This month we speak to Toby Cannon about his time studying at York and how lockdown inspired his entrepreneurship to develop his own fitness app, Myles Challenges.
What course did you choose, why did you choose it and why York?
I studied Computer Science at York. I really enjoyed logic and problem solving as well as technology, so the Computer Science degree felt like a good fit for me. I love York as a city and was super impressed by the Heslington East campus on my open day.
Describe your experience at York in 3 words.
Fun, insightful, strong community.
What did you do after you graduated?
After I graduated, I initially had a fun summer which involved cycling from Lands’ End to John O’Groats with my Dad. I also spent a month in a tent, travelling around France. I then started a graduate job as a software engineer at Capital One. After 2 fantastic years, my lockdown side project – Myles – was becoming more serious so I decided to take the leap to work on that full time in November 2021. It’s been an exciting 6 months and I’m looking forward to the coming months and years!
You have set up the fitness app Myles Challenges – what motivated you to develop this and choose an app specifically for workplace challenges?
After I graduated and became a software engineer, my day involved a lot of sitting down so after a few months I decided to take up running as a way to keep active. I booked in for the Manchester marathon so that I had a goal to aim for. This was meant to happen on the 4th of April but two weeks before the event COVID hit and the event was postponed. To keep motivation high I thought I’d create an app for my family (my dad and brother are runners as well) that would let us virtually run from Lands’ End to John O’Groats – the same route my Dad and I had cycled the previous year – so we could see the places we had actually passed on the journey and track our distance over time. The app’s hybrid of competition and collaboration did wonders for my motivation.
Since the pandemic hit, a lot of companies are staying in a hybrid working setup with many people still working completely remotely. People are sitting down more, they’re not walking to meeting rooms and sitting in the same chair all day – so there’s a risk of lifestyles becoming more sedentary as activity has to be more deliberate and intentional than before. The NHS reports that inactivity is the cause of 1 in 6 deaths in the UK, so this is really important to address and that’s where Myles comes in.
What was your biggest challenge in setting up Myles Challenges?
I studied computer science at York – I loved it and had a really good time – however, I’d never really built apps before and I was using new technology to develop the first version of Myles. So that was a hard learning curve for me.
More recently, the challenge has been making tough decisions on what opportunities we say yes to as a business. As the app can be used in so many different sectors and we still have a limited team, we can’t say yes to every potentially exciting direction the platform could go.
Is it still just you working on the app or have you now got other employees?
There’s now four of us working on the business: myself; my co-founder, Michael McCreadie, who I met whilst at York; our software engineer, Greg Ives; and our head of sales, Marcus Axelson. So we’re currently a team of four, and we’re recruiting for a few other roles right now too. Hopefully, in 12 months’ time we will be looking to become a team of 10-15 people.
You were successful in gaining investment from the York Venture One Scheme – what impact did this have on your business? Did this help start up the business or help it become more established?
Venture One is a venture philanthropy scheme created by the University with the support of donors. It provides investment capital for the creation, development and early-stage growth of innovative business ideas generated by the university community (students, recent alumni and staff).
We received the investment from York Venture One Scheme 6 – 7 months ago. We did a very soft launch nearly two years ago now but it was just a side project and I was still working full time. It was at that point where we thought “let’s not use this as a side project, let’s turn this into something big”. It really helped us to scale up the business.
Congratulations on your massively successful investment campaign! What will this mean for the business?
From a product business point, we’ve done a bit of a pivot. We were focused on the business to customer market, this means we aimed Myles at individual people who would sign up because they wanted some fitness motivation and to take part in the different challenges. Now we’re really changing the focus to the business to business market. We’re currently looking at marketing to a company with 1000 desk-based employees that want to get their staff more physically active to help productivity, decrease absences and increase staff retention.
Have you seen an increase in this now that people are returning to the office more, that HR departments are wanting to encourage staff to be more active when working in hybrid scenarios?
Early in the pandemic, companies were still trying to find their feet and not looking too far ahead at their longer-term working setups because no one knew what the situation was going to look like in 6 months’ time. Companies are getting more clarity around what their long-term structures are going to be – hybrid, full-time in the office, or full-time working remotely – so now they are feeling more comfortable making those decisions.
Compared with before the pandemic, screen time has increased by 80% every day and people are now struggling with ways to feel “unplugged”. We’re trying to help out with this, to give people a reason to go out and do something active. Instead of a reminder for a meeting, there will be a reminder from the Myles App that will nudge people to take time from their desk and get outside.
What advice would you give someone looking to start up their own business, or even develop their own app?
Something that I wish I had recognised sooner, would be that you don’t need to have all the answers right at the start. You don’t need to think constantly about where your business will be in ten years’ time and know precisely how you’re going to get there. Looking at a big, long-term goal and working backwards is often the way people tell you to work things through. But I’ve found that if you don’t know how to get there, you’re more likely to end up feeling overwhelmed rather than making meaningful progress. Just take a small step to sketch out in your head what your product or business would look like – it could even be running the idea past your mum – once you make that first step, the next step is always a lot clearer.
My second piece of advice would be that – with whatever you’re doing – whether you’re studying or building a business, you need to make sure that you’re working on something that you align with and believe in. Out of every single person in the world, if you’re starting something, you’re the one that knows the most about your vision and you’re the one who needs to believe in it the most – because if you don’t, then no one else in your team is going to believe in it and you’re not going to be able to sell your idea to investors.
What’s next for you? Are you looking to develop a new product?
Our first version of the app was just for runners, cyclists and walkers. You can look at the effort of different activities in a unit called MET (Metabolic Equivalent Tasks) Minutes. Different activity types have different MET minute values, so you could compare a gym session with a run, based on effort levels rather than distance. We’re including this in the new version of the platform and using that figure to compare leaderboards so that everyone in the company could get involved, regardless of which exercise they prefer to do. If you’re interested in the site visit: https://www.myleswellbeing.com/
The University of York is committed to supporting new entrepreneurs through schemes like Venture One.
The University has recently launched Enterprise Works – an innovative hub that brings together regional business support and the entrepreneurial community to support start-ups, help micro and small businesses grow, and support enterprising talent to become innovative entrepreneurs. Enterprise Works believes in the power of enterprise and entrepreneurship as a driver for social change to deliver better economic and social outcomes for everyone.