Having grown the small Gateshead-based design company he co-founded almost a decade ago into one of the world’s leading character licensing creative companies, Jason Knights is full of advice for entrepreneurs looking to emulate his company’s success overseas.
Gateshead-based graphic design company Blue Kangaroo, which specialises in the character licensing industry, has seen its headcount grow by 40% and turnover double since expanding its presence overseas. If you’ve watched any animated films or cartoons over the past few years, the likelihood is you’ve consumed some of their work. The company works hand-in-hand with some of the world’s leading media companies to help create anything from original sketches of characters all the way through to designing company style guides and brands.
Knights co-founded the company alongside his business partner and current creative director Ian Smith back in 2006. As the firm continued to grow the duo made a promise to their staff - that they would keep them in a job no matter what happened. This commitment has been at the heart of everything Knights and Smith have done since, and when the UK market started to shrink back in 2013, the duo knew they had to explore new avenues.
“We’ve been exporting for around three years but we seriously started exporting around two years ago,” said Knights. “We saw the UK business shrinking as large American companies started taking their money back to America so we thought we’d go after them in their own back yard.
“We made a commitment to our staff that we would keep them in a job, so wherever the work was, that was where we headed. Our headcount has now gone up by 40% in the last year alone and turnover has risen by just short of 100% over the last three years.
“One of the first companies we started exporting on behalf of was Walt Disney and it has taken off from there. It’s testament to our team’s skill being trusted to re-create the look and feel of globally recognised brands, and our repeat work ratio just goes to prove the quality of the work we deliver.”
When the duo first decided to explore the possibility of exporting, they sought advice from government trade body UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) North East. This led to Knights being introduced to international trade advisor John Doolan. “John was a major help when we first started exporting,” said Knights. “He was absolutely superb. We joined the Passport to Export programme and I sealed a meeting with Disney in LA not long after – I was petrified.
“John’s advice to me was simply ‘Just go out there and do it.’ Within my first trip I visited New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I sat outside of the company’s reception surrounded by Oscar Awards and I was just sitting there thinking ‘wow, what am I doing here?’
“Two years on from that meeting, we now work with the company on a regular basis. It has only taken two years for us to get to the stage we are at now and we are constantly busy.”
Speaking about the firm’s success, Doolan said: “BlueKangaroo have proved that if you have a good product, and good advice, the world is full of exporting opportunities. UKTI gave Jason some specific market insight and advice but ultimately it is his products and his company’s reputation which has led to exporting so successfully to Disney and others.
“The North East has many other innovative and exciting small businesses that could also take the first steps on their export journeys - and we would be very happy to help them to achieve on a global stage.”
Working initially with companies in the US, Blue Kangaroo has since seen demand for its services soar on a global scale securing repeat business across Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.
“Exports account for around 70% of our turnover now – it’s huge,” added Knights. “We have customers on both the East and West coasts of America, India, Australia, Doha, Germany, Holland, we have customers all over the world.”
And this really is some feat, for a company of 13 which doesn’t employ a single person in a sales role. “Our biggest achievement so far has been spreading the name of Blue Kangaroo,” Knights concluded. “We don’t have any sales people work here so we don’t have a sales team at all. We don’t have a natural person out selling – the way we do it is excelling in our work and being recommended via word of mouth. That’s the best recommendation possible.”