Aussie Olympian and startup founder uses Tokyo cancellation to boost his AI tech to 1 million users


The Outwrite team. Source: supplied.

Last week, Aussie athlete and entrepreneur Nick Hough was due to be competing in the 110-metre hurdles event at the Tokyo Olympics.

Needless to say, this isn’t the 2020 he had planned.

But, some unexpected time away from the track has given Hough the opportunity to focus on his AI startup Outwrite — and grow it past the milestone of 1 million users.

Founded back in 2015 — when it was called GradeProof — Outwrite is a tool that analyses your writing as you go, and offers suggestions for improving it.

It goes beyond a standard spelling and grammar check, Hough explains.

“We have technology that allows you to rephrase and restructure sentences, which is very important for people like me who’s are very technically-minded,” he tells SmartCompany.

“I can get my ideas down on paper, but then making them sound eloquent — re-phrasing and restructuring the sentence — I struggle to do myself.”

Hough built the technology along with co-founder Craig Sketchley while they were both at university, working on their respective theses on machine learning and natural language analysis.

“We realised we actually hated writing,” Hough recalls.

“Instead of learning how to write well, we thought we would make a piece of software that would do that for us.”

So far, the startup is entirely bootstrapped. But Hough admits growth wasn’t exactly quick off the mark.

Launched initially as an app geared towards school students, Outwrite was downloaded “a couple of hundred” times during the first year, and brought in revenue of between $100 and $200, Hough says.

But the founders continued plugging away, and after two or three years they had refined the product and made it available on more platforms.

“We started to get some organic traction.”

Outwrite co-founders Nick Hough Craig Sketchley

Outwrite co-founders Nick Hough and Craig Sketchley. Source: supplied.

Shifting focus

Of course, as well as running an AI tech startup, Hough is an Olympic-level athlete who was, as we speak, supposed to be competing in Tokyo.

He’s dedicated his life to two pursuits that couldn’t be more different from each other. But, the founder says they actually complement each other perfectly.

“A standard nine-to-five job is pretty hard to do when you’re an athlete. You need to be training,” he explains.

“I had the ability to make a tech product myself, and so that just seemed like the natural thing to do.”

Running a startup also allows for a certain amount of flexibility, he adds.

“All I need is a laptop and an internet connection and I can do work and run the company from wherever I am in the world.”

While the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was a blow for Hough, he also feels having the time to hunker down and focus on Outwrite has played a role in pushing it over the 1 million user milestone.

“We’ve had the ability to focus on growing the business, and ironically, we’ve been one of the ideal businesses to run in this environment,” he says.

“Everyone is moving online — they’re writing more, so they have a greater need for our tool.”

The business has been growing steadily over the past few months anyway, growing from a team of five people to nine.

And, the founder’s remote-first lifestyle means as COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, the whole team was already set up to work from home.

“It has been good to be around while the team is growing, and to onboard the staff,” Hough reflects.

At the same time, having a few more people to take care of the day-to-day running of the business has allowed the founders to “dive into the tech” and start thinking about new tools — optimising writing for SEO or for specific sectors, for example, he explains.

Maintaining momentum

Hough doesn’t disclose the effect 1 million users has had on Outwrite’s revenues. But, he does say the startup has gradually been shifting its focus from its freemium model to catering to paying professionals.

The team is working on its Outwrite Teams product, for example, which, as the name suggests, will allow employers to purchase the product for professional teams.

“That’s how we’ve been able to grow our revenue,” Hough says.

Now, while Hough is gearing up to Tokyo 2021, he and Sketchley will also spend the next few months building out new features for Outwrite and working on expanding their user base even more.

And, the plan is to continue bootstrapping for as long as possible. When asked whether the founders would consider raising external capital, Hough doesn’t rule it out.

If there was an opportunity for growth that could only be achieved with the help of external funding, they would certainly consider it, he says.

But, for now, at least, they’re continuing to focus on organic growth.

“We like the idea of growing a business and having control over it,” Hough says.

“We’re growing, we’re profitable, and I think not having raised capital has made us build a business that is sustainable.”

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