Denise is co-founder of Nupinion, an ethical big data company dedicated to improving media literacy. Nupinion is developing free tools which empower digital citizens to break through media biases, regional and linguistic barriers and mitigate information overload. It offers a new way of searching and navigating internet news content. Denise has a PhD in Statistical Genetics from Oxford, and is passionate about using technology for social impact.
Q: What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
A: As a statistician by training, I have always been intrigued by the idea of uncovering insights from big data. My interest in journalism arose during the Greek debt crisis. I read news from Greece, the UK and Germany and found the difference in coverage shocking. I was disappointed that technology was not being put to better use in order to facilitate access to this diverse content and expose bias in media coverage. It was at that point that my co-founders and I began thinking of how we can use our skills to address these problems. When we recognised that we could solve these issues for people and also build a more advanced analytics platform for businesses, we decided to start a company.
Q: What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
A: Putting ideas into action and your money where your mouth is. Execution. Anyone can have an idea. It takes an entrepreneur to turn that idea into reality.
Q: How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
A: We wanted to create something that puts control in the readers’ hands and that provides the opposite of the personalised content that is promoted by other news startups. In our hearts we always felt this was worth pursuing, and the customer development that we carried out during the Lean Launchpad at SBS validated the problems we wanted to solve. However, we faced a lot of push back in the last few years, as we were constantly faced with the view that no one is interested in breaking out of their news bubble. It is only with the recent developments in the USA and UK that people started to take note that hearing each other is very important. This has really propelled us forward.
Q: So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
A: Storytelling: Even if you have the most brilliant product in the world, and even if it is free and does not require a disruption of consumer habits, you still need a great team to convey your story so that people can understand what you have to offer.
Determination: Starting a company is an extremely testing journey. You can expect no favours, there is no altruism, and you are on your own. As DeadPool says: maximum effort.
Ability to balance others’ opinions and self-conviction: You are clearly in love with your idea but constantly need to challenge yourself that you are solving a problem that others are also perceiving. The opinions of others can easily kill off your enthusiasm or the core of the original idea that drives you.
Q: What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
A: I can be creative and have full control over how I try to build the product that I am passionate about.
Q: What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
A: We are inspired by Google. In many ways we are trying to do the opposite to them. We do not personalise our algorithms, we respect user privacy and serve no ads. In many ways we are trying to solve some of the problems Google perpetuates. However, Google represents a few things that are really powerful. First, that you can grow without ‘losing your soul’. Second, they are constantly innovating. Third, their offering promotes social initiatives and produces free tools like Google Jigsaw and Google Scholar. This does not stop them from successfully monetizing other parts of their business. Nupinion embraces this concept, the idea that you can build a powerful engine that can do lots of wonderful things, some of which you want to give away for free because of the impact on society.
Q: If you had 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
A: I would like to ask Google how they balance the free social products with the more lucrative sides of the business which keep the company going. The drive to ‘make money’ can tempt a business to sacrifice certain features of its free offering. Finding the right balance or method for this is something that I want Nupinion to have, so that we always serve our mission of helping people inform themselves.
Q: What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
A: When we finished our prototype and showed the first few people, I watched what they did and saw that they liked it. It felt incredibly validating being able to finally create what had lived in our imagination, and then to witness people understand its value.
Q: What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
A: There are two things that really come to mind. The first is that I should have been less intimidated by some of the feedback that we have received. Nupinion has faced a lot of cynicism, which in the past influenced our confidence in the viability of what we are trying to do.
The second big mistake is for a long time to have thrown our weight behind technology development. While this has not been time wasted, we should have focused equally on storytelling, understanding users better, looking for initial users and so on.
Q: How have you funded your ideas? Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
A: This is the first time that we have sought out funding. For the last three years we covered server costs ourselves. We have been helped a great deal by our participation in the Lean Launchpad and the Science and Innovation Programme at Oxford University Said Business school.
Q: What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
A: I think there are only upsides to being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire. We have immediate access to a lot of talent here, London is at the doorstep, there is a high concentration of capital and the city is very well physically connected to the rest world as it is always easy to jump on a plane from Heathrow.
Q: If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
A: The Launchpad at SBS, Oxford Entrepreneurs, any meetups on how to be agile and carry out effective customer development and UX design.
Q: Any last words of advice?
A: Show other people that you believe in what you are doing.