Interviews

Why an Olympic-standard UK startup grew focus from international to domestic

7 min read

09 February 2016

Former deputy editor

We can all remember that London won the fierce bid for the Olympics 2012, an event that saw the UK unite. Design is a key weapon of such a crusade and Brand Oath is the British branding startup that went from arming global cities with aesthetically pleasing campaigns to grow by looking at the domestic market.

The business was founded by Bernie Shaw-Binns, a man who spent most of his career in the creative department of a large agency, and his partner Julie, who boasts a financial background.

In his own words, Shaw-Binns described the company as a “branding agency specialising in the design and production of high value, bespoke tender and bid documents for commercial organisations”.

Brand Oath has the pressurised task of producing materials that will allow clients to win business – business including events such as the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. As such, the company’s team members spend a lot of time travelling to support the global cities all vying to come out on top.

“We are able to promise to deliver the competitive advantage that could be the difference between winning and losing that prestigious tender or bid that will grow your business, advance your career and help build your legacy,” Shaw-Binns said.

Ten months ago, the firm was looking to expand its business model by pushing into generic branding and graphic design for the sports sector. The team worked with Scottish organisation the Sporting Chance Initiative, which helps small firms grow ideas for sporting innovation. Part of the advice it received was to explore NatWest-backed business incubator Entrepreneurial Spark.

The team had spent three years travelling cities globally to support design for organisations including UEFA, which Binns-Shaw considered “demanding”.

“We recognised that as rewarding as these type of projects were, there were too many things out with our control – global politics for one – that could alter the course or even terminate a bid midway through,” he explained.

The goal was to continue international campaigns, but also pursue a “more sustainable” domestic operation on home soil to balance overseas risks.

He noted the obvious benefit was a rent-free workspace, but added “there was a lot we needed to learn with regard to the business side of things” to build on the creative and financial experience possessed by he and his wife.

“We believed we had the product, we wanted to ensure we gave ourselves the best chance to succeed regards attaining all of the business disciplines we could get. The more we researched Entrepreneurial Spark it became clear we had to try to get on to the programme,” Shaw-Binns said.

He added that the company has experienced challenges continually since launching, but praised Entrepreneurial Spark for helping the team to understand its unique skills and where the company should look for the most value.

“We have changed and evolved from a generic branding business focused on one specific sector to one that transfers very specific and bespoke skills across the various sectors. Moving from a generic to specialist and niche offering has allowed us to see clearly where the opportunities lie and how to get to them,” he said.

There were many benefits, Shaw-Binns revealed, including developing as people for better clarity, confidence and discipline – he explained that as a young company you question every move such as financial uncertainty and whether the venture is viable. As such, he was pleased that Entrepreneurial Spark not just supported and mentored, but tested the team too.

Elsewhere, Brand Oath was able to access specialists in multiple sectors including IT, investments and sales. Shaw-Binns highlighted that sharing office space with other startups overcoming similar challenges was great for camaraderie, which helped overcome stress and loneliness that can come from entrepreneurialism.

Read more about Entrepreneurial Spark:

“The Entrepreneurial Spark experience helped us to recognise ‘what it is that we do’ that is special and rare and, as a result, identify a market that would not only consider that as an attractive product or service but one they really couldn’t do without,” he said.

“We came thinking that our chosen sector made us special – we now recognise it is a particular expertise and experience. Managing, designing and producing large, complex, multi-stakeholder, time-sensitive, high value documents often required in competitive tender environments that makes us attractive to large commercial organisations.”

He explained the construction sector is one such industry Brand Oath can support, based on businesses in the space managing bids worth millions of pounds, but underlined that the flexibility to serve different industries is what makes it scalable.

On the topic of milestones so far, Shaw-Binns said taking on two members of staff and pushing the brand to market, which resulted in two significant projects on the books and many leads to capitalise on throughout 2016.

Closing on further plans for the year, he said: “We will put into practice everything we have learned at Entrepreneurial Spark, make the most of the projects we have secured and to convert our good leads.

“We’ll also grow the team in a culture of respect and hard work with just rewards from the outset, and establish a solid and sustainable foundation to push on further. And we hope be able to contribute to the Entrepreneurial Spark programme, culture and family – to help a really good organisation continue their good work.”

Another business to have benefitted from Entrepreneurial Spark is Diary Doll, a company set up by TV presenter Carol Smillie and former tennis star Annabel Croft.