My Very First Podcast.

Back in 2017, when I was doing some associate work for a social tech incubator, I had the opportunity to interview some of the founders from the 2nd “mission” which was about solving problems relating to globalisation and automation. I’ve dug up the interview which I posted online years ago, it was designed to help potential future founders understand what it’s like to create a business within a business incubator.

[Founder Spotlight] Interview with Sophie: CTO @ Project Kitchen Table

Zinc

Zinc

Jul 27, 2018·12 min read

Welcome to Zinc’s Founder Spotlight — a series of interviews with Founders from Zinc’s first mission. This month we’re interviewing three of our CTO’s, Sophie from Project Kitchen Table, Alfredo from Better Space, and Mihir from Squad. First up is Sophie.

  • To listen to Sophie’s full podcast (24 mins), go here

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Sophie: I am Sophie, CTO of Project Kitchen Table. I studied Computer Science and Maths and then I went into teaching people about code and all things digital including cyber security before I jumped on the bandwagon and decided to join Zinc!

And how old are you?

Sophie: I’m 25.

What you were doing before you joined Zinc?

Sophie: I was in-person facilitating a range of senior executives from different companies, teaching them all they need to know about the digital transformation that their businesses were going on. And we did that very hands-on, getting them to actually code, live the life of a developer for the day, so that they can experience and understand a different mindset in order to enable them to make better decisions. The other thing I did alongside in-person teaching was build a chatbot that taught people about cyber security. That was to expand the amount of people that we could reach with the education, and we really wanted to replicate the human feel which is why we made a chatbot.

What technologies have you mostly used?

Sophie: The chatbot was built all in Ruby on Rails, loads of JavaScript, horrible, horrible JavaScript now I can think about it! We used a great UI framework called semantic UI, and MongoDB backend. When I used to teach, I used to teach the three languages of the web, so HTML, CSS and JavaScript. We used those because they’re the simplest ones to get your head round in a day in a very short period of time, where you can actually see that something is happening. Some of the back-end languages, like Python, is my absolute favourite language, but you can’t see the result in the same way. So actually when you’re teaching someone it’s nice to get that visual recognition for people before you move on to the more complicated hidden away stuff in the background.

Where did you learn how to code?

Sophie: On my degree, I learned a lot of Python. I learned some strange languages like Lisp and Prolog, I don’t even know if they’re used in industry applications! I did quite a bit of Java and I did some C#, but they didn’t set as well with me. It wasn’t actually until I was in the outside world that I touched a web-based language, or even really learnt about the principles of software development, and software development within a team. That was quite a big gap in my knowledge, but my degree just didn’t teach me that. It’s quite interesting that actually, even though people might have that degree, a lot of the learning, that’s the real industry experience, comes from afterwards and comes from working with other people, learning from the people that are around you and that you’re working with.

How did you hear about Zinc, and why did you join?

Sophie: I was in a hotel room in Stockholm teaching a company how to code when I saw the advert for Zinc come up on Twitter. I read the Medium post and thought I completely missed the boat. I thought I’d missed the deadline, scrolled all the way down to the bottom, turns out I hadn’t missed the deadline, and thought oh my gosh, I have to be involved. I’ve always wanted to start my own thing and the fact that this was centered around mental health, which is an area so close to my heart. I just knew I had to be involved. I kind of thought, oh my gosh, I’ll never get on, I’m not equipped to do this, but I filled in the form, then you guys said come and do your video interviews, I said okay I’ll do the video interviews, then you said come in for a day, I came in for a day, had an amazing day at the full day interview, and then six months down the line, I have a business. Don’t really understand how I got here but it’s been an amazing adventure!

It was literally a random Tweet?

Sophie: It was such a random tweet and I was in a really random hotel room in Stockholm, and I remember that I couldn’t change my location on the form, and I was thinking oh my god they’re gonna think I’m in Stockholm, they’re not gonna let me in because it’s based in London, but I am in London based…but I knew that I had to get my application form in, I had to do it. So I just did it on that day as soon as I saw it!

Can you tell me about your personal interest in Zinc’s first mission?

Sophie: Definitely. Mental health is something that everyone has. People don’t talk about it, or haven’t talked about it too much up until quite recently when it’s really just come and kind of exploded into the public’s attention. I’ve been touched quite personally for mental health distress. I have a couple of close friends that have gone through some really kind of dark episodes, and I’ve always been the one on the outside helping them out, rather than going through those episodes myself, but even being an observer to that, and being that supporting role, made me realize how unequipped we are to deal with this…and I knew I had a set of skills, a very special set of skills, that could be used in a very productive way, to make a real difference in people’s lives. If I can apply the skills I’m lucky enough to have to help people, then that to me is incredibly rewarding.

It sounds like you like sharing knowledge and building things for people to benefit from.

Sophie: Yeah, definitely. I actually got into teaching when I started to teach women how to code through an organisation called Code:First Girls. Seeing that change in people from something that I had already learned and kind of knew and assumed was okay, being able to pass that on, being able to see people change the way they think, potentially change their careers was such an incredible feeling and it felt almost selfish to keep it inside when I was lucky enough to be taught it myself. I think if we’re in a privileged position where we have a set of skills, we should be sharing those skills with others.

Tell me about your current business.

Sophie: I have founded Project Kitchen Table with my co-founder Aimée, Project Kitchen Table is a business that wants to bring more shared laughter to families. We’re doing that with our first product, which is a conversation partner called Kit, and you will be able to speak to KIT through voice-based technology. So we want to encourage and empower the next generation to find their social confidence, to find their voice, in order to safeguard their mental health.

Tell me about your role at Project Kitchen Table.

Sophie: And day to day, what does being the CTO look like? Well it varies. If we’re really striving towards a next user test, we know exactly what we’re testing, I’m in lockdown build mode. So coding away building out KIT, building the Alexa skill that it is currently available through. If we’re doing a user test I’m on-site, speaking to kids in schools, speaking to parents, really getting in touch with our user base. Otherwise, it’s all about thinking about the feasibility of the technology around us. So what can we do with KIT? We’ve got great ambitions to make it really artificially intelligent, but that technology is quite far away. So how do I speak to those experts, what’s happening in the field, and how do I make sure that KIT can drive that agenda forwards. Alongside doing a loads of other stuff that needs to get done when there’s only two of you! Like legal documents, we’re trying to recruit for some summer interns, thinking about our values, our mission. And I spend a lot of time talking to other people that have already built startups, to learn from what they’ve done, to learn from how we’re presenting ourselves, and what they immediately think. We’re just trying to absorb as much feedback as we can possibly get.

How did you and Aimée come up with Project Kitchen Table?

Sophie: Aimée and I were actually having breakfast at Aimée’s kitchen table. We’d had a great coffee where we knew we really got on. We were just talking about what motivated us and what hit home for us. We started to think about what the drivers of mental health and we knew one of those is good communication. We know that something that detracts from mental health is bad communication and we started to play around. Where actually do the skills of communication come from? The majority of the time, it will be when families sit around that kitchen table. They’re sharing that time, they’re sharing a meal, and they’re learning from each other. But actually kitchen tables are on the decline, the Office of National Statistics removed the kitchen table from the basket that judges inflation and replaced it with a flat screen TV. So it stemmed from that but things have consistently evolved since then, but it was definitely a shared idea. How do we change mental health for the long-term? How do we break that cycle of it being passed down generation to generation?

How does your product KIT work?

Sophie: So when we started to speak to teams and do user testing, they actually said that they don’t want a product that they share with their Mum and Dad, they want something that is solely for themselves. So that’s what we’re working with at the moment, which is a journaling-based app. You can speak to Kit, it will ask you five or six questions about your day, and get you to release and get those emotions that might have been inside or any weight that you have from the day and any angst, it’s out. It’s gone. KIT’s taking it away, and we’re just releasing that pressure, we want to be that pressure release. And while we’re doing that through KIT’s language, we’re going to start to expand the vocabulary that the child is exposed to so that they will be able to better identify with their emotions as well.

Does KIT provide advice or feedback?

Sophie: So that’s a great question. We would like it to be a coach, so coaches don’t normally pass judgment, give feedback, they actually equip the individual to help themselves, that’s more the goal than that direct feedback and advice, but it depends on the scenario because we might offer feedback in the range of vocabulary used or the different scenarios that people might work through with Kit. But directly on a day to day basis, will it give feedback or advice? Probably not.

So Kit’s coaching role is to be the prompt, on topics such as bullying, conflict at home etc?

Sophie: Exactly, yes. Prompt them to think, prompt them to reflect.

What did you get out of being part of Zinc?

Sophie: So I guess three main things. First of all, I have a business, I met Aimée who is my wonderful co-founder whom I’m very privileged to have met, because she’s amazing and we’re a great match. The fact that I even have a business and someone to build that business with. The second part would be the fact that we got exposed to so much knowledge, so many specialists, and just got that real deep dive into areas that I would never have access to before. I think the third thing was the fact that, you know, I thought about starting a business… I don’t know if I ever voiced it out loud, but I thought about it, but there was always that fear aspect of: well how am I going to support myself? How am I going to pay my rent? How do I even know where to start etc? Zinc of gave me that cushion to get me comfortable with the uncomfortable for those first six months. And now I feel like we’re on our own, we’re free, we’re ready to fly, but I’m fine with not having a steady paycheck that comes in, I’m fine with the methodology that goes alongside building a startup.

If you didn’t join Zinc, where would you be today?

Sophie: I think if I hadn’t of joined Zinc, I would have probably gone to work for a very small startup. I would have liked to have been employee one, two, three, but I don’t know if I would have had the nerve to be a founder.

What have been your key wins and challenges?

Sophie: I think if you’re thinking about doing something, a key challenge is the first couple of months when you’re trying to find a co-founder and you’re trying to find your feet because there’s a lot of people around there’s a lot of new knowledge and that’s a challenge because that’s just emotionally draining. That’s just the way it is. You’re working with people but you don’t really know if they’re the right one and the real win I guess came when Aimée and I really solidified our relationship, and I feel very lucky that she was with me and also joined Zinc and we were able to come together.

Was it early on?

Sophie: She was courting me, and I was very coy about the whole thing! But we probably came together in November and then really solidified ourselves early December time. So it took some time, it took going through a couple of breakups with other people, and things not working out. Sounds a bit bit like dating…

Turns out that it’s quite a natural process, isn’t it?

Sophie: It’s definitely a normal thing to do, but it’s still a challenge. So that was a challenge that ended with a win. I think another challenge — and this is a question we ask in every mentoring session that we go to — is managing your own energy. So how do you keep the momentum going where you stay healthy, are able to go guns blazing, and what techniques and strategies do you need to put in place for that. So Aimée and I have kind of two really core things. We both really try and do yoga quite a lot. That was the one piece of advice I got from anyone else about managing your energy. Aimée and I have said we also do not work weekends. We always need that break. That’s to prevent us from burning out in the long run, we need the balance.

So you’re giving yourself the mental health.

Sophie: Yes, yes. And I think we both came together on that very early on, you know, we’re building about mental health, let’s not damage our own in the meantime.

So what does the future have in store for you?

Sophie: So for me, well, I feel like for me my future is the company. This is the plan for the next ten years. We want to bring more shared laughter to the world. We want to enable KIT to reconnect families and to reconnect individuals with themselves. We want to push the boundaries on voice tech, we want to push what businesses look like with voice at their core. That’s the long-term, in the short term, we’ve got really exciting beta tests coming up. We’ve got a couple of interns in the pipeline to help us push the product over the summer. We’re looking to get KIT into more schools to test, and to just get it in the hands of as many children as possible.

What are the main things you learnt in the past 6 months?

Sophie: Before this, I hadn’t built an Alexa skill, that’s been incredible. Being able to think more holistically about things, and being empowered to make decisions that I used to make as part of team, whilst quite scary at first but does kind of show you, I can do this without needing other people’s help and advice.

So in a sense, teaching yourself how to learn better?

Sophie: Exactly, exactly. Which is a weird thing to think about for someone who used to teach people things!

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in joining?

Sophie: So I went out for dinner with my friend that is going to apply to Zinc, and the advice I gave her was think about what the worst thing that could have happen is. For me, the worst thing that could happen was that I learnt loads over three months. That I left at Christmas, I didn’t have a business there wasn’t the right person here for me, but I learnt loads. So actually thinking about the positives that come out of like the worst case scenario. The second thing is if you are thinking about applying and you’ve not immediately gone “oh my god, that’s ridiculous, why the hell would I ever do that?” you should apply, because it’s going to be the majority of people that think what we’ve just done is utterly ridiculous, and the fact that people even consider applying means that they should apply. Just fill in that form, just see where it takes you, and see what the adventure will hold!

My Startup Story — Lessons from a Psychologist turned Entrepreneur.

A famous writer, cartoonist, and animator once said:

“Sometimes you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” — Theodore Seuss Geisel

And for me, the understanding of my moments came after I started to understand myself. Alas, beholden to you is a story of self-discovery…

I was the ripe age of 23 when I started my first business (in the back of my garage, as the story goes…) and waited until I was 27 to quit my full-time job. Now at 33 I reflect on lessons learnt from the past decade.

Until now, I have never been able to ‘tell my story’ — because what I went through didn’t make any sense to me (and yes, I felt like a mess inside).

Like many a reader, during lockdown I spent a lot of time by myself, with my own thoughts. The silence was deafening until I decided to open up and speak to whole host of coaches, consultants and therapists.

When I first started out with my business, I had all the symptoms of a first-time founder: imposter syndrome, burnout, and a rocky relationship with taking risks, to name a few…

I desperately (and somewhat embarrassingly) craved for a startup coach/consultant to ‘show me the way’, but had a mortgage to pay and was feeling extra frugal having just quit my corporate job, so I gave myself some macho-talk and ended up deciding against it.

And ultimately, I never ended up getting a coach/consultant at all in the ~2-3 years that I worked more or less full-time on it. I ended up closing the business when an unexpected fire burnt my warehouse down. I was broke and burnt out. AND get this — it happened around the time of a solar eclipse (~March, 2015) — an eclipse is often mystically observed to provoke changes that are more external, and force us to find a different route.

Trump and Melania observing the last solar eclipse in March 2015 — perhaps it foretold that he’d only have one term in office as president of the united states?

You could call the warehouse fire sheer bad luck, but there are 20,000 fires caused by electrical faults in the UK, and getting insurance is #business101.

Unfortunately, no matter how many ‘what if?’ decisions I made at warp-speed I fell short time and time again, either due to a lack of capacity or perspective. What I desperately needed was a half-time pep talk.

Of course mistakes are inevitable, but looking back I realise this: as a solo entrepreneur, persisting without a coach/consultant lead me to make a series of bad decisions and poor executions that could have easily been avoided.

Some harsh truths rang home, for example: ‘hindsight is 20/20’ and ‘people are your most important asset’. Shoulda, woulda, coulda…

You might say to yourself, ‘now is not the right time for this’ but I believe that in most cases it’s never a bad time to invest in yourself. And the home truth for me was that, I really needed to adopt a ‘beg, borrow, and steal’ attitude to this and just make it happen.

An even bigger irony perhaps, is that I was blindsided by my academic background too. There’s a tongue-in-cheek notion in social science circles: whilst psychologists understand others well (in their chosen specialisation) they are terrible at understanding themselves.

I think a lot of people get put off by the ‘self-help economy’ or any kind of consulting because it’s a lot like SEO: hidden and abstract. After all, psychology is a bit of a dark art — we analyse exactly how sociopaths, dictators and cult leaders, think. Unless in your spare time you take a specific interest in these subjects, one is left to simply muse about the ‘mad world’ we live in. Take the Peoples Temple as an example, how exactly does the cult leader Reverend Jim Jones persuade 900 Americans to willingly commit suicide together in a jungle in Guyana? Dark, dark arts.

People also — fairly or unfairly — give coaches and consultants flack because they’re expecting results on first try, or they want them faster. Most of the time this is not the case. But when you think about it, the value lies in realising that you are asking the wrong question and therefore, looking for the answers in the wrong places.

It just takes several forays to decipher the combination lock. Or to offer an alternative analogy, there are several missing keys to locate in the forest. Looking at it holistically, coaching and consulting is a unique combined approach to problem solving involving several attempts and techniques. Seeing it as a journey of discovery is a healthy expectation, as one thing leads to the other. Patience, young padawan.

Research unequivocally shows that the key to an effective ‘therapeutic alliance’ is 1) the willingness of the client to get help, 2) the relationship between the coach and coachee. Hopefully I have argued the first point in this post. The second point is a process — of joint exploration. The coach asks, “do I see this person, and can I get through to them?”. The coachee asks, “do I feel seen by this coach, and will their approach resonate through me?”. And then a conclusion is drawn by both parties. If jointly positive: “we feel we can work reasonably well together to get what both parties want and need out of it.”

After voyaging through the rough seas of entrepreneurship, encountering both friendly and hostile pirates along the way, occasionally jumping on board to help chuck water out of ships under siege— it feels good to return to my proverbial armchair as a coach and consultant.

I recently caught up with a good friend, an experienced and highly-skilled full-stack developer living in London. He’d been complaining to me for years that he was working insanity hours, and now, his health is suffering. He told me that he’s thought about getting a coach, but finds it difficult to quantify the impact that they might make. But here’s the thing, you can’t really quantify the statement “she changed my life” or “he completely changed the way I looked at things”. I can attest to this, personal growth is personal. We don’t talk about it much.

The story I now tell is that I committed to the study of entrepreneurship by seeing through other entrepreneurs (and their startups) before I was eventually able to see through myself as an entrepreneur. In all honesty — it felt like a bizarre and unintended anthropological experiment. And I humbly accept the realisation (again, this is backed up by reams of psychology research) that people don’t know themselves as well as they think they do, and we’re all pretty terrible at understanding each other.

If you’re a first-time founder or early entrepreneur, and have that nagging feeling that ‘things could be better’ then I implore you to knock on the door of the unconscious boss in the back of your mind — you have been re-booted in ‘risky startup mode’ (seeing red, for want of a better colour). Ask yourself: are my defences right up? And if your gut says that it is probably so, it’s time to find a crystal baller.

As woo-woo as this all sounds, I sit here tapping away feeling like some kind of ‘old hand’ that’s seen way too much. Then I realise, this is how I know that I am ready for my next journey of offering startup coaching/innovation consulting. I know exactly what kind of clients I am looking for, and what kind of problems I can help with. So it all makes sense now. And I trust myself to have the ability to use my intuition, balanced with judgement — drawing on wisdom gained from one too many good, bad, or ugly experiences. Adversity is, after all, the best teacher…

Leadership in Times of Crisis.

You do as you’re told either because you’re scared or inspired.

A good leader knows how to inspire every person, at every level, in the system.

A good leader knows that everyone plays a part, and should be recognised, and celebrated for it.

During this time my heart goes out to my former colleagues in the food and drink industry.

When the world stops, I imagine them self isolating at home, whilst recalling their tireless discipline over 16 hour shifts, to keep the food they make for the world to enjoy, clean and safe to eat.

And then I thought about the leaders who supported me, and my former colleagues, on our journey towards culinary art and mastery.

One particular leader stands out in my mind, and whilst I cannot read his mind, I do know that he is a devoted visionary.

A memory I am fond of, is when he joined me downstairs in the basement kitchen, together with the kitchen porter and and a few others that could offer support, to crack out hundreds of handmade gyoza with love.

To make a team of people forget about time, ignore the heat and sweat, hidden away from any sign of daylight, laugh and try harder, faster, better is no small task.

This man did it effortlessly. He made every person feel respected. He reminded everyone to have more empathy for each other, and praised tolerance and professionalism.

There was so much laughter. I cannot even begin describe the incredible sense of camaraderie that exists between chefs, and probably across hospitality.

We are a different kind of warrior. And the great leaders know that the hospitality industry needs to change and fight every day to make it better. The food we produce should respect the planet and bring joy to people. It should value more those that work so hard to make it.

At the top of the game, such as in fine dining restaurants, chefs spend more time cleaning surfaces, labelling food for expiration dates, storing things at safe temperatures, and cooking safely. This prevents the spread of bacteria and viruses. Sanitiser spray is like cool aid. And you don’t want to be caught sneezing irresponsibly! There is so much discipline, that nobody will get food poisoning, or suffer from an accidental peanut allergy. There is so much attention to detail, and I can tell you from experience, it’s beyond exhausting. But they are ruthlessly devoted to their craft.

I left the industry for personal reasons, but I’ll never forget how it felt to come home shattered to the bone, only to wake up at the crack of dawn and do it all over again, with the same level of discipline and passion. Customers will not expect any less.

If there is anything that office workers can take from me writing this, is to step outside your circle and make friends with someone you usually wouldn’t. It’ll open you to worlds you never knew and change your perspective in invaluable ways.

2019 changed me in a big way; and it looks like 2020 is going to bring about even bigger, bolder changes.

A Vivid Memory: Creating a Compelling Brand Story.

“The clock struck and the shoot had come to an end. We spent the day dancing around the sun trying to catch just the right light. We shot under giant oak trees, through wild unkempt ferns, in the woods with the deers, around lakes, over grassy rabbit mounds. Finally, the warm orb in the sky waved us farewell and the clouds took over. A windy chill set in and I threw the picnic blanket around my shoulders to keep warm. ‘That’s a wrap, guys’ I said and we all collectively relaxed. With tired soles we used the last of our energy to pack up and haul our gear and props out of the park. ‘Quick!’ Nick exclaimed. I looked up and saw my brother running off through the woods with his stedicam and Shanna, our model chasing after him in her heels. The sun gave a final show and beamed through the trees, casting tall shadows. The light was perfect. She stood tall as a pin striped cape of sun and shadow cast behind her. In the distance he stumbled backwards in to a tree stump and she laughed. ‘You’re in the shot!’ he shouted as we scurried out of view. Looking back at the footage in the flat, we really captured the best shot of the day as well as an outtake of the crew doing their jobs. A job well done.”