What do you currently do?
I am the director of Sonocent, a UK start-up specialising in software to enhance learning and productivity, which I run with my father. Our flagship tool, Sonocent Audio Notetaker is audio recording software that helps students take effective notes and aids in the writing process. Our approach involves breaking up complex writing tasks into manageable stages through the use of a visually simple audio display which ditches the traditional audio timeline, instead showing phrases on screen like sentences on a page. This approach enables people of all abilities to become independent, successful students, who can work efficiently and effectively.
What is your inspiration in business?
There are three primary motivators for me personally; our users, our employees and the industry recognition of our ideas. We are blessed in that our business really makes a difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom would have struggled to succeed in education without us. Responses from our annual user survey and the stories from users who I meet touch me and inspire me achieve greater things. I am leading my employees on a journey and I am committed to making it one which challenges and invigorates them, working together to build something which we can all be proud of. Finally, I truly believe our approach is something innovative and powerful, despite it being deceptively simple. The idea that with this company we can shape the way that future educators think about learning, ultimately leading to bettering the education of millions, sits in that space between fantasy and near-reality. That makes it exciting.
Who do you admire?
Over the years I have been influenced by various individuals, each imparting the wisdom and support I needed at that moment in time. I admire my father who invested all we had as a family to develop and launch the first version of Audio Notetaker. His refusal to give up though times of mental exhaustion and fatigue in the early days is certainly one of the reasons we have found success today. However, my beacon in the distance is Elon Musk. His relentless pursuit to achieve goals which are important to him and his level of personal sacrifice sets him apart as a role model and, although his greatness seems so beyond what is attainable for myself, I deeply admire him as an individual and a leader. Tim Urban has just finished a great series on the world of Elon Musk and in it he attributes Elon’s success to the fact he distils larger assumptions about how things should be done back to first principles in order to find a better way. I feel the same could be said for what we have done at Sonocent in regards to our approach to note taking. This point of commonality makes me feel a connection to the man, despite his greatness making him somewhat difficult to relate to!
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Absolutely. I was 23 when I became a director at Sonocent, which at the time comprised of only 3 people. Much of what we did was trial and error and every single aspect of business was new to me. I made countless mistakes. Not that youth is an excuse – I don’t think you ever stop learning with business, and often those lessons will come from making mistakes! That being said, I feel that we could have had more focus in the early days. I have learned the importance of defining the absolute number one priority, setting yourself goals and creating tactics for achieving those goals. There will always be distractions in business, but success will come by committing wholeheartedly to a single pursuit.
What defines your way of doing business?
The phrase “just be helpful” comes to mind. If you have a solution which solves someone’s problem, then it is going to help them. Building a product or service should start from the principle of “how do we help make a certain task as easy as possible?”. Marketing too is helping people become aware of a potential problem and what the solution is. Sales is helping potential customers access the right information, namely your marketing material, so that they can come to a decision on whether to buy. There is almost no distinction in our company between ‘sales’ and ‘customer service’ as the sales agents are there to serve our customers. Conversely, selling a product which isn’t the right fit for a customer is a great way of creating dissatisfied customers and spreading a negative reputation. We want to avoid this as much as possible.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Start with a well-defined customer with a problem, not with a product or a service idea which you think could make money. If you can solve that problem, prove it by getting people to pay for it. When you have 10 happy customers who all love your solution, now you are ready to start the sales and marketing machine – there is no point spending any money until you have proven success and passionate evangelists. Find a mentor, either someone you can meet up with or someone in your industry who blogs religiously and learn as much as you can. It’s also worth saying that Sonocent have got to where we are today without any investment. If you think you can do that too then I would recommend seeing how far you get under your own steam – you’ll have more control and ultimately the freedom to create a company that thinks and does things differently.