The Startup Interview: Onyu

At the age of twenty-nine, Luke Harte has decided to take what many might describe as the risky road. He’s ditched his technology consulting business of ten years which saw him work for a wide range of powerful and influential corporations and governments to launch a mobile app. Onyu, his startup for the past year, is what he describes as “the only app that allows you to store, manage and share personal information securely” and has just launched on the Windows Phone, attracting online media interest around the world. I went to meet him for a chat about his new startup, entrepreneurship, working with Microsoft and why he isn’t put off by a lack of income.

Luke has chosen to meet me at Artisan Roast, a quirky coffee shop across town, on a bright afternoon in March. I arrive to find him sat in his dark company t-shirt and a pair of white gym shorts at a high stool in the front of the cafe having just ordered a Chilli Hot Chocolate. He doesn’t drink tea or coffee, he tells me. It’s probably just as well — dehydrating, caffeinated products probably aren’t recommendable when one has come straight from the gym. We head to the back of the cafe, passing through the area we’d normally find behind the counter at Starbucks, and take a seat on some rickety benches, surrounded by old coffee bean sacks which are hung on the walls.

I’ve never met Luke before and, to make matters more challenging, I have been unable to prepare properly for the interview given my lack of access to a Windows Phone — currently the only devices for which Onyu has been developed. So, now more than curious, I ask for a demonstration. Luke’s keen to give me the background first: “I met up with my friend Stuart over a pint in the pub, where all the best ideas come from, and we wondered why we were both maintaining a list of two hundred plus contacts which we have to go in and manually change every time someone’s situation changes. We have to maintain and update contact apps, social media, some of us even have paper address books,” he says with a slight Scottish accent. “So our idea was to build a connected address book — a place where I have all of my information and I share it, securely, from that location as different profiles dependent on what people need. So you could have profiles for friends, family, work colleagues, and, depending on what you want to share with each person, you can share a subset of your information. You can really tailor down what they see. And, when any of my information changes, I update it on Onyu and it updates it for all of my contacts who receive that information as well.”

He whips out his phone and shows me the app. It is immediately apparent that this is a new form of address book — if one would even consider calling it that. Yes, the application features your address, email and telephone number but it also goes further, allowing users to include their passport number, national insurance number, social media accounts or any other information a user might wish to share. “For example, Stuart and I might go on holiday to Vietnam [they’ve been before on a motorbiking trip] and I need his passport information, date of birth and phone number to book the flights. I can simply request those pieces of information from Stuart, he is sent a message to approve my request and, when he does, I receive that information and can go ahead with the booking.” Onyu also features a secure messaging feature — “that is something WhatsApp are trying to do right now,” he says. “We’ve done it already.” Security is, without a doubt, one of Onyu’s biggest selling points; it’s encrypted on the user’s phone, other’s ability to access certain information can be revoked at the touch of a button and their messaging feature deletes messages after a short space of time.

“This is something WhatsApp are trying to do right now…We’ve done it already.”

So why, in the age of the iPhone and, as much as I hate to write it, Android have Onyu opted to launch on the Windows Phone? “We’ve targeted a platform that nobody else has really tried before but this means we have the ability to pick up the phone and talk to Microsoft who are trying to catch up to the bigger players, they’ll help us with the costs of servers and they’re keen to get apps released on their platform first. That’s something you don’t get from Apple or Google.” It’s also led to some interesting results for Onyu as, by launching on the Windows Phone, they’ve been able to attract an altogether different and unexpected market. “The great thing about the Nokia phones [which run Windows’ operating system] is that they’re super cheap so they’re really affordable. Our biggest markets are India, Turkey and America. We never had India or Turkey on our map. The reason we’ve done so well in these regions is that we’ve been able to give a demographic who want cheap phones an application which hasn’t been filled by any other player in iOS or Android,” Luke tells me.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Luke and Stuart are not alone in their quest to simplify our address books and make them more secure. Their closest competition are based just fifty miles away in Glasgow. Luke isn’t put off, however: “They’re trying to accomplish the exact same thing as us but it just so happens that we’ve created a visually beautiful application and the security that we’re using is leading edge. It’s difficult to implement but by doing it, we ensure that we can never sell our users information which is a real bonus for us. We hit 5,000 downloads this morning and, based on how our competition performed in their first weeks, we’re surpassing them by a long shot which is really interesting for us.”

One thing Luke has said sticks out for me; we, the public, are increasingly used to companies selling our data to advertisers and other third parties so, if they aren’t doing this and aren’t charging for their application either, how do Onyu intend to make money? “We’ve been talking with a number of different businesses like banks and travel agents. Whenever you sign up for a new service, you end up filling out a form which requests a certain subset of information which Onyu already holds about each user. We see the ability to bridge the gap between the consumer and the business and to improve upon the drop-off rate between a consumer liking a business and the consumer actually filling in the form and obtaining it,” Luke says. “If we could just improve the drop-off rate by one or two percent, that’s millions of pounds of extra revenue for some businesses.” They’re also keen to find ways of rewarding their customers for sharing information, rather than pocketing all of the proceeds themselves but the details here are a little vague. The company has yet to launch any integrations with other businesses’ services, focusing instead on outside investment to fund its iOS and Android projects and bring in necessary expertise, however, combined with their low to non-existent marketing cost, it could prove a viable business model for the future. For the moment, however, they’ve opted to bootstrap the entire company out of their own pockets with Luke using the savings he’s built up through ten year’s of consultancy while his fiancée supports their home finances. “You should only worry about things you can change,” Luke tells me, “but money is one of those things.”

Interestingly, their current financial woes are what Luke describes as the thing he’d do differently if he could restart Onyu from scratch. “One thing I tell everybody I meet who’s starting a startup is to have a clear view of how you’re going to make money out of this product,” he says. “We had no idea. We were basically just fixing a problem for ourselves.”

“I guess the idea of working for somebody was something I didn’t really like.”

I call time on discussing Onyu as a product, choosing to change my focus to Luke’s own experience as an entrepreneur, if, unlike many previous interviewees, he is happy to call himself that. “I think I’ve been an entrepreneur on and off since I was a child,” he tells me. Over time, he’s undertaken a number of attempts at running some successful (and others unsuccessful) businesses from a performance car importing startup at the age of eighteen — he successfully imported one car from Japan but lost much of its value-added extras during the process and only made a small profit — to his successful IT consultancy business of ten years and now Onyu. “I guess the idea of working for somebody was something I didn’t really like,” he explains before finishing his drink. For Luke, entrepreneurs are the individuals who take chances, get out there and take on a huge amount of risk — a very classic definition if the Merriam-Webster dictionary is anything to go by. “It doesn’t matter if you’re twenty-one or you’re thirty-five, forty-five, sixty-five — you’re still pursuing a dream that may not be a sure thing,” he says.

We suddenly find ourselves talking about the best ways for entrepreneurs to learn the tricks of the trade as Luke has recently found himself presenting the art of pitching to students (while pitching his product to them at the same time) at a Microsoft competition and is now mentoring the winners in furthering their application so I ask how he and Stuart went about educating themselves as a startup. “We were part of the 2014 intake at Entrepreneurial Spark [a free business accelerator and startup programme which has launched out of Scotland and is now picking up pace around the UK]. It was a great five months with some great people there, access to mentors, and learning about running a business,” he says. He fears, however, that they outstayed their welcome after five months with too greater focus on the business side of things and not enough attention paid to the actual technology. “There was a lack of understanding of mobile development and, time-wise, how it can change quite rapidly,” he notes. Now, the company are based at Silicon Walk alongside a number of other Edinburgh technology startups including YourTaximeter which provides a different network of expertise and advice for them to tap into. The space, he says, “has a completely different dynamic,” something he clearly values.

“Have an idea? Don’t keep it to yourself — tell it to as many people as possible.”

“So is entrepreneurship for everyone?” I ask, hoping to further understand Luke’s perception of risk as an entrepreneur. “Like anything, there is risk involved but without risk, there are no rewards,” he says. Like many others, however, Luke points to the opinion that the risk of running a startup business is a great deal lower at a younger age with students less dependent on a fixed income than those nearing their thirties or beyond, like himself. “Ultimately, however, if you have an idea, don’t keep it to yourself — tell it to as many people as possible because usually, people will be very quick to tell you whether it’s a good idea or not,” he says passionately. Just don’t tell it to your family or friends because, more often than not, they’ll tell you it’s great regardless, we remind ourselves with a chuckle.

We reach the end of my questions so I give Luke the opportunity to make a final statement as part of his interview. “You can pitch your product if you wish,” I tell him. With a particularly confident tone, he responds to my comment, saying: “I’d hate to pitch my product, I think it’ll sell itself if I’m honest.” Luke is clearly convinced, and perhaps rightly so, that marketing themselves as an ‘ethical company’ will result in their eventual mass-adoption. After half a minute of contemplation, he comes up with a final statement and, if I can express an personal opinion, he hits the nail right on the head: “If you have an idea for a startup, validate the product as best you can [some tips on that here], have an idea as to how you’ll make money from it and build a strong team.” That’s all you need to do. Now go and do it.