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Q & A with Horace Ho

What is your background (tell us about Horace Ho)?

I was born and raised in Shanghai, and I moved to the UK at 18 to study Engineering at Oxford University. I’ve always had a love of architecture and art. But it was during my involvement with the drama society, that I developed a passion for theatre props and graphical design. Approaching design with a more technical, engineering perspective brought all my interests together. So I really wanted to develop on this.

Following my degree, I took a product design course at Central Saint Martins. It was here that I learned everything there is to know about User Experience (UX) design. I loved contextual studies – research that helps you understand where, how and why your ideas fit in terms of contemporary practices – and especially debating the issues around how design can help improve people’s lives.

Having gained two degrees, I returned to China to help with the family business. Conducting customer research during the Chinese tech boom years (the 2010s), brought to light that a huge portion of the population was hungry for constant self-improvement. And there was a great desire to absorb as much information as possible. This really stuck with me, and would eventually lead to my development of Sparks.

In 2015 I moved back to the UK and joined a product design team in a startup called EAVE. I believed in the work so much, that I ended up becoming one of EAVE’s investors. It meant that I could no longer work for the startup full-time. But with this reinforced passion for product design, I seized the opportunity to address the lingering idea I discovered in China: that people have a burning desire to maintain their edge and constantly improve. So I began to explore. What products were people using on their path toward self-improvement? Did these products actually meet their needs? What more could be done?

Horace with daughter

What was the “aha” moment that surfaced the functionality of Sparks?

Like most epiphanies, it was born from personal experience. Back in my Oxford days I often thought, “wouldn’t it be great if there was a platform that connected all the relevant ideas in one folder, so I could derive actionable insights from the different thought groups?”

But really, it was the arrival of my first child, that help me pinpoint how to tangibly help people who want to exponentially self-improve. My daughter had trouble with sleeping as a baby. The only way to get her to do so, was to drive around for hours. Meanwhile, I listened to podcasts. The entire time I felt compelled to note down what I’d heard for later revision. Yet there was no way to collect my thoughts, and simultaneously reference the inspiration’s point of origin. What were my options? Plastering the car in post-it notes? Risking my daughter waking up? The frustration was real and led to my ‘aha’ moment.

I spoke to a few others about the idea, and my hunch proved right. Annotation functionality was lacking – but even more so, was the ability to revise and connect thoughts. Something was usually noted down, and then lost forever. I wanted to create something that would make my life easier while still helping me make the most of the things that I was reading, watching or listening. Turns out, many others had the same problem too.

Can you give us some examples of sparks of thought from your own life?

Masters of Scale” is one of my favourite podcasts, and I have collected a lot of sparks from its topics. Most of my sparks are centred around the idea of setting out small goals that will have a direct positive impact on the accomplishment of a bigger goal. I have used this notion both in my personal and professional life. It is one of the fundamental ideas behind sparks and the clustering of thoughts. I find it to be an easily attainable principle, since in this way, the bigger picture feels less overwhelming and more obtainable. Although I have tried to implement this idea with my kids too…it continues to be a work in progress with them!

What investigation did you do to validate your hypothesis?

Speaking to people in my community – and looking at the wider options for note-taking, revision, and learning from the content they consume. In China as well as in the UK, the fear of missing out was so great, that individuals were willing to pay for a simplified way of consuming content. Similarly, paying a premium for good content was on the rise. I also discovered that personalised and curated reading was another upward trend.

The research was showing a real need for a platform like Sparks, that would marry people’s hunger for consuming knowledge, together with hosting their ideas and insights. While giving them a means of personalising the things they review.

Alhambra Palace in Granada Spain

What data did you collect to justify your commitment to the project – and was there anything that surprised you?

I remember learning from interviewing people that the need for a Sparks type platform was not just stemming from a positive idea of wanting to improve. There was an intrinsic anxiety around not having a centralised place that made revision easy. They complained that it was affecting their sleep, and their quality of life. I was humbled, that the development of Sparks could be helping more than one aspect of people's lives.

Do you see the “social learning” segment growing and changing. If so, how?

Yes, I do. Social learning, the idea that we learn from observation of, and interaction with others, has yet to be defined as a sector. So the potential for growth and development is exponential. Humans are naturally social animals who thrive and expand their horizons by interacting with others. We do this best when we are exchanging information with our peers, and even more so with people from all walks of life, whom we are less able to reach in our daily lives. A social learning environment that allows for these exchanges, also encourages teaching and mentoring, on a large scale.

We have already seen an explosion of networks generated via social media platforms, and the positive impact that they have had on many areas of people’s lives. I strongly believe that the evolution of social learning platforms will follow a similar trend.

Horace with daughter in field

What is your measure of success for the company?

Helping people with information overload, and all the effects that can have on their lives, is one way I see success. I also hope that people who use Sparks and engage with it regularly can reach their learning goals, stay ahead of the curve, and remain experts in their field.

Another measure of success for us is how wide our network of “clusters” will reach. These are networks of related ideas. I want to improve social learning for the masses and be the platform that covers in detail every topic people could possibly search for.

Paint a picture of where you hope to be in 5 years’ time?

I’d like Sparks to be a household name. The go-to platform, for anyone wanting to expand their knowledge, co-learn, and exchange information. Just as you now ‘google’ something for a quick search on a topic, I would like people to ‘spark’ something they want to learn or become a master of. In this vision, our platform is curated by industry leaders, and is a place where people contribute their expertise to create a co-learning environment with like-minded people.