Nearly getting arrested helped promote my business: why you should take risks to bring your engineering idea to life

Written by: Laurence Kemball-Cook
Published on: 11 Feb 2015

After I founded Pavegen, I spent two years living in London with no money. It was the hardest point of my life. My mates from Uni were all amazing designers at major companies and getting a salary, and there I was sat in a bedroom with £50, not really seeing the light of day.

Slowly, I built my prototype but I didn’t know anything about starting up a business and there was no-one to help me. An expert from the government’s new business helpline told me not to bother. I felt like giving up because no one would buy the product without investment and no one would invest unless I had a product ready.

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The Pavegen tile generates electricity from footsteps

Eventually, I decided to do something drastic. I broke in to a building site at 2am, laid the product in the ground, took photos of it and put them on my website with the caption: ‘Celebrating our latest installation’. I managed to close a project from this.

However, I knew I still needed to get a proper trial underway so I decided to install the tiles illegally in my old school. My old design and technology teacher was really supportive but I didn’t have any other relationship with the school and they definitely weren’t keen on me just chucking it in there. But I did. The kids’ reaction was crazy, the media picked up on it and a couple of days later – when I was at my graduation ceremony – the bursar for the school phoned me up and placed another order.

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’The kids reaction was crazy’: Laurence installed his tile unofficially in his old school in order to get a trial going.

I was still sitting in my bedroom with a prototype held together mostly with masking tape, but I knew I had the key to investment. I rented an office and hired five interns. I admit I’d never been more scared because I didn’t know anything about hiring people or running a business at that point.

The transition from a start-up business to a growing team has been challenging, but that was when it all started. Now we’ve deployed the technology in 20 countries, we’re approaching £5m in revenue. I’m a chief executive officer, report to a board and have 39 shareholders. We have a strong team of 30 and are looking to build it further with leading engineers and innovators.

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Pavegen technology has now been installed in 20 countries.

But even recently I was nearly arrested at 10 Downing Street for installing the product on the step outside. I was meeting David Cameron and after we came out I laid a tile down on the step – it’s the most famous step in the world. They went crazy and said: ‘You cannot promote a product here.’

I managed to get a picture just as the police were diving in to take it away. We then launched a social media campaign called #rescuelaurence, and at the time it was one of our most popular social media moments.

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Laurence no longer has to break into building sites to install Pavegen

I believe entrepreneurs should know no barriers. As long as you don’t get charged when you’re arrested and you’re doing things that are constructive, hopefully people will turn a blind eye.

You should do whatever it takes to get your business to the point where it’s a tangible solution. You’ve got to be headstrong, have self-belief and just do it. People like to talk you down: you’ve just got to ignore them. I’ve definitely upset a few people in my time but that’s the attitude you have to take to make things happen.