Innovation and enterprise blog

The British Library Business & IP Centre can help you start, run and grow your business


This blog is written by members of the Business & IP Centre team and some of our expert partners and discusses business, innovation and enterprise. Read more

21 September 2015

How to spot a gap in the market

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Henry Collins – Business & IP Centre work experience intern –  recently talked to entrepreneur Peter Ford, founder of Mr Pen, about spotting and filling gaps in the market.  Mr Pen is a family-owned and operated mail order business fountain pens and accessories.

Mr Pen 1

How did you get started?

Like any entrepreneur, I saw a gap in the market and filled it. In this case it was by founding a speedy mail order pen operation known as Mr Pen. Mr Pen provides 17 different types of nibs for fountain pens. This is an area long ignored by the large companies who, over time, have stopped catering for this unique operation due to supposed lack of demand for this niche market. However, my business research, and the success of the business, has proved that there is a market for this product. In Mr Pen’s headquarters in Ruislip we buy pens from contractors in China, Germany and the UK and grind the nibs and provide a customised engraving service for customers. 

What’s the ethos of your company?

The company ethos is about providing very high quality products for an affordable price. The fact that we do not sell through retail outlets means that there are no increased costs on top of the price and, as a result we can sell our products for the lowest price possible. We have not had problems with counterfeiting which many of the larger pen brands have.  From one small pen business it has expanded across a range of products including watches, hearing aid batteries and custom presents for special occasions. Our engraving machines are also adapted for use with the watches, meaning that the business has been adaptable and changed with the demands of the customer. 

What are your top tips for anyone starting a business?

  • When starting a business plan you have to be incredibly honest with yourself and not fool yourself with inflated projected revenue figures
  • Breaking even in the first year is incredibly important as most businesses do not survive past this point unless they achieve this
  • Treat your customers well because goodwill goes far – this applies even if you may be cheated by unscrupulous people once in a while!

What entrepreneur inspires you?

Lord Sugar has been an inspiration to me as he has changed his business direction so many times and has proved very adept at being adaptable, which something I have also had to do.


If you want to spot a gap in the market, why not come to the British Library’s Business & IP Centre and use the extensive business resources and expertise available.  Our extensive market research databases enable you to explore potential market gaps whilst our rnage of one-to-one advice and guidance enables you to develop and protect new products to fill these gaps. For example, our sessions with Bang Creations support  you to exploit market gaps through developing and commercialising your product or invention whilst keeping costs to a minimum. So come in and visit us soon!

Henry Collins on behalf of the Business & IP Centre 


17 September 2015

Book review: Start a business for £99 by Emma Jones

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Emma Jones the founder of Enterprise Nation and also an Ambassador of Business & IP Centre has published a new book Start a business for £99. Emma works closely with us in the Business & IP Centre.


She founded Enterprise Nation, which runs diverse campaigns to support business start-up and growth. Enterprise Nation are one of Business & IP Centre partners who run monthly StartUp Saturday events in the Centre. Emma also occasionally chairs our Inspiring Entrepreneurs evening event panels. 

Start a business for £99I’ve chosen this book because of its intriguing title. Having read it, I can see it would be very useful for people who have an idea, and want to make a living from bringing their idea into the market.  

It covers pretty much everything you would need to know from starting wit a business idea, to funding, marketing, social media promotion, growth and much more.

Inside you will find out how to: 

- Come up with a winning idea

- Take your idea from concept to market

- Carry out high-value, Low-cost market - research

- Develop a professional online presence for less

- Make the most of free technology tools

- Raise your profile with no marketing budget required

- Find space and people by borrowing and bartering

The book is divided into four parts making it is easy to navigate. Each part is broken down into chapters for clearer explanations. In each chapter Emma presents a case study. One of her case studies was Imran Merza, the entrepreneur behind Jealous Sweets, who was also supported by our Innovating for Growth programme.

As Emma mentions “Imran and his business partner Taz had no knowledge of the confectionery market and no idea where to begin”. Imran took advantage of the free resources at the British Library Business & IP Centre and conducted his market research to help him build his business plan. It helped them target their audience market and their spending habits. With this knowledge, they knew who to approach to sell their products.

The book provides you with a checklist of essential things you need to start a business and how you can do them all for under £99.

Here are the essentials:

  • Register as Limited Company - £15.00
  • Insurance - £5.00 ( for 1 month)
  • Broadband - £2.50
  • Domain Registration - £4.50
  • Meet Face to Face with Customer - £5.00 (cost of coffee)
  • Logo - £3.30
  • Business Cards - £9.99
  • Home Office - £20.00
  • This Book - £12.99
  • Bottle of bubbly to celebrate - £10.00

Total - £88.28

Julie Boadilla on behalf of the Business & IP Centre 

14 September 2015

How should you choose a product design agency?

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This article may cause debate, so (in the interest of full and frank disclosure) I should start by telling you that I run my own product design agency with offices in the UK and China. So, why am I writing an article about how you should choose an agency? “To get more work for yourself”, some might think. Well, I cannot deny that we are always interested in doing exciting new work, but the real reason I am writing this is, genuinely, more altruistic: inventors and entrepreneurs need to know how to choose strong design agencies that will work effectively with them to ensure that the quality of products being produced stays high.

In recent years, we have seen a huge surge in inventors and start-up businesses who have used the services of a design agency, and yet have not been able to take their idea any further than a pretty drawing. When clients approach us, having become disenchanted with other agencies, we often have to start again from scratch to turn their idea into a product that will delight, sell, and make business.

Times have changed. Old-timers like myself used to have only a small handful of colleges to choose from to study product design. People didn’t understand the concept: design agencies were few and far between, and so we could all choose to work with clients big and small. We collaborated with clients who understood product design and needed external services, and we stayed with them on the journey as products made their way into consumers’ hands.

Now we have Dragons’ Den, Kickstarter and Crowd Cube, and it is easier than it has ever been for anyone to turn an idle idea into a reality. The problem is that having the idea is the easy bit. Moulding that idea into a technically feasible and commercially viable product is actually very difficult. So, in this crowdfunding age, we are seeing designs from some agencies which are either technically not feasible, or commercially not viable - or at worst, both. Some of these agencies say they cannot even prototype what they have designed. How can that be possible?

Courses such as “What Next for Your Invention?”, which I am invited to run by the British Library, can be invaluable in explaining how to take a product to market. But knowing the best route to market isn’t synonymous with knowing who best to work with to get you there. So, how should you choose a reliable product design agency?

1.  Look at the agency’s case studies.

Make sure they have a track record in taking a product to market. Not just drawing it, but living with their product and standing by their clients as it rolls off the production line. If you see a lot of computer drawings but no final products and no client testimonials, beware.

Project- TEG camping stove1

Project- TEG camping stove 3

Project- TEG camping stove. Client Spencer Turner: attended British Library Workshop. Image of first working prototype. Currently in production. Coming to market Q2 2016.


2. You do not have to limit yourself to a category, but it can help.

If it is relevant, think about the demands of your category. Baby products, for example, obviously require more testing and certification than an ordinary household product. We see ideas which we know, with one glance, would fail a test house review.

3. Ask the agency about their knowledge of route to market in your particular sector.

Take toys, for instance. We have designed and invented toys for 15 years, and we know that if a toy needs to sell mass market for £10 then we cannot design something that is going to cost more than, at the most, £2 to make.

 4. Do their case studies really explore different concept executions?

Or are you simply looking at different styling of the same concept? If you are going to invest in taking a concept to market, you need to make sure you are backing the right one. If not explored fully at the outset, you open the door for a competitor.

Project Colandish Client Housewares Germany

Project Colandish Client Housewares Germany 2

Project: Colandish. Client: Housewares Germany: Bang Creations Internal project, manufactured by bang Creations and sold through to distribution. Winner of German Design Award. In Market September 2015. 


 5. Have the design agency walked the manufacturing lines?

This is one of the most important points: if you can’t make it, you can’t sell it. Theory is great, but does your design partner have experience of several different production methods? Do they understand materials, and work with people who make things? They need to understand how to manufacture for the market, not just prototypes.

6. How big is their network? 

Only the best can really employ great talent in every department. A great design agency might have a top mechanical engineer sitting next to an electronics expert, for example. Many agencies will have built up a strong network of talent that they can lean on to help on projects. It’s a bit like employing an architect to design your house: they will manage the build, but will still bring in plumbers and surveyors and so on. You should expect the same of your product design partner - they need to bring in the best people for your project as it progresses to market.

Culina Designs

Culina Designs2

Client Culina Designs: Project Sealabag: in market September 2015.


7.  Last but not least: do you think it will be fun working with your designer?

Product development is very tough to get right, and you have to invest heavily prior to getting a return. The exciting part of development sees new opportunities arise, but problems have to be overcome daily. Ideally, you need to approach the process positively, and feel confident that your development partner will be there for you and always come to you with solutions.

When looking for a design agency to collaborate with you on your idea, keep the above points in mind. Beginning with sub-standard design will only be a waste of your time and money: don’t be afraid to be clear about what you want.


By Stefan Knox, founding director of Bang Creations