The importance of hiring and culture, with Ben Gateley: Co-founder and COO of CharlieHR

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In this new Episode of The SaaS Revolution Show Alex Theuma speaks with Ben Gateley, Co-founder and COO of CharlieHR, a SaaS HR platform for teams. Ben discusses with Alex Theuma the startup story of CharlieHR and the importance of hiring and culture for Startup success or failure.

You can listen to the full interview below and read the transcript, alternatively, subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher and never miss an episode


Alex Theuma:  Welcome to the SaaS Revolution Show.  I’m your host, Alex Theuma.

I’m super excited to be joined today by an entrepreneur that’s operating a startup studio for 10 years or so in London and building some great products out of that.  And from that studio spawned an exciting SaaS HR platform for small businesses which we’re going to look at a little bit today.

Welcome to the show, Ben Gateley, co-founder and COO of CharlieHR.


Ben Gateley:  Good morning.  How are you doing?  Nice to see you.


Alex Theuma:  Really good.  Ben, thanks for joining us today.

I think CharlieHR and yourself came onto my radar I think last year.  You raised a nice seed round for around about $1 million?


Ben Gateley:  Yeah, we raised a bit of cash, which is always was nice.  So they’re really great partners and we’re super stoked to have them on board.  We’ve got Sitar and the guys at Connect.  They’re like a product-focused team and have been so supportive.  And also Carlos and all the guys at Seedcamp.  So yeah, we’ve got some great angels and just a really nice group of people that we can kind of lean on and ask a bunch of questions at.


Alex Theuma:  For those that are listening, our European friends will know Seedcamp and probably in the U.S. as well.  But it’s an accelerator, a bit like, I guess equivalent to 500 Startups or Y Combinator.


Ben Gateley:  Yeah.  And really I think the value that they bring to someone like us is around the network.  They’ve had a whole bunch of amazing businesses that pass through their doors and all the people like Transferwise and that kind of thing.  They’ve got great content on businesses at all different stages and have got great connections.  We’re able to like get in touch with really interesting and insightful people when we need that help and support.


Alex Theuma:  You’re co-founder and COO of CharlieHR.  Before we talk about Charlie, let’s get to know you a bit better.  Who is Ben Gateley?


Ben Gateley:  I guess I’m lucky to have been running businesses, I guess as you mentioned, a little bit, with my best friend, Rob.  We’ve done it for… this is our 11th year.  So that’s longer than the average length of most marriages in the U.K.


Alex Theuma:  And you’re only about 22, right?


Ben Gateley:  Yeah.  I’m 27 this year.  So I’m getting a bit scared of approaching 30.  And really Rob and I, we’ve always played the same roles.  And for me, what I get excited about is the operations of any business, the people, the culture, how we hire great people, how we would train those people, how we make stuff happen.  And for Rob it’s kind of the other side of it.  So it’s the strategy, it’s the finance, it’s that kind of thing.

Those roles we maintain them whatever we’re doing.  So for me within Charlie it’s kind of no different, but it’s a great challenge.  And that’s what I’m most excited about is the challenge of, for us, what will be our first, I guess, tech startup, tech business.  There’s some amazing learning and some great experiences that we’ve had so far.


Alex Theuma:  And the startup studio is The Eleven.  You’re still the founders of The Eleven.  But are you full time on Charlie now?  How is that working?


Ben Gateley:  100% full time on Charlie.  We’re lucky that we’re able to when we get a project that we’re really passionate about, we kind of go full-on into it.  And we’ve been focusing down on Charlie I guess for what’s been about 2 years now.  We really officially launched probably in January.  It’s I guess when people would have started seeing us kind of pop up a little bit more.  And the first lines of code were probably written in like July or August last year.  But they run up to that.  There was a lot of testing, a lot of discussion, a lot of debates late at night on all of that detail that I guess goes into launching any business and launching any product.  Yeah, it’s been a great journey so far.


Alex Theuma:  I mentioned Charlie has something to do with HR and SaaS and small businesses.  So tell us more about it and also tell us why you created, why you built Charlie?


Ben Gateley:  I think that one of the lessons that we talked about is build stuff for a problem that you understand infinitely.  I think that’s really what we’ve done in this instance.  We’ve run small businesses for 10 years now and we understand the inner workings of them, we understand what the pain points are.

A lot of those pain points focus around time and it’s normally not having enough time.  So for us, with Charlie it was about how can we save founder, CEO, MD, whatever, how can we save them time?  How can we give them more time to spend on the things that they really want to be doing?  Which is learning the business, building the business, developing the people in the business, all of that kind of good stuff that we enjoy, and less time, less time setting up spreadsheets, less time making sure that the accountants have got the payroll information.

Really what Charlie is it’s a free HR platform for small businesses.  It takes care of a lot of those admin tasks, you know, booking a holiday or notifying your team leader when you’re sick.  It takes care of all of that.

And I think in understanding the problem and in understanding the marketplace and the user, which was basically us at the kind of point of inception, we’ve been able to build a product which is not only really simple and durable to use but it’s also got really deep functionality in the areas where it matters.

We’re really lucky today to have over 4 ½ thousand businesses on the platform and growing, helping them to get a bit more time back in their day and focus on the stuff they really want to be doing.


Alex Theuma:  Pretty impressive numbers in terms of the number of customers that you guys have acquired within the last, well, less than 12 months.

Just a couple of points in that.  One, your pricing model you started with freemium, still freemium.  You have a free forever plan today.  Why is that?  And I guess if you’re looking at the number of customers that you’ve acquired, 4 ½ thousand, is that in large part because you have this freemium model?


Ben Gateley:  I guess the way I would approach that is we wanted on Day 1 to focus on building the best product we can build, not necessarily on making money.  Very, very lucky to have the great support of Connect and Seedcamp and our angels which allowed us to delay the decision making process on that.  We’ve always had a plan for monetisation but our products on Day 1 was let’s build a product that people actually want to use.  Let’s not get carried away with sort of work out all these other complex stuff.  Let’s make sure that our product really solves a problem and that people get excited about using it.

That’s allowed us to grow fast and that’s really driven that feedback loop.  And that feedback loop has been really important because the more customers, the more users, the more companies you have using it, the more feedback we’re getting.  And that is allowing us to build a better product, it’s allowing us to update our features, and it’s allowing us to build new features.

For example, I think we’re on our third version of Time off.  So Time off is the feature used the most.  And the product has been live for a year, less than a year, you might say and we’re already on to V3.  So we really believe in iterating on what we’ve built and making sure that we’re continuing to grow with the demands of the user base.  And I guess that concept of launching with a freemium model has allowed us to do that.

We also wanted to make it available for all small businesses.  I’m not trying to be like a good Samaritan or anything like that, but we do genuinely believe that all small businesses should be able to access what we provide on a basic level.  And we believe massively on small businesses.  We believe that the change that we want to see in the world tomorrow is going to come from the small businesses of today.  And to do that we want to help them on their journey.  We want to make their days a little bit easier and we want to give them a little bit more time back.  And launching I guess our free platform as is now was the best way that allowed us to do that.


Alex Theuma:  You’ve got freemium, free forever.  It’s allowed you to get to where you are and will continue to help with your growth.  You’ve also got a beta for pay pricing tier.  Can you elaborate a little bit about that?


Ben Gateley:  Definitely always part of the plan.  We’re not as naive to think that we would build a business without having to monetise.  So it’s always been part of the plan.

I think what was important for us is monetising in a really intelligent way.  We didn’t want to do something that was standard and typical.  We wanted to do something that was much more intelligent in terms of understanding the need of the market.  So we have spent a long time this year really understanding the market, really understanding their needs and that has driven towards, I guess, that paid plan which you see there on the website.

For us, building a stable business is what it’s about.  We’re taking responsibility for a lot of really important information.  So making sure that we’ve got a stable plan for how we grow and how we make money is obviously vital in being able to safeguard the service provided to the customers that we have today.

And also from a security perspective, we take a lot of time to really make sure that the security we offer to our customers in terms of looking after their information is absolutely A-grade.  And we currently go through the ISO 27001 process.

Having a stable platform both from a security perspective with financial perspective is key to us now but also long term.  So this has always been part of the plan.  We’ve just been taking our time and making sure that when we’re ready to release it it’s intelligent and it’s solved the real, real issue.


Alex Theuma:  Can you give the audience some further insights into how you’ve acquired 4,500 customers in probably 10 months or so?  What are the key channels for acquisition, for marketing for Charlie?


Ben Gateley:  I think one of the things that we’re very lucky with is the fact that a lot of our growth, in fact all of our growth has been organic.  It’s been referrals, it’s been people leaving one company, going for another and taking Charlie with them.  It’s been groups of industry professionals getting together and sharing tips and tricks and Charlie coming up.  I think we’ve been able to do that because we put a big focus on brand.  Most businesses build tools for the person that chooses them not for the person that uses them.  And I think we realised that if we were going to really make a stand in this market, we needed to build tools for the people that use it.  And that’s not actually the CEO or the MD or the HR Manager.  It’s the guy sitting in his desk.

One of the ways we’ve done that is the brand.  Creating a brand that’s human, that’s engaging, that you want to have fun with.  Typically, tech companies are not brilliant at building brands.  There’s some great examples like Slack and TransferWise and Airbnb who’ve done a really, really brilliant job.  But typically we’re not great at it.

Our background is in brand building and so that was something we wanted to lean on.  And we’ve really followed that idea all the way through from the content we write to the copy on our website.  We invested very early in having someone in-house to do all the copy for the platform but also for our blogs and our newsletters.  We want to bring a smile to people’s faces.  And it trickles as far down as even the name.

When we were working and planning Charlie in the early days, a lot of discussion around what the name is going to be.  I think the key thing for us was around making it human.  These tasks that we’re carrying out for the companies that use us, they are important.  They might be classed as admin but they are important.  And HR is becoming more human.  It’s how companies are evolving.  They’re thinking much less about process and much more about looking after the people within their business.  So we wanted Charlie to be a place where you could come, you enjoyed coming and that felt real, that felt human.  So even going for the name Charlie was a real decision based on the brand we were trying to build.

For us, that challenge worked really, really well.  When we’ve tried to spend more, it never worked, but when we really tried to think more it always works.  So that’s kind of where our focus is now as we look at 2017 and the growth that we’re trying to achieve there.


Alex Theuma:  And who came up with the name Charlie?  Is this somebody’s brother or uncle?


Ben Gateley:  No, he’s actually our communications manager who was, I guess, the brainchild, the brainperson behind all of our content and a lot of like the communication that comes from us.  She is called Charlie, but she joined the company actually after we’d already named it.

I think there were a couple of options.  There was Charlie and I think there was Sam as well.  And there’s actually a blog up on Medium.  If people are interested they can go have a look through that.  And it was about the name not being I guess gender specific.  That was important.  And then the neutral was really, really important for us.  I just think Sam is really a bit too far in Sam.  Charlie felt quite nice in that way.

And I would also say that I think potentially people spend a little bit too long agonizing about their names.  For us it needs to be right.  It needs to sit with the type of brand we’re trying to create.  But equally, we weren’t going to spend 6 months deciding it.  It was about executing and cracking on and building the product and getting people using it.


Alex Theuma:  How much time did you spend on choosing the name then?


Ben Gateley:  I think that process was probably, it was probably a month and a bit while we were doing other things.


Alex Theuma:  You mentioned your passions, sort of people, culture and this is why you’re in this particular sort of role within the business.  I know that you’ve written about the hiring and finding talent.  I mean, getting hiring right and finding right talent of course is super important for startups and all businesses in fact, but it’s also a massive challenge.  How have you gone about hiring and finding talent at Charlie?  It would be interesting to get your perspective on how you’ve done this and how you’ve built your team.


Ben Gateley:  I think as a COO or as a founder it’s generally your most important task, is my view.  The people that you bring into the business who are going to work with you are going to be the difference between being a success and then not being that.

I guess on a very practical note, when it comes to hiring, we try and look at every channel.  So we do a lot ourselves.  We know the guys at really well so we use them.  We do a bunch of job ads.  We get paid for good things like work in startups or unicorn hunt.  We also do free postings, do some good old LinkedIn stalking which always works.  We work with a few recruiters and we’ve got a really good relationship with a company called Give A Grad A Go who really understand us and understand our culture.  I think that’s quite important for us.  So that’s I guess how we find talent on a practical level.

In assessing them, I think it’s important that they demonstrate the values that we’re hiring against.  I guess for us, that’s kind of four things.  It’s passion.  We got to have passion for what we’re doing, we got to have passion for things in their live, we got to have passionate people.  I don’t want to work with people that are not passionate.

You’ve got to be ambitious.  And I think that a lot of that is around having a growth mindset.  So realising that the job you do today might not be the job we ask you to do tomorrow.  You might have to graduate, you might have to take on different responsibilities, you might have to pick up stuff that we didn’t necessarily hire you for.

The third one is curiosity.  So I’m a big believer in that we’ve got to keep learning, we’ve got to keep bettering ourselves.  We got to understand your own faults, your weaknesses.

And the fourth one is togetherness.  I’ve got no time for egos.  I’ve got no time for people that want to be lone wolves and are in it for themselves.  You’ve got to hire people that want to work together, want to build businesses with other people.  And so finding those individuals is always a priority for us.


Alex Theuma:

Around culture, what else do you do?  Aside from hiring people with those traits, what else around culture is important within your business and that you do to get people to stay at Charlie and get people to kind of really work for the company?


Ben Gateley:   I think as a founder, culture is it’s your responsibility to live it and to uphold it.  I think cultures typically a die a death if the leaders in the business, the senior people in the business don’t uphold the same standards they expect from everyone else.  That’s the first thing I would say is that the rules that you set and the standards that you set it’s important that you the founder, you the leader represent those on a daily basis.  It’s not always easy and you’re going to get it wrong but it’s about being honest and open when you do get it wrong.

I’m very aware of not wanting to create silos within the business.  And I see that a lot in tech companies.  It’s easy to have an engineering culture and then a culture that binds the rest of the business and you start to create these little pockets.  I think that’s, yeah, it’s fine to somebody but it’s not what we’re after.

What we really want to create is an open and honest culture that works for everybody be that a 30-year old engineer, an engineer that just graduated, a customer experienced person, a head of brand, whatever.  We want that culture to be open and inviting.  And I think one of the ways that we do that is in showing good context.  I guess what I mean by that is allowing people to have one task that is shared across everybody.

So one of the things we really do is everyone in the business is responsible for our live chat at some point during the week.  Typically, we’ll pair an engineer with a non-technical person.  And that forces them to work together, it forces them to communicate, it forces them to solve a problem.  And it’s also then gives everyone one task, one responsibility which is upheld by everybody be that the CEO or the intern.  Everyone is getting involved in that.

And having that similarity, having that context, that’s a real helper in terms of creating great relationships and improving communication.  I think if you can do both of those things, you can build a great culture.


Alex Theuma:  What have been your major learnings so far in this quite young journey but very rapid growth journey that you’ve had?


Ben Gateley:  I would say that I guess it gives three… I’d say that building a real, real quality product is if you’re a tech company it’s so simple.  And making that for the top of your pyramid your absolute priority is absolutely vital.  If your product doesn’t stand up to the market, it doesn’t stand up to what is already out there, all your other competitors, it’s going to be very hard for you to win.

When you’re talking to investors, when you’re talking with advisers and you’re shopping around, you’re having those early conversations, when you’re treated like hiring someone into the business these are people that you’re not only going to take money from but you’re going to build the company together.  And I do generally see it as that.  They’ve got to be people you want to work with, they’ve got to be people you want to go to battle with and call up on a Saturday night with a problem and be open and be transparent with.  For me, that’s really important.

And I guess the third thing I’d say is that done is probably better than perfect a lot of the time.  I think it makes you more agile and I think it allows you to action feedback faster and move quicker in the business both on the product side but with everything else operationally.

The businesses that move fast are, in my view, the ones that have got the best chance of winning.


Alex Theuma:  We’ve come to the final question now.  And I’d like to know what’s next for CharlieHR?


Ben Gateley:  We’ve got some great product features in development before the end of the year and pushing great stuff out.  Actually last night around our Manage People section, we’ve got some updates on that plan for the next couple of months.

We’re going to continue to grow.  We’re going to continue to build a brand.  That’s what’s really important for us.  We’ve got some really interesting referral initiatives and some great content planned for the next couple of months, and just ensuring that we’re executing.  I think when is an element of success and when things seem to be going well that’s when the highest probability that things are going to come off the tracks.

And so I guess keeping our heads screwed on and making sure that we’re continuing to do the things that we’ve done really, really well from Day 1 and starting to add some sprinkles on top.


Alex Theuma:  Well, I look forward to seeing those sprinkles, Ben.  You’ve been a great guest today.  Really appreciate your time.  I think actually thinking about it, you might be our first COO on the show.  So it’s nice to have a different perspective and talk about people and culture and hiring as we’ve not done so much of that.

But thanks for being a great guest, Ben Gateley, co-founder and COO of CharlieHR.


Ben Gateley:  Well, thanks, Alex.  Thanks for having me.


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