Matt Saunders: From street art to Pottermore, making it as an illustrator

At a glance

Name: Matt Saunders Illustration

Industry: Freelance Illustrative Design

Key Learning Points;

Work with whatever you can find when starting out

Starting out can be a sink or swim moment, but it’s also a period where you might be most open to working creatively.

You need to be able to look at whatever is around you, and think about how you might be able to monetise it – in the early days, Matt painted on pieces of wood he found on the street and made it work!

Create what you love and in time, people will look to you for it

My favourite line of any Inkbike interview;

If you draw enough stuff related to magic, eventually wizards will show up at your doorstep’.

I genuinely can’t think of any way to summarise this any better – bravo Matt, bravo.

Take care of yourself to perform at your best

A creative block comes from burn out, take care of yourself so that you’re able to keep up your creative momentum.

Look outside your medium for inspiration

It can be easy to flock to similar communities to get ideas for your work – painters following other painters on Instagram, illustrators following illustrative subreddits etc. 

Look elsewhere for unique inspiration, whether that be movies, photography or something removed altogether. 

I don’t know about you, but when I think of LinkedIn, I tend to think of people either sharing viral videos about something vaguely related to science or an office manager sharing boomerang GIFs of their team that they made on their phone (inexplicably always shot portrait-mode). 

It was to my great delight then that amongst the office GIFs I noticed one of my connections like a comment on an unbelievably beautiful piece by the artist Matt Saunders.

After viewing the portfolio on Matt’s website, and discovering the work he’d been commission to produce for the likes of Time Out, The Financial Times and Pottermore, I knew that he was someone that needed to be featured on Inkbike.

With an incredible body of work now under his belt (and much more still to come), Matt’s story embodies everything that Inkbike lives for – he didn’t set out to be an illustrator ever since he was a kid, but it was an interest outside of his job which he chased until it became his business.

Matt’s interview is a brilliant source of inspiration for any creative that’s looking to make a living with their craft – enjoy!


Did you have formal training on illustration?

When I graduated I specialized in animation/motion graphics this where my first job started I always had a passing interest in illustration. On an evening after my day job I would focus on creating illustrations and trying to find my voice.

I would paint in nightclubs throwing myself in the deep end. So I guess I am self taught as I didn’t have higher education in illustration.

Did you start off your career working full time as an artist or was it a gradual process?

I had a full time job as a motion graphic designer for 6 months , I was then let go by that job as this was the peak of the recession and went out on my own.

How did you first start making money as an artist?

I would juggle between doing freelance motion graphics work, editing, film making, animation, illustration, art working. I became extremely diverse in terms of how I made my income so I could support myself independently.

I would always come up with new ideas to generate income; at one point I was painting on planks of wood that I’d find in the street. You just have to grab what you can find and think how can this be monetised. It was a bit of a sink or swim moment where I had to do whatever I could to pay the bills.

“You always want to try to be ahead of what is going on around you.”

What was your first client commission and how did it come about?

I think it was for a friends band it was a t-shirt design and I was paid the grand some of £100, which at the time seemed like a lot.  

I imagine that one of the most difficult things to do when first starting out is figuring out how to price your work – did you ever struggle with that when getting off the ground?

I think it was a lot of trial and error and learning what styles work for certain budgets, the more you do it you learn how to become more efficient with your workflow so you end up working less for more money and your work becomes better as well.

It’s also about being more confident and knowing what you are worth and if a client doesn’t value that , you need to have the confidence to say no and walk away. It’s difficult when you’re starting out though, as people will take advantage of you.


Have you ever had to deal with people taking credit for, or even profiting from the work you post online? If so, what happened and how did you deal with it?

I have had a few instances, but if anything comes about I normally get my agents to sort things out when this happens. My style can be complicated so it’s not as easy to replicate.

What have been the most successful ventures you’ve undertaken for raising your profile as an illustrator?

I think creating work for myself is always a successful venture, if you produce a handful of unique pieces/concepts for yourself for each year, this will bank roll you in the future.

You always want to try to be ahead of what is going on around you.

“If you draw enough stuff related to magic, wizards will eventually show up at your doorstep.”

How did you secure an agency?

I was super lucky!  My agents were just starting out and still trying to find their voice as an agency. Now they are one of the most sought after in the world.

My illustration work back then is so different from what I am doing now and I feel like I’ve grown with the agency. The talent under the roof of Handsome Frank is incredible and we all push each other a long.

Illustrating for Pottermore is such an impressive achievement – how did the opportunity come about?

If you draw enough stuff related to magic, wizards will eventually show up at your doorstep. I’m a big believer in finding your audience and voice and anything in that is similar to your voice will find you.

This has happened quite a bit where things that inspire me will eventually cross paths with me. Slightly different than work but I was in the last Tim Burton film and I don’t think this would have happened if I didn’t put myself out into the world.

Have you ever found that you’ve gone through periods of extended ‘creative block’ in your career? If so, how have you overcome it?

I don’t really get creative block just more frustration , there are so many things I want to do and sometimes things get in the way be it work or life. There is a stack of projects I want to do and I just need to put my time into these.

Ive learned that blocks are linked to burning out and taking care of yourself to not think about anything is a helpful way to open ideas up.


Are there any particular tools, platforms to raise the profile of your work, pieces of software or anything else which you consider to have been particularly influential in your career as an artist?

Explore and be curious put down instagram/twitter there are so many interesting artists/styles that have been done in the past that can be applied to your work.

This could be films or photography, but look outside whatever medium you are in.

Are there any tools you think that absolutely every artist should have?

Adobe software is a must if you are wanting to be a commercial working creative these days and a notebook and a pen so you can always catch rough ideas and jot down thoughts.

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Bethany Thielen: Innovating on the job-hunt

At a glance

Name of campaign: Hire Bethany

Industry: Creative

Key learning points;

Don’t state capability, demonstrate it

If you’ve been reading around Inkbike much, you’ll know that the above is one of my biggest mottos.

In the context of job hunting, it’s even more relevant than ever, because you can guarantee that all the other applicants you’re up against going to do nothing more than state their value by simply handing in a CV.

If, instead, you’re willing to invest some time, you can end up leaving that competition behind entirely, and instead make companies fight for yourattention.

Understand your strengths

Where do you find you come across to people best? If you’ve been unsuccessful on paper, then maybe it’s time to consider whether another medium might be effective for you.

Bethany understood that she tended to get further when she met people in person and so catered to that by using video (to great effect)!

Don’t be shy

Reach out to big presences on a platform and ask for their help. Bethany had one LinkedIn influencer interact with her campaign and it resulted in its engagement figures doubling.

The worst thing an influencer you contact can do is nothing, meaning that there’s absolutely no harm in asking. Remember that most influencers are constantly on the look out for inventive content to share so you might be pleasantly surprised by how willing they are to help out.

The power of a network

The true value of a professional network is in its ability to connect you with others that you would never have had any opportunity to reach before. These new connections can create new opportunities for work and take your career in brilliant directions that had never thought possible before.

Building such a network can be extremely difficult, and most of us overlook the idea that we can simply ask influencers directly for their support in raising your profile – there’s nothing to lose.

Let me frame this article with a universal truth that every single person who’s studied at any university knows: job-hunting as a recent graduate is brilliantly sh*t.

It certainly was for me and a lot of my peers, and the reason is because experience talks. Employers don’t want to spend time training someone up, they want to hire people who already have experience doing what they need them to do.

Simply having a degree, even if it’s in the same field as a position you’re applying for, is not generally worth much to a lot of recruiters.

Enter Bethany Thielen, the graduate who decided to turn this common struggle into her advantage in the most fantastic way possible — through an epic job-hunting judo move that meant she had potential employers’ scrambling for her attention instead of the other way around. 

Simply put — her approach was genius.

She decided to market herself like a product to businesses, by creating a sponsored (paid-for) campaign on LinkedIn using a video and landing page, and targeted business owners with her content. 

As part of her campaign, she used all of the skills required of the position she was hoping to fill and in doing so, demonstrated that she was a capable candidate despite not having a wealth of experience.

I interviewed Bethany about the exact steps she took to execute her campaign, and whether — ultimately — it was a success.

Her answers were completely open, honest, and I believe should be required reading for every graduate so that they can be inspired to follow her footsteps and stand out. 


Chapter 1 Header

For the readers who might not have seen your campaign, could you introduce yourself and explain the Hire Bethany campaign?

I’m Bethany Thielen and I’m a 22-year-old designer living in the Bay Area. I graduated college and set out to find a job! Little did I know, finding a job as a recent college grad was going to be tricky.

A picture of a woman sat looking over a San Fransisco skyline

I had 2 years of professional experience from internships, yet 407 applications and 0 offers later, I was no closer to a job than when I began.

That’s what led to my #hirebethany campaign. I shot a video of myself giving a 50-second elevator pitch and sponsored the video as a paid advertisement on LinkedIn for 2 weeks.

I accompanied my video with a company page called Hire Bethany and a social media campaign.

What was happening in the lead up to you deciding to launch the campaign and what was it about the conventional method for seeking employment that made you decide that it wasn’t the way to go?

Honestly, my campaign was fuelled by a lot of desperation! I had just become financially independent and moved to the 3rd most expensive city in the United States. I REALLY needed a job. I had an internship, but it was ending in just 2 months.

Basically everything about the traditional job hunt is broken. You might have incredible skills, passion, and a personality to match, but you’re only as good as you look on paper. If your resume displays 2 years of experience and the hiring manager wants someone with 5, your chances drop from 1 in 250 (the average number of resumes submitted to an opening) down to a big fat zero.

In my opinion, minimum requirements filter out perfectly capable candidates before they’re even given a chance. This is especially tough on recent grads.

You’d be surprised at how many requirements in a job req are completely arbitrary and sometimes even unreasonable. Recruiters even have a name for this: “The Purple Squirrel,” AKA the candidate that doesn’t exist.

A screenshot of the Hire Bethany campaign video

Where did the inspiration for the Hire Bethany campaign come from? Had you seen something similar done before?

I just ranted about the broken system that is the hiring process. However on the occasions that I was selected for an interview, nearly all of them had ended in offers. Hiring managers like the real me better than my resume.

So I targeted my video directly at hiring managers using LinkedIn’s advertising tools, in hopes that I could bypass the resume stage completely.

I had built similar campaigns for clients at a marketing agency I had worked at previously. They all used the exact same techniques I employed in my #hirebethany campaign.

While these campaigns focused on selling products or services, I thought, why not try selling myself, the Hire Bethany package? After all, I only needed to find 1 buyer.

What was your strategy for building the campaign and for marketing yourself? Has that strategy evolved after your campaign was launched?

My strategy was all about making connections. I built my campaign to include as many “contact me” calls to action as I could. I included them in the video, in the video’s description and even embedded a contact form on my landing page.

A picture of a woman sat working on a MacBook

My purpose for these connections was originally to find someone to hire me, or to be referred to someone could. However I realised I needed to expand my definition of success. Many of the people who reached out were offering freelance projects. I had completely overlooked the possibility of freelancing as a career path.

While I’m not giving up on my job hunt to become a freelancer, because of this campaign, I decided that I’d like to work full time while completing freelance gigs on the side.

Chapter 2 header

Was the type of branding you did for your campaign tailored to the industry you were looking to find work in or do you think that your approach could be a template for others to mirror regardless of the industry they’re looking to work in?

The most notable parts of my campaign (paid ads, a company page, a hashtag, etc.) actually belong in the digital marketing industry. I did brand myself as a designer, of course, but what people really noticed as unique was my marketing style.

I actually attracted a lot of people seeking freelance digital marketing services. However this didn’t hurt my campaign, as it simply helped me meet more people. I think anyone could use this approach, no matter their industry.

My strategy was all about making connections

If you don’t mind my asking, how much did you invest in setting up the campaign and what was that money spent on?

Not at all. Here’s my exact breakdown:

  • Ads: $430
  • Landing page subscription: $14
  • Domain name ( $13.60
  • I filmed and edited the video for free. It involved a lot of stacking Mac & Cheese boxes to get the camera at eye-level. 🙂

Day 1 of the campaign, what did you do to kick things off?

I hit “publish” on my ad sets. And then installed every analytics tracking application I could find. I used LinkedIn’s campaign manager dashboard to track my ad’s metrics.

I used LinkedIn’s chart tool on my ad sets to find out the demographics of the people that were most responsive to my ads.

A picture of a MacBook screen with analytics displayed

For example, I learned that the top 3 job titles most engaged with my ads was CEO, Founder and Co-Founder, in that order. I also used Google Analytics to track how people interacted with my landing page.

I installed LinkedIn’s Insight Tag in my landing page to track how many people from the ads submitted the form once they landed on my site.

I spent the next 2 weeks glued to my screen, answering emails, comments, and constantly optimising my ad sets based on the data from the analytics.

Chapter 3 header

What have you learned about creating a campaign like this that might inform any similar campaigns you might run in the future?

About 50% of my engagement came within 24 hours of a well-known LinkedIn influencer commenting on my video.

Considering I spent $430 to promote my ads (which had been running for a week by then), that was one valuable comment!

Next time I intend to contact influencers directly and ask them to share my post. I’ve found LinkedIn influencers to be very kind, obliging people.

I had initially set up my campaign so that anyone interested in contacting me was routed to my landing page to fill out a contact form, but people managed to track down my personal LinkedIn page and even my email!

50% of my engagement came within 24 hours of a well-known LinkedIn influencer commenting on my video

I built my landing page using Carrd, a sleek tool that enables you to make a landing page using drag-and-drop, no code required. I included examples of my work, testimonials, my skills and my bio in the website, sprinkling it with “Contact Me” calls to action.

I designed my landing page as a hybrid resume/portfolio experience, but a lot of people skipped over it entirely in favor of contacting me via LinkedIn. I eventually dropped the link to my landing page from the ads entirely, replacing it with my personal email address.

I learned that the LinkedIn community eagerly responds when people show their human side. Next time, I’ll use my personal profile instead of a company page and skip the landing page.

Do you feel like there are any significant differences in marketing when you are ‘the product’ as opposed to other marketing campaigns you’ve put together?

Yes, people are a lot more responsive to humans than to products! About 10% of the people who viewed my ads ended up clicking, commenting, or otherwise engaging. That may not sound like much, but most ads average about 3%.

I A/B tested 2 videos. One featured an animation I had created and the other was a video of my face. The video that showed my face performed 2x better than the animation! It really reinforces what I learned about LinkedIn responding when people show their human side and ask for help.

Chapter 4 header

The biggest question: in your view, has it worked and what are your thoughts on the campaign now it’s run?

I want to preface by saying I’m really glad I did the campaign. The insights and connections I gained from it were invaluable.

However if you’re asking about my initial goal of getting a job, no, it didn’t work. It has been 4 weeks since I started and campaign and I have not received a single job offer.

It’s been a very emotional journey. I’ve had people in other states offer to hire me, except they don’t offer remote positions.

I even got to the 2nd round of interviews for a position I really wanted when I was abruptly dropped and my next interview was canceled. I never found out why. I feel like I’ve come so close to getting hired, but haven’t succeeded.

I’m still glad I did it. I don’t have a job yet (if it’s still the year 2018, chances are I’m still looking. If you’re reading this and know someone hiring, email me:

But I’ve met some incredible people who have given me support and advice beyond what I could have asked for. Worth every penny.

How have companies responded to you? Has it resulted in any interviews or particularly interesting connections being made?

It’s resulted in a few informal interviews over the phone. I’ve gotten to chat with a couple CEOs and some marketing directors.

All extremely inspirational people who took time out of their insane schedules to chat with me and even tell me that they admired what I was doing. I’m really grateful to all of them.

Have there been any particular highlights in the responses you’ve received?

A girl who ran a similar campaign contacted me. Her video had actually gotten so popular it was promoted by LinkedIn and received millions of views! The first thing she said over the phone was “Hey I’ve been exactly where you are now and I just want to give you a big air hug over the phone.

I nearly started crying she said that. It meant a lot to me that a complete stranger wanted to call me just to ask how I was doing.

This entire campaign has been so entangled in every aspect of my life –  in my emotions, my goals, my dreams, and even in my relationships. I guess it all comes full circle.

It started with my humanness, my very vulnerable video asking strangers to help me find a job. And it ended not at a desk in a fancy office, not with a salary, but with real human emotions and connection.

This whole campaign has made me realise how dependent we are on one another to care about each other’s plights. And my goal moving forward is to always, no matter where I am in life, be the person who’s never too busy to help change a stranger’s life.

If you enjoyed this article, then why not sign up to get the latest Inkbike posts sent straight to your inbox?

I post content new issues once every sometimes so adding your email means that you’re being both super supportive (yay!) and avoiding the need to check the website for new content.

Just type your email into the box at the bottom of the page and the job’s a good’un!


XR Games: The future of VR in gaming

At a glance

Name of business: XR Games

Industry: VR Game Development Studio

Key learning points;

Bottom-up development

Developing an existing game on a new platform isn’t about adapting existing mechanics – it’s about having the expertise to review the original game, and being able to understand which core elements are suited to the new platform – you build from there.

Allowing time for innovation

“A game is all about input and output – you need an interface you can rely on”

The classic twin-stick navigation system which is now commonplace on consoles was around for 10 years before becoming the mainstream norm. VR is still a new medium, and so it’s interface design requires the same time for innovators to develop and refine the way it controls before developers have a standard interface to rely on.

Killer app required

“There’s a whole bunch of things required before VR gaming can become mainstream, but we’ll know it when it happens because there’ll be a VR game that everyone’s heard of.”

Not going to lie people, I’m excited to share this one. Before we get into it, I recommend reading Virtuality 2.0 as it links directly to this interview. If you don’t have the time, you can check out the brief recap below.

Recap from Virtuality 2.0

With so many huge businesses investing heavily in developing VR and AR (as I talked about in my original Visual Trends: Virtuality article), I’m so interested to learn more about what the future of VR looks like from businesses working within the industry.

Despite skepticism that a busy company would be willing to answer questions about the wider VR industry from the owner of a small blog; I asked XR Games if they’d be willing to answer questions about and beyond their recently released game.

To my pleasant surprise, XR Games said that wider questions on the industry would make for a better article and were fully on-board to answer whatever questions I had!

The Interview Header

To prepare my questions, I WhatsApp’d friends and asked what they would be most interested to read about in an interview with a VR games developer.

I took every one of the questions they suggested, grouped them together, and emailed them across to XR Games.

Read their answers below.

Chqpter 1

As I understand it, you were asked by 3D Clouds to create a mobile VR game that mirrored their console and PC game ‘All-Star Fruit Racing’.

How did you approach the process of streamlining a full console/pc game and what was your process for optimising it for VR controls?
We approached it the other way around. It’s not a matter of streamlining a console game; it’s a process of determining what gameplay elements support a mobile VR game, and building up from those.

We started with the control system, as the majority of games rely upon their control systems for fun – certainly driving games. The rest of the design emerged from the needs of the control, which was designed specifically for cardboard VR. 


How did you decide which components of the console game were most important to maintain in the mobile version of the game which you developed?
The strong needs from Fruit Racing (beyond the vehicle and fruits) were those which supported the light, arcade-y ‘kart racing’ feel – pickups, jumps, speed boosts and so forth, as opposed to a more serious driving style.

Pickups were clearly important, but the format of our game (30 second perfect-able courses, predicated upon the use of the cardboard headset) meant that a kart racing power-up system was redundant, so we used a simple scoring system instead so as not to unnecessarily multiply features. 

Pretty much everything else that reflects Fruit Racing is in the visuals, and we had a lot of fun deciding on which fruits the tracks would be themed by, what colour schemes would be appropriate, and what scenery would complement those fruits.

I feel like racing games are one of the most enduringly successful genre of games on mobile.

With so many great racing titles out on mobile, did any provide a source of inspiration during the development of XR games?
I’ve always been suspicious of racing games on mobile, as the tactility of control is less satisfying on touchscreen or using tilt.  

However, the racing game is one of the great standards of video game, as it combines accessibility of control with real-world applicability (driving is a universal concept), and a clear goal state. It’s natural that some version of this form of play will quickly arise on any new platform.

All inspiration for Fruit Racing VR was taken from classic early 3D racing games, specifically Sega games (Virtual Racing, Daytona, Sega Rally) and Namco’s Ridge Racer series.  

These games define corners so well, and encourage perfection through exacting control.

The game definitely pulls no punches with its difficulty level – do you have any developer tips to improve people’s driving skills in the game?
Small games require a level of challenge. In addition, the major satisfaction of cornering games is in finally perfecting the line, meaning that score targets must be quite harsh to require that level of perfection.

This is especially true of Legend mode, which is difficult enough to challenge the people who made the game. But hitting the perfect lines feels so good! 

To play Fruit Racing VR well, the driver must turn early into every turn. Only by perfecting one corner can the next be approached properly, and so practice is required to learn and chain together all the corners. The pickups show which lines are expected (and which are most satisfying to perfect). 

Oh, and use a headset, because the game controls better in VR.

What aspect of the finished ‘All-Star Fruit Racing VR’ game is the team at XR Games most proud of?
The overall polish and sense of purpose the game achieved feels great. It’s a small game, but it’s been played a lot, and so for players who can play it as intended, it punches way above its weight.

It was also nice to deliver a unique control mechanism designed specifically for cardboard VR, rather than compromise. 

Chapter 2

 Is it more of a challenge to develop games tailored to VR than it is to develop more ‘traditional’ games?
The VR form is very new, and so there’s not been the depth of interface development that we’ve seen over 50+ years of screen game design. A game is all about input and output, and developing content-rich games is easier if some standard elements of interface can be relied upon.  

For example, twin stick first person control developed from before Doom through Descent, Turok on the N64, and finally Halo on Xbox, before accreting into a standard form learned by millions of players. That’s a decade of evolution before the form even became stable. VR interface design is in its infancy in comparison.

Developing good games is a challenge in any format, of course. Devs work hard.


As developers of VR games, to you, what is the most exciting aspect of VR as a medium for creative design?

The goal of contemporary game design is to make the pleasures of play accessible to the largest number of people. The primary barriers to play are difficulties in learning game rules, and difficulties in operating game interface.  

The Nintendo Wii took steps forward in this area by supplying control mechanisms that mimicked real life, allowing more people to play (Wii Sports also used culturally familiar game rules, which helped increase accessibility).

VR should help a great deal in that interfaces mimic reality, allowing for transparent operation practices. But it’s early days yet, and there are plenty of barriers to VR use for a mass-market audience.

Chapter 3 header

We’ve seen huge pushes for widespread adoption of VR enabled devices by tech giants like Samsung and Google in the last 5 years.

Social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook have also played their role by allowing the easy sharing of 360 content whilst Snapchat is almost solely responsible for a huge surge in popularity for AR technology.

More recently, Sony has attempted to push VR gaming back into the mainstream with the release of Playstation VR, which they announced as having passed 3 million units sold just last week.

With all that movement on VR and AR tech, it still seems as though VR is still a niche in the UK tech market. For example, I know many people with a PS4 but none of them own a Sony PSVR headset.

Given the above, what are your thoughts on the current state of VR, and other forms of virtual media in the UK market and what do you think the future of the VR industry looks like in gaming?
Digi-Capital provide some of the best insights into the current state of VR and thoughts on the future – such as this article.

I hope there’ll be a steady expansion of hardware sales, leading to enough development to crack certain core problems, as a prelude to an explosion of sales.  


How do you see VR innovating/growing over the next few years?
Incremental improvements in hardware, specifically accessibility and comfort. Incremental improvements in game content and interface, as designers work out how to make VR interface that’s easy to use.

We need generations of software to allow designers to feed off each other and draw inspiration from previously successful design solutions. And for users to get used to VR as a standard interface option.

What do you think needs to happen to make VR gaming more mainstream?
The single most important thing is a killer app. This needn’t be a game – smart phones exploded the market for games by supplying everyone with game-ready devices that were nevertheless bought for other reasons.

Then you need an Angry Birds or Candy Crush – culturally visible, high-accessibility games spread by word of mouth – to promote games as an entertainment form to the phone owners. There’s a whole bunch of things required before VR gaming can become mainstream, but we’ll know when it happens because there’ll be a VR game that everyone’s heard of. 

Leeds is a increasingly digitally-focused city, with amazing innovative entrepreneurs and businesses throughout.

Does that sense of a growing Leeds community working on cutting edge technology translate to the gaming industry? Are there a number of businesses operating in the same field as you or do you feel that XR Games is at the exciting forefront of the industry within Leeds?
A feature film called “The City Talking: Tech In Leeds” best summaries all the great tech companies in Leeds – it even features XR Games’ Founder and CEO Bobby Thandi, while he was VP Digital at Dubit.

Also, we’re lucky in Leeds, and the surrounding area, that great gaming studios such as RockStar Leeds, Team17, Sumo Digital, and Dubit exist. Not to mention the other 40+ gaming studios in the North.

Meaning there’s a number of options for folks who want to get into the industry, or progress their careers. And that’s the most important factor for more great games to come from the North.  

Finally, what exciting things can we look out for in the future coming from XR Games?
Easy to use, fun games for everyone – in VR.

Interested in keeping up with XR Games?

Follow them on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.


Castle: Revolutionising real-estate in Canada

At a glance

Name of business: Castle

Industry: Digital Marketing

Key learning points;

A modern approach to finding co-founders

Many attribute their motivation in business to having successfully found, built or integrated themselves within a community of likeminded individuals — but for many this is can be challenge, and for others an impossibility.

ENTER THE INTERNET *trumpet sounds*. 

Community based platforms like Reddit can be exactly the tool you need to find the perfect business partners. This was the case for Castle, which was started from a single post on a University subreddit group.

Start with structure

The success of any venture is completely dependent on how much time the founders are willing to invest in it. The founders of Castle agreed from day one that they would meet for four hours every week, and stuck to it. This ensured consistency within the team, with each member staying motivated to keep working efficiently— no easy feat in the early days.

Creative marketing: demonstrating value rather than stating it.

Effective marketing in an overcrowded industry is cutting above the noise in order to get your voice heard by the people who would benefit most by hearing you. That’s exactly what Castle did when they decided to introduce themselves to prospective clients by sending them each a unique, completely bespoke website to show them what they could do. By doing this, instead of sending a bland campaign email, they impressed many and secured leads which became customers and revenue.

Diversify your communication

Your ability to successfully sell a product to your customer is dependent on your ability to build trust with them. While emails have their place, you will find yourself much better equipped to build that trust if you’re willing to meet someone face to face and befriend them.

I love Reddit.

With such a huge collection of highly-engaged communities, it’s so easy to connect with amazing people by just joining in on conversations which interest you. That’s exactly how I got to meet Leo, one of the co-founders of Castle.

Leo and I got talking after I posted a call for founders willing to be interviewed on r/startup after the launch of Inkbike.

A few people responded to the post but among them, Leo immediately stood out to me. It wasn’t just that he was personable, but that his focus, dedication and passion were so immediately apparent as soon as he got talking about his business.

Even though I was nervous about interviewing someone over messages for the first time (every other time has been a recorded face-to-face discussion), I was confident that Leo’s experience would make for a fantastic interview and that there was an incredible opportunity to learn from his unique experiences.

I was absolutely not disappointed, and I’m incredibly excited to share Leo’s experience with you as a fascinating insight into creative marketing and carving a space for yourself in a niche digital market.

Introduction header

I’m Leo, a student at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and I co-founded Castle – an atypical digital marketing agency for real estate agents.


We differ from our competition in that we provide Realtors with a fully customised website using a monthly subscription offer instead of a major one-time fee like traditional web design agencies.

We did this to solve the big issue with the one-fee model, where you might hate aspects of your website only a few months in after you spent $5,000 on a normal agency. Technology and design standards change every few months, and you’re therefore left with a website that looks obsolete.

By opting for a subscription model instead, your website benefits from continuous development and support by the same dedicated team that built it for you from scratch.

What I’m most proud of in Castle however, is the way we provide another service that is so far unique.

We know our work is leading to something much bigger than what we intended

On our website / web app, we list realtors and provide each with a comprehensive profile that pulls all types of personal information (bio, awards, testimonials, language, ethnicity, niche neighbourhood etc.) from external softwares into a single profile. These profiles rank #1 for each agent name on Google.

Homebuyers and home-sellers can then visit this page and filter through the list using different criteria to find the agent that suits them best.

We started Castle 6 months ago, when I partnered with 2 other university students I met through Reddit. We know our work is leading to something much bigger than what we intended. We strongly believe we’ll become a unicorn company sometimes soon, but we also settled with the idea that we needed to build stable revenue before doing anything crazy.

I love that – the platform you’ve built to profile the realtors is something I’ve never seen done before and it feels like it actually humanises the process of finding property online, which is absolutely something I’ve never seen attempted before. I’m glad to hear you like it! It means there’s a market fit for our idea.

You phrased it perfectly with “humanise the process of finding property” because there are 15,000 realtors in Vancouver alone (where we are), which makes no sense given that they all do the same job. I mean, why choose one over another?

One way to go about it as a seller is finding an agent who’s transparent, fits your personality and specializes in your niche (e.g. Millenials in West Vancouver). That’s already a challenge in itself as for many, realtors have such a bad reputation.


Brilliant – I couldn’t agree more.

Another part of the Castle story that I really love is that you met your business partners through Reddit – what’s the story behind that happening?
That was actually the result of my partner publishing the below on the subreddit for our University.

20 people commented on that post, 6 followed up and 3 actually met. That’s us. Since then, one other person has joined our team.

WebCreative Reddit Post

With regards to our relationship, it’s very special. We have very different backgrounds, stories and interests, but I guess what unites us is our passion for experimenting with, and building a start-up.

We got to work on the very first day we met up, without having discussed any ideas beforehand. Since we’re all quite serious, we quickly settled on holding a weekly meeting – Sunday 10 am to 2pm – which was mandatory to attend.

This was a success and everyone attended each meeting every single weekend for the first 4 months.

In that time, we settled with the idea of designing, coding and maintaining fully custom websites for Real Estate agents in our city of Vancouver, Canada. We saw this idea as being a niche market since it uniquely combined:

  1. being a realtor;
  2. being in Vancouver;
  3. seeing value in design and having a custom website to stand out (most realtors use templates, and in fact 3,7754 agents share the exact same website template in Vancouver alone).

So the concept was defined. The next step was finding out whether there was demand for it. That’s the tricky part.

Chapter 2 header

In the course of this adventure, I learnt that a great marketer is the foundation of any start-up. We were new to business and there existed huge competition (the real estate marketing market is saturated – last time I checked Google Keywords, the ‘Top of Page Bid’ was $22 for “real estate website”).

In the beginning we didn’t really pay much attention to whether we were actually able to deliver the product – we thought we could without major issue.

So our first step was marketing the product we didn’t have. And if you have no proof of work (like us), you either pretend like you do or you simply bring price down (the rule of offer vs demand).

Therefore, we started selling websites at $400 when the same website (if not worse in design) was selling for $5,000 by companies like MyRealPage or Brixwork.


It felt terrible to know we had to start this low and pay ourselves a $13/hour divided between 3 co-founders (that was painful to calculate) but we thought this tactic would create buzz, and it certainly did.

Another marketing tactic we used was to write a program that, at night, crawled through public lists of real estate agents in Vancouver and passed out the information it found back into an Excel sheet in an orderly manner.

Most people ignore the power of automation

A week after we ran it, we had compiled 500 emails addresses. We were already very happy about our trick (we honestly felt like hackers), but we’re most pleased with what we did next.

We designed a website template of which the content changed function based on whom we sent it to. For example, if we sent that website link to John Joe, the website header would display something like “Browse John Joe’s properties”.

We applied that same formula to all the other contacts we’d amassed using our web-crawling program and then displayed them on our website.

Artboard Copy 27

In other words, on a regular Monday morning ‘Joe the Realtor’ received an email from us out-of-the-blue, entitled “I did something for you”. When he opened it he found a bespoke website built to his name that was ready to be used.

Most people ignore the power of automation. So the majority of the people who received our email believed we put tireless hours into building a website that we were giving to them for free.

That honestly worked out to be one of, if not the best thing we could have done. We sent out the first 30 emails and within 48 hours 17 people had clicked and we had received 9 answers. The standard click rate for the creative industry is 0.7%.

They were mostly people politely thanking us for the effort and letting us know they felt bad about refusing it, but it also gave us 3 serious leads. Out of those 3 serious leads, we started working on 2 websites.

It was hard, but where we are now has meant that it was worth it.

That gave us our start.

Unsurprisingly, some of our first few clients did try to take advantage of us by asking for changes so regularly and over such a long period of time that we began losing money.

However, it gave us the opportunity to perform some root-cause-analysis of issues in our early business model so that we could make corrective actions early on in our business’ life. We learnt to filter clients and work only with the best.

In the following 4 months, we changed our pricing model three times and renewed our approach to marketing by incorporating social media as a service. It was hard, but where we are now has meant that it was worth it.

Chapter 3 header

And how did you go about organising the work between yourselves?
We agreed early on about the way we would divide up work. One person took care of the technical part (programs and website development). They coded the websites from scratch and did an awesome job for what we were getting paid.

I’m talking a fully custom website with all kinds of features. For example, few UI / UX details that matter a lot to the eye but which most agencies don’t provide at all (animations, shadows, transitions…)

Soon after, we realised we needed better design, so I taught myself how to do web design. I also manage marketing at Castle — which includes client prospection, business development and social media.


The third co-founder helped around on both the technical and marketing front. Since then, they’ve played a pillar role after learning to code entire websites.

Our last recruit is a friend of a friend. They’ve been our head of photography taking beautiful portraits of agents over at @realtorsofvancouver and helping with some websites.

Heading 4

Give up on some clients: we are still getting absurdly low traction for the value we provide. Most agents don’t see any benefits to our services. Those same agents generally happen to be above a certain age and tend to have relied solely on connections to sell/buy houses.

We quickly learned to give up on these people, and instead to address the agents who leveraged social media and valued design: young real estate agents.

Make friends: another lesson we’ve recently learned is to meet with potential clients without selling them anything. Fixing a single face-to-face meeting with an agent every week was our most recent and yet most powerful tactic.

We’ve learnt that people value customer service over the product itself

We take the opportunity to know them better. Once you’ve invested that time, explaining to them our services and converting them to paying clients is easy.

Discuss money with your team – I never thought money would be a major factor in our everyday work on the start-up. I’ve always imagined doing it for fun during my free time as a student. All these thoughts rushed to our heads when we landed our first client.

There was a celebration, and then few days of: “wow… we can actually make money building a cool product for society. This could be big if we stick to it“.

A post from WebCreative's Instagram page

An example post from Castle’s Instagram page

Ultimately, we settled with the idea of reinvesting all profits without cashing in a single dollar for the first $4,000. Discussing these topics early on will help avoid unexpected obstacles (e.g. a co-founder leaving and taking his equity or intellectual property).

What have you learnt since you started working on Castle that you wish you knew at the beginning?
I wish we had approached marketing differently and made connections in the professional / adult world earlier on. We should have approached real estate agents as students and asked them genuine questions. Instead, the first contact we established with them was as a business looking to sell our services.

Once you’ve built trust, the price at which you sell your services is only a detail

As a result, we’ve had to rely solely on email campaigns and social media outreach to put our name out in Vancouver.

All this to say that we’ve learnt that people value customer service over the product itself. They value the experience, the connection and how comfortable they feel with you as their new digital marketer. Once you’ve built trust, the price at which you sell your services is only a detail. They will trust you in fixing the right price.

Secondly, I wish I had tried harder. Sometimes I feel proud of what we’ve accomplished but I cannot stop imagining how things would be if we had done things differently. It’s a very human thing to do. I should have put more effort at times on Castle.

For example, I looked back and wonder if I had called that client (instead of emailing her like we did), would we have reached a deal? Or if I wasn’t too shy, and have pitched our services at that major real estate event, would I have doubled the sales from our business in a single evening?

When you miss opportunities like these, you can only blame yourself for not trying harder. It’s a matter of priorities. I guess that if I was starving, I wouldn’t think twice about trying harder.

What were the most important tools for you when you were getting your business off the ground? (i.e. what tools/hardware/software did you find relying on most during the earliest days?)
was brilliant as it allowed us to outsource basic tasks cheaply. That saved us a ton of time and we found people with more experience able to solve some basic mistakes we had made.

MailChimp was greatfor blasting out personalised emails. It tells you things like ‘how many people opened your email’, ‘how many times they opened it or forwarded it’, ‘which link they clicked on’ and more.

So I used it to find the best email pitch possible. I like to compare it to a game of gladiators. You send out 2 different sales pitches and you keep the one that worked best. You take the winning pitch, draft a second one changing few variables (more polite, more links, without price…) and send both out again. Repeat 20 times and you get the perfect email pitch!

Spotify; because if you’re going into entrepreneurship, you’re gonna need that 1am music. Plus, Spotify’s algorithm suggests some really good stuff – you can listen to our startup’s playlist here.

Also, I know it’s a mainstream answer but most people underestimate Instagram‘s power. If you’re good at crafting visuals and targeting your audience, you have the secret sauce to marketing. I’ve enjoyed Instagram so much as it resonates really closely with our startup’s vibe and so I started experimenting with ads.

I used the same gladiator tactic that I described with MailChimp, and after having done the work I can now guarantee a serious lead for every $5 I put into my ad. Our basic product sells for $99 so that’s a huge return on investment (check out Castle’s Instagram).


The best tool though? My co-founder Daanyaal. Shout-out to him for putting up with my personality. You need a partner you can count on for working at 2am and partying the next day.

Incredible right?

If you’re as big a fan of Castle as I am after reading that then keep up with what they’re up to on their blog and Instagram page.


North Star: How the first coffee-roasting company in Leeds is changing the industry forever

At a glance

Name of business: North Star

Business Type: Wholesale & coffee

Key Learning Points

Business as a tool for change

You don’t need to be a social, non-profit organisation to be able to make a difference. Rather than write your business values just to have a corporate social responsibility, you can build a business that is sustainable in everything it does and still be profitable.

North Star is proof that you can create an incredibly successful business that tackles critical issues in supply-chain responsibility through promoting awareness and simply refusing to sacrifice ethical responsibility for profit.

Don’t carry out all of your market research from your desk

Make your market research a practical exercise. Where possible, find and speak to people in your field. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much people are willing to share with people that are starting out.

Take the time to create a business plan and write your values

The direction that your business can take in the future can feel uncertain as new opportunities present themselves.

Taking the time to understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term, and the goals which are most important to you can make difficult decisions easier.

Spending the time developing your core values can help anchor you to the path that you originally set out to follow without risk of getting lost along the way.

Social media can be more than a marketing tool

More than a tool to promote your company, the impact that social media can have on creating a supportive community for your brand can’t be overstated. When it was time for North Star to expand their operation, they looked to the community they had grown for support.

Through a Kickstarter campaign, North Star were able to raise an incredible £20,000 to buy a larger coffee roaster to keep up with growing demand.

I accidentally arrived 30 minutes early for my interview with Holly at the North Star Coffee Shop in Clarence Dock, Leeds because it was the second interview I’d run and so I was super paranoid about being late. You don’t get a second chance at a first impression right?

I‘m glad I did though, it gave me time to just sit and admire what founders Holly and Krag had created. To my right is a large glass wall – through it you can see a massive coffee roaster opposite a stack of burlap sacks filled with freshly imported coffee ready to roast. Behind me are huge windows which look out across the Clarence Dock boulevard and floods natural light into the large open café space.

The overall effect of the space is overwhelmingly calming and pleasant. I know I’m not the only one that sense it sense the space hums with the sound of happy conversations and laughter from the tables around me.

After a short while, Holly heads over to the table and we begin our chat. What followed was an incredible interview that I’m incredibly excited to share; not only is Holly one of the most knowledgeable, insightful and friendly people that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, but what she and her partner Krag have created is nothing short of incredible.

They are people that are using business to tackle the bigger issues that matter to them, and more than any other company I’ve seen it shines through in every single thing that they do. This interview is a must read for anyone that wants to carve out a niche in the market that previously didn’t exist using passion, knowledge and hard-work.

Chapter 1: Getting into the market and finding a gap

So I was wondering if you could start off by describing, to anyone unfamiliar with the brand, what North Star Roast is.
Holly: North Star coffee started off as a wholesale coffee roastery, but I would like to say now that it’s become an all encompassing coffee company that really gets behind the values of quality, ethics in the supply chain and just elevates coffee to be something more than a daily wake-up call.

Those are the kinds of values it stands for and now we’ve opened up a venue, we want people to be able to come in and get let into the world of coffee in general, from bean to cup. That’s what North Star is all about, celebrating the supply chain from seed to cup.


That brilliant, and so everything we’re drinking here, is that all coming straight from next door?
Yeah, this coffee shop is kind of a unique concept. In terms of the coffee supply chain; we’re involved in every step of it.

Most other coffee shops would tend to buy their coffee from a roaster and brew it in their coffee shop whereas here we have the supply chain tied up. We’re involved in the sourcing of beans, working with farmers and finding new producing partners across the world.

We then bring the coffee back into the roastery and learn how to get the most out of it from trying different roast profiles [and everything else]. Then it’s literally delivered from next door to here.

Absolutely every bean that has come through the grinders here has been sourced, perfected and roasted all by the same company.

That’s amazing – getting that off the ground, I can’t even begin to imagine what that process would look like. I mean were you already involved in, or had knowledge of supply chains before?
Yeah so my background is in green coffee. My first ever job having left uni was as a trainee green coffee buyer.

The way that Krag and I, my partner, got into coffee and starting North Star was through our final year dissertation at University. I studied the effect of fair trade coffee farming on social and economic development for small coffee farmers in Kenya, and whether it had been a positive factor or a negative factor.

Krag looked at the slave trade – he did a history degree – and we both chose dissertation topics around something that would allow us to travel to get our research.

So we both spent about 3 months in East Africa between second and third year and 6 weeks of that was spent working with rural smallholders – tiny, tiny smallholders with farmers who had like a half-hectare of trees in their back garden.

We were just interviewing them and collecting qualitative data on how they felt about the effects of the coffee industry in their country, their own economic development and what they were able to do through getting access to the fair-trade premium.

North Star Holly and Krag SA

Founders Krag (second from the left) and Holly (third from the left)

Before that, I’d never really had any insight into the supply chain so it was really that trip which opened our eyes to the amazing people which were involved in the supply chain; the number of people that are involved and the number of things that can go wrong in it.

So that’s how our interest was peaked to the point where we both left uni certain that that was the industry that we wanted to work in.

Really? So by the end of that dissertation you…
– yeah we just knew that this was what we wanted to do. And being in the North of England people can always says that jobs are scarcer – particularly in fairly niche industries like this but actually the North of England has a really established coffee scene with the likes of Taylors of Harrogate and some fairly big coffee companies up here.

So that was my natural pathway from graduating with a degree in sustainable development and I looked to try and get into coffee using an ethical route in terms of how it could be used to develop economies.

I managed to stumble across a new-start company that worked by importing green, speciality-grade coffee. I did an unpaid internship with them for 3-4 months and learned how to taste, how to roast and I was sending samples out to roasters all over the UK.

That internship turned into a paid job thankfully. Because it was a really young and developing company, I was thrown in at the deep-end and so my own, personal & professional development occurred at a much quicker rate than if I was at a larger, more established company.

Within a year I was in Central America buying coffee, doing taster qualifications and things like that, so it was really about learning quickly on the job.

Through doing that role, I was selling green coffee to all the other roasters in the UK at the time and I realised that there was no one doing that in Leeds. There were 60+ roasters in London; there were 14 in Bristol and Bath, 7 in Edinburgh and things like that.

So there were pockets of really good quality coffee all over the country and then Leeds was just this barren, wasteland of bad coffee at the time *laughs*.

There were a couple of key venues that had been set up and were doing things really well; there was Lanes espresso which was set up over by the train station in 2011 I think – they were buying from a roaster down in London. There was also Opposite which was set up over by Leeds Uni and again, buying from the same roaster in London.

Then everywhere else was just a bit crap. There was just a real gap between the people who were doing things really, really well and everyone else who was just a bit terrible.

Yeah the supply just wasn’t there locally and people’s knowledge and training regarding how to work with coffee was just a bit all over the place. Everyone was doing things slightly differently depending on where they’d learnt things from – there was no set standard in place.

It was just very much about visiting venues, spending time with people, drinking their coffee and taking it from there.

At the time we were both living with my parents, and Krag had a part-time job working as a chocolatier for 2-days a week which was a pretty good job to be fair *laughs*, he wasn’t complaining.

But the fact is that we were in the position to be able to take a jump into doing something with the thinking of ‘well if it works, it works, if it doesn’t then it doesn’t’.

And so we started looking into how you get started as a coffee roastery and we tracked down a 5-kilo roaster from an old donkey hut in Wales.

Chapter 2: Getting things off the ground

*laughs* that’s amazing.
Yeah this pensioner had started to roast coffee in his retirement. He did one batch on this machine and realised that he had enough coffee for about a year.

So his hobby didn’t last too long but we managed to get a really amazing machine that had barely been used for a really good price.

How did you go about finding it?
There are catering machine companies, people that sell things like deep fat fryers and refrigerators and stuff. Coffee roasters get listed along items like that so we just kept an eye out and managed to get a machine in place.

We managed to get a unit with the council down at Meanwood on an industrial site and that was it. Krag was sent off to learn how to roast from some really well known roasters down south who I had some really good connections with through supplying to them.

North Star Krag Roasting

It took about 6 months into it for us to get to a point for us to think that the coffee was good enough to start selling. It’s a really steep learning curve that’s just based on trial-and-error. I was tasting and saying thing like, ‘well maybe you dropped it in too hot there’ or maybe ‘the development time wasn’t long enough’ and things like that. Really trial and error.

I have to say though, it sounds like every step of the way you guys were having a good time with it – all of this sounds like you were having amazing fun.
Yeah it was great, and the reality of setting up a business is that it’s definitely exciting but it’s really hard work and we didn’t take a salary from the business for about 2 years.

I think that was particularly hard for Krag at the time. I had another job and he didn’t. North Star was his life and he wasn’t able to go out with people on a weekend or buy clothes.

When Krag was able to get a few key customers on board we quickly realised we’d done the right thing because the demand for freshly roasted, locally roasted, ethically sourced speciality-grade coffee was really, really high.

It was a really tough period getting on the road with samples. Krag was only 22 at the time, and so going into restaurants which had been operating since before he’d been born and trying to say ‘this is really good coffee, you should try it’ was challenging.

Getting people convinced was a different matter as well, we were going against roasters that could offer much cheaper price because they were selling commercial-grade coffee rather than speciality-grade.

When Krag was able to get a few key customers on board we quickly realised we’d done the right thing because the demand for freshly roasted, locally roasted, ethically sourced speciality-grade coffee was really, really high. We experienced that classic rocket-growth from year 1.

North Star Coffee Stock

It just felt like we got to a point where we felt like we were supplying every coffee seller in Leeds and it was amazing. That in turn creates a good problem, but still a problem whereby people want something different and unique, and so you don’t want to be ‘too everywhere’.

You also have to ensure that your coffee is in the hands of people who are going to look after it and show off your brand accurately. So that presents a whole host of other problems.

I imagine in the first year you’d think that things would be tight and so to be in that situation would be so unexpected.
Yeah, it is – you have to say ‘yes’ to everything at the start to make sure that you get beans through the roaster and money through the door to pay your costs.

As a roaster we have to purchase all of our raw products through our suppliers when we know that we won’t get a return on that until months down the line and so at the start you can’t say no to anyone.

Then you find yourself tied into relationships that aren’t really complementary with businesses that aren’t on board 100% with what you are trying to achieve and you end up agreeing to ridiculous things like ‘yes we will deliver your coffee to you free of charge’ and end up driving a 2-hour round trip to deliver one order.

Just things like that where you learn from your first year to where we are now where we’re much more structured and have clearer supply terms in place.

We were in unit that was really not very pleasant. It was window-less and there was no heating, a tiny roaster and just the two of us. We were both just doing absolutely everything from building a website to marketing to actually operationally roasting, packaging and delivering the coffee.

Chapter 3: Market research, marketing and expertise

There are a couple points there that you touched on which I just want to swing back to. Through the process of conducting market research, how did you go about finding everything you needed to out?
When you get into the coffee industry you realise it’s a very open industry where you know of everyone that’s operating.

Also the good places tend to really shout about who they’re working with because it’s the thing which distinctly sets them apart from the rest.

So it’s actually quite easy to find out who people are supplied by?
Yeah. It was just very much about visiting venues, spending time with people, drinking their coffee and taking it from there.

A huge part of it is social media, that’s been a big part of our development in the early years for sussing out who’s who, and who’s operating in which cities.

North Star Coffee Machine

And then with the marketing as well, initially I can imagine it’s difficult because you’ll be pitching to people that already have suppliers and are in a position of having to say ‘I know you’re using these people, but you should be using us instead and here’s why’.
Yeah you do have to put yourself out there for sure, but particularly in the independent industry that we work within, it’s really not your typical sales technique at all, it’s very gentle. We’re not salesy at all. As individuals it would feel completely unnatural to us to act as typical salespeople. But it was definitely difficult.

It was easier in the early days because we were doing something that was very unique, there was no one else really doing what we were doing and to put it simply, we really just let the coffee do the talking.

We’d invite people into the unit for tastings, we would send out to potential clients a supply for a week just to see how they got on with it and take on board the feedback from the customers.

It was very organic really, a huge part of our business is the relationships and traceability that we can offer to our customers in terms of the suppliers that we’re working with and knowing exactly where that bean comes from.

It’s definitely becoming more and more difficult as the market gets more crowded. There are a few different roasteries in Leeds now, a few in Manchester and Sheffield. So there’s more competition locally but it’s a really strange industry. I wouldn’t strictly class it as competition as it’s more people helping to promote what we’re doing.

When it was just us it was harder to shout about why people should spend more on their coffee or buy from a certain supplier when it’s just you saying that. So having a few more people makes what we’re doing seem less abnormal.

That’s a brilliant takeaway as well. When I’ve spoken to others and competition has come into it, people have gotten a bit cagey – but what a positive takeaway to have from what is essentially a growing market.
Yeah, we started out with the aim of trying to convince as many people as we could to convert to speciality grade coffee because we firmly believe it’s what has to happen for the industry to maintain growth and for it to still be there.

We have to wake up to the fact that if we want to get the same great quality coffee year in and year out, that you have to look after people now. There’s a lot of customers and coffee companies out there that are just buying for the present and not necessarily building that sustainable approach into their business plan.

I think from our perspective, yes we are a business and we’ve got to see some growth but I think we also appreciate the growth of similar businesses in our area because it’s important to the industry as a whole that more people are getting on board and buying that type of coffee.

Chapter 4 header.PNG

That’s something I wanted to touch on as well; the passion you have for coffee is so evident in the blog on your website which is absolutely amazing. Your approach to writing on it could almost be described as academic in the level of detail included. Was that level of detail something that you looked to include from the beginning to give you an edge?
Yeah, I think that we always wanted North Star to represent the knowledge and expertise that it has as a business – the core team that we have in the roaster has very distinctive skillsets and experience to the point where we’ve become elevated to that level in the industry.

My personal experience is in sensory analysis and sourcing, I’ve got very unique qualifications in that field. Krag is very much the head, master roaster – he’s got an amazing breadth of knowledge and natural feel for roasting coffee. Ollie who works for us has amazing barista expertise and so he has an incredible knowledge of the consumer side of the supply chain – machines, equipment, brew recipes and things from that perspective.


So I think for the website, those are the things that keep us in coffee – growing our knowledge and, not mastering an element of it but certainly being able to give a considered, constructive perspective. So that’s come naturally to us as a team and when writing about something; not just going to be saying something for the sake of it but rather a considered article that’s intended to help people out that have those same questions.

I think we have had to adapt as other roasteries have opened up around us, it’s been about cementing ourselves as being as credible as possible in the knowledge that we have.

That’s part of the setup of the coffee academy, and being able to offer specialised courses where other roasters coming in and get their coffee diplomas here. It’s a key part of that side of North Star in terms of creating a real centre for excellence.

I wish you’d been around to work with some of my earlier employers. I remember working in pubs around that period where all pubs started to offer coffee and so places just bought machines but never really taught staff how to use them or make coffee with any degree of skill.
It’s a classic case. We get approached by people who’ve had a similar experience and it’s a really terrible situation for us to walk in on because of what we train people to do. If you haven’t had any training before, it can seem totally ridiculous.

You’ll see here the baristas weigh out all the coffee they use. You’ll see scales at every work area where people are weighing how much coffee is coming out of the grinder, how much coffee is produced by the machine, timing it and so it’s a very scientific approach which really is what’s needed with coffee to guarantee the consistency and quality and ensure it’s being shown off at it’s best.

Making Coffee North Star

So I think when you go into venues which have never had that or it’s a completely foreign concept, then it makes it difficult to try and say to people ‘no, you need to do this for good coffee’.

We always wanted to be really approachable as a business. Not your usual London-hipster, exclusionary type business where coffee is almost a bit intimidating.

We’ve approached it in the most Yorkshire manner that we possibly could, hopefully very down to earth and approachable – especially to people who genuinely come to us with an attitude of wanting to learn more.

But we have had to adapt how easily we take people on in terms of wholesale relationships because the brand has grown to a point where we’ve got to work hard to protect that.

To make sure that quality is being maintained in the way that coffee is served here and served at Cha Lounge (for example) to make sure that everything is consistent – to make sure that people aren’t having a great experience of North Star at one venue and then somewhere else it being terrible because of how the coffee is being made…it’s a challenge.

chapter 5

Absolutely – although I’m curious, how do you go about ensuring that? Say a new company approaches you and say’s we’d love to have some of your brilliant coffee and you start trading with them – is there an agreement where you say you have to make it in a certain way? I imagine that’s a really difficult thing to enforce without having a presence on-site.
It is and it’s difficult for us as people – you never want to give the impression of ‘oh, we’re too good for you’.

There’s a couple of things that we do; where we have minimum supply terms in place where you have to have a minimum standard of machine and grinder in order to trade with us.

They have to have an automated grinder, not a manual one like a paddle grinder where you can’t control how much is coming out and the machine needs to have temperature control. A lot of cheaper machines at the lower end of the market, they just jump massively from anywhere from 82C to 94C which has a massive effect on the coffee’s flavour in terms of how much is extracted from the bean.

So that’s the starting point, if people have that machinery in place then we’ll talk with them extensively – particularly if it’s at the early stages of them setting up, we try and be as involved as we can be from day 1 to ensure things like they’re getting the right cup sizes, the right milk jugs, using the right milk…

What a customer experience! I can’t think of anyone else doing it they way you guys are.
It’s really labour intensive; we take a really engaged approach to wholesale relationships.

We don’t just sell someone coffee and never talk to them again – we have to vet them to make sure that they’re going to appropriately serve it and so we visit them once every 3-4 months. Sometimes we let them know we’re coming and other times we just pop in and just have a quick scout of the machine to check if it was clean, if the coffee was tasting good and we also have monthly wholesale events where we invite all of our wholesale customers to come down here and learn about an aspect about coffee.

When we take someone on as a wholesale customer we make it our responsibility to help grow their business as well in terms of how much coffee they sell, how well known they are in the industry and so we do whatever we can from that perspective.

I think our customer base is extremely loyal and proud, I think, and that’s probably been one of our proudest achievements – to see the relationships that we’ve developed with businesses across the region.

We don’t tie people into contracts and don’t force people into relationships where we say things like ‘if you buy our machines then you have to use our coffee’, we don’t do any of that.

We’ve approached it in the most Yorkshire manner that we possibly could, hopefully very down to earth and approachable – especially to people who genuinely come to us with an attitude of wanting to learn more.

We want people to buy from us because they want to buy from us.

I think the relationships we have are really solid. We’ve worked with most of them for years, since we’ve started and we’re happily seen their coffee sales double and triple because their quality is better and they’re becoming known as a coffee destination.

I mean yeah, I can attest to that from Cha Lounge – it’s the first time I’ve ever gone to somewhere which sells drinks where they go into detail about where they get their coffee from. It’s not a conversation I’ve ever had before, it just shows that you’re giving them something to shout about.

It must be rewarding as well to come away after this process of development and see that enthusiasm come off on the people you work with; even after this conversation I feel really enthusiastic and just like I want to be drinking loads more coffee!
It’s strange, some people have that experience where their eyes are opened up to this whole new world that coffee can be really amazing and interesting and other people are really business focused and if coffee isn’t their main product – say they’re a pub or have food on offer or something like that where coffee isn’t their main push then from a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to approach it in that way.

North Star for us was always a passion project in the sense that we never did a business degree, we never thought that we wanted to start our own business and for us to be someone’s boss is a horrible idea, we never wanted that.

So generally, we tend to find ourselves gelling with business owners who have opened businesses from a similar perspective where they want to do things as well as they possibly can rather than people that are solely focused on the bottom-line profits.

Just, this being a passion project for you guys and working with people where that’s a similar case and everything about that makes the whole process seem so much more enjoyable.

I imagine there are frustrations and concerns during the process of starting a business but it just sounds like every decision you guys have made comes from a place of you guys enjoying what you do – you do the things that you enjoy and have turned that into a business rather than starting out with the goal of earning money.
Honestly, the downside of having your own business can occasionally far outweigh the perks and I think that if we didn’t live and breathe everything that we do here then the business wouldn’t keep going.

People always assume that coffee is a really great business to be in – there are coffee shops opening up on every corner and people are always talking about the margin that you can make on a cup of coffee and everything and the fact is that if you come at it from a quality perspective where you want to be ethical then it’s really hard to make money in coffee. Really, really hard.

You have to sell a lot of coffee and I think if we were coming at it from that perspective then we would have given up a long time ago because you need to love what you do to be able to continue getting out of bed every day.Chapter 6Reading the blog and reading more about how closely ethics ties into your values, sourcing coffee in the first place how does that value tie into your process of finding and working with new suppliers
I think that lots of the relationships that we have in place now were established when I had my previous role as a green coffee-buyer and that was what I did 7-days a week –

This is probably going to sound like me being really simple but…‘green coffee’?
No, not at all. Green coffee is the term for raw coffee before it’s been roasted. So a green coffee buyer is essentially someone that sources coffee. My job was to go and find new producers that were producing coffee in a way that paid homage to the quality and the surroundings that it grew in.

There are certain areas and farms in the world that have better growing conditions then others so it was very much a case of maybe having a connection with a marketer or an exporting agent and then just flying to Guatemala and saying ‘let’s check out this farm’.

Then when you get there someone tells you ‘oh, my brother has a farm just over that way that’s 1800m above sea level and he’s experimenting with a new way of processing it’ so you think to yourself that you’re definitely going to go and check that out.

Then you just start a relationship by receiving things like samples which we roast here and then we taste them and if they meet our scoring guidelines – to be speciality-grade coffee it needs to score 80/100 based on different attributes like acidity and body.

Is this something you do in here or do you bring someone else in to do that?
No, so I’m a qualified Q-grader, so it’s kind of like a sommelier but for coffee. Like a coffee taster.


The coffee taster’s flavour wheel – there’s a giant print of this image on the wall of the North Star Classroom!

And that’s how a relationship starts really, if the samples are good and it tastes good then it means that we can buy it because we only roast speciality-grade Arabica coffee so if it tastes good then it’s up to us to ensure that everything’s in place for us to buy coffee from that farm.

From an ethical standpoint, we developed some guidelines which are based on some of my experiences in my past employment for sourcing coffee and an understanding that just because a farmer grows quality coffee, it doesn’t mean it was produced ethically.

A lot of people just assume just because something tastes good that it must come from someone who really cares about the plant and the people they work with and it’s just not always the case. So we developed some guidelines which dictate that we have to buy from rainforest alliance certified farms in Latin America that are like larger estates.

What that certification says is that it has to run in-line with international labour law, so there has to be a minimum wage and a minimum age in place, different accommodation for men and women, first-class protein in every meal which is provided by the producer to the workers and the environmental guidelines that are in place are in line with sustainable agricultural networks so there are safety signs, evaporation ponds in place to remove any of the coffee processing water and by-products in the water.

If we taste a sample and there’s no certification in place then we basically don’t do anything until we can arrange a trip to go and see it. So if the coffee was that good, and it’s something that we were looking at creating a long-term partnership with then it means going to see the farm and checking those things out for yourself and making that call when you’re out there.

And if something wasn’t or didn’t feel right, then we wouldn’t pursue a relationship with that producer.

For the producers we work with, we pay a price that guarantees to cover the full cost of production and at least a 50% quality premium on top, which is way above the minimum Fairtrade price which is set.

We like to work with farmers that are innovative and aware of the challenges that are going on around them. So we work with a lot of farmers that put time into working with different varieties of coffee to get around disease and things that can be brought on by climate change and things like that.

We invest our own money into projects which will improve quality and therefore increase the price that we have to pay for the coffee in the long run if that makes sense.Chapter 7 headerAbsolutely brilliant, so what advice would you love to go back and give yourselves now with the experience that you’ve built up since then?
I think that we’ve always waited too long to bring someone else into the team if that makes sense? We’ve always been super, super cautious. I don’t feel like we’ve ever really taken a massive leap outside of starting the business in the first place, when it was established we always tried to run ourselves as if we’re a big organisation when we’re just two members of staff.

There was definitely times where if we’d brought someone in earlier, the business would possibly have been further on in terms of what we’d have been able to offer with the resources we’ve had.

We’ve always just been so aware of the responsibility that you have when you bring someone else on when you’re paying their salary and it’s someone else’s livelihood in your hands really.

you have to really understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term.

I think if you feel confident in your offering, approach and structure in terms of your pricing and margin and things like that then I would advise people to go for it and just take a leap at times and not overthink things too much because I think if you feel confident in your knowledge, experience and offering then that will in turn create good.

We’ve also always written a business plan, always. That’s a real practical piece of advice, always have goals for each year. Whether you do one each year or a 5-year plan in terms of what you want to achieve, I think that’s really important to track and help you understand which decisions to make and keep you on track.

That’s something we’ve had from day one, there’re several parts to the business which present several opportunities for growth whether that’s wholesale or education or retail – you have to really understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term. It helps you understand which opportunity might be the right one and when it’s not. So that and spending time working on your core values because that has made it easier for us to never stray.

Yeah, like to define who you want to be.
Yeah, we’ve had approaches from things like supermarkets and really large, corporate chains who’ve expressed and interest in working with us but we’ve …you know, sometimes those opportunities can make you think ‘Oh my god, this could be the one, this could be the thing that transforms the business’.

But one things that’s always helped us make those decisions is our values or quality and ethics so if something comes along which makes us stray from those ethics or compromise either the quality of the coffee that we buy or the ethics in how we source them then that’s when we know it’s not right for us.

Having those brand values from day one and making sure that everyone agrees makes sure that everyone’s very much on the same page when making decisions. That helps you stay on track with what you’re doing when competition strikes up, so you’re not looking around at the competition and thinking ‘oh god, they’ve got this and maybe we should do this’, you’re able to stay really focused on what you want to achieve.

That’s a great tip! Thank you.

The next question is, what were the most useful tools for you when you started to get North Star off the ground? The things that you’d find yourself relying on most.
I mean Excel spread sheets played a massive role in everything from stock control and counts to customer lists like a CRM system so, Excel was a key part of what we did.

Most important would be social media as a platform. That was something that really enabled us to speak to our customers and create a real brand and create a message about what we do right from day one.

North Star Roast Cafe Image

It’s a great free resource at your fingertips, so we utilised that as much as we could. We didn’t have a set social media strategy or someone that was taking care of that, we just made sure that we kept in touch with our customers and provide them with bits of information that would be interesting or supporting them and shouting about them in social media as well.

That really played a massive role, we’d hit a point in 2015 where we’d run out of capacity for the roasting machine that we had and really needed to invest in a bigger machine and so we run a kick-starter campaign to fund it which raised £20,000.

Sh*t, that’s amazing!
*laughs * Yeah, but that was done really off the back of the social media following that we had and the community that we had created with people that had been popping down to Meanwood to buy their coffee on the weekend since when we got going.

I think that’s had the most influence on our business to date, that goal we purely achieved by using those platforms really.

Fantastic, and the final question I’ll wrap up with is…I’m trying to think of a better way to phrase this question because it always comes out so rambly but one thing I try and do with Inkbike is to try to create value…I was wondering if there was any area which you might not know too much about which you would love to learn more on to help you with the running of things or any kind of personal or professional development which I could go away and research and write about.
That’s a really good question, I wish we were asked that more. I think one thing that’s been really difficult with setting up the retail side of the business is the sudden explosion of personnel which we’ve had. We’ve gone from a team of four, to 16 literally overnight. So that side of things with HR and staff management, the legal requirements of having staff.

We have those things in place before with employment contracts with holiday entitlement but I think it gets to a very different scale very quickly when you have that kind of expansion. That’s something we’ve had to absorb into our job roles. I’ve spent hours looking online for guidelines from the government on different types of contracts and statutory obligations.

We’re not quite at the stage where we can afford a full HR person or office manager but if that kind of information was…not more accessible, but more understandable – written in a way that you can understand without having to Google every single phrase – that would be useful to a lot of businesses which experience the same journey we’ve had.

Things like music licences, insurance, suppliers of plumbing or electricians, all of that information. If there was something local, like a resource that people could share and utilise…that’s been a real headache. Things like who to contact if the electrics go down, or who to contact if the drains back up.

I’m sure there are other businesses around here that maybe have used one company which have been extortionate and another which has been reasonable and reliable and it would be good to get to the point where that information is shared.

That would be a benefit to a lot of people.

It’s sounds like one of those things where unless that is literally your business, it’s not something that anyone would have time to start.
No, exactly. It needs to be a dedicated forum where people can share experiences and things.

We’re going to start a ‘How to start a coffee shop’ course because it’s just things like that that we’ve learnt by doing things ourselves. Trying to get information on anything, what music licences do I need to get, does it need to be PPL or PRS, what do you need to do to get an alcohol licence and just things like that. It was agonisingly difficult to figure that out from different resources.

Hopefully we’ll get that on the curriculum going forwards because I think people would benefit from.

I hope you found that interview as useful as I did! Keep up with what Holly and Krag are up to on their blog, Twitter or Facebook. To do the same with Inkbike, you can check out the below;

Twitter: @Inkbike
Facebook: @lnkbike
LinkedIn: Kaeyo Mayne