Steve Owens


The Huli CEO talks about their route-finding web app - spinning out from a University, DIY development and putting the user experience first.

Introduce yourself. How’s your day?

My name’s Steve Owens and I’m one of the founders of a company called Huli. I've recently been awarded a Royal Society of Edinburgh fellowship, which allows me to focus on my company for a full year. We’re a spin-out of Strathclyde University - that means we’re sort-of. This morning I have been taking part of my first training course as part of that fellowship.

How many fellowship places do they offer?

I think they open it twice a year. It depends on who applies and how much funding they’ve have got – as part of my cohort there are six in total from across the UK. 

Were you an academic or was Huli a start-up incubated by the university? 

I've got a PhD from University of Stratchlyde as well, so I've been there for a while now. It's built on some IP that we licensed from the University as part of our product. I have a PhD in astro-dynamics so spacecraft trajectory design is where I've come from. The other co-founder, he has a PhD in data routing and data networks. The application is satellites but it's actually just networks generally. It’s looking at how you move one piece of information through a network in the most efficient way possible. An ultimately, how that links to the company is: we’ve taken that premise and applied it to the outdoors - how a cyclist or a hiker would find paths and roads.

Pitch your product to us in one minute.

Huli should make the outdoors more accessible to anyone interested in using technology. We simply ask someone what is their wanting to get from an activity - running, cycling, hiking - you just need to have an idea of what you want as the user. You know for example that you want to go for a two hour walk or cycle. If you’re cycling you want a level of elevation gain in it or if you're a road cyclist you might be interested in going a certain distance. You give us your preferences and that’s it. You tell us where you want to start and end and we’ll find a route that matches those preferences.

User experience is fundamental because we wanted to be as simple and as streamlined as possible. You shouldn't have to have an engineering degree to understand it, to use this product, it should be: I want to do this - that's the answer to it.

Who were the imagined users - were the people already in your life or did you meet other folks through some kind of recruiting technique to validate the idea that you had? 

The idea came originally because I myself am a customer, and so is the fellow co-founder, so it’s something we thought we would use as people that are interested in these sports. And then through that, we've started to speak to some road cycling clubs and other people that we think would use it. And we also ran some testing year just launching an alpha product where we signed up a fair amount of users in a short period of time. So it hints there’s a want for this type of product. We’ve tried to validate it through that.

How did that testing go?

The product was pretty early, and it ended up being a big bug finding mission, which was great actually. Because we all of feedback we did get a lot of ideas in terms of where we can take the product and we also got that feedback on how we can fix or make the product better. Generally we just put it out there and said, please use it, please break it, don’t be shy. 

For the university grant program: what resources, aside from financial do they potentially offer you? How has that impacted you so far and how do you think it could impact you moving forward?

Generally, they just offer well, softer support around most topics. In the early days, it was very much: is this something that you can commercialize? Is there a business opportunity there?

And slowly as we’ve spun out of the University and become our own company, it's been relatively, light touch and we only go to them when we need to chat to them about something. The Fellowship is a good example of where they would support me because that Fellowship has to be part of an institution. I also just get access to academics as well. Just being part of the university enables me to know a lot of people in that environment that can help the company.

Is there a particular department, an entrepreneurial part of the university that's helping incubate companies like yours?

Strathclyde itself has an entrepreneurial hub and a pretty good business school. We've been able to take advantage of master's programs, students that are looking for projects, and they want to work with real companies. So we can help them and they can help us because they help us do some market research on areas that we want to look at. And same goes for, for example, computer science: they want their students to have interesting projects, and we want to do interesting stuff so we can work alongside them and because we just know how the university works so to speak we can get these projects set up relatively quickly.

Would they be like business students, entrepreneurs?

Not necessarily - the last product was international marketing, for example, in the business school. So they're more interested in how you market things to people and how you understand what market sizes are, and who your customers are, and so forth.

Did you learn through that project ideas about pricing and subscription models and how culturally that might vary in different locations?

Yeah, exactly, and I reckon you’d pay a reasonable amount money to go to a marketing consultancy to get the same results. And because I was working with Master's level students, then the quality of work is usually high. So you get a good value from that. And again, it's a tool, because we give them a real company they can work with and if they actually see how it may benefit us, then that motivates them as well.

How has the current lockdown affected your business and what are you doing to cope?

It’s not that bad for us because we've not officially launched a paying product yet, we're not in a market generating revenue yet. As we’re still doing development - we've got users who have tested the product we’ve not asked them for any money yet so we’ve not seen our revenue drop. Going forward we’re looking at an investment round and investors are likely to be a bit more risk-averse. We’re just assessing it as we go.

But at the moment the Fellowship is a good thing for me, I’m working full-time on the company but my salary is linked to the Fellowship. When we start to sell the product we’ll maybe see the impact of it. Having said that, it’s an outdoor product, it’s designed to get you outside doing exercise. If anything it’s going to help during this lockdown – we can generate nice interesting routes near to your house or matches time requirements. So it has real benefit in this lockdown state.

Does this colour the idea of what your first launch might be? Are you rethinking what version one looks like to the consumer?

Our version one has always suited the kind of user that may want to do a specific activity close to their home. It suits that person along with anyone else who might use it.

We may target individuals who are into set sports but the same technology works for people that are just interested in a walk. 

So you've got the two broad types of user: ‘just a walk’ versus a sports user, more of an expert.

Yeah, we've done it before already. And we focused on sports cycling and mountain biking, off road stuff. We're still driving forward with the back-end technology and not user experience yet. We’re focused on getting it working well.

 Is it primarily a native app you’re thinking of?

We’re an online platform on the web, but yeah, we're going to get ourselves to an app where you can use it on iOS or Android. The key idea is to create the route on our website then export it to any advice – the technology you currently use to do your activity. But there is the option to do it in the app.

Was that a conscious decision, to develop a website first? 

Like a progressive app?

I was just thinking of your choice: did you consciously make it a website first because that has lower overheads?

The people that we know use websites in order to create routes, and that's actually something that we think we can change to some extent. Because route planners up to this point have been similar to what Google Maps is and it's all very point-by-point. You’re normally going in a car and you’re normally going one-way. Cycle routes go back to the same point So you see, I want to go from point A to point B; but you can’t ask Google Maps to go from point A to point A, if that makes sense.

It simplifies the problem because you're not having to plot points on the map, you're just asking for high-level parameters of set distance or set time. It’s easier to provide that in a mobile app as well because you don’t need the same space to display maps.

Before Huli, what is the mental model for someone who needs to interact with technology in order to stay on route while being mindful of safety? They're riding on a bicycle on a road for example, so they don't want to take out a big smartphone in the middle of that. So how did that level of interactivity in terms of pre-trip, during trip and also within an app - how did you make sense of that, in order to direct you to the work on the back end of engineering?

That’s where I suppose we’ve been different. Just before you would go into one of these apps, generate a route by plotting points on a map, for example, and then you would have to export your route on to your device. And then the device would sit on your handlebars and it would give you turn by turn directions. It could be your phone, your smart watch or cycling computer. So the technology part is just how you create the route. That’s the part we’re focusing on and ultimately, we’d just export that route to the device. The IP we have is how we create the route. How it’s displayed to the user doesn’t change.

Are there pain points in the outside of the IP in that? Before your technology is introduced, did users, specifically, have issues just interacting with the technology through a bike ride for example?

If you're already riding a route on your bike it’s normally preprogrammed so if you want to change things mid-route that's where things become a bit more difficult. Especially if don't know where you are, if you’re on holiday for example. The pain points there are figuring out where to go to get to the new point. With our system the idea is you could just pull out your phone, create a new route from your current start point to your new end point. Or get to the point where we’re just dynamically re-routing you.

 Before you would have to sit at a computer or an app and plot all these points in a map. And the technology would join the dots between these points that you're plotting, but that's still putting the effort on you to do that. If you’re somewhere you've never been before how do you know where you should be running or walking or cycling?

You've talked us through the whole cycle - you've got a good understanding of where your technology fits in. You started with a couple of pain points, from customers like yourself. You've got this IP, which is the technology in the middle of a process but then you're agnostic for how people export it.

Do you have any advice for other start-ups?

The only one I'd say is focus. Trying to address too many things at once just leads to you spread yourself too thinly. If you just have one pain point you can really hone in on that and really produce something good for that one customer need.

You get dragged in all different directions, throughout the start-up process, to try and raise investment earlier you probably should or just general stuff that you probably shouldn’t focus on, so just try to cut out the noise.

What are you doing to seek funding? Trying Angel investment or something like that? 

Yeah, just looking at all options, in a few different investors and so forth, and we're just exploring what's out there. 

Is there one tool that you've used along the way, that has been invaluable, like one website or app, or functionality that has helped you along?

We use a lot of Python / AWS.

 I hear Python is an easy language to pick up - is there an advantage to AWS as well?

 They’re very good at giving start-ups credit! Generally their stuff is pretty easy to use as well. It sets it up for scaling pretty easily. So if we roll it out to bigger areas or have a large volume of users it’s pretty well set up for that. It saves you managing your own servers and stuff.

Do you have a developer on board?

 No, we've had developers working for us and then going off again just as our cash flow situation changes. So it's currently just me and the other cofounder. We're not computer scientists by any stretch of the imagination but we've done a lot of programming through our PhDs. It seems to be part and parcel with an engineering PhD.

I'm always looking for ways that we can improve. We have an online platform. We're always looking for feedback now we can improve the way it functions and especially from the UX stuff. The one thing I want to achieve is to make it really simple to use, just so any ideas you have then please fire them on!