Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Sophie Thompson is the co-Founder of VirtualSpeech, a mobile virtual reality app designed to improve public speaking and communications skills. She founded the company with her Co-Founder while she was still at University as a way of overcoming her own fear of public speaking. The app has received coverage in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Forbes, and has had over 130,000 downloads to date. Sophie is primarily based in London, although she lived in San Francisco for a few months after graduation as part of a start-up accelerator program.
What is the idea behind VirtualSpeech and how did you come up with it?
VirtualSpeech help people improve their public speaking and communication skills. My Co-Founder and I came up with the idea when we realised there was no effective way to practice public speaking - one of the most common fears in the world. It’s said that 74% of people have a fear of public speaking so it seems crazy that the best advice people would give was ‘practice in front of a mirror’ or ‘imagine the audience naked.’
Personally, I held myself back from countless opportunities because of a fear of public speaking - ranging from speaking in front of 2 people at an interview to speaking in front of hundreds at University. I wanted to be able to pursue my dreams without fear, and using VR allowed me to desensitise from the fear of a real-life audience.
When did all start and do you have other members in your team?
VirtualSpeech was founded in February 2016. We’re primarily based in London, although we’ve spent the last few months in Silicon Valley as part of an accelerator program.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
It’s taken about a year to get to where I am now. I feel like everything’s happened to so quickly! It’s been an incredible journey and I’m learning everyday.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The biggest obstacle for me was having the courage and confidence in myself to just go for it. I was still at university when VirtualSpeech started and I had a full-time job in marketing for a few months before I left to work on VirtualSpeech full-time. It’s been challenging being 23 and running a business - I’ve had to develop skills quickly that a year ago I would never have imagined.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
My biggest achievement to date is graduating with a Distinction in MSc International Business from Warwick Business School. My undergraduate degree was in Theology so it was a big change for me. It was so hard doing maths again after 6 years!
In terms of VirtualSpeech, a particularly proud moment was when we received a review on the Google Play store saying that we had helped someone with their autism. That’s when we realised we were building something that had huge potential.
What are your projects you are currently working on within your company?
I’m working on distributing the app through universities around the world. We already have clients in Europe and North America, so we’re looking to expand our presence there and enter new markets in Asia and Australia.
What will be the key trends in the AR/VR industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I think AR will be the first trend to reach the mass market. The uses of it are more integrated into everyday life, and I think there’s more of an immediate demand for it. For example, having your emails or text messages overlaid on your environment is a natural upgrade from having to get your phone out of your pocket to see your messages. The uses of VR are very different to AR. People will use VR when they want to experience being somewhere or someone else. Industries such as education, gaming, and healthcare have greater advantages in VR because of the powerful immersion it brings. It’s exciting to see what the next few years hold.
What are the challenges of being a female founder and entrepreneur in AR/VR?
My experience being a female founder has been positive on the whole. I think because VR is a new industry, the rest of the VR community is more accepting of women because we’ve been there in the early days. One thing I’ve noticed though is that people don’t necessarily take you seriously as a young, female entrepreneur. A couple of people have told me ‘not to smile so much’ because it makes me seem less professional and I wonder if they say the same thing to a male with the same personality as me. This is one of the reasons I think it’s important to network with other females in the industry, so that we can support and grow with each other.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs in AR/VR out there?
The only way to grow is to step outside of your comfort zone. Being an entrepreneur is hard, scary, amazing, and rewarding all at the same time.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in AR/VR?
I think what Samantha Kingston and Sarah Jones are doing for the UK VR industry is great. Their mission to bring the female VR community together is inspiring and will make it easier for the next wave of VR women to be accepted in tech. I also love Maddie Callandar - she’s really helped me personally on my VR journey and she’s really passionate about encouraging and supporting women in tech too.
What support do you need?
I’d love to meet more women in VR and help build the industry together. It’s difficult finding a female mentor in the industry when it’s still so young.
Linkedin: Sophie Thompson
Facebook: Virtual Speech
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.