Starting your own business is hard. Not hard in the same way that quantum physics is hard, but hard because you’re venturing into unknown territory, faced with decisions every day which could make or break your business- and more often than not, there isn’t a lot of evidence to tell you what the ‘right’ answer is.
You have to make decisions about your product. If this is an app you will have to decide whether to develop it yourself, outsource development or give someone shares in your company to develop it for you. Within that there are a myriad of other decisions to make from the high-level (‘should we initially develop for iOS, Android or both?’) to the seemingly mundane but still potentially critical points (‘should this button go on the left side of the screen or the right?’).
Each of these questions represents a fork in the road for your business. And they have correct answers in that there is an option that represents the optimum path to take. What’s particularly terrifying is that some options may literally make or break your business.
For those coming from a science background, your first thoughts might be to look at the evidence: see what companies have done in the past and emulate that. To an extent, this can be helpful, but at the end of the day, the only thing you can rely on is your own judgement. You can look at what AirBnB, Tesco or Facebook did when faced with your situation, and this may give you a good indicator but your business is (hopefully!) different to theirs. Not only is your market different, but internal factors such as the skills and abilities of your team also need to be considered.
The gang: Barney Williams, myself and Sam Ryan in a JumpIn taxi
In a nutshell: having an idea for a business is great, but to succeed you’ll have to make a series of correct decisions. The best thing to do to increase your chances of succeeding are to arm yourself with the best advice possible and use this to guide you.
In this respect, the Spark team at Leeds University have been absolutely instrumental in helping me to get my first and then second business started. In addition to providing cash grants you can use to develop a prototype or complete market research, they have a diverse network of professionals from across the region who offer young entrepreneurs legal, financial, technical, marketing and pitching advice.
They won’t do the work for you: you can’t just rock up asking for £1000 because you’ve got an idea to make the next big app that’s going to be like ‘<<insert existing social media network here>> for <<insert niche group of users here>>’. What you can expect though, is to get honest critique on your idea, some agreed ‘next steps’ milestones and help constructing a basic business plan. If you can do this and show that you’re serious about your idea, that critically evaluated your business model and done some market research, then more often than not you can get some level of financial support to help you start turning it into a reality.
And it’s important to point out: this isn’t just for business or humanities students. Natural scientists, computer scientists, engineers and medical students very frequently have incredible ideas to solve problems they see day to day in their lives. You may not have any formal teaching in enterprise, and whilst this can put you at a disadvantage, it shouldn’t prevent you from testing the water with your idea. Maybe you’ll discover you have a bit of natural flair for the business thing after all, maybe you’ll want to do an MSc in Enterprise to get more formal education in it whilst developing your idea further, or maybe you’ll find the perfect business-minded co-founder to match your technical expertise – many very successful businesses have been founded on exactly this kind of relationship – Apple and Facebook being just two that come to mind.
My own journey started just this way, when two other Leeds students, Sam Ryan and Barney Williams were looking for a technical co-founder to join their team and help to develop JumpIn, a taxi booking and sharing platform exclusively for students. They found me as I’d developed another app before, and whilst this had some reasonable success I’d mainly developed it as a hobby project rather than an actual business. I was intrigued with the concept, and agreed to come on board with them.
This was the start of a 18-month journey during which I’ve learnt more about myself and what I want to do with my life than I have in 20+ years. JumpIn involved crazy hours, but the pay off was that as three students we developed a viable business in an incredibly well-funded, competitive and fast moving market. We were invited to 10 Downing Street to advise the government on how they can facilitate Britain’s growing ‘app economy’, travelled across the country and met the Duke of York to receive a Young Entrepeneur Award. We launched JumpIn in 5 major UK cities, completed a second investment round, moved in to offices in London and hired full time developers to help work on the product. In the end, we sold the company to Addison-Lee, Europe’s largest taxi firm, in an acquisition which saw Sam and Barney taking up product manager positions to continue running JumpIn under the Addison-Lee brand.
From my perspective, I’ve been offered a fellowship at the Kairos Society, an international network of entrepreneurs – comprising some truly inspiring people, and have gained a bunch of contacts, skills and experience to use in future endeavours. I’ve decided that, despite the stresses and risk inherent in entrepreneurship, I love the journey, and I want to start more projects.
Since then I’ve been involved with all kinds of things: I’ve developed innovative technological solutions for a dutch healthcare provider treating autistic children, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and advised on many more. I’ve spoken about technology and enterprise at events in Leeds, London and Los Angeles (my speaking circuit, it seems, has an affinity for the letter ‘L’), and most recently have been working on my second real ‘business’ project, MyCQs.
MyCQs is the app I developed as a hobby project before joining JumpIn. In a nutshell, it’s an online revision platform which is going to make learning a more engaging, more interesting and a more social process. MyCQs encourages students to create, practice and share Multiple Choice Question (MCQ) tests with their coursemates. My colleague Omair and I originally discovered that writing questions for each other was a great way to learn, so we gradually opened up this process to other medical students who also found the process to be really engaging.
We developed the app and website over a 3 month period, and shortly after we released, it gained 16,000 downloads in just 6 hours! Suddenly not just medical students, but Boeing 787 pilots, special needs teachers and students from practically every discipline were using our app to improve their education. This was incredible, and in all honesty took a good few hours to really believe (‘Is our analytics software broken? Have I forgotten how to read graphs? k means thousand, right?’). It had two major effects: 1) It crashed our servers, 2) It made us realise we’d tapped into something much bigger than we realised. This wasn’t a niche platform for a few hundred medical students: this is something which could be applied to students and professionals in practically every field.
So a few months after exiting JumpIn, I started to think about how I could use what I’d learnt to transform MyCQs from a hobby project into a world-leading educational platform. We completely re-wrote the old software, which whilst usable wasn’t particularly scalable. We won a competition run by a national educational charity called Jisc, which gave us access to funding as well as mentoring and support from industry experts. After an intensive summer working with Jisc, we now run MyCQs on a technology platform that can handle pretty much anything you can throw at it – it’s stable, it’s secure and it’s fast. This means that we can have absolute confidence in pushing it out there to universities and investors.
Eventually I plucked the courage to go back to the Spark team and ask for some more support. In the back of my mind I had this idea that they might say ‘What? Him again – he’s already had his money and his support…go away!’, and fortunately this notion was proved wrong. They completely understood that this was a new business with new challenges, and that I was taking on a much larger role in the business-development side of the business than I had in JumpIn.
Spark have put us in touch with solicitors to get our company documents written, advisors to help us pitch and, most recently, free office space for one year at the Leeds Innovation Centre. This is part of a new Incubator scheme Spark is providing, using funds from an entrepreneur called Peter Wilkinson who wants to see more successful student-run businesses coming out of Leeds University.
The office space allows us to work far more effectively together, and give us the potential to bring in more staff or interns of we need to in the near future, as well as giving us a lot more credibility when meeting potential stakeholders.
MyCQs is available now, for free, in the app store and at http://www.mycqs.com. For the next few weeks we’re going to be working hard on really polishing the product in response to user feedback, as well as developing a premium (paid) subscription level giving users access to advanced analytics and personalised learning plans! Next month we’re pitching for a round of investment at The Web Summit in Dublin, and at the Jisc Innovation Showcase in Reading.
If you’ve got an idea and want to turn it into a business, be aware that it is hard, risky and will, in all likelihood, put significant strain on some of your personal relationships. No-one can do it for you, but there are people out there who can help: whether in the form of money, advice or connections, which will make you far more likely to succeed. Spark and Jisc are two fantastic organisations doing this, we’re incredibly grateful to them and I encourage you to take advantage of what they’re offering!
PS: If you’re interested in working in a startup business but don’t have your own idea right now, drop me a line – MyCQs is growing quickly and we’re keeping an eye out for new blood, new perspectives and new talent who can help us take it to the next level!
Medical Student & Enterprise Scholar, University of Leeds