James, you're a junior doctor and seasoned entrepreneur, what else do we need to know about you?
Well, ‘doctor and entrepreneur’ usually confuses people enough but, since you asked I’ll throw ‘developer’ into the mix! I’ve been coding since I was 12 or so, working on various projects that piqued my interest. I think that at my core, I’m someone who really enjoys solving problems, and what initially seems like a bizarre combination of career choices makes much more sense when you look at it like that. Diagnosing, brainstorming, debugging - they all give me the same rush! Other than that... I love music, but then who doesn’t?
You sold your first start-up "JumpIn" to Addison Lee, tell us about that.
Sure, JumpIn is a ride-sharing app for students that let them book taxis and share them with other people going the same way. Myself and two other Leeds students - Sam Ryan and Barney Williams, started working on it after a series of attacks on students walking home late at night in Leeds. I came on board as Chief Technical Officer to develop the mobile app and the server logic that powered it. We grew JumpIn to 4 major UK cities, and were later acquired by Addison Lee, who are a huge cab firm based in London. JumpIn was the first project that really exposed me to the world of startups, accelerators, investors and that kind of thing, it was a really intense, but rewarding couple of years.
You're a junior doctor so you must be quite busy, how do you juggle your start-up and career at the same time?
It can be really demanding, because both of those things will eat as much time as you can throw at them. It means that there’s an opportunity cost in literally everything you do, so I try to adhere to the Pareto Principle as much as possible: 80% of your returns come from 20% of your efforts, and after that you’re just experiencing diminishing returns. I’ve gotten pretty adept at working on trains, and I rarely sleep before 3am.
What kind of doctor will you be once you qualify?
Great question… I’m actually not going to practice medicine once I quality. This has been a… difficult decision because there’s a lot that I love about the profession, and it’s been a pretty full-on, 6-year process getting to this point (I’m in my final year at the moment). However, Synap is something that I started with my best friend, and is now used by thousands of people around the world. We’ve been doing this for almost three years now and I have to see where it goes!
Where did the idea for Synap come from?
It grew organically out of ideas and discussions that Omair (my co-founder) and I had back in university dorms. We knew we had to study, but we wanted to find a way that was more interesting. We stumbled across one idea that was just, writing Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) to challenge each other. That became a bit of a competition, we’d send multiple questions a day over Facebook to try and one up the other person, and eventually we built it into an app.
The first version was basic but it did the job, and started to spread to other Leeds students, then eventually getting to the point where 15,000 people downloaded it in 6 hours! At that point, we realised we’d tapped into something with much more potential than we’d realised… we’d found a way to study that was quick, engaging and social - exactly what the ‘always connected’ generation needed.
What are some of the challenges you faced on the road to launching Synap?
The single biggest challenge has been scaling up and doing it properly. The first version of Synap was pretty basic, but it clearly tapped into something to get the amount of users that it did with literally £0 spent on marketing. When we raised £200,000, we could have injected that straight into development and marketing and I’m fairly sure we’d have got a decent amount of exposure and users from it… I’ve seen that pattern enough times to realise the difference between products that are here one day and gone the next, and ones that stick around and become household names.
So instead we took the long way round: not just throwing features on for the sake of it, but actually creating a product that would help students (and professionals!) to learn more in less time.
You've already had over 80,000 downloads, what's the response been like from your consumers?
Humbling. We created Synap to help with our own and maybe some of our classmates’ revision, and it ended up with, as you said, 80,000 or so downloads from people all over the world. We’ve been contacted by Boeing pilots, special needs teachers, martial artists, surgeons… people from every walk of life you can imagine, saying how they’ve been looking for something like this for so long and it’s become a part of their routine.
I love the fact that a genuine community has emerged from the abstract code we wrote, and it’s great to see people using a tool you created for something you never expected. I knew Synap had great potential with other medical students, I didn’t expect to see quizzes about the correct procedure for flying 787’s in tropical storms!
Tell us about your partnership with Oxford University Press.
We love Oxford University Press! They’re a very well-recognised name in education generally, but particularly in healthcare, their Clinical Handbooks have really stood the test of time - I’d wager that almost every doctor in the UK owns at least one. So we saw a really cool opportunity here and with other big education publishers. On one hand, they’ve got this amazing content that’s trusted, peer-reviewed and up to date, but it’s still only really available as a book. With Synap, you’ve got an intuitive, engaging platform that helps to break that content down into quizzes that people can engage with over a coffee or waiting for a bus.
We partnered with OUP and that’s seen content from many of their most popular medical handbooks being delivered as quizzes, with feedback, via Synap. We launched it a few weeks ago and have had hundreds of medics sign up...and we’re nowhere near exam season at the moment!
We’ve got a few more publishers already lined up to publish their content on the Synap Store in 2017 so, watch this space :)
When you're not studying or building your business, where are we most likely to find you?
The idea of ‘work/life balance’ went out the window a few years ago, but I like to travel, and music is incredibly important to me so I try to get to a few gigs and festivals every so often. Living in Leeds is handy for that!
As a doctor you understand the importance of rest and relaxation, what are your top tips for R&R?
The biggest thing I’ve learnt and try to live by in terms of resting, is to focus on managing your energy, instead of your time. Energy is a more precious resource, and you have more control over it. When you’ve got a big piece of work that needs doing, the temptation for me at least is to sit in front of a screen for 12 hours until it’s done, but at a certain point you stop being productive, and if you feel like you need a break, you should take it.
Where do you see yourself in the next 3 years?
One of the things I really love about being an entrepreneur is, I really don’t know what the answer to that question is! Synap is growing very quickly, we’re getting to the point where we’re looking to raise Series A investment that would let us scale even further. 3 years… I think we’ve got a really exciting road ahead of us; establishing Synap as a household name in education, setting up an office and hiring some amazing people to work with us in Leeds, and helping people to learn more in less time. Beyond that, if we decided to sell the company at some point, I’d probably have a couple of weeks off before getting bored and working on the next big thing!
Click here to find out more about Synap.
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