When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I had absolutely no idea. I wasn't academic in the slightest. I actually did pretty badly in all my schooling until I was about 17, and then I slowly started to get ahold of things. But by that point, there was only so much I could do.
I was very passionate about doing Legos as a kid, and then as a teenager I was doing a lot of robotics stuff. I was really into tech stuff, a bit of design, a bit of filmmaking, a bit of Google SketchUp stuff. I've always liked jumping into stuff. I didn't actually know I was already doing programming. You think it's playing but you really are learning some good stuff there.
How did you decide to attend Brunel University?
I did pretty terribly on my exams, so I didn't get into the college that I wanted to get into. As a last resort, I ended up doing this very vocational program in the realm of tech and media. It was all projects-based, which meant that I was able to touch every single area of the tech industry and media and design and bits of engineering. I had two years of just creative exploring, using computers for everything. It was really enjoyable.
After that two-year course, I was caught up and I got into a pretty good university,
Brunel University in London. It's at the very west end of London in a small town called Uxbridge. It's the best university for tech and engineering in London, which is where I wanted to be.
How did you choose your major?
I signed up to do a computer science degree specializing in artificial intelligence, because I thought that it was cool, it was the future, and there was a bit of robotics involved so I thought that would be fun. Before starting university, everyone I told that I was doing computer science and AI warned me that it was really boring. I hadn't really done any programming before that, so I decided to just start playing around with programming to see what I thought.
I was playing around with it, and I thought, "If I'm going to make something, what should I make?" I decided to make a search engine and play around with the data and see what happened. I was really going in completely clueless about programming. I literally had to Google search how to make a Google search.
I remember telling my dad about it when he got home from work and he was interested in it as well. He ran our family company with his brother selling computer hardware and keyboards, and doing IT procurement. He told me that they were about to pay for this really fancy service that would allow them to compare the pricing on their website with their competitors. He said that the program I was building looked kind of like that. And that led me to actually build this program for them.
I worked on it for a few months, and then I started university and put it on pause for a time. But I got pretty bored of university quite quickly. They tried to teach me programming using PowerPoints, and I’m more of creative person. I got bored with the structured learning, and I'm not really into the whole partying and drinking culture thing. So then I went back to this project.
I finished building it at the end of my first year of university, and it was really dumb and basic. I could probably do it in a few hours now, but I had no idea what I was doing then. I gave it to my dad, and they actually used it, and their entire business changed. It really, really helped them. And that would have happened if they had used another service as well, but I made them bespoke things and it was free.
They got so excited, and they basically said, “This is so valuable. Can you just continue building it and we'll sell it for you?” So I went back to university two weeks before starting my second year, and I said, "I have this project. Can I see what the deal is here?" And the university was really supportive. They said, "Go out, and you can come back in 12 months and you won't miss out on anything."
So my project turned into a product that we could sell people. They loved it as well. They were all different companies, like one sold German power tools and the second one sold Swiss luggage. There were also many, many companies doing what we did, like word-for-word. The only difference was I was 17, so it was dirt-cheap. And also, no one had touched this industry in years - all these products were 5-10 years old - so the design and the UX were not there at all. I think one of the best compliments we got from our early customers was, "My two-year-old daughter can use this."
I did that for a year, and we got a few customers and it was fantastic. Then we got into this really swanky accelerator in London for e-commerce. Obviously this would get in the way of my going back to university, so I asked if I could take another year off. And again, they were super supportive, and said that I could come back in 12 months.
By then, my dad had basically quit his job and joined mine. Everyone always asks me what it was like starting a company with my parent. But the thing is, we never worked in the same office. He did sales and I built the thing; there was this clear wall. It was this perfect Steve Jobs/Wozniak thing. There's no crossover but you're both skilled at your own thing. And I think the key factor was that we just trusted each other.
I joined the accelerator for a six-month program - we were part of their first batch. They were big business guys, so their goal was to try and match us up with industry leaders. That worked out fantastically for us because we just learned so much; it was unbelievable. But then, eventually, there was this disconnect where I had no interest in doing big business corporate stuff. We had a pretty good small company thing going.
We had access to a bunch of fantastic mentors, and one of them in particular was really outstanding. He sat us down one day, and said, "Forget about all this startup stuff. Figure out what you want in life, because right now you have options. Right now you're in scrappy start-up phase. You can build a rocket ship or you can just run a business with your friends and family where you make good money.”
Luckily, both my dad and I were looking for exactly the same thing. We both highly respect good work-life balance. And also, being in that environment, we really didn't want to turn into those big business guys. It was a realization that we just wanted to run a good business, and we were really happy doing our thing. So we did that, we ran that company for four years.
And then we hit a bit of a wall. We had a bunch of really cool products, and all our customers really loved the products and stuff, but the way the tech was going, we were starting to do things with automating and using fancy words like machine learning, which was confusing and scary to the people we were selling the product to. So I sold most of my shares and decided to leave. And my friends took over and did their thing.
By then, I was 21, and I took a little break to travel for a year, but I got bored after about two months because I was still really passionate about doing tech stuff. So after selling the company, I wanted to find a tech team with smart people who I could learn from. I didn’t really want to be exposed to business anymore; I just wanted to nerd out and do my tech thing. My one rule was that it had to be something socially ethical. So I joined a really great healthcare company in London and worked there for two years.
The goal was to connect hospitals with freelance doctors, so that they could come in when a doctor was ill or they just couldn’t come into work that day. I had no formal understanding of anything, so joining a team as a junior and being surrounded by very smart people in a very fast-paced environment was fantastic. And being at the bottom of someone else's company was really fun.
After two years, I decided to leave and be a contractor. And then my old company came back and said, "We really need you. In the last two years that you've been away, we’ve added lots of customers, but we haven't updated the tech." They had tried outsourcing this to a bunch of companies, and that had cost them a lot. I looked into all the tech stuff, and I agreed to redo the website and the data stuff. And then I said, “If you pay me a monthly fee, I’ll keep it going. And if you ever have anything that goes wrong, just phone me up and I'll fix it straight away.”
After doing my own scrappy startup, and then learning from a real startup, I was still entirely driven by tech. I'm not really into business stuff. I want to research what cool new tech is out there, and then I want to build stuff. It's almost like, I don't really care what I'm building, I just enjoy building the thing. Now I have full creative control and it's amazing because I can do whatever cool tricks I want to do. I’ve been doing that for two years now, and I basically agreed to be available five days a month and build whatever new stuff they need.
I read the book The 4-Hour Workweek to try and understand what I had just done. That book really did change the way I perceived things. Because it explains what do you do with yourself, how do you live a life. Especially growing up in London, you're conditioned to work. You don't understand that really, there's so much more to life than just work. And that really taught me to go seek out adventure.
I do enjoy the startup thing, so now I'm playing at problem-solving outside of work. Like two years ago, I booked a hostel in Morocco and told a bunch of people to join me, and five of them did. And the we spent two months in Morocco learning to surf and working and stuff.
I think that what I like is combining travel with a hobby. So in Morocco it was surfing, because surfing is a nice, physical activity, and it's the only thing I've found where every day you become slightly better. Yoga and Bali was my next big thing, exploring the whole hippie thing. And that's also when I really got into reading. And now, I spend more time reading than doing anything else.
I still have this tech attitude, so at first I read a bunch of books about how tech affects society, about tech and democracy and how they are not actually fully compatible. And I've always been really fascinated by ethics, morality, and philosophy, so I did a philosophy course on YouTube. What I liked about it was that it gave me a shallow understanding of a really big topic. And then, as you're going along, suddenly you find things that really pique your interest, and then you can read books about it.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I think the big thing to get fully across is that you don't have to go as fast as everyone else. If you're going to be in the workforce for say 50 or 60 years, there's no reason to speed through university straight away. If you just slow down and explore, it's so much better. It feels like university would be really fantastic if it was in your late 20s because then you could really learn something. You can put this on hold for five years, come back, and still be okay.
I want to avoid saying that people should travel, because it's not really traveling; it's having the time to think and to explore in whatever way that you want to. Maybe you have to get out of the culture that you're brought up in in order to do that. But I'm not trying to convince anybody of anything. I'm still in the phase of, "Wow, there's so much more to life than just the startup thing, or the career thing.” I'm still generally impressed by that.