Becoming an academy school means freedom from local governance, which is both exciting and challenging. And it’s why Empine Print went back to school in order to learn how to best serve this changing market.
“With this freedom also comes a change in public perception of the school and a new need to market itself as an attractive proposition,” says the man who saw an equally attractive proposition in serving the print needs this new breed of school
Business director Jacob Knowles launched Empine Print around two years ago with print director Anthony Taylor. Knowles, aged 22, knows only too well the importance of good teaching and a helping hand to get your working life off to a good start. He is the product of a different kind of academy: the Peter Jones Enterprise Academy.
Founded by entrepreneur and star of Dragons’ Den Peter Jones, the college encourages entrepreneurialism based on a philosophy of ‘learning by doing’, and the tenets of self-help and individualism rubbed off: while on the course he set up an online service for sailing clubs that offered tuition and a forum for clubs to network.
The idea won him a shortlisting in two national competitions for young entrepreneurs and the chance to pitch to Jones himself, narrowly missing out on first prize in 2013. Taylor meanwhile, who is two years older than Knowles, had also recently left college and was working in print production for a company in the North West.
Knowles was looking for a new business challenge while Taylor felt he could do print management in a better way. The two came together and Empine Print was born in Darwen near Blackburn, initially as a print management company because the two men did not want to invest in too much machinery.
“We started to build up a network of print suppliers across the UK,” recalls Knowles. “But we soon found we were picking up occasional work from schools around the Manchester and Oldham area. The whole academy movement had created a real taste for schools to create a brand, but we spoke in the language of commercial printers and it needed a more nuanced, focused approach.”
He could nevertheless spot the potential of targeting schools, given the change in the educational landscape – more than 20% of all schools in England are now academies or free schools. But if Empine was to capitalise on this emerging market, it would take longer than the three-minute pitch budding entrepreneurs have to sell their ideas on Dragons’ Den.
It would also mean setting up a separate brand, reckoned Knowles: “We thought a new brand would be more appropriate than just making this an add-on service because schools are totally different from normal clients. They are, in effect, closed communities with multiple print needs and their own unique language. For example, what most customers call a brochure, to a head teacher is a prospectus.
“We also felt the changing educational environment needed a more tailored service. Academies are relatively new to the education system. Parents and pupils have so much choice in terms of options, so an academy has to market itself as an attractive proposition. We felt schools needed a personal, more dedicated service. In effect we would handle brand management on their behalf.”
It helped that Knowles had education in the bloodline: many of his family are or have been teachers or headteachers, so he had a crucial insight into the academic mindset. He could talk to family members in a relaxed, informal way to find out their needs and this helped him home in on “and really target” a product line including bespoke exercise books and stationery.
Materials could be tailored to each individual school thanks to a network of 30 print suppliers of all specialisms. For example, one academy required an exercise book with tinted pages to make it easier to use by children with dyslexia. By tapping into this network of printers, Empine Education, as this new entity was called, could find just the specialist to fulfil that, and any other, print need.
Knowles insists branding schools is unlike any other form of branding and goes beyond corporate glossy brochures, a snazzy logo and set of new Pantone colours. In fact the word ‘corporate’ can sit uncomfortably in education, so branding has to capture not only the ethos of the school and an entire academic, social movement, but the experience you get when you walk into that school.
Knowles and Taylor however had to sort out their own marketing first and signed up for a mentoring programme run by Lancashire County Council to help fledgling businesses improve their company marketing. From this they drew up a 12-month strategy that started with an exhibition for headteachers on the potential of promotion. Work started to roll in when Empine Education launched this March.
“From this exhibition we picked up a couple of jobs for schools in the North West,” says Knowles. “The interesting thing about educational establishments is they talk to each other, and before we knew it we were in contact with other schools. From starting out in the Greater Manchester area we have now just begun work for a couple of academies across in Sheffield, South Yorkshire.
“One school said they only buy from companies that have been referred to them by other schools, so the Empine Education branding has helped with the referral process. Another great advantage of targeting schools is after they’ve used you once they tend to become long-term clients, so it has helped us build business momentum.”
Knowles and Taylor are currently thinking of taking on a design apprentice to help with artwork and plan that, by this time next year, they will have another two newbie employees taking the total roll call to five staff. Empine, which started business with a wide-format HP Latex machine for roller banners is also considering buying a digital press for short-run, quick-turnaround work.
“In our first year we hope to make £100,000 turnover from education and are targeting a client base of 30 schools. This in turn will probably mean moving to a larger premises within the next 12 months. We’re looking at something around 200m2. We are also thinking of targeting universities, which will throw up different challenges – prospectuses for higher education tend to be slicker, more professional and less focused on colour.”
The big business dreams that prompted Knowles to put himself in front of one of the fiery beasts of the Dragons’ Den as a man in his late teens have materialised in his early 20s through Empine Print and more recently Empine Education. But he came up with a viable, potentially profitable business idea and made it work without a penny of funding from any one of those dragons, and for this “I think we deserve an A+ for effort and results,” concludes Knowles.
Empine Education, part of Empine Group
Location Darwen, Lancashire
Inspection host Business director, Jacob Knowles
Size Turnover: Target of £100,000; Staff: 2
Products School propectuses, bespoke exercise books, stationery, signage, posters, postcards, roller banners and all other forms of school branding and promotional items.
Kit HP Latex 310 large-format printer
Inspection focus Setting up a new brand to target a particular market
Identify a target customer or sector and define what your print products or services have to offer the group of people or organisations.
Learn about your target sector by talking to its practitioners to understand why they would want to buy your products or services and what they need.
Get advice from business and branding consultancies and your local authority, which may offer mentoring and business advisory services.
Do research to see if the target market is favourable for development and your business can be adapted to include a new brand without compromising existing services.
Make sure you have the capacity both in terms of resources and the will to commit to new market development.
Market your new brand by ,for example, hosting an exhibition or conference seminar to get the attention of prospective clients.