Rob Cromwell (BSc Computing 2010) is a keen advocate of start-ups and co-founder of Inkling, a company that enables leading companies such as Pearson and Wiley to create interactive, mobile content to share with their customers. He explains how he balanced his desire to complete his degree with the demands of setting up new business.
Tell us about your time at Imperial
"I grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada. When I finished school I went straight to work for a start up in Seattle as a programmer. I was the only engineer without a degree and during my time working there I gained an appreciation for formal education.
So, to get started I enrolled in evening classes at the University of Washington in Math & Computer science. This affirmed my ambition and allowed me to pursue a degree. As a Canadian citizen I knew I would have to pay international fees in the US, so I took the opportunity to look further afield. The most important factors in my decision were to study in English and to be in a big city. Compounded by me being a bit of a history nerd, London was the obvious choice."
Tell us about your studies
"I studied Computing and after initially signing up for a four year course I left with a Bachelor’s degree to co-found a start-up, Inkling.
The thing I remember most about my time at Imperial is the Huxley. The computer labs there became my home - I think I spent more time in the Huxley building than anywhere else in London!"
Can you tell us what you’ve done since Graduation?
"We started the company in my final year at Imperial in 2010. After getting wind of the iPad in the summer of 2009 (due to be launched in January 2010) we formed the start-up later that year in the fall of 2009. We set up in San Francisco as this was where my co-founder Matt was based and in my opinion is the best place to start a software company.
I’ve known Matt since I was 13 after meeting him at a YMCA camp in Canada. We were the two kids that spent the summer in the shade talking about computers! This was in 1993 and we had just got our first email addresses that year, so it was because of the internet that we were able to stay in touch and remain friends. Otherwise, I don’t think we would have.
Ever since the summer we met, Matt and I had dreamed to start a company together. Matt did suggest in the fall of 2009 that I drop out of my degree to start the company, but there was no way I was going to do that! I did compromise and said that I would convert from a Masters to a Bachelors degree. I was flying back and forth between London and San Francisco all the time. It was the hardest seven months of my life - a lot of travelling, as well as balancing university work and getting the company off the ground.
My final exams were in April when the ash cloud grounded most flights over Europe. I was in San Francisco at the time, and so wasn’t able to get back to take them. I had to explain to the registrar afterwards why I couldn’t get back to do the exams, and was able to take them later on. My grades took a hit… but I got through it. I’m so glad I finished my degree, it was definitely the right call."
How would you describe what your company does?
"The short answer is we want to replace the PDF.
The longer answer is that we want to be the standard for how knowledge that matters is built, read and shared. That could be anything from an academic text book, to training a barista on how to make a pumpkin spiced latte, to a sexual harassment training course.
It’s motivating to think that on a daily basis we have literally millions of people learning from content that was produced on our platform. It feels like we’re making a definite impact. Also I get motivation from the people I work with - they are awesome. I stick to the rule of only hiring people who are smarter than me!"
Describe a typical day
"The biggest part is recruiting: finding bright ambitious people that are easy to work with and bringing them on board. Once they’re here, it’s about making sure they are contributing positively and feel challenged every day, allowing them to grow as engineers – as well as being happy. It’s almost a full time job doing that! There are 170 staff in total.
I also spend a lot of time on developing the culture at the company. We have a culture of conscious business. It’s a lot about humility, integrity – following through on your commitments and being accountable. It takes a lot of work to shape that and make sure people understand it."
Do you have any advice for current Imperial students?
"Join a start-up or start a start-up. Do it. It is the time of your career when you can take on the most amount of risk. These days the risk isn’t even that great. There is so much demand for software engineers that if you join a start-up and it crashed the next day, you could literally walk across the street and join another start-up, especially in San Francisco and increasingly in London.
In terms of intrinsic motivation and satisfaction you will be so much happier doing that than being at a bank! Although there isn’t too much difference in salaries, any difference in salary is made up by job satisfaction and happiness."
Do you have anything to add?
"It was amazing to be in a place as diverse as Imperial. It’s pretty unique in that way. In Halls I lived with people from Yorkshire, Malaysia, Doncaster, St Andrews, and France, amongst other places. The diversity was so great. The combination of girls and guys was good too."