20 QUESTIONS: Jon Reynolds, chief exective of SwiftKey

The young entrepreneur behind the award winning SwiftKey app talks socks, gravity and High Speed 1.

by Gabriella Griffith
Last Updated: 06 Dec 2013

1. IF YOU HAD DONE SOMETHING ELSE, WHAT WOULD IT HAVE BEEN?

I had no chance at being a footballer, so that was out!  When I left university, I joined the Civil Service and was excited about the opportunity to work on changing government policy and improving people’s lives.  If I hadn’t set up SwiftKey, I expect I’d still be there - hopefully working on something exciting that would have a big impact.

2. WHAT ELSE WOULD YOU HAVE CALLED YOUR BUSINESS

Our business was originally named TouchType - we wanted something that conveyed an easier user experience writing on touchscreens, but as our product took off, we became much better known as SwiftKey (the name of our app) and that better captures some of the speed and energy of what we do.  So we are now publicly known (and see ourselves) as SwiftKey.

3. IF YOU COULD BE BASED IN ANOTHER CITY, WHERE WOULD IT BE?

London! I moved to the Bay Area earlier this year to lead SwiftKey’s US expansion but I travel back regularly to visit the rest of the team at our London HQ. We’re proud to be a UK company and it would be great to spend less time on planes but expanding globally has been an incredible journey.

4. WHEN YOU STARTED, HOW DID YOU RAISE MONEY?

Being a few years out of uni, my co-founder Ben Medlock and I didn’t have a lot of money to put into the venture, so we worked on SwiftKey in our spare time for several months before we left our day jobs. We turned to the Technology Strategy Board, a Government body who help fund innovation in the UK, which gave us £20,000 to build a prototype. To date, we’ve created over 100 jobs in the UK and those all stem from that first vote of confidence.

5. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST IMPORTANT DECISION?

To leave my job in the civil service during the 2008 recession. Ben and I had both spent several months working on the idea behind SwiftKey - that we could apply Ben’s academic background in artificial intelligence to solve the hassle of typing on touchscreens in a totally new way - and taking the leap to work on it full time was a big moment.

6. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST MISTAKE?

In the early days of SwiftKey, we used a third-party to create some code. We’ve since learnt it’s better to build it yourselves, in-house, and assemble the right team to do it properly. We’re lucky that many of the developers who joined us in the early days still work with us today.

7. WHAT IDEA DO YOU WISH YOU HAD COME UP WITH?

I studied Physics and there are some incredible moments in history where people’s understanding of the world fundamentally changed.  I think Newton’s "discovery" of gravity is one of my favourite.  Inventing flying would also have been fun!

8. HOW DO YOU HANDLE STRESS?

Moving out to the West Coast and having a nearby swimming pool definitely helps! Day-to-day
my faith has a big impact on my perspective with the company.  When I’m not working I switch-off pretty quickly, so I like having time set aside for everything else outside of work and try to keep weekends clear as much as possible.

9. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB?

Working in the summer holidays at Cotswold Outdoor (specialists in outdoor clothing and equipment).

10. WHAT WAS YOUR WORST JOB?

I’ve only had two, so probably Cotswold Outdoor (one highlight included accidentally charging a customer £10,000 rather than £100...you don’t make that mistake twice!)

11. WHAT WAS YOUR BEST JOB?

As a civil servant, I worked on the £2bn sale of High Speed 1 (railway between London and Channel Tunnel used by Eurostar). It was a brilliant challenge and fantastic to work with a great team of people who I learned a lot from. However, at the same time I was already working on SwiftKey at evenings and weekends so it was a busy period!

12. IF YOU WERE ON THE APPRENTICE, WHAT WOULD YOUR TEAM NAME BE?

Team Innovate - it’s our mantra at SwiftKey.

13. WHICH COMPANY WOULD YOU INVEST IN?

Dropbox or LinkedIn a couple of years ago...

14. APART FROM PROPERTY, WHAT IS THE MOST EXPENSIVE THING YOU’VE BOUGHT?

I don’t own any property, probably a car when we arrived in US (still miss the underground!)

15. SUITS OR JEANS?

At work, somewhere in between. We have a relaxed atmosphere in the office with several staff padding around in just their socks but I also start the day not necessarily knowing who I’m having meetings with. If you asked Ben, my co-founder, he’d say shorts and a t-shirt, whatever the weather.

16. FLEXIBLE WORKING OR OFFICE HOURS?

I’m a big believer in flexible working. At SwiftKey we care about results and creating the kind of work culture that encourages people to innovate and feel creative. We have three "core" days a week where we expect staff to attend the London office but the rest of the time they can work wherever suits them best. We’re also relaxed about start times - allowing staff who commute in from outside London on the first off-peak train of the morning saves them a huge amount of money and stress!

17. WHAT IS THE BEST THING ABOUT YOUR OFFICE?

The teams we’ve assembled in London, the West Coast of America and Seoul, Korea. Ben and I knew hiring the right people was the most important priority as we scaled the company. They’ve got to be leaders in what they do and fit in with our friendly culture. In terms of the office itself, in London we’ve started to collect some really fun stuff, from a full-size ping pong table to an electronic drumkit and piano. At any time of the day you could find a few of our team having a table tennis match or playing some music in our downstairs space - it’s a great atmosphere.

18. WHAT APP CAN’T YOU LIVE WITHOUT?

Google Maps - brilliant and easy to take for granted

19. WHO IS YOUR BUSINESS IDOL?

Jeff Bezos - his vision to develop Amazon from selling books to the huge range of products and services they offer today has been amazing.

20. IF YOU WERE PRIME MINISTER FOR THE DAY, WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE?

I’d like to make it easier for talented people from overseas to live and work in the UK.  At times, this has been a big challenge for us as we’ve grown the company, but fundamentally if you want to build a great company, you need to hire great people whatever their background.

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