Interview with Bambi Gardner from Oaka Books

When her dyslexic daughter was struggling at school, Bambi Gardner developed her own learning system to help her. It was such a success that she turned it into Oaka Books – topic packs and revision books to help visual learners.

What’s your career background?

Like many women, my career has been a complete mixture in order to fit around having a family. Having spent a few years working in PR and marketing, I then joined my husband’s business (in print lamination films) when we got married and have been working with him ever since.

I had a break when we built a new house and I project managed that which was fantastic and I loved every minute of it!

How did your career change after having children?

Basically, everything became focussed around the children so my career had to alter to achieve that. Working for ourselves was great as it gave me the flexibility to be totally involved in the children and be working full time (even if that did mean a lot of late nights and early mornings working!).

As the children got older and Sophie’s learning difficulties became more obvious, I spent a lot of time helping her and becoming involved in her schoolwork which really was the launch pad for Oaka Books.

Where did the idea for Oaka Books come from?

When Sophie approached her Common Entrance exams in 2012, it was clear that disaster was about to strike. Despite her teachers telling us for the previous eight years that ‘she would get there in the end’, her mock results of Es, Fs and a U indicated otherwise!

She was desperate to go to the same school as her brother and needed to pass her exams to achieve her goal. But, for a dyslexic, struggling reader or just a visual learner, the revision books that were available were just not suitable. I decided that we needed to create our own and that was really the beginning of the Oaka learning system.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

Having slightly ‘tested the market’ with my guinea pig daughter dramatically improving her results (she achieved all As and Bs in her CE exams), I took the Oaka concept to Kate Doehren, Head of Learning Support at Hurstpierpoint College.

She loved the whole idea and has been working with us ever since to give her specialist input. Having got the green light from the teaching profession, we then created our first nine history topic packs. The TES SEN Show was our launch and we came back thrilled with the positive response we received.

It was also very, very clear that there was nothing remotely like us in the education market. From there we made the decision to take the plunge and create packs for other subjects as well to try to stop any competition.

What’s your USP?

We are unique in the education market because we look at curriculum based material in a very visual way in small, concise chunks. Other text and revision books are too wordy and too big for struggling pupils. Our packs also give pupils three different learning strategies for each topic which hugely improves memory recall.

Who’s your target audience?

We started life clearly focussed on the SEN market within schools. However, that has slightly altered as many parents now buy from us as well. We also have so many teachers saying that all pupils would benefit from being taught in this way, not just SEN pupils.

So, the market is broadening but that makes marketing the product more difficult! We still try to remain clear as to who we are aiming to help.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

Now that’s the million pound question! This is the hardest part for us. Once people have seen our products they love them but marketing to schools is very hard – teachers are busy, budgets are tight so it is a very slow market to get into.

We find exhibitions are useful but difficult to assess results from (and also not worth going to unless you have something new to show each year). We use social media and blogging to communicate with customers on a regular basis and we use emails as well.

Direct mail is expensive but it seems to be more effective again now as fewer people are using it. So if it is very targeted then it is worth doing.

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

Our biggest promotional success by far is word of mouth, especially as schools are now recommending us. The problem with word of mouth is that, while it is very powerful, it takes time to achieve.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Getting our name out to people.

And your proudest moment so far?

Gaining ISEB (Independent Schools Examination Board) endorsement of many of our products. Their exams are widely considered the gold standard for assessment and to have them loving our products is fantastic.

Every email we get from a parent, teacher or pupil thanking us for our products is always lovely too, as we know we are making a difference.

Why is work so important to you?

Because you need to be doing things to be an interesting person. With our children grown up, I am not needed so much and, to be honest, I like to have something to focus on and be passionate about.

Oaka is important because it has been such a personal journey and I know we are making a real difference to struggling children and that is a huge motivator.

Who inspires you?

There are many people who impress me but my children, Harry and Sophie, inspire me. They are amazing and I just want to be a good role model for them.

How do you balance your business with your family?

With difficulty and with the help of numerous online services – I have an online assistant, use online shopping and order everything online. I have no idea how parents managed before! I even now use a hands free messaging service, Message Mia, so I don’t forget ideas when I am driving!

What are your three top pieces of advice for other entrepreneurs?

  1. There is no such thing as a negative comment. It is all feedback and that is all positive as it enables you to change and evolve.
  2. There is no such thing as an overnight success. You have to be prepared to keep on keeping on if you really believe in your product.
  3. Cash is king and needs a careful focus. You can make profit but without cash, your business will suffer.

You can find out more about Oaka Books on their website