In today's interview, I have Nathan Boublil, co-founder of ProjectPolicy.org, an online, intuitive visualisation tool to help the world make sense of policy.
Before starting ProjectPolicy, Nathan worked in the M&A division of Deutsche Bank for three years. He is currently a postgraduate student at Cambridge in Political Economy and a Policy Fellow at Cambridge’s Centre of Science and Policy (CSaP).
Hi Nathan, Thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
Hi Joseph, I am great, thanks for interviewing me. I am really looking forward to this New Year.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I am 27, from France, but have been living abroad for the past 10 years, including 7 in the UK. I am a postgraduate student at Cambridge in Political Economy and the co-founder of ProjectPolicy.org, an online, intuitive visualisation tool to help the world make sense of policy.
Tell me about how you got into business?
I have always had an entrepreneurial mindset and have been launching several small projects and charity events since my teenage years. I interned with several start-ups during my undergraduate years too which confirmed my passion for entrepreneurship. After my undergraduate degree, I decided to join the M&A division of Deutsche Bank in 2008 where I worked in London and Paris for close to three years. This was a fantastic crash course in business. Being at the forefront of the financial crisis also opened my eyes to many inefficiencies around me, so I decided to leave in 2011, following my entrepreneurial mindset, to attempt to solve some of these inefficiencies. In parallel, I also started studying again at Cambridge and I’m now a Policy Fellow at Cambridge’s Centre of Science and Policy (CSaP).
How did the idea for ProjectPolicy come about?
As part of my professional and academic activities, I realised that public policy was still one of those very inefficient areas. Thankfully, the Open Data movement is underway but overall, technology has yet to disrupt the policy making process and it is still unbelievably hard to analyse economic and regulatory policies across regions and countries. And yet, public policy impacts all of us, everyday. So we wondered: how can we be expected to change the world if there is no easy tool to understand it?
Identifying a need in an area which I am passionate about was a perfect fit. Therefore, I pitched the concept of ProjectPolicy.org at StartupWeekend Cambridge in November 2012, gathering a superb founding team of like-minded Cambridge graduate students in Economics, Political Science and Computer Science. Following a few intense days, we won StartupWeekend as well as the UK finals (Silicon Valley Comes 2 UK) at London's Google Campus a few days later. The ProjectPolicy team now comprises eight people.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
The first 2 weeks were extremely intense for us as we had to go from “just an idea stage” to a “pitch & demo stage” within 52 hours for StartUpWeekend.
Winning this competition then meant we had 72 hours to create a video and refine the prototype for the next UK finals, which we won again.
In parallel, we also qualified in the top 15 (out of ~1,300 teams) of the Global Startup Battle, the world’s largest startup competition by collecting upwards of 4,500 votes on social media…
This was all very sudden for the whole team who had to balance this with other academic and professional commitments. Needless to say, efficiency was a must to be able to get some sleep. Luckily, we are blessed with a great team, with very complementary skill sets and absolutely no internal tension.
What is ProjectPolicy? And what are you trying to solve?
ProjectPolicy.org is an online policy data visualisation platform, which allows policy makers and decision makers to visualise international, national and local policy data. With a user-friendly interface, it aims to be the world’s most comprehensive platform fully dedicated to economic and regulatory data, making policy more transparent and easily accessible.
How have you been able to fund it?
We are entirely bootstrapped and have not sought to raise equity funding at the moment. However, we won many in-kind prizes, such as a trip to San Francisco for the whole team sponsored by Google in late January. We also won legal services and office space provided by Accelerate Cambridge (Cambridge’s brand new accelerator)… which means we can survive without external funding for the moment.
About the first few weeks, how excited were you, tell us about how those weeks felt, what happened?
It was very exciting to work hard with a team of such talented people to create an innovative product from scratch in record time. We all enjoyed the challenge of solving problem after problem to create something valuable. Unlike other sectors, the field of policy is also largely unexplored (given how challenging it is to disrupt), so it also feels exciting to venture in unchartered territory!
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
The most important for us was to build the right team of strong and motivated people, with complementary skill sets. This allows us to work largely independently whilst knowing that we can completely trust each other to deliver on our respective workstreams. The team is still by far our biggest asset.
However challenging, founding ProjectPolicy at StartupWeekend Cambridge rather than privately was also the right decision as it accelerated our progress by a factor of 10. It definitely helped in building the team, providing mentorship, exposure and high-profile contacts all in one go.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
ProjectPolicy is personally my most ambitious entrepreneurial project so far as the list of challenges to be overcome is limitless. It also means a substantial investment of time for a big team (8 people) so we must not get it wrong.
Going from nothing to winning two competitions and a trip for 5 to the Valley within 4 days was clearly a huge highlight and an excellent validation for the project.
What should be expecting from yourself and ProjectPolicy for 2013?
2013 will be a key year for us! We are now focused on refining the product ahead of our public launch in a couple of months. We are also liaising with a long list of professionals from the public policy community who are actively supporting us.
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1) I strongly believe it is important to focus on sectors which you feel passionate about. I am not a believer in the top down opportunistic approach which leads you to focus on legitimate opportunities but in areas which fundamentally do not interest you. Your competitive advantage and resilience level in this case tends to be lower, adding another difficulty to the already very tough startup journey.
2) Bootstrap as much as possible. Having worked in VC for a couple of years after my banking years, I do think there is too much focus in the community on raising financing as an end itself. I fully agree with the founder of Tableau who regards taking venture capital as having a loan. The legal obligation isn’t there but the moral one definitely is, so I think it is better to wait as much as possible until your strategy stabilises before seeking funding.
3) Get involved. In the UK, we are blessed with a very active and supportive startup community with tons of events like StartupWeekend. These events can accelerate your growth by a factor of 10 - so getting involved is key!