Interview with Nick Hough – Runner’s Tribe

RT caught up with the multitalented, Nick Hough for this insightful chat on his business start-up, ‘GradeProof’, the year’s running goals, balancing it all, Nitro Athletics, and more. Phone interview dictated by RT.

In mid-2015 you launched your proofreading app which you built from the ground up, ‘GradeProof.’ This app basically takes a person’s writing and gives them suggestions to improve it through text revision, grammar analysis, sentence rephrasing, and plagiarism checking. Since its launch and initial buzz, where are you currently at with your GradeProof app?

Yes, the first ever version of GradeProof launched about a year and a half ago as an iPhone app originally. We slowly transitioned away from that to a web version and a Google Docs plugin. We’ve just now launched our paid premium version, which was previously free during the Beta phase. Over the beta phase, we were trying to define what our users were after and how to get more users on board. We’ve successfully refined this and now have over 100,000 people using the product. Hence, we’re finally getting some paid subscriptions, which is excellent after a lot of hard work. It’s basically taken around 2 years to get on the right platform, meet the user needs, and begin monetising this venture.

How does GradeProof differ from other grammar correction services?

Basically, we’re trying to improve the quality of expression, phrasing, and the actual sentence structure beyond basic grammar correction. Obviously, you can have a document that’s free of grammatical errors but there are still numerous ways to improve and revamp it, which is what GradeProof does through the use of artificial intelligence. We’ve recently launched the ‘Eloquence Engine,’ on GradeProof which is geared at next level corrections delivered through our inbuilt AI. We also have a few more versions of our product available to people, through the Web version, Google Docs plugin, and iPhone app.

Where are you currently at with training, racing, and goals surrounding this?

I’m currently training hard and aiming for the World Championships this year. I’ve just come out of a good training phase and I’m about to start competing. I’ll basically have a competition most weeks as I’m an athlete that performs well with more competition. Therefore, I’ll try to get in as many races and hopefully, I’ll punch out some good times and have a less frustrating year than last year.

How do you balance elite running and building/running a company?

Time management is key, but I’ve had this since I started athletics. I’ve managed high school, University, and then work with training, so it hasn’t changed much over the years. The good thing about running your own business is that’s it’s flexible. I’m finished with University now, and I know a lot of people would have to go out and get a part-time or full-time job to support athletics because it’s not the most lucrative sport. I’m well aware that it would be very hard to go out and get a 9 to 5 job and train as a professional athlete. Working for myself, I can do a gym session in the morning, come into work at 12 pm or leave at 2 pm, and I can work on the train or while I’m competing overseas. Basically, my work flexibility gives me a major advantage in pursuing my athletic endeavours.

So this flexibility was a key factor in starting this business?

Yes, definitely. I’ve always done my own business ventures, from my early work on web design, which had the same idea behind it. If you work for yourself you can mould your hours better to suit your life.

Back onto GradeProof. How hard has it been to get investors and interest domestically as opposed to the US, Asian, and other larger markets?

At one point we were looking for investors, but now we have gone a different direction. We’re growing quickly with a large user base and have decided we’re not searching for investors at this stage. This ensures my business partner and myself still keep our flexibility and can take our company in the exact direction we choose. It’s a hard environment gaining investment in Australia for start-ups, especially start-ups which are focused internationally as well. Our main user base is in the United States, rather than local. There’s a bit more uncertainty amongst investors when Australian start-ups are targeting different overseas markets. So we’ve been lucky to create a good enough product that we’ve not needed to go the investment route at this stage.

2016 Hunter Track Classic: Photo by Ewa Facioni

So you’ve basically moulded your ideal job for an athletics career. If more athletes could develop this maneuverable skill set you have, it wouldn’t hurt. Thoughts?

Yes, one of the things I love about coding and IT is that it teaches you to learn new skills quickly. I’ve probably programmed in 20 different programming languages, I don’t necessarily know and or remember all of them, but I’m able to learn them very quickly, and that’s what you have to be able to do in this industry. One second you’re developing mobile Apps, and the next second there is no mobiles around, and it’s all virtual reality. So you have to learn and adapt which is very handy. I think it’s a promising area to be in as an athlete with flexibility and it’s intriguingly evolving nature.

Hunter TC: Photo by David Wylie for RT

Since a young age, you’ve been achieving exceptional things on and off the sporting field. With elite athletics prowess and success off the track going hand in hand, who have been some of your idols and role models over the years?

One of main athletics influences growing up was Liu Xiang. At one time he was the best in the world and was refined technically as an athlete. I was lucky enough to recently train with Xiang’s coach in Shanghai. It was actually a business trip where we were going on a Chinese TV show for GradeProof, and we were lucky enough to tee up a session with, in my opinion, one of the best coaches in the world which was pretty special for me. On the business side, I mainly look up to the entrepreneurs that can succeed in various industries. Someone like Elon Musk, who is continually able to innovate and move from industry to industry, whether it’s cars, space travel or PayPal. He’s just a very driven and innovative guy and that sort of attitude and mindset in the business world is what I’m trying to emulate as you move forward.

Elon Musk

Is the finite nature of hurdles something that appeals to you significantly?

Yes, for sure, you never really know how a hurdles race is going to turn out. Even if you know the form of every athlete in a race, the slightest thing can knock a competitor of course. There are simply more variables in hurdles than other sprint races and it’s a hard one to predict, unlike a 100m sprint. A good example of this is the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where I was ranked 14th going in and ended up finishing 4th overall after a fantastic race. Obviously, this works the other way as well. Incorporating more technical aspects into training certainly does make it more interesting for me, as opposed to running in a straight line. I guess I’d prefer to run in a straight line and jump over some obstacles.

Sydney Track Classic 2014: Photo by David Wylie for RT

Thoughts on Nitro Athletics?

In the end for me, the schedule didn’t align with my high-performance goals this season. After missing the Olympics last year, I want to make sure everything is geared to making the World Championships this year, hence my decision to go the high-performance racing path. I certainly think athletics does need a change, and I think Nitro Athletics could be a good step towards that. We definitely should be working out ways to raise the profile of athletics, and I think one of the best ways to do this is to celebrate the personalities we have in the sport. There has been a tendency in the past to have a negative connotation to athletes who have done other things outside the sport, and I think Nitro may be an opportunity to highlight those things. Someone like Michelle Jenneke, who has built a massive profile for herself and is obviously involved in Nitro, which I think will be a great opportunity to highlight/display some of the amazing Aussie talent we have to the world.

I think moving forward as well, it’d be great to have some more focus on how we can target and show off our domestic athletes. Obviously, you need some international athletes to create some buzz, but concurrently, we need to think about how we build the profile of our domestic athletes as that’s what’s going to get our Australian viewers to tune into Australian Athletics as we can’t afford to bring internationals to every meet.

I’m interested to see how it goes and will certainly be watching to see how the public reacts.

Hunter TC: Photo by David Wylie for RT

Favourite current track to code to?

It’s actually a bit of a random one, but it’s ‘Do you remember,’ by Jarryd James. When I was creating the original GradeProof in my bedroom, it was the first song on my playlist. So every time I sat down to work, I’d put my music on and this is the song that got me into the correct zone. I still listen to this song when I’m starting a long coding session to get into the correct mindset. It’s very similar to athletics, where I have a set playlist as I warm up to recreate the optimum mental state needed for the moment.

What was the last book you read?

The last book I read was on artificial neural networks. It has been some time since I read fiction.

What was the last App you downloaded and what would you rate it?

This was an app called ‘Hugo,’ which was created by a Sydney start-up which enables you to put in the name of someone you’re about to go into a meeting with and the app summarises all the relevant information for you. It provides similarities you may have with that person which can be used as icebreakers or points of connection. It does this by crawling their LinkedIn profile and the web. I use this a bit now, as it’s free, makes my life easier, and I enjoy it.

What are the keys to your success with GradeProof and business in general?

Check out GradeProof by clicking on this picture

As I said earlier, it’s not been an easy road and there has been significant trial and error. I’d say the key is to learn and grow from mistakes and commit to perfecting your product. Success is not overnight. People looking for a quick turnaround in business are generally unsuccessful. When I started, I had no real idea of how to run a business start-up, or even how to do natural language processing which I taught to myself. Commit to something you’re passionate about, perhaps find a market void and ride the wave to success or not. The nature of this business is so dynamic, hence learn, make mistakes, and grow from them.

I think these kinds of startups on any level are a good initiative for athletes to look into. There’re many opportunities here for athletes who have a bit of downtime to learn some new skills and try their hand as entrepreneurs outside of the sport. As an elite athlete, you generally have an embedded work ethic you can apply to other ventures which can set you up beyond athletics.

Thank you and all the best with GradeProof and your Athletics.