Sales for Startups Founder and CEO, James Ker-Reid, talks to Ben Branson-Gateley of CharlieHR – HR software built for small businesses, enabling teams to run the people side of their businesses more successfully and what tech sales looks like today.
We hear from Ben about his approach within the business to the COVID-19 world pandemic and his advice to other founders and CEOs out there! Let’s hear what he has to say…
- To kick off Ben, tell us a bit about yourself and the business
We’ve been working on CharlieHR for 4 years. Previous to this we ran a social media agency called Born Social so we have been on the entrepreneurial journey for about 10 years, but I don’t really see myself as an entrepreneur and I don’t particularly love that word either because it often shies away from the reality that we’re in which is about building businesses and some point in time businesses have to create value which is super important.
I see myself as a business operator, I love running businesses and it’s what I’m really passionate about. Specifically, I’m passionate about people so it doesn’t really matter totally what I’m doing, but what gives me the most energy is seeing people develop and progress in their careers. I’m really lucky in that I’m now running CharlieHR, which is a moment where my personal love is connected to a business love; it’s very exciting.
As to what we do at Charlie, we started in the HR/admin space but we’ve focused on much more recently is what we call ‘cultural operations’. So trying to help companies harness the power of great culture. We do that through people, processes and policies, trying to use those three aspects to nurture and drive your culture in an upward direction. We work with 2000 small to micro-businesses across the UK.
- We’ve used the platform ourselves, really like the product! With regards to this crisis we find ourselves in, what are some of the changes that you’ve had to make to the team or business over the last month or so?
The first priority is our team, so making sure that we made the call to work from home as early as possible, we gave everyone a budget to make their work from home setup a little bit nicer and then trying to create clear communication early on so everyone understands where they’re at.
I think the initial issue in anything like this is people are worried about their job safety and we did a lot of work around that, so making sure our team feels safe and secure. If they do feel safe, then they can worry about other things going on in their lives instead of worrying about their jobs.
The second priority is our customers, so thinking about what assets, support and content we needed to go and create as well as what changes we need to make to the product. We took our product team off other existing priorities and put them onto a ‘corona response’ team and that team will be working on that for at least another 3 months while we determine what the right things for us to be focusing on.
Then the final phase, which is where do we go from here, what are the opportunities for tech sales, how do we build out of this? That’s what we are thinking about at the moment.
- A lot of businesses at the moment are pivoting and changing their value proposition – how are you evaluating those changes in your business and what logic are you using to make these key decisions?
I think at any moment like this, I don’t love knee-jerk reactions, I like deliberate decision making. We make decisions as a group and leadership team, it’s not run by one person. The more we talk about things, the better decisions we will end up making. We’re being deliberate about it and we’re giving ourselves space. We’re one of the businesses that are fortunate enough to give ourselves space, for example, our revenue didn’t drop off a cliff overnight.
What we are doing now is going into the phase of working out how our product fits for the future. One of the key aspects of that for us is around codifying – I think a lot of businesses have struggled culturally because they haven’t codified their culture, their process, their policies, their ways of working. So when you are in a remote context, that becomes harder and challenging, so for us it’s about prioritising some of the work that we’ve done on elements of the product that specifically target culture building.
We’ve been working on team handbooks, employee handbooks, so we are going to be rolling that out faster than we initially thought to enable our tech sales team. For us, it’s not necessarily having to pivot but instead thinking how our product is going to fit into a world post-covid. It’s about picking the right areas of our product to accentuate and focus on next.
- When thinking about onboarding a new staff member, it’s very different to before, it may now be far more remote and online-focused than before – what are your thoughts, Ben?
It’s definitely more reliant on technology and not just technology, but even more reliant on having a process. The office is a huge crutch for a lot of us, we don’t have to document and drill things down because we’re sitting in a space where it happens osmotically. Remote working doesn’t allow you to do that. If you speak to any remote-based company, they document everything so that’s the only way you can do it. You can’t leave it to chance and we’ve seen a lot of tech sales processes fall apart because they had just left it to chance and it was stuff that happened naturally in the office. Now that’s not possible. Companies have to think about actually how am I able to be really clear about what’s expected from my team and documentation is the first part of that.
- Looking forward to the month ahead, what things are you focusing on as a company?
One of them is completely unchanged, which is our purpose. Our purpose is to make work better.
We use that in both ways; to think about our team and also the experience of the people that work for our customers. That’s been great at guiding us through all of this.
The second area is we are going to be thinking about finances and making sure we’re very watertight with those. We are lucky in the fact that we are a company that has tech sales revenue that is relatively stable and is growing pretty healthily so we have time and we don’t have to make any really horrible decisions.
In that context, what that looks like is getting a handle on that and getting to know the levers around that and staying focused on that.
The final is thinking about the product. So for us, it’s about speaking to customers as much as we possibly can and getting an idea of what are the things that are affecting them now, what’s the vision of the world that is going to come out of this, what’s the picture we want to create, and what’s the stamp that we are going to leave on this. And that’s about being really proactive in our tech sales team and being in control, rather than having it drive us – we want to drive it.
- What other pieces of advice would you give to tech founders to help improve their situation due to the current crisis?
Good question…first thing I’d say is that remember you have a choice. You decided to start a business, you don’t have to start a business, you can walk away. Running a business is really stressful, but it’s only really stressful if you let that stress affect you. That stress was always a choice – you decided to go and start whatever company it was, so you have no reason to be annoyed at the fact you’re super stressed out by whatever’s happening because it was your call.
Secondly, nothing that is valuable is ever easy. There are no good examples of anything in the world whereby great results come by little bits of effort and if they do, then it’s luck or fortune and you happen to be at the right spot in the right time, but the reality is that all these things take time, focus and a hell of a lot of grit. That’s the game. I think the people that end up being the most successful in tech sales are the ones that stick it out the longest and persevere.
Thirdly, you have this amazing thing right now which is we have an incredible perspective. There is a global pandemic, killing people all over the world…it’s stressful and maybe a shame perhaps if we have to let people go or close down a business, but we are still alive, and we are still very employable and impressive individuals. The likelihood of being able to get another job or start something else in tech is pretty high. Yes, it’s going to be difficult and challenging, but with the perspective of ‘you could be sitting in a hospital ward with a ventilator in you’, it’s not that bad.
All of that being said, just smile and enjoy it as not many people get to experience these times and learn so much.
- If you were to list 3 things that founders should be focussing on for the next 7-10 days, what would they be?
Firstly, show some vulnerability and have empathy. Don’t do that typical founder thing where ego takes over and have to show the rest of the team and the people around us that you are finding this super easy. It’s not. Be open and honest, share how you’re feeling – it’ll make your team feel a lot safe.
Secondly, think really deeply about what habits and behaviours the tech sales organisation have that could be benefitting people’s mental health but also detracting from it. If you’re spending 6 hours a day on video conferences, it’s going to be quite intense for people. Check the pulse and get feedback from people.
Finally, make sure you’re not falling into the trap of just sitting at home working on the business. Home and office have become the same place so it’s really easy to spend 7 days a week sitting at a laptop. But there are no high-performing tech salespeople out there doing that – for example, tennis players, there are no tennis players out there that stay on the court all day and evening. They do strength and conditioning, they rest, they do diet work, they stretch, they have massages.
So what’s your high performing team that you need to have around you? Is it yoga, is it eating well, is it the right type of coffee, is it meditation, a journal, a good book, a good film, exercise? Think really deeply about what makes you the best at your job because right now you need to be the best, not the person who’s putting in the most amount of hours.
- That all makes sense and is great advice. Any other thoughts Ben?
Yea – I’ve been using this story with a ton of people, it’s very well known.
It’s a story of the lobster – when the lobster is born it has a soft shell and soft body within it, and the body grows but the shell doesn’t, so the body is pushing up against the shell, and it feels really uncomfortable. If we were that lobster, we would probably go to a doctor and they would give us some Nurofen or antibiotics and we’d feel a bit better. It would take the uncomfortableness or pain away, but we wouldn’t grow, we would stay the same size.
In fact, what the lobster does is it goes underneath a rock, breaks that old shell off and grows a new one. So the stimulus of growth for a lobster is being uncomfortable. There are amazing breakthroughs that occur not when we are reading a book or listening to a podcast, but actually when we’re experiencing it, in the moment. Right now, we are in a rapid growth phase for everyone in tech sales – as leaders, as participants. Having that at the back of your mind is important because it reminds us that it might be difficult and hard but we will come out the other side better and strong.
- For those out there who don’t know you and want to find out more, where’s the best place to find you?
Jump to CharlieHR.com but if you want to read about some of the stuff we’re talking about, the best place to go is our blog, charliehr.com/blog and if you’re interested in podcasts, you can listen to ours which is called ‘Culture Ops Podcast’ – where we have an in-depth episode with experts on most of the issues I talked about – which can be found on all good podcast platforms.
We want to thank Ben for today’s interview, a really good conversation that I hope everyone reading can take something from
That is all from us at Sales for Startups today, be sure to tune in soon for more interviews with CEOs and Founders of some great companies that are shedding some light on the current issues we are facing. If you’d like to be interviewed please comment below or feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or submit a request on our website.