CEO Interview: Nik Venios, Before and After (BEAF)
PUBLISHED: 11:14 27 June 2018
© Thousand Word Media
When someone told Nik Venios he'd never make money from ideas, he knew he'd prove them wrong. Now companies from Pepsi to HSBC are knocking on his door. Tanya Gledhill meets a man on a mission
Once upon a time, someone told Nik Venios he’d never make any money from ideas.
Like many a teenager told they’d never make anything of themselves, Nik had another plan.
And now, after wowing Saatchi & Saatchi and just about everyone else he’s ever come into contact with in the workplace, Nik is the co-founder and Innovation Director at BEAF, a revolutionary innovation agency in Gloucestershire.
Based in Gloucester, companies from PepsiCo to HSBC have Nik on speed dial.
And he spends his life dreaming up ideas that effect change for his clients in the most extraordinary ways.
Nik graduated from Nottingham Trent University with a first class honours degree in product design.
He spent his summers back in Gloucestershire, working for Barnwood-based EDF Energy where his boss roped him into working with computer systems.
“I didn’t know anything about computers,” he says, with trademark modesty. “Apart from how to switch them on.
“But they got me to design a system which grabbed all the nuclear data from stations around the world and pulled it into one place and output it into a load of reports.
“It used to take them two weeks to do. I got it down to about 20 seconds.”
Boom. Idea number one.
While Nik was working there, there were two suspected cases of SARS among the engineers - the Severe Acute Respiratory System epidemic that swept through China in the early 2000s, infecting 8,000 people globally.
“One day I was in the loo and a guy walked out without washing his hands and I thought, ‘ugh, gross, now I’ve got to go and touch that exit door handle’,” says Nik.
“And so I went back to uni and invented a door handle that cleaned its surface, constantly.”
Enter his idea for the Germblock, for which, 12 years ago, he won £40,000 of funding but never took it to market.
Now it’s gone into production through another business, being installed in buildings from office blocks to hospitals, though there are no royalties in sight. “Fail,” he says. “That was a fail.”
But still, boom. Idea number two.
By the time Nik left university, he was working three jobs to make ends meet before he landed a place on the fiercely competitive Saatchi & Saatchi Summer Scholarship Programme.
“I was the only one who wasn’t from Oxford or Cambridge,” he says, grinning. “So I was well happy, this oik from the country among all these brilliant minds. And it was incredible.”
Saatchi & Saatchi’s CEO Kevin Roberts took Nik under his wing, and still mentors him now.
“He said to me, ‘Nik. Don’t be an account manager, go and follow your heart.’,” Nik remembers.
And so in 2010 he came back to Gloucestershire where his dad, Mike - a restaurateur - was bringing up him and his sister single-handedly after their mother’s death.
Digital fascinated him, so he landed a job with an agency in Cheltenham, working on big brand websites for organisations like the Commonwealth Games.
But his heart was in product, and in 2013, he founded BEAF - Before and After.
The team proves and launches products and services for tiny companies and global brands alike.
“It’s really cool,” he says, leaning forward in his chair where I meet him at the Growth Hub - the body to which he attributes much of his start-up success.
“It’s awesome. We get to work with so many different industries and sectors.”
One of his earliest successes was for a Bristol printing company which - as traditional print was dying - was looking to urgently diversify.
Enter Nik’s idea for environmentally-friendly, plantable wrapping paper impregnated with seeds from wild flowers to broccoli - the idea being, when you’ve finished with the paper, you plant it in the ground and watch the crop depicted in the design grow.
There was method in the madness. Wrapping paper has a 75% margin - one of the highest in the printing industry - and last year, at Christmas in the UK, enough gift wrap to wrap around the world nine times over was thrown away.
For Nik, it was a no-brainer.
Boom. Idea number three. Or 33. I’m not sure I can keep up. His energy is absolutely infectious.
“It went wild,” he says. “We launched it and Fox News got hold of it and suddenly, this tiny little printers in Bristol was getting approached by retailers and distributors from across the world.
“For their Japan launch, Microsoft wanted to wrap their tablets in it. It went over to WPP [an advertising, marketing and comms group]. All the ad agencies started to get involved. It got Top 10 Mother’s Day gifts in Cosmopolitan magazine. It went into Highgrove, Prince Charles’ brand.
“The CEO of Wyvale Garden Centres rang his buying director and said: ‘I want this in all my stores. Get it now’. It went on to Fothergills website and, within two days, became their best-selling product.
BEAF comes up with an idea, often in conjunction with the MD or CEO; proves a market for it; proves it can generate sales; creates the brand and the messaging; builds the website and launches it.
If ever a company was built for the phrase one-stop-shop, BEAF is it.
Nik says his favourite industries to work with are the ‘grey’ ones - industries seemingly doing not very exciting things, making not very exciting products.
“They’re the ones you can really make fly,” he says, grinning again.
BEAF has recently been working with Watts Group in Lydney, manufacturer of polyurethane and thermoplastic sheet.
Watts’ Technical Director was using some of the company’s polyurethane material to keep the chainstay of his bike from getting damaged. There must be, said the company, more applications for it.
Meet Adventure Tape, beautifully branded and packaged by the BEAF team, launched on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and which hit its £15,000 funding target in one week, eventually reaching £45K in funding in just four weeks.
Overnight, Ace Hardware’s 3,500 stores in the US wanted it. YouTube’s Unbox Therapy channel went wild for it, reaching 2m views in two days.
They’re the small companies, the owner-managed businesses he loves working with most. And then there’s HSBC, PepsiCo and Airtel India, the Post Office and the Co-Op which all call on BEAF’s services to future-proof their enterprises.
Pepsi wanted to know what to do with its waste materials, so Nik designed fog-catchers that would produce water, their mesh made from HDPE - the material from which its bottles are made - held up by aluminium struts, the waste from its cola cans.
It’s the perfect solution for irrigating arid regions, opening up a world of possibilities for the developing world, along with solar stills, which he was also looking at.
Later, the company created point-of-sale stands from it’s manufacturing waste.
This reminds him of another idea, and by now, he’s talking at a million miles an hour.
He was working for the digital agency, he remembers, buying cans of Coke from the vending machine each day, and got fed up with the change, the 20p pieces cluttering up his desk.
Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if Coca-Cola built in a charity donation function to all its vending machines?
Nice idea, said Coke’s head of global development that he’d emailed out of the blue, but their innovation team had thought of it just a month earlier, to raise money for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand.
Boom. Idea number 8,443.
BEAF isn’t just about bringing products to market, it launches its own products and services too. The latest is an all-inclusive graphic design package called DesignerNow.com, Plus it hosts Innovation Workshops, where Nik employs upwards of 70 idea generation tools to get companies to think outside the box.
Can you teach people to be creative, though, I ask him? I’m sceptical.
“All creativity is, is linking two distant points of reference to create something new,” says the 36-year-old.
“That’s fundamentally it. And everyone’s got experiences in their lives that they can draw upon to create something. There are techniques you can use to link those two points.
“When people say, ‘I’m not creative’, I don’t believe them.
“Everyone’s got the ability to create an idea, and everyone’s got ideas that are trapped in their head. And it’s the same for businesses.
“Businesses have loads of ideas trapped within their walls. It’s just about releasing them.”
And it’s vital they do, to keep up the energy levels, to keep them ahead of the competition.
“Ideas represent opportunity. I was up in Canary Wharf talking to HSBC about the future of banking,” he throws casually into the conversation.
“There are all these outliers and if you’re a large company and you’re sitting there and you’re looking over your empire and everything looks rosy, you won’t see the small guys coming up behind you. That’s where the innovation is.”
Nik, who lives in Gloucester with his partner Emma and 19-month-old daughter Rheya, attended St Peter’s High School as a boy.
He watched his widowed father working all hours, providing for him and his sister.
His mum, who worked in social services, died when Nik was just seven and he admits the tragedy gave him a formidable work ethic.
One of his three jobs at university, alongside inventing self-cleaning door handles and working in a piano bar, was distributing the Metro newspaper at 5am.
By watching photocopiers’ sorting and stacking mechanisms, he quickly worked out that, by sliding his fingers in between each newspaper, he could hand them out much more quickly.
Overnight, he was the biggest distributor in the area, handing out a dozen bags’ worth in three hours.
I can almost hear the cogs of his brain spinning while I’m sitting here as we leap from discussing memory transfer between sea slugs, to AI, to creating detailed demographics from analysis of footfall in shops so I can’t believe he ever switches off.
So does he sleep at night, with all these ideas swimming round in his head?
He does, he says. He loves sleep: a full eight hours. He has to, to function, he says.
And mostly he tries to switch off his laptop at 6pm, to spend time with Emma and read and draw with Rheya, who he describes as “an absolute joy”.
When he wakes, he’s excited for the day ahead.
The BEAF team is small, so how does he work so effectively with so many different industries?
He has a team of expert advisors he can call on, he says, along with “amazing mentors”. And it’s here he tells me the best story yet.
“Most of the companies I’ve worked with had no idea that at the start it was just me sitting at my kitchen table coming up with ideas,” says Nik.
“They think we’ve got some massive team behind us because we’ve done it so often for so many brands.”
In the beginning, a big company contacted him and asked if the executives could come and meet him at his office. He didn’t have an office.
So he ‘borrowed’ one, gathered his closest mates together, took the client into the boardroom and began to introduce his pals, one by one.
“This is Rob, the graphic designer’,” Nik laughs. “I mean, he is a graphic designer, he just wasn’t mine. I got the contract, and they’re still very happy clients today.”
Nik’s mantra is simple: do what you love. It’s something he instills in Rheya.
“I want to encourage her to do whatever she wants to do,” he says. “If she came to me and said, ‘Dad, I really love sweeping, and I really want to sweep the streets’, then I’d say, ‘go and do it, do what you love’. I think that’s really important.”
This burning desire to be the best you can be, does it come from his father? From his mother’s death?
“The best advantage you can give any child in life is disadvantage,” he says. “I really believe that. I was lucky to have a dad who was massively supportive. He was a single parent and so I have the utmost respect for working parents, because I know how hard it was.
“I tell Rheya all the time, you can achieve anything you want to in life, whether you want to be a billionaire or an artist or write award-winning music. You can do it.
“I feel immensely privileged to have had the life I’ve had, and I just want to inspire people to be able to do the same thing.
“You can achieve anything, wherever you’re from. Opportunity is everywhere.”