Product | People | Potential – our chat with One Big Circle
We caught up with Emily Kent Co-Founder of One Big Circle. One Big Circle are Technology specialists who are leaders in the field of video, integration and scalability.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Adam @ ADLIB: Can you please introduce yourself, what your business does, what stage you are at currently and what makes your business and offering unique?
Emily: My name’s Emily, I’m the Co-Founder of One Big Circle. We are specialists in intelligent video, which is essentially making video data more valuable to those that need to see and understand their environments better.
We are based at the Engine Shed at Bristol Temple Meads and we’re a team of 15 now. We’ve grown through the SETsquared process at Engine Shed, from virtual members through various sized offices up to the suite of rooms we have now, where we basically develop all our innovative video technology and also the machine learning and AI that sits around that. So it all happens from our base here at the Engine Shed.
As to our stage, we can technically be classed as start-up, scale-up or SME. We can fall into any of those categories depending on the context essentially. We are revenue-generating and profitable, and that was one of the key things that we wanted to achieve as One Big Circle. We have just recently taken investment to build on our strong position. Two members of the Bristol tech community have invested and joined our board, to strengthen our strategic capability and to enable that growth to happen more rapidly. But as I say, the important thing which we’ll probably touch on later, is the fact that we were in a strong position to be able to secure funding in very challenging times.
What makes us unique is the fact that our specialism is in hardware and in intelligent video and machine learning. We’ve looked for new industries that we haven’t previously been in to actually deploy our skills into and find opportunities to deliver something that is needed, but isn’t currently being focused on as part of that industry.
We go out and explore opportunities through lots of conversations with people within those industries. We do research to get into what works and what doesn’t and what’s needed, and then we look at how we can match our skills and our products with what they need and ensure that it’s commercially viable as well.
Adam @ ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of your business and Service / Product?
Emily: It’s been an accidental journey to be honest. In 2013, myself and two other Co-Founders started My Action Replay, which was a sports video technology company. That was very much a kitchen table start-up working around our day jobs and the idea was to enable people to see their own sporting footage. So creating a very lightweight camera system that enables people to do their sport, hit the button when something happened and then little snippets of that video data would be available instantly online. So that grew slowly but steadily, and generated a bit of revenue and at the point that we were looking for investment, we actually were acquired by a New Zealand based company that at the time was the largest global platform for Cricket. They wanted to essentially embed video in their platform, and the synergy between the two companies was fantastic. We could deliver what they needed and we were exactly the sort of agile and flexible company they were looking for, because it needed to evolve a bit so they acquired us for a share of the company.
We were aligned with their roadmap to exit after three or four years, so we became the UK team and grew a little bit and deployed our video into their platform, but unfortunately within nine months, that funding they were going for never came through. The funding to the UK stopped then, and they went into receivership and so did we effectively. We lost a couple of members of the team, then the four of us who were left in the company at the time decided ‘what on earth we were going to do’?
We knew we had strengths between us as a team and that we can solve people’s problems, but we needed to go out and find some new specific problems. We just said ‘let’s create a company’ (that was the easy bit 12 pounds via companies house), ‘and a name’, but then it was about finding a market, a niche and commercial opportunity for us. So in the early days, we did a little bit of any kind of technical support and development that we could do through contacts and the local kind of tech ecosystem. But six months into that process, when we decided to focus explicitly on our kind of digital video expertise in our intelligent video capability, we gave ourselves a window to say ‘right let’s really go out and explore what’s already out there and what’s needed, and where it’s needed, and by whom and if there’s the money for it’.
So that was the research-based part of our journey and we’d dug the foundations for One Big Circle. Then we really needed to focus on where there was a market fit. We found a fantastic opportunity in collecting video data from mobile vehicles. We wanted to capture video data and only show the bits that you need to see and make them available to everyone that needs to see them. So we explored having video collected from the front of the vehicles and transmitted to whoever needs to see that remotely online.
We had given ourselves this six month research window and we had found the opportunity we were looking for. It was the rail environment that we then focused on which was at the start of a funding cycle and Network Rail particularly were mandated to work with SMEs and there was a big drive on R&D and innovation.
Also, there were the historic challenges that people were facing: video data is collected from onboard on trains, but it then has to be literally collected off the train on a hard drive given to someone else to process somewhere else, sent on hard drives to offices that needed to view it and so it’s very restricted who could actually access it. The value of it was decreasing very rapidly from the moment it had been collected.
So from our perspective, we wanted to solve how to make that video more valuable. How can we get it into the hands of people that need to see it and add more intelligence to it as well. So, what we created was a cloud-based platform that enabled video data to be pulled off those vehicles and to make it instantly accessible in a rail map. Ultimately, the industry can now see what their trains can see with AI applied to derive further intelligence. They can monitor the rail-side environment for safety purposes, for planning, maintenance and for job retraining. We’re now delivering products and services into an industry that we’re getting to know quite well. But we came to it completely new and to where there was the best fit.
Adam @ ADLIB: Speaking of People, can you share some challenges you have faced, are facing or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team? Do you have any top tips you could share with those businesses faced with the same issues?
Emily: In the early days, we wanted to hire younger talent and be able to develop them in the way that we work. We’ve all got a background in more corporate environments, so we knew there were more agile ways of working and we wanted to build a team that had that approach as well.
That was the early part of what we did as we needed to be quite lean. We looked at apprenticeship schemes and more junior recruits. Simply, we weren’t able to make any senior hires, as we were on the knife-edge with what we could pay ourselves!
We are very active in trying to find people with potential and then finding them a role that would fit them nicely. For example, someone who applied for a business support and administration role in the interview revealed that she had a really good background in computer and hardware. So, finding out that she had other skills that we hadn’t realized, we created a role that that matched her skills and we also needed at the time. And that’s been fantastic to be able to do that.
One of the biggest frustrations is meeting brilliant people that we haven’t got an opportunity for right then. It can be frustrating as it’s not a very linear or smooth process. Recruitment goes in fits and starts. It comes down to finding who’s available at that moment that would also fit well with us. We also try to keep in touch with those that we’ve met in the past and a couple of times it’s worked and we’ve managed to sync the two things up. There are some fantastic people who have approached us and are really proactive and they do a lot of research around the company and they know they’d like to work for us, and we’d love to work with them but we just don’t have the opening at that time. People want to work in start-ups and growing companies which is great, because they know the impact that it can have.
Certainly hiring for potential and then letting them develop skills within the company on the products and services that we have is something that we’ve always wanted to achieve and then more recently, we’ve been able to have a couple more senior hires because we’re a little bit more established now.
We’ve always been really open about giving a lot of feedback to people that do come for an interview and we hope in the future, it might be able to tie up again. We always want to keep in touch with people that we have met through that process and that has paid off for us already and we hope it will do in the future as well.
Adam @ ADLIB: Moving to Product, what has been your approach to understanding and implementing product market fit or sales cycles?
Emily: We knew we could deliver something in the video space, but needed to find out requirements first before we created any products. This is how we ultimately created AIVR – Automated Intelligent Video Review – a very lightweight system that sits on any vehicle; captures video data, transmits it and makes it accessible online where machine learning can be applied. But we were almost pitching it before we’d created a viable product, because we needed to see who would want it and where it would fit and if it was commercially viable. And then we were having conversations as we got more into the rail industry and explored opportunities as we crystalised the demand. Customers confirmed the need for it but made suggestions like; “it would be really valuable if it could do this” or “if it connected to the corporate map then..” and so on. By selling the concept of that and being able to evolve in response to that, we’ve now built a product that is really fit for purpose, and we couldn’t have done that, if we hadn’t taken time to get a lot of feedback from the industry that we were trying to deliver it into.
We can continue to do that well because it’s entirely our product, which is the really exciting thing. So we can use industry feedback and expertise for the end use and use our skills to make sure it develops in parallel with what’s needed. That’s been really important to us to kind of meet that challenge.
Adam @ ADLIB: And then Potential, can you share some challenges or barriers you had to overcome to create a Product / Service offering with potential?
Emily: It was very much about saying ‘let’s take the time to understand what’s going on’. If it comes to the point where we want to look to develop intelligent video in another environment, that is what we will do as well. We will take time to go out and have ‘one to ones’ with people in the industry. We tried to go to every event that rail was running in six months which was fortunate, because then by the time lockdown happened, we had a good range of new contacts.
It was very much about having no preconceptions, about how things were done. We didn’t want to do things the way they always had been done, and we’ve had a lot of constructive feedback that’s been quite refreshing within the industry.
We’ve provided a product that is making it mobile-friendly, because we know that people check their emails on the platform, so they want to whiz through some video data and do that initial check. That’s more of a consumer-focused way of doing it. It’s evolving to meet the new outlook, to think about the end user and delivering what they need, but also exceeding what they want. If there’s a safety reason why it can’t be done, we can absolutely comply with that, but if it’s a technical reason, then we’ll help to overcome that.
Adam @ ADLIB: Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups & scale-ups. Do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around best approach?
Emily: With our previous experience in being acquired and the consequences there, we were determined that One Big Circle had to be revenue-generating and profitable right from the start without reliance on funding, so that meant we tweaked things a bit early on and did a bit of consultancy to enable us to reinvest that into our core product development.
What we wanted was a really sustainable business model before we looked for investment. That put us in a position of strength and made the investment process feel very natural. We didn’t rush into it too early. So we were two and a half years in before we went for investment, which meant we’d proven the business model. We were revenue-generating, and we’d won a couple of smaller grants to enable us to do that, but we didn’t want to look at that as the crutch that held us up, we wanted them to be an accelerator.
Some of our early revenue generation was off scope but it gave us the revenue to reinvest in ourselves early on. When our external investment came, we were in a much stronger position and it has been a really positive and exciting development for us just at the right time. I would say to try and establish a robust business model which ensures sustainability before looking for investment so it will come at the right point in your journey.