Innovation and enterprise blog

5 posts from September 2015

21 September 2015

How to spot a gap in the market

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.

Dismemberment of Mr Pen's Fountain Pen

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 customised engraving service for customers. 

What’s the ethos of your company?

The company ethos is about providing very high-quality products at 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.

BIPC Workshop

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 range 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


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?

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?

Past 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 stove

Project- TEG camping stove, design illustration demonstrated plugged into included power bank

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, product demonstration (Multi function: colander and serving bowl

Project Colandish Client Housewares Germany, product demonstration

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, product demonstration (sealing a bag of bread)

Culina Designs, product demonstration (sealing bin bag)

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

08 September 2015

Five Preparation Tips for Entrepreneurs

Dr Stephen Fear, Ambassador to the British Library’s Business & IP Centre and Chairman and Founder of international organisation Fear Group, outlines key skills any successful independent entrepreneur should include in their work ethic.


The noun ‘entrepreneur’ derives from the French and means ‘organiser’. Entrepreneurs are traders: some work for a corporation whereas others who cherish their independence are self-employed. Independence is therefore one way of distinguishing between different types of entrepreneur. Independent entrepreneurs are mavericks. There is something about them that sets them apart from the crowd- something more than financial success alone. Some of their ideas fail and some prosper, albeit briefly, whereas others may influence the course of history. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook - all of these companies were started by independent entrepreneurs.

In many ways becoming an independent entrepreneur is an act of revolution, not of course in a political sense but that of the insistence of the individual to be just that, individual. An independent entrepreneur wants to produce a solid expression of his or her desires and dissatisfactions, usually in a positive way for the benefit of society. Of course it’s about making money, but for me at least it has always been about more than that. Interesting projects abound and getting involved and solving problems make me get up in the morning.

1.    Be organised

I organise myself and have created a system to reduce mundane tasks so that they are dealt with automatically and therefore I am left with the more exciting job of finding new opportunities. One thing I learnt very early on is that paperwork seldom goes away on its own and the longer you leave it the worse it gets. Automating how you deal with it is essential if like me you prefer doing deals rather than shuffling papers.

I allocate one full day every week to deal with what I call ‘office stuff’. It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, that one full day, which in my case means 14 hours, is spent clearing my desk. Thanks to modern technology this no longer means that I need to be in my office because I have digitised my administration so that I can just as easily work from France or the US as I can from the UK, or even Africa or Brazil.


2.    Go paperless

Focus on ensuring everything you need is available on your laptop or tablet if you want real freedom. Once you have created a truly paperless office it goes everywhere with you.

Ringing someone, even on a mobile from New York to London, is still a lot cheaper and more efficient than travelling across time zones and with Skype it is free. I started in a red phone box but am thankful to the entrepreneur who developed the smart phone because without him or her, I might well have back ache by now! We live in a brilliant age for the entrepreneur, an age where almost anything is possible and most things are probable. That is, if you’re organised of course.

3.    Exercise your mind and body

I find that a walk gives me the time to prepare and think things through. I avoid the phone or texting whilst walking because it interferes with my thought process. It isn’t necessary to walk for miles, so a stroll around the block is fine. I often do this first thing in the morning when staying in hotels. I have walked the streets of Moscow, Los Angeles, Toronto and most other large cities at some point in my life. Just wandering, looking in shops and people-watching from cafés fills my mind with new business opportunities. Try it for yourself, it works. Preparing the mind is essential if one is to make good balanced decisions, rather than the rushed feeling experienced by many. An organised mind leaves time for entrepreneurial thought to develop.

4.    Allocate time as you would money

Time is money, and we spend it in much the same way. Let’s say you decide to work 40 hours a week but waste 27 of them chatting on the phone with friends or using Facebook. That means you only have 13 hours left to earn your daily crust which might leave you wondering why you can’t pay your bills. For entrepreneurs - unless they use time efficiently their businesses never get off the ground. This can often result in friends, relatives or banks not being paid back money they lent to get the business started. Try looking at your time like you do your bank balance. At the start of the week you have a certain amount of both. Spend them with equal consideration to those finite limits.


 5.    Know your competition

Keeping your own counsel and thinking things through is something many successful people do regularly, including myself. It’s important to create a space between your idea and the clutter that surrounds it so that you can obtain perspective. Learning who your competitors are and what they are up to is essential if you want to progress. Don’t be daunted by others’ success, but instead be inspired by it. I always think a great leveler is to realise that you are probably not as good as the very best and not as bad as the really hopeless. “You’re as good as ANYONE, but not better than EVERYONE.”

Need some more advice on starting and running your business? Come along to our next Inspiring Entrepreneurs event which will celebrate the contributions of Black British entrepreneurs and creative talent in the UK with a panel including: MOBO CEO and Founder Kanya King MBE; June Sarpong MBE, TV presenter and Founder of Lipgloss Productions; Yinka Ilori, Designer and Levi Roots, Reggae Reggae entrepreneur and MOBO nominated musician. Book now

Dr Stephen Fear on behalf of the Business & IP Centre

02 September 2015

Tips for getting back to business

In this article Business & IP Centre partner life/business coach Rasheed Ogunlaru author of Soul Trader – Putting the Heart Back into Business shares top tips on moving yourself and your business ahead from now to December and beyond. 


The summer holidays are over, autumn is arriving and it’s back to school, work and crucially it’s time to get back to business for you if you’re an aspiring or established entrepreneur. This new season is synonymous with harvesting, studying, producing and thanks giving. In business terms it’s arguably the most important quarter of the year: it’s one of the longest stretches without bank holidays; it’s the phase up to and including Christmas - where a huge percentage of business deals and sales are made. It’s that last opportunity to achieve your year’s goals. So let’s get back to business in 3 steps:

Get Ready

  • Are you ready? Have you had time out – and have you been able to wind down? Or do you need to take a few days of rest so that you’re really relaxed and re-energised and can give 100%? If need be take time to catch up on sleep, have the right things to eat and feel re-energised and ready to start back and press ahead.
  • Ready for business:  Clear your desk; sort your filing systems; sort and order any stock; clear your emails; organise your computer files and clear your desktops screen. Make sure that everything is organised, systemised and simplified to save you time. This will clear your head, clear your desk, focus your mind and help you be more productive and efficient. 


Get Set

  • Set your sights: What's your vision, mission and purpose?  What precisely do you want to achieve from your business, and why? As with any journey you need to know where you’re going, for what purpose and how you’re going to get there. Revisit your strategy or write one. It need not be long 2 pages will do it. If you’d like one there’s a 2-page business plan template in Soul Trader – and you can get if for free on in the free membership area.
  • Set your goals: Your strategy should include SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Assigned/agreed, Realistic and Timed / time related).  Tip: Have goals for1) three years, 2) next year and 3) the rest of this year. Start with the long-term and work back. Have clear goals for what you want / need to achieve including a) finances b) marketing / promotion and c) management / operations.

    Tip: Make your goals for Sept- Dec very specific and focused. I recommend limiting it to the 2-3     things that will the biggest positive impact on your business.

  • Set your timetable: How are you going to manage your time? How will you stay focused day to day? It may help to divide your days and weeks between key marketing, operations / management and finance-related tasks. What time of the day / week are you best to tackle these tasks. Schedule them in to your physical or online diary. If you don’t have a diary or some sort of a planner, then get one.
  • Set time aside:

1)      To review and fine-tune your goals, progress, opportunities, challenges and priorities – 10 minutes a week is a good start.

2)      For you, loved ones, pastimes and rest time. Life shouldn’t be all about work and there will be risks to your health, relationships and productivity if you don’t take the time out you need. 



Now that you’re ready and set, it’s time to go for it.

  • Give 100%: From serving a customer to giving a pitch presentation. Be engaging, empowering, enabling, informed, interesting and interested. 
  • Go out more / be outgoing: Don’t be shy; network in person and online. Ensure that you build a strong presence and clear messages personally, online, via social media and with contacts and clients.
  • Go for it: Be personable, professional and proactive. Look for and spot opportunities – develop a dialogue with and listen to customers, contacts and potential collaborators.


Rasheed Ogunlaru is a leading life coach, motivational speaker and business coach. He is author of Soul Trader – Putting the Heart Back into Your Business. Check out Rasheed’s “Networking for Success” event at the British Library Business & IP Centre