European Young Tech Entrepreneur of the Year on the London Startup Scene
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Jon Reynolds is the Co-Founder & CEO of SwiftKey, the award-winning language technology company. He was named ‘Young Tech Entrepreneur of the Year’ (2013) at the Europioneers, and also achieved Highly Commended for ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Year’ at the London Loves Excellence Awards.
Jon co-founded SwiftKey in 2008, aged just 22. It is now a globally successful company with a staff of 100.
SwiftKey’s keyboard was the best-selling paid app on Google Play in 2012 and has been No 1 in over 50 countries. The company’s software is also preinstalled on tens of millions of mobile devices. It uses advanced natural language processing (NLP) to learn from each user and accurately predict their next word. SwiftKey has won a GSMA Award and a publicly-voted Webby and the company was recently ranked the 6th most innovative mobile business in the world by Fast Company.
Jon has an MA in Natural Sciences (Physics) from the University of Cambridge and an Advanced Diploma in Management Accountancy, CIMA. Prior to starting SwiftKey, he worked as a civil servant in the British government.
We spoke to Jon about the challenges he’s encountered whilst growing
from 4 to 100 staff in four years; what he enjoys about the London startup
scene; and the European startups he most admires.
TNW: How did you come up with the idea for SwiftKey? How did you go about developing it?
JR: I was working for the British government and I realised my colleagues were doing an ever-increasing amount of writing on their mobiles. They would be hammering away, trying to type on keyboards which had essentially just been shrunk to fit a mobile screen. It struck me that there must be a better solution to this problem. I discussed it with Ben Medlock, a friend I’d met at the University of Cambridge.
Ben had just done a PhD in language-based artificial intelligence and together we decided we wanted to build a smarter keyboard that made communicating on a touchscreen easier.
We worked on a prototype and started applying for grants to help develop the idea. Fast forward five years and it’s been a No 1 hit in 58 countries and was the best-selling app on Google Play of the last year!
TNW: What’s at the top of your mind with regard to your business?
JR: The biggest priority is continuing to innovate. We have a great track record of being first to market in significant areas - we were the first to introduce a simple UI with three next-word predictions above the keyboard for example, something that’s now a standard feature on a lot of devices.
So each day, we’re working to push ourselves further, to keep building products that make it easier for people to use the technology they interact with every day.
TNW: SwiftKey has grown to a team of 100 people in just four years. What challenges have you encountered as your business has grown so rapidly and how have you overcome these?
JR: It’s vital to maintain the culture of innovation as you grow. Right from the start, we knew we wanted a flexible and friendly environment that put innovation and creative thinking first - we believe this gets the best results. Amazing work doesn’t necessarily have to happen in an office, during 9am until 5pm. Many of our staff work from home a couple of days a week, for example.
Also, when we started out, we ate lunch together as a team every Wednesday. That’s a tradition we’ve kept, even as we’ve grown to over 90 people in our London HQ!
I’m really proud of the way we have retained our culture and our collaborative way of working. Fast growth is wonderful but hard - we’ve had to move offices three times in two years because we kept outgrowing the space and we recently opened offices in Seoul and San Francisco.
TNW: What do you enjoy about being an entrepreneur in London? Is there anything you’d like to change about the London startup scene?
JR: London is a fantastic place to start and grow a business.
SwiftKey has grown from an idea to a globally successful business from London and we’re really proud of that.
The best thing about the UK capital is the calibre of staff it allows us to attract - people who are leaders in their fields. In addition to the home-grown talent we’ve hired, we’ve also attracted excellent individuals from all over the world, including countries like India, Korea and Japan, many of whom studied in the UK. In total at the moment, our staff speak 33 languages and 17 have a PhD.
In terms of what to change, I’d like to see more of an emphasis on early-stage funding.
We were able to secure a couple of small initial grants from the Technology Strategy Board, a Government-backed organisation in the UK. They were the first to take a chance on us and our idea and this enabled us to build our prototype. It can be tough for new entrepreneurs to get started, especially without significant personal savings.
TNW: Please give us three examples of up-and-coming European Startups you admire, and why.
SoundCloud’s founders were also honoured at the Europioneers. They’ve created an amazing service that has found popularity well beyond Berlin - it currently reaches 180 million people per month. Their achievement is all the more impressive when you think about how competitive the music space is right now.
TransferWise is trying to shake up a completely different sector - finance. The people behind the company realised sending money between countries online can be expensive and customers can be tripped up by hidden fees. Like SwiftKey, it was founded by two friends who spotted a problem and wanted to fix it.
Finally, I’m interested in what YPlan has done in London. The app makes finding something fun to do, and booking it, a one-click process. It’s a great solution when you don’t have much time and want some inspiration.
TNW: At The NextWeb’s April European conference in Amsterdam, Neelie Kroes stated, “I have a European Dream, too. That Europe becomes a place where entrepreneurs and innovators start and stay – before growing globally.” To underscore her strong commitment to making Europe a leader in the tech world, she gave her personal e-mail address to the crowd and asked that they contact her with ideas on how Europe can do more to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. We’ll be interviewing Neelie later this month. What is your suggestion for fostering innovation and entrepreneurialism in Europe?
JR: Neelie Kroes is one of the strongest advocates for entrepreneurship in Europe so it was a great honour to receive the Young Entrepreneur award from her earlier this year. I think the most important thing is improving skills.
Young people today need to be able to enter an increasingly tech-focused economy and we need to inspire them to invent and create themselves.
There are some fantastic organisations tackling this in the UK from Young Rewired State to Code Club - but we need to work together across Europe to share knowledge, to make it easier for people to learn and most of all, to enable more young people to transform an idea into a business.
TNW: You went to Cambridge University, which houses some of the brightest minds in the country. Were many of your fellow students planning on becoming entrepreneurs? What kinds of business ideas were being discussed?
When I was a student, I never realised I’d become an entrepreneur. I wanted to work on something that had an impact on people’s lives and I’d always seen myself as a problem-solver so in retrospect it’s been a good fit.
At Cambridge you’re surrounded by ideas which is hugely inspiring. It’s also establishing a great track record for entrepreneurship, for example Silicon Fen has produced some amazing technology and talent. There are some fantastic organisations, such as Silicon Valley Comes to the UK that I wish I’d known about when I was a student. I think more could be done to make students aware of entrepreneurship across the country, not just Cambridge.
TNW: Awards and recognition have rained down on you and your business since its launch. After achieving such huge success, what else is on your ‘bucket list’?
JR: Awards have really helped put us on the map. For instance, we were able to win a publicly-voted Webby Award last year by galvanizing our community of users (with a bit of help from the author and broadcaster Stephen Fry, who called on his Twitter followers to support us). We beat a brand as famous as Google and that was just incredible.
Going forward, it would be amazing to win awards for our workplace culture and for the future products we have in store.
TNW: Who are your role models and /or mentors?
JR: There have been a great many people who have offered wisdom and advice. We were lucky to have supportive early investors who helped us build and grow the business. Plus we’ve sought out advisers who bring a wealth of experience - for example, our chairman Mark Paterson used to be general counsel at Orange.
Getting to know other founders helps too. Organisations like Founders Forum have introduced us to some really inspiring CEOs and I’ve found most people are extremely generous with their time and knowledge.
TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but which you would like to share with our community?
JR: Since you’ve mentioned your community of readers, it would be great to highlight our community too.
Engaging with users and turning them into evangelists has been a really important part of our growth.
We have millions of users around the world but more than 100,000 of them have joined what we call our VIP community. This means they’re the first to know about new products and offer invaluable feedback in return. They help us build better products and spread the word to their family and friends.
We’re working on some really exciting new features at the moment so if any readers want to try SwiftKey out for free they can download the free trial from Google Play, or try our latest beta, which includes a new series of features called SwiftKey Cloud. You can download the beta at http://beta.swiftkey.net.
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