We chat to James Gray, CEO of Kortext, a digital textbook and learning platform. He talks about how he wants to make learning accessible for everyone, and meeting incredible people in his quest to make education available to anyone in the world.
Please explain who you are, what your business is, and what it does/aims to achieve?
Kortext is the UK’s leading digital textbook and learning platform. Our aim is to revolutionise learning and make it accessible to everyone, whatever their background and wherever they live in the world.
What time does your day usually start and end?
My day starts around 6am with my 3-year-old jumping on me until I get out of bed. And my day usually ends between midnight and 1am with my iPad falling on me.
What is the favourite part of your job and what is the least favourite part?
My favourite part is meeting inspirational people around the world. From the education leadership team at Microsoft in Seattle, through to people such as Andy Green of Bloodhound Fame and even Tim Peake. They are giving children a vision of what is possible and inspiring the next generation around the world.
My least favourite bit is getting up at 4am to catch a plane, but it is a small price to pay.
What inspired you to start your business? (And what made you want to be your own boss?)
I’ve pretty much always been my own boss. In fact, my mother would say I was my own boss from 12-years-old. I think the inspiration for Kortext came from knowing that the only place that was marching forward with digital textbooks was the U.S. Unless someone challenged that in the U.K., then inevitably it would be a U.S. technology company that would come to dominate the market here.
My overriding passion is to see technology make something better, easier, faster, more efficient. That can be a business process, education or just about anything. In some ways, the application of technology is about solving problems. The solution always becomes a combination of technology aligned with the right process and people. That alone can solve any problem regardless of scale.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
After returning from the U.S, I built a portfolio of different investments, most based around technology. Some people I knew had children attending university and couldn’t believe that in 2012 they were still buying all of their course textbooks in print. After being involved in e-Books for the past decade, I couldn’t believe that the textbook arena had moved so slowly towards digital. I figured that there had to be an opportunity to transform the market.
What has been the biggest challenge for your business?
It’s the same for every start-up. The biggest challenge is getting those initial business wins and building momentum. For every new business that is the key challenge.
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to growth for SMEs in the UK?
The biggest obstacle is getting everyone to take you seriously – banks, customers and suppliers. Once you have done that, it’s about striking the balance between managing cash flow whilst investing in developing sales and marketing infrastructure ahead of actually getting the sales.
Have you made any mistakes along the way and how did you overcome them/learn from them?
I have made many mistakes. The biggest mistakes have been around people. It’s not always that I have hired the wrong person; more that success is dependent upon the right person being in the right role at the right time.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to start their own business?
Unless you are totally, and I mean totally, committed then don’t do it. You have to be prepared to give up more weekends and evenings than you will ever imagine. Be prepared to put in the hours and you have a good chance of succeeding.
What do you do to relax away from the hustle and bustle of work?
I enjoy spending time with my young family and I love sailing. There is a reason our office is based in Silicon Beach in Bournemouth – it’s a great place to attract the bright people we want, and it is wonderful waking up by the ocean.
Do you manage to achieve a good work/life balance?
The elusive work-life balance comes in fits and starts. We are in a period of growth and international expansion, moving across Europe and into the Middle East and South Africa, so right now I’m putting in the hours again. We’re really excited by the opportunities that this will bring to students in these regions, and luckily, I have a really supportive wife who understands and supports this vision. One day, we will be sailing a boat around the world – just not today.