An interview with Jody Orsborn
Written by Rowly Bourne
Following on from my piece Do Corporate Incubators Accelerate or Distract?, I sat down with my fellow founders and co-founders from the BBC Labs, to discuss their thoughts and feelings about BBC Labs, and incubators in general – as well as a little bit about them!
We are pleased to bring you the first interview from the series with the amazing Jody Orsborn, the cofounder and now ex MD of the recently sold The Backscratchers.
Oh, and she’s also a Rockstar!
To get things started, could you give everyone a quick bio of yourself?
Sure – I am now a London-based consultant advising on strategy, innovation and growth for businesses ranging from startups to multi-national corporations.
I’ve been chosen as one of the UK’s Top Women Entrepreneurs by CNBC and a ‘One To Watch’ for Tech City News’ International Hall of Fame. I also do a lot of speaking at conferences and events around the world including Eurobest, Creative Mornings, Ad Week and more.
Previously, I was MD and co-founder of The Backscratchers. The business worked closely with clients like Red Bull, Google, Spotify and Unilever to understand their marketing challenges and to ensure they had the resources they needed to get their projects done. From making human-shaped drones fly to building the world’s first emotional music discovery experience (with fellow Labs company CrowdEmotion for Spotify), The Backscratchers were an integral part of some of the most innovative projects to come out of the UK in the past few years. The Backscratchers was acquired in March 2018 by American company Working Not Working.
I’m also a judge for Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent Competition and am founder and bass player for the world’s first and only all-girl Bruce Springsteen cover band, The She Street Band, which has been featured in Elle Magazine, NME, Time Out and more.
So you’ve got a few things going on! Focussing on BBC Labs, what was your most important takeaway?
Before BBC Labs, we had been working with a lot of startups and SMEs. The interest that BBC Worldwide showed in us made us realise that it wasn’t just small companies that had issues accessing great talent to make projects happen. In fact, major brands and organisations were facing the same exact challenges. BBC Worldwide helped us realise that we were a viable solution for them.
Other valuable lessons we learned during our BBC stint included how to navigate the world of corporate procurement departments and importantly, how to speak their language.
What has been your best piece of work with the BBC?
We helped BBC Good Food create a stop-motion film complete with dancing carrots. It was a beautiful piece of work and one I’m really proud of helping to make happen.
What was the reality of going on your own after leaving Labs?
We were ready. We had the lessons that we had learned from working with the BBC and were prepared to start applying them to new clients. With BBC Worldwide’s backing, we also had the industry cred to take those next steps in approaching new clients.
Their seal of approval opened the door for us to work with clients like Unilever, The Guardian, Sky and more.
It was a game changer for us.
Sad news: Labs is no longer a six-month accelerator. Knowing what you know today, would you go through the accelerators available today?
We would be wary of going through another accelerator. When we did our two accelerators (Springboard, now Techstars London, and BBC Labs) in 2012-2014, accelerators were still relatively new on the London scene. Fast-forward to 2018 and there are more and more accelerators popping up every day. I think the industry has definitely reached peak accelerator. That said, I think that there is still a massive gap in the accelerator space for programmes that focus on connecting startups to clients as opposed to investors.
The majority of tech accelerators focus on getting investment. That makes sense for some companies, but for others like ours, getting a few big clients would have been just as crucial.
That’s my issue with most accelerators – they have a blueprint that you are supposed to follow and if you don’t quite fit into it, they still try and force you into the mould. Not everyone needs to do a seed round followed by a series A, Series B, etc. I wish more accelerators would accept that investment isn’t the only option and offer various routes for their startups.
That’s the thing I appreciated the most about BBC Labs. Though it wasn’t always the smoothest process, the whole aim was to get a client. It was refreshing!
The BBC being the BBC, could not make a profit out of us. But could they have made a profit out of your business (as a customer/investor)?
Yes, I strongly believe that they could have saved a lot of time and money had they used us more frequently.
It was tricky because once we were out of the building (and Hannah Blake, who was our brilliant champion internally) left, it was a bit like ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
There was no easy way to communicate with all of the teams across the BBC and let them know that we had signed a deal and they could use us. We often resorted to cold contacting people on LinkedIn which didn’t seem like the most efficient use of anyone’s time.
While we have done some lovely projects with the BBC, and continued to right up until we sold the business, I believe it was definitely a bit of a lost opportunity for BBC Worldwide not to use us more.
Congratulations on your recent sale! Talk us through the emotions, challenges and excitements of the whole process?
Thank you! Basically, at the end of every year, my cofounder Leo Critchley and I would do a state of the union to see where the business was and where we’d want it to go. When we were going through that process, we met the American company Working Not Working. They are a really interesting business that have done very well in the United States and were starting to expand more into Europe. It was just one of those moments where everything aligned. We realised that we shared a lot of the same visions for the industry and ideas about how good work could and should be created. We also identified that it would be a great next step for both The Backscratchers’ clients and our network of talent, who, through the sale, would have access to Working Not Working’s highly curated global network and their super useful tech platform.
Emotions… there were so many! Needless to say, it’s been a very exciting year.
In terms of challenges, the hardest thing I found was having to say goodbye to my team. They were honestly some of the most hardworking and genuinely lovely people I’d ever had the chance to work with. Not getting to see them everyday has taken some getting used to.
It’s also pretty strange not to be Jody from The Backscratchers anymore as that was my identity for so long. I’m never quite sure what to put as my company name when I go for meetings now and have to sign in at the front desk… ex-Backscratchers? Freelance Consultant? Jody?
But with all that said, though I’m so grateful for those years of running the business, I feel like I have a bit of a new lease on life and I am excited about getting to work on new projects and new challenges. I’ve also been really enjoying digging into and learning about some industries that I didn’t cross paths with much at The Backscratchers.
At the moment, for example, I’m reading a lot about mindware and data alongside topics I’ve always loved like the future of work, creativity and innovation.
So, where do you go from here?
I spent almost seven years working on The Backscratchers. I loved (almost) every minute of it. Since the company was sold in March, I’ve started freelancing and consulting with other businesses and I’ve really enjoying getting to work on new challenges and fresh problems.
Alongside the consulting, I’ve also been running some of my own projects, like a one day conference I co-produced/created in May with Rima Garsys called Making London. The conference was about the intersection of innovation and creativity and featured speakers from Instagram, Adidas, Google, Vice and more. Plus… we donated all of the ticket sales to We Are Stripes, an organisation that supports getting more ethnic minorities into the creative industries.
Generally, I’m just excited about what the rest of this year will bring, getting involved in new businesses and projects and eventually, looking for the right next business or venture to start (or join).