I am the Chief Operating Officer of Podium. Podium is a community-moderated social network, solving the problems of abuse, misinformation and toxicity online. Facebook and Twitter cannot moderate the huge volume of content, and this has allowed these problems to escalate unchecked. The only thing that scales with the volume of content is the user-base itself.
The core of Podium is the moderation system, where bias-balanced juries of users go through a series of questions to determine whether a reported post has violated the rules. All users are empowered to participate, and decisions are reached in minutes, not days.
The company has been going for 2 years. We recently received two Innovate UK grants, which have enabled us to scale up the team and accelerate development. We have five full-time in the team, and are currently looking for two more Full Stack Developers. We have two technical advisors, a community manager, and a consultant brand and marketing director who advises on marketing strategy.
Our Beta launch is scheduled for June 2021, with the full launch early in 2022.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I did my degree in computer science, and worked as a technical programmer for several years. I’ve always had broad interests, and it seemed like a good idea to start my own business so that I could pursue other things I loved to do. My first two businesses were in different industries, but when I realised that I wanted to make a bigger impact on the world, it made sense to bring my skill set back into technology and look at becoming an entrepreneur in that field. There are so many talented people in the world, and I wanted to work with a larger team to deliver something important.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is taking an idea, something that hasn’t been done before, and delivering it to the world in usable form.
I’d add that ideally that thing should be useful and good – for the people who make it, for the people who use it, and for the broader community also.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
The problem we are solving is one that impacts a lot of people. The issues of social media is a very big topic, and the general view is that there is no obvious solution. Social media has such great capacity to do good in the world, but that can’t be realised as things currently are.
My co-founder had been looking at the problem for some time, and when he found a potential solution, he spent several months doing statistical modelling to see if it would work. The solution is elegant, and many different angles have been considered.
Once he was satisfied that it was workable, we discussed it and decided to make this our primary focus.
It’s a big problem, impacting a huge number of people, and we can solve it.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Creative problem solving! As an entrepreneur, you are always coming up against problems you have never seen before; and sometimes it is a problem that no one has ever seen before. It is about looking at the problem and being confident that there will be a solution. Some people have the ability to make cognitive leaps, to go, “Here is a problem, O.K., here is a solution”. Something innovative.
The second one is courage. When you are going into a situation that you have never been in before, the idea of failure can be a really big thing. As an entrepreneur, you cannot let that stop you, you have to say: “I haven’t done this before, but I just have to try. If I fail, I’ll try again, I’ll try something else.”
And then, perseverance. We have been on this journey now for two years, and we had another company that we worked on for the previous two years. There were many, many times we could have given up. But if we had given up, we would not have got to this point of breakthrough.
It’s commitment, but it’s not blind. I’m always checking in. “Are we still on the right track?” “Does this still make sense?” We did ultimately decide to change track from that earlier project. It wasn’t its time; but we took everything we’d learned and we applied it to something new, something that is now coming into its own.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Creating an environment where talented people can thrive, including me. Bringing together the resources for people to deliver what they are capable of, and removing obstacles, so that nothing gets in their way. Also making sure everybody’s life is working, being flexible so they can attend to the things that are important to them. Happy people work well. There is a real buzz in a team where everything is working.
I also like to set a good pace, keep things moving, so that there’s the regular satisfaction of achievement. There is a balance point where regular delivery of good work, with a great team, brings a wonderful sense of fulfilment.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
It is interesting, because 10-15 years ago, you could say someone’s name and say that they inspire you, and it would be fine. But now, if I pick the name of an inventor, in many cases they have said something horrible on Twitter! So I can’t pick a name and say, “This person inspires me”, because one part of them inspires and the other part repels.
But I would say that I am inspired by people who think differently. When I meet somebody whose brain works in a different way, I am fascinated by that, and I want to understand how that mind works. I am inspired to apply that to the way I think, to come up with fresh ways of doing things.
People who think differently are often dealing with challenges in their lives, because other people’s expectations don’t fit with who they are. I like to support those people. Neurodiversity is a very important focus for me. Innovation so often comes from taking a different view of something. I want to create an environment where original minds can thrive.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
What I like to do is try and get inside the way they think. So I will ask them questions, and I will pick-out the answers that surprise me. And then I will ask more questions, so I can start to understand how their mind works.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Not getting help when I needed it. In the first 4 years of my business, I was doing everything: marketing, sales, logistics, purchasing, accounting – everything! And I thought I was supposed to know everything. When I was having difficulties paying my bills, I should have asked for help, rather than feel like a failure. If I had gone to somebody who ran their own business, and talked through the problems that I was having, they would have said, “This is what you need to know, this is how you should approach this”. The best thing that I could have done would be to find people who knew the things that I did not. But a) I did not know what I did not know and b) I thought I was supposed to know it. So that would be the biggest mistake, and the biggest lesson is to find somebody who knows what you need to know. Because people love to tell you! People love to give advice, especially if they have been successful.
How have you funded your ideas?
Initially, we funded Podium through my co-founder and myself working for a very low-income – we had a small amount of Angel Investment, and I did some freelance editing, to keep me going. And then, more recently, we have got two grants from Innovate UK, which have been fantastic for us! Now that we have those two grants, that gives us a better chance for success when we go out for more investment. But raising investment has been a very big challenge, particularly this year, with Covid, when many investors have taken a more conservative approach.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
The grants we have received are Covid response Innovation Grants.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
There are lots of talented people in this part of the world, which is always great! It is a beautiful city, I love the colleges. And there is support through Oxford Innovation.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Oxford Innovation has resources for start-ups. Having a business mentor is really valuable – somebody who has gone through that experience, and can answer questions that are specific to your particular idea.
There are lots of resources: reading blogs, talking to entrepreneurs, reading founders’ stories.
There is the SEIS tax-relief for Angel Investors, within the first 2 years and £150,000 of investment, so speaking to someone who understands that is also valuable.
Then look for where you can find ideas for bringing in early revenue, rather than relying on investment. This has many benefits: proving out your ideas, getting going without having to give up equity in the company, and making the company more attractive to investors, if and when you do need them.
Any last words of advice?
Go easy on yourself, be kind to yourself. Get support when you have made a mistake. It is O.K. to take some time-off, feel the pain of things not going well, and pick yourself up again. It is O.K. to feel bad, just let it run through, and you will naturally bounce back!