LitHits is for literature discovery and a seamless reading experience. We are developing an app which has innovative search tools. Readers will be able to find reading to suit their mood or inclination and to match the time they have available. The unedited literary extract is then immediately available in a beautiful format to read on their device. Curating a diverse library is very important to us at LitHits and we have amazing literature to share. Our library emphasises non-copyright texts, because of the freedom of usage, though deals with publishers are in the pipeline. This means that as curators we often work with older texts.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I’m a university researcher and lecturer, so academic writing and teaching will always be part of my career, and enterprise is an aspect of that profile. My involvement at LitHits began with my work as a research assistant for LitHits founder, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, who co-supervised my DPhil. We were already working on projects on reading, perception and performance, including a co-publication on Elizabeth Robins. She asked me to help curate the first excerpts in the LitHits library in early 2018, and from there we just kept gathering momentum, and formalised my role as it grew.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I think the innovation environment of Oxford and Oxfordshire can focus too narrowly on financial success in measuring entrepreneurship. It is impactful, but coming from a humanities background, I see that as just one option, and possibly not the best one.
‘Entrepreneur’ comes from Middle French, meaning to undertake an endeavour: the “preneur” part of the word is a person who takes. Some could understand that ‘taking’ as seizing or aggressively taking advantage. I prefer to think about that idea of ‘taking’ in the sense of ‘catching on’ to something: an idea gaining traction. To put something new forward and help it gain momentum beyond yourself, that is my idea of entrepreneurship.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
Members of our first testing group in 2018, who were using very bare website that we created just as a proof of concept, started asking us if they could share the link with friends and family. Those unprompted recommendations showed us we were really onto something.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The people – it is such a social thing to do.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
My colleagues inspire me, and those who have supported LitHits. We’ve also drawn on great research from organisations like Demos, whose 2018 report A Society of Readers (supported by The Reading Agency) is something we often come back to. A quality I find inspiring in individuals is the ability to ask tough questions. The “hold on a minute” moments can be just as important in enterprise as forging ahead.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I like to ask about people’s own relationships with reading. For example, some people are very linear and will always finish one book before starting the next, others are like me and have eight on the nightstand they work through haphazardly, and many people only listen to ebooks or will have very strong preferences in form, genre, or particular writers. It’s all interesting to me. When we think about reading as only happening in one sort of way, or say that “good” reading can only happen in some hushed and oak-panelled idealised setting we lose sight of real relationships with texts. We have to remember that not everyone looking at their phone is doom-scrolling (and that even doom-scrolling is a type of reading!).
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Developing the Ten-Minute Book Club in 2020 with Kirsten and other English faculty members was fulfilling because it was something I could do in lockdown and pandemic conditions that we thought might be helpful to people. We put together a book club toolkit with a new excerpt each week over a ten-week season and promoted it on social media. We noticed that most of the engagement was coming from post-16 education: teachers and their students who were beginning to think about applying to University. The project allowed us to engage with teachers, students and other readers, even with a few radio appearances and an article in the Independent. I got to work with amazing contributors, an inspiring technical manager, Dr Erica Lombard, and to help coordinate something that involved so many people was satisfying during tough times in lockdown.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
A lesson I have learned is not to get hung up on being new to an area. Gaining the confidence to get going before I was “ready” was a learning curve. I had to learn that making mistakes publicly is part of the deal with enterprise. But with those mistakes I also learned about the pitfalls of overcorrection. When something you’ve worked on is rejected it can be an instinct to remake what you are doing and start from scratch, but the best thing might actually be to dust off and go again!
How have you funded your ideas?
LitHits has been awarded seed funding through Oxford University Innovation in two successive rounds of the University Challenge Seed Fund; and also by the Van Houten Fund for our work on literature and machine-learning. We also collaborated with the Institute of Population Ageing and Age UK Oxfordshire for a project on ageing, wellbeing and reading that was funded by the HEIF Business Engagement Partnership Seed Fund. Ten-Minute Book Club, as a public outreach project, was funded by the Humanities Division for some of the initial work undertaken by Erica (who created the website) and me. Much of that project was also sustained through the donation of resources and time by English Faculty postholders, LitHits, the Humanities division, and our commitment to just keep working until the project was ready!
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Yes, in some ways, in that our funding has been internal to the University. But in other ways, no: there are not a lot of literature-enterprise specific funding opportunities (yet!).
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
IDEA does a good job of making the resources available in Oxfordshire clear to newcomers. Enterprising Oxford is also a vital hub. Twitter is a brilliant business resource. It is one way of connecting on issues if you curate it according to your sector. I would also recommend going to events in Oxford and using spaces like Common Ground. It doesn’t have to be in person, but live interaction is the best resource.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I don’t think anyone can be expected to fully overcome those kinds of challenges. The best resistance is to try to do better in your own work. When you see bias, and see it in yourself, strive for more inclusive behaviour and pull yourself up on assumptions. LitHits is interested in companies with B-Corp status, which is an accreditation process that looks at a company’s labour policies and business values and holds them to a higher ethical standard. I think this is a good route to follow.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
Speaking to others who share your journey. Those conversations build trust and help you learn from others’ experiences.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
There are a few practical things the University can do in terms of supporting enterprise and innovation, which demands so much time and can exacerbate pressures women face in those areas. There are increasing calls in the University for grants for Innovation support and buy-out in the way that research is supported, especially in humanities which is far less well represented in this area. Our innovation environments do tie into our research environments, and vice versa: there is a mutual benefit. There is something radically interdisciplinary in entrepreneurship. The conversations I have had finding connections for literary ideas with people from very different fields have shown me how it creates meaning and opportunity.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
To stay true to your idea and clear about what you offer. Your IP isn’t necessarily your USP. Whilst LitHits can be defined as a tech spin-out, fundamentally for us we are also a literature company. Knowing what is unique to your enterprise will help you stay focused.