Joe Brown, a recent Oxford Computer Science DPhil graduate, is now the Co-founder of URSOR – a safe browser for kids where they can explore, learn and play online. Prior to this, Joe was a Principal at Creator Fund and has been involved in their 20 investments since the fund’s inception.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
URSOR started as a side project building a sentient chair in 2021 – although that’s a conversation for another time (maybe the chair can tell it).
Going back a few years, I arrived in Oxford in 2017 to start my PhD applying machine learning to the energy industry. I quickly realised Oxford is a humbling place – names of people who have changed the world are scattered everywhere and you often bump into someone who is pioneering their field. Seeing the bleeding edge research happening up-close is inspiring.
A year into the PhD I started working with the Creator Fund, a VC fund that invests in the best university-affiliated start-ups. This gave me the opportunity to speak to hundreds of entrepreneurs who are bringing ideas to life and building products that will change the world. I had always wanted to build something significant, seeing the research up close, and speaking with the entrepreneurs confirmed that – but to be honest I still hadn’t quite worked out what I wanted to work on.
I spent a lot of spare time hacking away on small products and creating things with friends. It was through this how I met Filippo Yacob. A mutual friend of ours called to tell me “there’s a guy building an installation for the Louvre… It’s a chair that can think. He needs an ‘AI guy’… Wanna join?”. It was one of the strangest calls I’ve received in my life, but if there was a person this weird I had to meet them! We built this through the early months of 2021 with the chair in his workshop and the ‘brain’ on my laptop.
Filippo is a dad of 2. During one of our many “virtual beers” we started talking about the challenges of digital parenting, and the reality of digital childhoods. I remember him sharing how he left his 4 year old son in front of a wholesome YouTube singalong, only to return to him 10 minutes later watching a horrifying “Zombie Techno-Sonic” cartoon. We talked about the internet a lot during our evening hangouts, and the ways in which it had shaped society, for better and for worse. We both strongly agreed the Internet was not built with children’s rights and wellbeing in mind.
A few weeks later I got a message from Filippo – “Let’s build it. An internet browser for kids. No ads, no tracking, content selected by families for families, and no recommender system rabbit holes”. So we got to work on URSOR.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
There’s no reason to set a definition or boundary for what is and isn’t entrepreneurship! If you’re taking ownership, solving a problem by providing a service or product, and managing risk – that’s entrepreneurship.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
Actually we’re still not sure. What we always felt confident about was that we are solving a real pain-point felt by every single parent today. Modern families have a difficult time parenting in the digital age, and URSOR is built to make managing digital childhoods easy & stress-free whilst giving kids an enjoyable & enriching experience exploring online – without all the bad stuff!
When we first started we spent the first 8 weeks (mostly week-ends and evenings), talking through the problem and speaking to parents and teachers to work out what we should really build, because “fixing the internet for kids”, whilst grand-sounding and worth doing, is a very complex proposition.
Our first prototype was actually a dud. It took us 2 months of weekends to build a desktop browser which 90% of the users that tested shot down. It was a bit of a blow actually, but we learned a lot, and the experience gave us a new starting point from which to build and grow. The failure helped us work out what we really needed to focus on. We changed our development strategy after that, and we decided to build quickly and ship weekly, iteratively refining the product with a group of parents that have been giving us continuous feedback.
We’re now at an exciting point. Our private Alpha users are telling us we’ve finally built something they’re ready to pay for.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Do it – rather than speaking about things, do them. There are so many jobs, and so many decisions to be made in an early stage company, and you can’t let indecision be a source of paralysis. (That being said – it’s also important to do the right thing!)
Calmness – it’s easy for emotions to run high when you are building something you care about a lot – but you can’t let this cloud judgement. When a user criticises – listen, and when you reach 1,000 customers don’t think you’ve solved it all!
Communication – As a team you need to communicate effectively and be on the same page. Externally, you always need to be putting your best foot forward and selling! Every call is a sales call.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
A fairly cliche answer, but taking ownership in solving a problem that will significantly improve life for parents and kids really gives you the drive to get up every day and squeeze the most out of the hours we have. When you take a call with a parent and they tell you that their kid discovered a new passion through URSOR – that’s incredible.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Demis Hassabis – DeepMind Founder. I still have a lot of love and excitement for the machine learning / AI space and I would love to understand what the leaders in the space truly think the next 5 years entail.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’d be trying to keep them for much longer than 5 minutes to get their thoughts and opinions on the future of AI!
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Getting cold emails from parents telling us they can’t wait for URSOR because it’s the solution they’ve been after for years. Also more recently we’ve begun to receive cold emails and calls from parents wanting to contribute to the development of URSOR for free, because they want to take part in building something for their own children. It really gives us at URSOR HQ a sense of purpose, courage and energy.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
You can always break down a problem, and by default a solution, into much smaller chunks than you initially think, and you can start shipping your solution sooner than you think. Don’t be embarrassed by how bad an early product is – users are genuinely quite nice when you are trying to solve a problem for them. By putting an early prototype in front of them they’ll tell you what they really want you to build, and that early constructive criticism is invaluable.
When we started building we didn’t move quick enough. We took too long to build something that we desperately wanted to be perfect, and in the end we built the wrong thing. We could have fitted in many more iteration cycles if we’d got the process right. That being said, it’s a hard thing to do.
Another embarrassing mistake was not backing up our code for the first iOS prototype and then my laptop died (for good – RIP). That was a pretty painful moment. We use Github now.
How have you funded your ideas?
So far we have staved off any sources of external funding. As a team we can design, build and launch anything we want, and can comfortably operate this way for as long as we need to. We all have the capacity to earn well through contract work if needed, and we’re ok with bootstrapping.
Don’t get me wrong, raising money can be extremely helpful, but NOT raising money forces us to focus on what is really important, and if we can’t find solutions to a challenge as a team of 4, hiring more people at this early stage won’t help.
We also think it would be extremely satisfying to build a business without external funding and remain completely employee owned, but who knows where we end up.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I think Oxford has a very fragmented ecosystem for entrepreneurship which can make it hard for people to connect. There’s no real beacon of entrepreneurship, rather numerous small hubs. There are fantastic resources like the space & events provided by the Foundry, Enterprising Oxford provide great support, and a number of student societies. The business school also provides some very good support for more developed start-ups. The talent is here. The hunger from students to build is here. The high quality research to spin-out is here. But the point which brings everyone together is missing unfortunately. Maybe I’ll be banned from Oxford for saying this – but there is a lot Oxford can learn from the Cambridge and Imperial entrepreneurial ecosystems!
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
If you have a start-up and are looking for funding – Creator Fund are definitely the people to talk to! If you’re starting on your entrepreneurial journey it’s worth checking out OX1, they help you find co-founders and incubate start-ups. Also keep an eye on the enterprising Oxford mailing list as so many incredible opportunities can be found with a quick scan through their weekly email!
Any last words of advice?
Get started. Once you have that idea – take some time to have a very honest reflection on how this works as a business. What’s the real market size here? Don’t just take a quote from an industry report – work through it yourself to try to understand what the mechanics of the industry you are trying to break into are. You’ll probably get the sizing completely wrong (no one gets it right) but it’s a very good exercise to start thinking about what problem you really need to solve, how you grow the company and how you monetise it. If the figures here are reasonable – get building, get users, listen to them, and repeat this process until a handful of customers love your product. Then it’s time to scale.