, after the London attacks, the police's stop and search policy and the uncomfortableness his Asian staff he also runs an call centre who intrestingly deliberately employ a lot of actors - I liked that!) experienced when travelling on the Tube with a rucksack.
The idea went into production reasonably quickly after conception. Some prototype bags were produced and just over a week after the initial idea the bags were ready to go out. Bob built a quick and dirty website himself and that was that. "I didn't even like the name Freedom bags", Bob said, "but we decided to go for it." One could ask why? But hey-ho.
After a few days someone found the site. The day after the BBC contacted Bob for more info as they wanted to run a feature on it. So Bob got a PR company involved to write a press release and the rest, as they say, is history.
Once the bags were on the BBC's site hundreds of other news outlets covered the story around the world and Bob was amazed at the media interest.
"So how many have you sold?" I asked. Bob didn't feel at liberty to tell us, which was perfectly fair. "But" said Bob, "I can say that there have been orders from around the UK and around the world - although interestingly fewest orders from London".
To me this came as no surprise. I have not seen one person carrying these on the tube and from the comments many of you made from my initial post on the Freedom Bags, I don't think that Londoners are going to be rushing to Bob's site in droves to buy them.
Londoners have been getting on with it. We have to use the London Underground to travel into work and play "You two didn't get the Tube in?" said Bob half jokingly. Me and Geoff looked at each other and laughed, how on earth were we supposed to get there otherwise?
Also we've all been putting up with the initial stop and search policing, which unlike Bob, we know isn't just directed at Asian men and (looking pointedly in my direction) Jamaican people!
"But don't you think we've got to a sad state of affairs where Asian men feel that they have to carry transparent bags? I hate it" said Bob.
"Yes, so do I. But I would hate it so much that I wouldn't be selling bags like yours in the first place." I replied.
Bob went to some lengths to explain the background to his many businesses and in particular the not for profit business The Assist Safety Project which is funded by sales from the Freedom Bags and some of Bob's other projects. Bob and his colleague Jenny explained the project in great detail. Essentially - "The Assist Safety Project launched The Safer Computers Campaign and provides workshops in schools for parents to help teach them about the threats and dangers posed by computers. The campaign has been extended and throughout the Summer of 2005 we are running a roadshow which is visiting Shopping Centres around the UK to help pass on the message." Bob's company Assist Ltd provide PC virus checking, anti spyware software and parental control software to parents and offers them the software packages with free installation on their PC's.
Without going into too much more detail (this is a long post already) I do believe that Bob is well meaning in his approach to his businesses and clearly respects his staff and his call centre had a good feel and very good staff facilities.
However, I still have a problem with his website - which STILL does not have the terms and conditions on it (although Bob says it will be updated in the next few days).
On Bob's site it says "For every bag sold by The Assist Safety Project 10% will go to the London Bombings Relief Charitable Fund"
We had a strange discussion about charities where Bob seemed to think The Red Cross wouldn't accept donations from him and he asked how we were able to fundraise for Tube Relief. "Very easily" I replied, "but we're not actually selling anything and offering to give a percentage to the charity, we are simply fundraising, that's it".
I also still have a problem with products that rely on fear - as I said to Bob, I'm happy with fire alarms, burglar alarms, rape alarms and the like, but not happy with products that play upon the fears of something whose statisical likeliness of happening is extremely low. Particularly, when those products can not be proven to prevent one from getting stopped and searched or be an answer to "making travel safe again".
Interestingly, the BBC interviewed Bob for a BBC3 programme called Travels with my Beard, where a bearded Asian guy sets off around the UK with a rucksack and records reactions to him. How mad is that? Bob is not sure how he and his bags will be portrayed in the programme and I can only wait with baited breath!
Finally, I asked Bob if I could actually see one of the clear rucksacks. He believed he had one in his car (as the fulfilment of the bags was done from other premises in the Docklands). Sadly, Bob returned empty handed as he was mistaken, so I wasn't able to see them.
However, I would like to thank Bob and Jenny for their kind hospitality to myself and Geoff and for showing us around his call centre. As you can tell by this post I'm still highly sceptical about the whole clear bag thing (despite Bob's assertions that some supermarket chains are interested in stocking them), but well done to Bob for trying to address my earlier assumptions.