Whether it is fair or not, sheep are often referred to in derogatory terms when it comes to their intelligence; usually when they break away from the mob and make the lives of their handlers a misery. Charlie Webb, decided to delve into the psychology of sheep so that his life as a farmer, and his woolly charges, is made much easier. The result is Back Up Charlie.
When Back Up Charlie – a flexible lead up race for sheep handlers - was awarded Machine of the Year at the Henty Field Days in 2016, Charlie Webb felt very satisfied. He already knew that it was a winner because he’d invented it for his own use on the farm, but the public recognition made his task of marketing this new innovation to other farmers all the more easier. A subsequent award at Orange in 2017 confirmed that Back Up Charlie was on the road to success but naturally there was a lot of hard work that led up to this point.
To hear more about this award winning innovation, I caught up with Charlie Webb at his Lakeside property just outside Lockhart in New South Wales, on the day of his eldest daughter Philippa’s wedding. What was usually a working shearing shed had been transformed into a reception venue for the guests shortly due to arrive. A quick tour confirmed that I was talking to a man who likes to make things with his own hands and do them well. A bar had been constructed by Charlie especially for the wedding and a tour of the shearing quarters revealed five-star luxury in terms of this traditionally rough and ready industry. Contrary to previous experiences of shearing sheds, I had no qualms about accepting a cup of coffee – complete with milk! – from the spotless kitchenette as we settled down for a chat.
In a classic story of problem solving, Charlie wanted to be able to handle his sheep more effectively when it came to the difficult task of moving sheep forward from the holding yard into automated sheep handlers, crutching plants and other sheep handling applications. No other systems he had tried seemed to work, no matter how much was invested.
‘I designed Back Up Charlie for myself,’ he admits up front, ‘it was about making our job easier. It’s faster, cuts down on labour and is kinder on the sheep. I knew it worked the day I was able to knock off early and go home to help Tana (his wife) in the garden.’
It was 2015 when Charlie disappeared into his shed over a period of four months to develop a prototype. ‘She asked what in the hell I’d been doing,’ he recalls with a grin.
Materials were challenging to source, and it was a matter of trial and error. A welding course at college and over forty years experience of sheep farming were put to good use. There was also a lot of thinking. ‘It was very much about animal psychology and how sheep react in stressful situations,’ he explains.
Charlie got to try it out the prototype for the first time with their eldest daughter Philippa. ‘We used to be exhausted pushing sheep in the yards from 7.00am until 6.00pm but even with Philippa, who is the least experienced on the farm, we made it home by 4.30pm. That’s when I knew it worked.’
Having discussed the inadequacy of previous systems with a livestock contractor friend, Charlie was quick to get on the phone to share the news. ‘He came down with a group to watch me demonstrate it and they didn’t say anything for a whole ten minutes,’ Charlie recalls. ‘We all knew I had a winner and didn’t want to let a great idea go to waste.’
With the help of his daughter Josephine, who has a Bachelor of Business in Agriculture and is actively working on the farm, Charlie started the process of setting a business to market and sell the new system which was subsequently branded Back Up Charlie. He already had a good accountant and sourced some marketing expertise which proved a little more challenging when it came to agreeing on the right wording and images.
As one himself, Charlie had no illusions that he was dealing in a tough market. ‘Selling product to farmers is a tough task!’
His other priority was to manufacture the units locally in Lockhart. ‘You have to share your success with the locals,’ he says. ‘You can’t beat people down on price in a small towns.’ Mark Schirmer, a local engineer, readily agreed and they were off and manufacturing. ‘We set our pricing based on the materials and the 70+ man-hours it takes to make a unit,’ Charlie explains.
Three years in the making has seen Back Up Charlie become established. ‘It’s been a process to get it out to the market. It helped that I’m a farmer. There is no point spending big dollars on something that doesn’t do the job which has been the case with so many other systems I’ve looked at over the years.’
The Henty and Orange Field Day Awards provided much needed publicity. ‘It was free advertising and helped to get the Back Up Charlie branding into people’s heads,’ Charlie says. ‘Over two years we’ve sold 30 units in New South Wales and across the borders into Victoria and South Australia.’ Facebook and Instagram Pages are maintained by Josephine helping to extend the brand.
When I ask Charlie about what he recommends to others who have invented a new product, he quickly responds ‘make sure you have a unique product and protect your idea.’ This includes applying patents if required. When it comes to finding experienced support, Charlie adds that you should always ask other experienced business people for recommendations and keep going until you find the right people to work with and that understand you and your business.
With the arrival of the crucial bridegroom and his family, heralded by plumes of dust advancing along the long driveway into Lakeside, I realise that my time is up with this talented backyard inventor and sheep psychologist. Sadly, it is time to go but I am extremely grateful to have heard another great rural business story.
Charlie’s top business tips:
Make sure your idea and product is unique
Get recommendations from other experienced business people
Ensure there is a market for your idea or product
Protect your idea and product
Follow your dreams