Steve Nicholson and Ben Keylock, founders of databonds

Photo of Steve Nicholson and Ben Keylock

Steve Nicholson and Ben Keylock are the co-founders of databonds, a pioneering new business on a mission to change the way shopping data is used, forever.
They believe that in the not-too-distant future, people will be transacting with their data as often as they do their cash, card or crypto. However, that’s only possible when the power of data is put into the shoppers’ hands.
Right now, consumer shopping data is held across many different retailers, with no ability to connect it – databonds are here to change all of that with a platform that allows consumers to own a copy of their data, together, in one secure place.

Consumers will then be able to use this data to earn financial rewards, donate and support causes close to their hearts and get insights to meet their shopping goals whether they be saving £££s, eating healthier or more sustainably. There are significant benefits for brands, too – they will finally get the level of customer understanding they have been craving for years with cross-retailer, behavioural insights at scale accessible via an insight reporting platform. For the first time, the fast-growing data science teams will get granular shopping data at an individual level and will have the opportunity to connect with their most loyal customers on a one-to-one basis. Having just closed an angel round of funding, Ben and Steve have now launched into the pilot stage of their business, which involves signing up at least 1000 members so that they can have meaningful conversations with retailers about getting consumers more value for their shopping data.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
databonds Logo

Ben is a data consultant and has advised some of the biggest retailers on what their customers want by analysing how they shop. He’s really passionate about using data ethically and with total transparency. I am to business, what Ben is to data, which is why we’re a good match! I’m passionate about retail and have taken on leadership, finance and commercial roles across major retailers – from Tesco and Sainsburys to B&Q and Samsung. Ben and I met at Dunnhumby, a data company that helps retailers and brands deliver better experiences through customer-first strategies. It was here that we started discussing the idea that consumers should have more ownership over their shopping data and get better value from it. We noticed a strange paradox where every retailer talked about the importance of using consumer shopping data to make better decisions – yet the consumers behind the data had no idea how it was being used, and weren’t being fairly rewarded for it.

We knew we wanted to change that, but it was only when GDPR laws came into force in 2018 that we realised how that dream could become a reality. For the first time, regulation gave individuals the right to request and receive their personal data from companies, and – acknowledging that the majority of the population needs support with interpreting and understanding this data – the law permits a third party to operate on their behalf. The regulation gave us the framework we needed to finally create the business that we always believed should exist. Five years on, we’ve now dedicated ourselves to the business full-time and are committed to changing the way the industry operates to ensure that consumers get more value for their data.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
It’s about doing something new and making a difference. In our opinion, true entrepreneurship is about having a unique idea and then finding a way to deliver a payoff that goes beyond just profit. Because shareholders aren’t your only stakeholders – there are your employees, your customers, the environment and society at large. That’s why the core proposition of what we’ve set out to do is to transform the data industry in order to allow consumers to get more value for their data. We want to use data for good – giving charities and research bodies greater access to granular data that can help to better diagnose life-threatening diseases, help people live healthier lives, and buy products that are better for the planet.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
When GDPR was introduced, we road-tested the idea by asking the top 10 retailers to share my (and a few other family and friends) data with databonds acting as a third party. Every single retailer sent us the data, which showed us that we had the legal framework behind us to transform the industry forever. It’s also one of those ideas that always gets positive feedback from whoever we talk to about it – whether that be family, friends or connections in the data and retail industry. Usually, you mention an idea and you find out someone else has done it already, or the people you speak to don’t seem that impressed. That’s never been the case with databonds.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Adaptability. When you’re in the early stages of a business, things are always going to need to pivot.
You also need to be influential – every connection counts because you can’t build a business on your own. You always need to be in sales mode, whether you’re selling your product to customers, your business to investors or your ideas to potential partners.
Finally, you need dedication. When you’re starting up small, you haven’t got the brand power where people will immediately want to book in meetings with you or take a call, so you’re constantly pushing water uphill. There are a lot of days when nothing happens, and you need dedication to stick it out and know that at some point, things will move in the right direction.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The excitement of creating something that’s never been done before, which will have a huge impact and make a real difference in the world.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Not one specifically, but we admire any company that is demonstrably focused on delivering for all stakeholder groups, not just the shareholders. Profits are not the sole focus of a company, not in the world today. Great examples would be Patagonia or Tony’s Chocolonely, but there are many more.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
We would want to spend some time discussing how they balance the needs of their different stakeholder groups. Specifically, what is their decision-making process when a particular decision requires a trade-off that will have an impact on different stakeholder groups, or where a decision creates a conflict?

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Specific to databonds, that would have to be finally getting my data from Amazon who were among the 10 retailers that we requested data from when road testing whether or not the GDPR regulation could work for us. Amazon was persistently refusing to send the data as they said that customers can access their transaction history by going into their account and downloading it. We went back and forth for a long time, then finally Amazon backed down and said they would send us the data in the post – on an encrypted USB device. And that’s what they did. A bizarre, yet very satisfying moment.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
We’ve learned how important it is to know your audience when pitching to investors. Take time to understand how well they know your sector and if they are the type of investor that’s matched to what you’re looking for. You can waste a lot of time speaking to the wrong people!

How have you funded your ideas?
Initially, we were working on databonds in our spare time. Now we’re both dedicated to the business full-time (unpaid) and have closed our angel round of funding, which we achieved by leveraging the EMBA network at Oxford, as well as through friends, family and ex-colleagues.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Nothing to note yet, but we are working on this!

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The business school itself is extremely entrepreneurial-focused. There are a lot of people connected through current students and alumni, and that pervades across the whole of Oxford, which is a very entrepreneurial place to be. There are a lot of different organisations (EnSpire Oxford being a good example of one) with a genuine willingness to help and connect people.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
We’d recommend organisations like EnSpire Oxford and the Entrepreneurship Centre at the University of Oxford’s Business School, as they’re both great places to make connections, whether that be finding a mentor or potential investors.

Any last words of advice?
The success of your business will not come down to the number of hours you work. Make sure you’ve got boundaries in place so that you can switch off and enjoy spending time with your friends and family, or on personal hobbies. Starting up a business can become all-encompassing and you need to strike the right balance for your mental health and wellbeing.