Dr John Miles is the founder of Inkpath, a skills tracking and career planning app. John was Caroline Spurgeon Research Fellow in Shakespeare at Royal Holloway before coming to Oxford, and divides his non-startup time between Wadham College (as a Research Associate) and the Humanities Division (Training Officer).
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
It definitely hasn’t been a straightforward trajectory! I didn’t even expect to go to university, as I decided to go into the RAF. However, my eyesight let me down in the end (I did get lots of flying in beforehand!), and I ended up studying English at Royal Holloway. After my PhD and postdoc, I came to Oxford to be the Training Officer in the Humanities. In my first week here in Oxford, I didn’t have access to email, so I started working on an idea I had around skills tracking. I made a little prototype in visual basic, sort of a proof of concept, then tested it with students. But it was not realistic to get them to use it on a computer, so I started looking to make it mobile (like Fitbit for careers!).
For me, entrepreneurship is all about being agile in as many contexts as you can, and then inventing new contexts and being agile in those, too.
I applied for the Oxford University IT Innovation Seed Fund, and really was able to crystallise the idea during the preparation. But it was during the pitch, when I had lots of questions, and could see that other people were excited about my idea as well, that I knew I was definitely on to something promising.
So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Interpersonal skills are massively important, as is communication: you need to be able to grip people with your idea. And you need to be adept at detail and big picture all at the same time. But sometimes you have to just not listen to people and get on with it as well.
It’s really incredible when you can sit back in room of people, listen to them talk about your idea, and realise it has momentum of its own. Then you think: what have I started? Very surprising and humbling!
Elon Musk is up there. Talk about ‘Boy’s Own’ stuff! I love his attitude of ‘I’m not going to listen to naysayers, I’m just going to do it’.
I’d ask him to be a champion profile for the app! I think he has a very interesting career path!
The sense of achievement after winning the big pitch. We’ve got a long way to go…
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
There is never enough time to do things in as much detail as you would really like to. And it can be tricky to separate-out the helpful critique from the occasional bout of cynicism that people seem to have! You always have to be ready for those who disagree just because they don’t want to engage. Don’t be put off by it.
How have you funded your ideas? Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
I won funding from the IT Innovation Seed Fund, which helped me get properly started to develop the smartphone app here in Oxford. I’ve since raised money from the University Challenge Seed Fund, won a teaching project award from Social Sciences, and now we’re on the verge of our first external investment. I feel very lucky to have had these opportunities!
I don’t think this particular project could have happened anywhere else. There is a good combination of people here, with many who are incredibly open-minded and progressive, and usually with a good sense of humour. The bad part is the speed of which things happen; you need to be patient. It can get quite frustrating!
Go to the Launchpad/Foundry, EO of course, and OUI. There are clear routes!
Don’t get too excited – keep it objective, keep your head down and get on with it. You need to be ready if things go wrong.