THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Innovation and enterprise blog

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

Introduction

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

24 February 2017

Internet Icons: Creating big business online

On Tuesday 7 February 2017, we hosted a panel discussion - Inspiring Entrepreneurs: Internet Icons - which was moderated by journalist and TV broadcaster, Nadine Dereza. On the night we were joined by Ella Mills of Deliciously Ella, Rupert Hunt of Spare Room, Sarah Wood of Unruly and Aron Gelbard of Bloom & Wild. The event was also live screened to all 10 of the Business & IP Centre’s across the country, as well as a webcast to viewers across the world.

About the speakers

Deliciously Ella – Ella's business empire began with a blog and quickly developed into a popular brand. Her entrepreneurial rise has seen the opening of two London-based deli’s, four published books and the development of her own food range.

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SpareRoom – Rupert Hunt created the UK’s busiest flatshare site, SpareRoom.com which receives over two million hits a month. The company has now expanded its services to the United States and can be used all over America.

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Bloom & Wild – Aron Gelbard is the co-founder of Bloom & Wild. His company has redefined the online flower delivery service, delivering pristine flowers without the recipient needing to be at home. Bloom & Wild has been rated as the top online flower delivery service in the UK and developed the leading flower delivery app.

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Unruly – Sarah Wood is the co-founder and CEO of the video ad-tech company, Unruly. Assisting companies to create unique online video content since 2006 Unruly provides a platform that helps brands to reach an audience of 1.44 billion.

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A powerful tool for business growth

With the internet playing such a vital role in the modern business world, it is important for business owners to learn how four very different companies harnessed the power of the internet to scale up and grow successfully. When considering the statistics, it’s no surprise that more and more businesses are going online and as Isabel Oswell, Head of Business Audiences at the British Library, explained, “90% of people connected online in the UK, three-quarters of these have bought online and the online retail market continues to grow by 15-20% each year”. For most businesses today ignoring the internet is no longer an option, and with numbers like these, why would they?

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The Myth of the Big Idea

The audience was keen to quiz the online trailblazers who weren’t shy in offering wise words of advice for our budding entrepreneurs. Each of them drew from their own unique experiences to answer a variety of relevant questions, covering everything from surviving knock-backs to the how social media can help businesses to grow.

Both Rupert Hunt and Sarah Wood were keen to stress that the myth of ‘the big idea’ was something that entrepreneurs had to be wary of when trying to start up. Rupert’s position was clear, “don’t get hung up on the big idea, get to the market and let the market guide you”. Indeed, the internet provides the perfect platform for many small businesses to gauge how their prospective customers feel about their products and services.  If they react well, you’ll quickly know that you’re on to something - and, even if the response is not what you expected, you’ll be able to learn how to improve what you do for your target audience. Sarah expanded on this point, explaining how Unruly started out as an online sharing board in 2006 but quickly noticed that the video content posted always had the most online engagement. Noticing this trend in audience behaviour, encouraged the company to create a ‘top 100 chart’ for online video content and, in turn, led to big brands wanting their videos featured. Today, Unruly is one of the biggest names in online advertising and works with 91% of the Ad 100 brands. It is also active in 20 locations worldwide and was acquired by News Corp in 2015.

The Power of Social Media

For most small businesses, developing a strong and loyal fan base of millions may seem unrealistic at best. However, we now have the online tools to reach people from far and wide with engaging and unique content. Ella drew on her own entrepreneurial journey advising the audience to, “never underestimate the power of social media when building your audience and business”. Having battled through a traumatic illness, Ella had changed her diet and lifestyle as a means of improving her health. After receiving encouragement to write a blog post for her friends and family, she quickly noticed that there were many people who were interested in what she had to say. The frequent engagement with her online followers quickly established a platform from which a successful business could be built. Deliciously Ella has now become a popular brand in its own right and has seen the development of a successful bricks and clicks business.

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A big boost for small business

The panel was keen to stress how the internet can also make it much easier for small businesses to enter already established markets. Both Bloom & Wild and SpareRoom transformed their respective markets by developing solutions to age-old problems. Rupert spoke of how the ‘crazy housing market’ in London had inspired his business idea to develop an online tool that would work much like a match-making site for renters. Having experienced the London rental market himself, he used his knowledge to focus on making a product that saved renters money and matched them with people they would get along with. The platform has proven to be so popular that SpareRoom currently has over 7 million registered users, and helps one person every three minutes to find a flatmate in the UK. Having conquered the UK, SpareRoom has set up shop in America and is already close to reaching a quarter of a million users in the United States.  

Learn as you earn

Similarly, Aron Gelbard of Bloom & Wild entered a market with large established companies but was able to successfully promote its unique selling point to a large online audience. For Aron, the success of Bloom & Wild only cemented his belief that simple day-to-day things can lead to successful business ideas, and although he had made a few mistakes along the way, he was keen to urge our audience to “carry on learning” as they embarked on their entrepreneurial journeys.

Want to hear from more entrepreneurs who’ve shaken the business world? Hear the co-founder of Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler, speak on the trip of a lifetime which inspired this now global brand. With over 130 million travel guides in 14 different languages, Lonely Planet is the biggest travel publisher in the world. Its humble beginnings may surprise some, but it is a reminder to us all that today’s small businesses have the potential to be tomorrow’s big brands. Taking place on 27 February, this is a 'must attend' event – book your ticket here.  

17 February 2017

The serious business of saving lives

Innovating for Growth is designed to help businesses scale up and grow by offering £10,000 worth of bespoke business advice. We have supported over 250 businesses in the past four years, and have seen 70% of them either increase their turnover and/or take on extra staff after just one year of completing the programme.

Covering key areas such as ‘developing a growth strategy’ and ‘maximising your brand’, the focus is on taking established businesses to the next level. An example of this can be seen with the progress made by Emma Hammett and her award-winning company, First Aid for Life. The company focuses on first aid training and its trainers are highly experienced medical and emergency services professionals, offering a full range of practical and online training, tailored entirely to your needs.

 

First Aid for Life joined Innovating for Growth at a point where, although it was trading comfortably and making a profit, the potential to scale up and grow further was not being realised. The programme helped Emma to look at every element of her business model and assisted in developing a solid grounding for consistent growth. As a result, First Aid for Life was able to protect its intellectual property and apply for trademarks, fine-tune its branding and focus on its core market segments. Emma credits her mentor, Penny Daly, as being “particularly supportive and inspiring”, helping her to implement all the advice gleaned from Innovating for Growth’s business experts.

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Since completing the Innovating for Growth programme, First Aid for Life has grown at a rate of 30% year on year, creating a solid financial foundation from which to scale up. This security has brought the freedom to diversify, penetrate new markets and identify new opportunities for the business.

As Emma further explains, “there is considerable variation in the quality of first aid training providers, so we work tirelessly to differentiate ourselves by offering consistent excellence in all aspects of our business from first contact, to training delivery and aftercare. With a focus on flexible working practices that are family friendly, the company is constantly looking at more efficient ways of working both for staff and customers”. The development of onlinefirstaid.com which, is now the leading provider of online first aid training, has helped First Aid for Life to productise its service, enabling it to scale up and reach international markets; such advancements have also allowed First Aid for Life the chance to offer comprehensive stand-alone online training sessions that are regulated and fulfil both HSE and Ofsted requirements.

In addition to this, it has also been able to diversify by creating First Aid for Pets, giving them the chance to connect with a completely new market, many of whom have human and pet first aid needs. These innovations fully complement their core business, positioning them uniquely as First Aid Experts and engaging customers with flexible training solutions.

The work of Emma and First Aid for Life has definitely not gone unnoticed, and over the past few years, the company has won many awards, including, the Federation of Small Businesses ‘Overall Winner’ and the ‘Best’ Business for Service Excellence two years running.

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The publicity garnered from First Aid for Life has also opened up new opportunities for Emma which has seen her portfolio continue to grow.  Her second book, ‘Burns, falls and emergency calls’, endorsed and supported by the Child Accident Prevention Trust, Dr Amanda Gummer of the Good Toy and App Guide and Sue Atkins (The Parenting Expert), has been heralded as the ultimate guide to the prevention and treatment of childhood accidents. Her expertise has also lead to Emma becoming a well-respected voice on all things first aid-related and regular TV appearances have become the norm.

Such progress is impressive and clearly shows that First Aid for Life has been able to successfully scale-up and grow. As Emma concludes, “Innovating for Growth has been pivotal in our success in ensuring we have a solid base upon which to grow and a thorough understanding of business principles to enable us to plan and formulate sensible business decisions. Thank you to the British Library for all of your help”.

 

Are you an ambitious business owner looking to scale up, like First Aid for Life? Innovating for Growth is a free three-month programme to help you turn your growth idea into a reality.

Find out more and apply now

SNO – The ski travel company with big ambitions

Richard Sinclair is the founder of SNO and a recent Innovating for Growth graduate. His company specialises in helping customers find the perfect ski/snowboarding holiday packages online, suiting their specific needs, and at the best prices available. Having started the company in 2006 after accidentally noticing a gap in the market, SNO has gone on to become the fastest growing ski travel business in the UK.

In 2014, Richard saw that there was an opportunity to scale up and decided to apply for the Innovating for Growth programme. The three-month course proved to be the catalyst for SNO to grow, and Richard credits the programme for giving him the focus and the tools to execute his vision. With over £10,000 worth of bespoke business advice, Innovating for Growth is perfect for small to medium sized enterprises hoping to grow. To find out more about the Scale-ups programme click here.

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SNO is very much your second career, how did your twelve years at the BBC influence your entrepreneurial journey?

Deeply.  As a former BBC executive producer, making factual TV for prime time, I can pinpoint three key periods with “Auntie” which pointed me down this road.  I got my customer focus from early days at consumer champion ‘Watchdog’, indulged my love of science and technology at ‘Tomorrow’s World’ and slaked my thirst for travel while running the ‘Holiday’ programme.

These programmes, and the talented and passionate people I worked with, definitely fed into my desire to build an online travel business, but it was a documentary series where I spent a month filming a race to the North Pole, which taught me the real power of perseverance… and just how much further we can push ourselves, beyond the limits that we have imagined.  This experience uncovered the tenacity needed to build a business from scratch. Crucially, it taught me that the most fun and fulfilment is to be had by tackling the hardest challenges with the most talented and driven teams.

Having started as a “creative”, directing and producing telly, I later found (having climbed the greasy pole to become quite senior) that I really loved the business and finance side of running a large department in the BBC and particularly the building and leading of talented teams of people, as we all worked towards a common goal.

Having successfully completed the Innovating for Growth programme, would you say it has benefited your business, and would you recommend the programme to your peers?

Innovating for Growth was the lens which helped focus our plans.  When you’re starting out and focused on getting traction, the very specific coaching in discrete areas such as product development, branding and marketing helps to crystalise your often amorphous BHAGs (big-hairy-audacious-goals) into more practical and immediately actionable insights… which allow you to continually execute.

One of the key markers of success in an entrepreneur is to “execute” again and again, all day, all week, month in and month out.  Innovating for Growth gives you the tools to keep delivering on your vision.

I would recommend this programme to any entrepreneur, but especially those less experienced in leading and growing a business, as it gives you the know-how and tools in a short space of time, which are usually garnered through a lifetime of trial and error.

The travel industry seems a world away from the media.  What was the specific event that started SNO?

SNO came about accidentally, as a by-product of naively thinking I could “just build a website” to rent out my flat in Chamonix in the French Alps, when not using it.  We ended up creating the world’s first ski resort guide which worked on all phones “The whole ski resort in your pocket!” (back when mobile web was new and hard to do across all devices).

Cutting a long story short, we toured the alps (in a vintage Airstream) and quickly realised that the “business” was in selling holidays business-to-consumer, not selling advertising business-to-business to all the locals in the guide.  That was our big pivot and sno.mobi the mobile guide became sno.co.uk the online travel agent.

We also got to know many of the remarkable people who make your visits to the mountains so special and decided we wanted to support them and their communities.  To this day we advertise all local ski schools, rental, transfer drivers, bars, restaurants, etc. free of charge on SNO, so they can benefit from our huge web traffic too.  We’re also working on a Platform/Marketplace technology project which we believe can change the travel industry globally, and give all those literally millions of micropreneurs, in resorts and destinations around the world, access to the big travel distribution channels that they could never reach themselves – it’s a classic “tech disintermediation” idea whose time has come.

You started SNO selling ski holidays, so what made you want to move beyond that quite large travel niche?

It’s true that skiing and snowboarding is a passion for us at SNO, but it’s just one facet of the bigger love of all types of travel.  In addition, the biggest motivation to grown beyond ski holidays is the very seasonal nature of the industry.  Each autumn we hire new talent to work in reservations and every winter there are always some “keepers” who we love working with and want to bring into the family as SNO grows.  As you can imagine, it’s heartbreaking to have to “crew-down” each spring when there’s not enough work for a big team over the summer, so we set about fixing that.

Any great business is really about the people – even a technology business like ours – so we’re growing into beach holidays and then cruises, to keep creating jobs for the talent we’re lucky enough to work with.

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The UK is the world’s 5th biggest economy, but your sights are set higher.  What are your plans for global expansion?

We’re a UK technology and travel business, but we’ve been plotting ways to map our success here into other territories.  It makes sense to start in the same language, so we’re building SNO in America and a US-centric version of SNO.co.uk for that market.  We’re rebuilding our entire technology stack to accommodate multi-domain, multi-region delivery with multi-languages.  The content management system and even the product descriptions need a version for each country, as English-speaking Americans search for “ski vacations” rather than “ski holidays” and ski chalets tend to be called ski lodges over there. And, of course, we also need to re-engineer our systems to accommodate multi-currency and find novel ways to turn UK-departing packages into trips that depart from the USA instead.

The key to the successful globalisation of any business is “localisation”.  Not just language, domain, currency and marketing, but even the technology of being a big, fast and reliable website around the world.  It means we have to get our heads around technologies like CDN (content delivery networks) so that content for e.g. New York is not being served from thousands of miles away in York(shire).

As they say “if it was easy, everyone would be doing it”...

You mentioned a big technology project designed to disrupt the global travel industry.  I think you need to tell us more.

I can’t go into details, as we’re still working on the technology and are speaking to parties interested in funding this as a separate business.

The project has been dubbed “Etsy for Travel” and “Amazon for Travel” but it’s much bigger than that.

I’ve been to the North Pole, driven an F1 car and managed a few Ironman races but I can honestly say that, (apart from having two amazing children), this is the most exciting thing I’ve worked on in my life.

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You’ve bootstrapped SNO to$5m revenue as an online travel agent, so why are you considering investment in the Travel Marketplace?

We did bootstrap SNO, but it took 5 years just to get this far, and I’m determined to work on the Travel Marketplace project at a much faster pace.  It can scale enormously and very quickly with the right team – we already have a positive relationship with thousands of travel entrepreneurs in resorts worldwide, and the technology is not rocket science, so it’s all going to be in the execution.  We’ll use investment mainly to fill existing roles at SNO, so I can bring my core team into this project full time.

We’re working on the details of the project now and will raise £500k seed, so interested investors should drop me a line!

Are you an ambitious business owner looking to scale up, like SNO? Innovating for Growth is a free three-month programme to help you turn your growth idea into a reality.

 Apply now

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