Manchester-based Wakelet was the brainchild of CEO Jamil Khalil, who came up with the idea for an online platform allowing users to organise any content on the internet and create shareable collections in 2011.
In 2013, Jamil left his job to run Wakelet full-time. The company, which features in the Tech Nation 2016 report, secured £1.1 million of startup funding from angel investors in Manchester.
Jamil spoke to us about where the idea for Wakelet came from, building it on a shoestring, surviving investor knock-backs, and how he thinks digital businesses in Manchester don’t collaborate as much as they should, both established and startups.
What’s your elevator pitch to investors?
We give people the freedom to organise and share any content on the web, the way they want it.
I started Wakelet with a couple of friends. At the time we all had frustrations with the vast amount of information on the web and social media. We wanted to find a better way for people to save, share and consume content.
While researching at university, I struggled to keep track of everything I found online. I ended up grouping together useful links, images and notes into sections of a Word document, scrolling through page after page to find a single URL and wasting valuable time.
After a year travelling in New Zealand, my friends kept asking me where I’d been and what I’d done, and each time I had to paste lists of links into emails. I’d label them – but without any context or visual cues, they would end up faced with a wall of URLs and no clear structure. Despite my efforts, my emails weren’t useful, and as I exchanged more and more emails, they became very difficult to find and consume.
While leading a technology programme at Airbus, I heard that suppliers and customers were frustrated with trying to dig out information about the programme. The information available on the official Airbus website was limited. The suppliers and customers would have to search the web and navigate through hundreds of thousands of results to piece together a cohesive narrative. In doing so, they would often miss out on essential pieces of information. The Airbus team created a specific page linked to the company intranet, so that they could store and access all of their information. This was only available internally, so they ended up emailing lists of links to suppliers and customers to share information.
I soon realised that Wakelet would address these drawbacks and much more. It would also make it easier for people to take control of the content that interests, inspires, and excites them. We wanted to bridge the gap between humans and algorithms by empowering people to curate and share content in a stunning, useful and more personal way.
What challenges did you face starting out?
When I started Wakelet, I had a very hectic but enjoyable full-time job. I was constantly flying around the world and working very long hours, so I had very little free time. Four months in, I found myself on my own, as the two friends that I started the company with decided to move on.
Trying to build a web application with limited technical know-how, very little capital and no team was testing to say the least! I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t think that it would take as long as it did to build the prototype and secure the initial funding I needed. Having a busy full-time job didn’t make it any easier.
I really didn’t appreciate how difficult it was to find people who understand tech and are ready to invest in early-stage tech companies that don’t immediately generate revenue.
Initially, it was impossible to attract any investment. I shared the idea with a few American startup CEOs that I knew and they really liked it. They advised me to put together a slide deck and pitch the idea to investors; they were confident that it would be pretty easy to raise seed capital. I must have met with over 100 UK investors and even though most people really liked the idea, no one was willing to cross that line and invest early on. They wanted me to have a proven product, team, traction and so forth. I didn’t exactly know how I was going to do this, but I knew if I just continued to work hard and move forward, things would get clearer. As a result, I mainly relied on my monthly pay cheque from Airbus to help me move things forward but not at the pace I wanted.
At times, and because I was very tired, the knock-backs I encountered were pretty disheartening, but I didn’t let them get in the way. I just kept going.
Why was Manchester a good place to base your business?
That’s a good question! A lot of people told us to leave the UK and to setup in the US, but we wanted to start here.
The UK is a great place and Manchester is home. It’s where we’re from and apart from the rain, it’s a great city with a lot of passion, talent and potential. The startup and tech scene is noticeably growing, so this creates positive energy and opportunity. We want to be at the forefront of this wave of enterprise and innovation.
I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or if it’s because I’ve worked in a large global company, but I don’t see why being a Northern or Southern business should really matter.
Compared to the US the UK is a small place. Most of the major cities are accessible within a two-hour train ride, so it’s important for us that we participate, collaborate and support each other so we can create a strong, sustainable and vibrant economy that creates a solid foundation for success.
What’s Manchester’s tech and digital scene like?
This digital scene is generally flourishing. There are a lot of established and successful agencies and businesses that already provide a range of services to global clients.
Over the past five years technology has significantly advanced and this has enabled startups to build stuff cheaper, faster and better than in previous years. As a result, the startup and tech scene is growing rapidly and really starting to take shape. This creates energy and opportunity. There is also an increasing number of incubators, accelerators and workspaces to support and mentor startups, this includes the likes of The Shed, SpacePortX, Rise, Hello Work, Dotforge, Ignite and Entrepreneurial Spark.
In addition, there are a number of organisations like Tech North, Manchester Tech Trust and Manchester Growth Company trying to create a supportive backbone to make the tech community stronger and more integrated.
Do digital companies in Manchester collaborate and learn from each other?
Learn from each other – I’m hoping that we do. I believe that anyone who is serious about business should be ready to learn through the experiences of others.
Collaborate? I’m not so sure about that. I don’t believe that there is as much of this as there should be. Without a greater emphasis on collaboration, I feel that the tech industry here will never reach its full potential.
What challenges does Wakelet face now?
In the tech space everything continuously evolves at a rapid pace. Users expect companies to provide better, faster and more fluid experiences. We want Wakelet to be used and enjoyed by people all over the world, and because of this we have ambitious dreams – dreams that form a fundamental part of our culture.
The key challenge is to grow our team by hiring the right people with the right mindset and a strong sense of purpose. For us, the best employees are the ones who want to win, who aren’t afraid of the unknown and who thrive on risk and challenge.
How do you innovate as well as keeping on top of the day to day?
It’s not easy. The hardest part is managing where you spend your time and making sure that you control the task rather than the task controlling you. Everyone has their own techniques, but I spend time at the beginning of each day planning what I want to get done, and reviewing everything at the end of the day. This allows me to still react to things in real-time but focus on what’s important rather than what’s urgent. I’ve found that by doing this, I’m able to always make time for innovation – an element that is essential for our business.
What struck you as interesting or surprising in the Tech Nation report?
That ‘41% of digital jobs exist in traditionally non-digital industries’ was an interesting finding. It reminds me of when the internet came along and it was called new media, but soon just became media. Similar to this, digital is increasingly becoming a norm and a necessity of every business. People who were born in the last 10 years are digital natives. If this generation were to walk into businesses that aren’t digital, they’d find themselves lost.
As infrastructure improves, devices get more intelligent, widespread and become more connected; it’s difficult to imagine a future where businesses are not digitally reliant in some shape or form.
What’s the most exciting thing about the digital scene in the North?
Momentum – things are happening. Initiatives like Tech Nation help to put the spotlight on businesses like ours. They also help to increase our awareness nationally and globally across business and industry.
As the digital scene grows, and momentum continues to build, this helps to raise opportunities and awareness outside of the ‘digital community’.
What would improve the digital economy in the North? Is there anything missing?
Better collaboration among businesses – especially between established companies and startups. In the grand scheme of things it’s still early days, though there is an increasing number of corporates that are venturing within certain verticals, and I see this as the next stage of development. What is missing is a critical mass of early success stories to encourage businesses to proactively look for opportunities.
What’s next for Wakelet?
We recently released our new platform, which is built on new and exciting technologies. The next step is to launch our iOS app, new browser extension and continually listen to feedback to improve Wakelet and make it even more enjoyable for people to use.
We’re already seeing a lot of usage in sport, education, business, creative and charity. This also includes the everyday person who enjoys saving, curating and sharing content that they care about. The plan is to now scale Wakelet to make more people aware of it across the UK and around the world.
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