Jonny is a pilot. He literally flew around to build Stratajet through many storms. Read his fascinating story!
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Jonny Nicol: I was born in England near London. I went to state school. When I was a kid, I decided that I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I dedicated my life to that. I did three operations when I was in the military. I ended up coming back to the UK when I was about 26 years old. I decided I had enough of the military. I was in touch with a friend who had an idea for a staffing agency. The idea was that this industry that had always functioned with filing cabinets can be brought online. This is back in 2006 when it was relatively early.
I had a rough idea of how to code, but I got much better every year. I took a one-year sabbatical from the military to do that. It did very well. At the end of that year when I went back to the military, I was very clear in my mind that I wanted to run my own business. It’s actually very hard in the British military to leave once you’re trained. Eventually when I was 29, I managed to engineer my way out. I set up my second company which was called OXIS. I lived in Oxford and I built a very tech-heavy company. That was then picked up by the military.
Sramana Mitra: You have to tell me how you did what you did so we can trace the journey. What was the business that you did out of the military? The other one was a staffing agency, but this one was something that you started yourself.
Jonny Nicol: I started them both myself. The first one I had a co-founder and for the second one, I was the sole founder.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s go back to the first one. What was the idea and how did you get it off the ground?
Jonny Nicol: There is an area of temporary recruitment called promotional staff. Promotional staff are essentially young and good looking people who are models. When they’re not working on that, they represent brands or go to trade exhibitions. They’ll get called for hospitality events. Their job is to be young, engaging, and to represent the brand. That industry had been run entirely by a very fragmented group of people. They would just have a filing cabinet with people’s photographs and handwritten CVs.
There was this huge opportunity here to defragment it and have one centralized platform where people would be able to go online and update their details. That’s one side of the marketplace. The other side would be these corporations where they can choose the staff to represent them. Nobody was doing this back in 2006. I knew nothing about the industry, but I knew about writing code. My co-founder was the opposite. He had been working in the industry for 20 years but knew nothing about how to put it online. We came together.
During that process, I ended up not just writing code but also dealing with clients and staff. There was this opportunity to open a new market, which was this concept of large companies being able to do nationwide events. An interesting fact here is I earned more money in 11 months doing promotional staffing. In the first month, the profit was $100. We had no investment.
I actually made more money in those 11 months than I had made from the military in the previous five years. I realized that the key to making a successful company is not just to go out there and do something better, but to identify and create a product that doesn’t exist but which people want. By success, I don’t necessarily mean money. I mean something which you’re proud of. That’s the real trick.