Ben Gateley – Understanding People
Small businesses frequently use a range of spreadsheets and emails to manage employee data from a Human Resources perspective, often in an inefficient, insecure, and increasingly complex fashion. Ben Gateley, Rob O’Donovan, and Tom Carrington-Smith have spent years building businesses through The Eleven and acutely understand the pain of scaling operations and teams. Charlie HR was born to address this problem with the ambition to build accessible, enjoyable HR software that provides businesses with a framework to focus on the things they really love doing. With UK businesses in a state of transition in terms of providing pensions over the next few years, there is certainly huge importance in making the whole HR system easy and painless. Charlie HR is seeking to do just that – Ben shares his thoughts on a range of topics from the importance of culture to fundraising.
Favourite Book/ Blog
Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh, the CEO and founder of Zappos – it’s all about building a strong company culture.
I’m a big fan of productivity tools – I Love Inbox, by Google, which is their revamp of Gmail essentially. It gives you the ability to add tasks so you have all your emails and tasks on the same feed.
Hottest UK Company
I love Bloom & Wild and am a big fan of theirs. They’re doing something which is really old school but innovating on it in a really simple way. I think that that’s brilliant.
Inspiration in Business
I wouldn’t say that I have interest in “business” necessarily, I just want to be happy Monday to Friday. I’m not here to make lots of money, have a big office – I want to enjoy my work and that is very much my inspiration.
What does disruption mean to you?
The misleading thing is that disruption doesn’t need to be sexy. This is why I’m so excited by what we’re doing with Charlie; I think that the best disruption and the best reworking of a pre-existing model or change in an environment – extreme change – comes in situations where things have been the same for a very long time. It’s not necessarily AI, it could be delivering flowers or HR Software in a space where there’s been no innovation for years.
Tell me about Charlie HR, the evolution of, and what you are currently working on?
We built Charlie to solve a problem for ourselves, which is that we build small businesses. We understand the pain points – and so for us so for us HR and HR technology was one of these. We spent a lot of our time filling out Excel Spreadsheets and no time actually running the business and doing the stuff that we enjoyed. To begin with it was just an employee directory with a bit of onboarding. Now it’s holiday booking, sick day tracking, reports on data – a whole range of stuff.
At the moment we’re focusing on Charlie OS which is our monetized product coming out in the New Year.
What skills from previous tenure have you appreciated since founding Charlie? What are greatest skills you have developed?
It’s a couple of things in terms of learning. One is that you need to emotionally self-serve yourself. What I mean by that is, there are going to be highs and lows. You’ve got to have a process for being able to sort yourself out, as there’s not necessarily anyone else who can do it for you.
The second thing – that I’m most passionate about in the world – is people. If you understand people, you can run a great company. You have to understand people; how they operate, and you have to be selfless in your understanding of that. You have to care more about the people you work with than you do about yourself. That’s what true leadership comes from in my view: absolute selflessness.
Greatest skills in terms of Charlie would be moving quickly. We’re having to move a lot faster than we’ve ever done before because it’s a technology business. It’s a high growth area and therefore speed of execution is crucial.
“Read Ben’s Medium post on the importance of understanding your team to unlock potential:”
What were the largest obstacles faced when launching and what is the biggest challenge today?
Getting the product right. We very much believe that we’re a product first company in as many ways as possible, and that’s the biggest barrier. To go out and build a product that people actually want to use – that’s hard.
The biggest challenge at the moment is to keep growing, quality growth. We’ve had great momentum up to this point and maintaining that is one of the challenges.
Charlie clearly address many of the administrative headaches that companies experience as they scale. What factors do you think will have the greatest influence on your business model going forward and of these what do you see as the most important?
I think the quality of the rest of the products on the market does influence us. We want to be the best free HR software in the world. We think that we are that and can be that. Therefore, maintaining the quality of our free product is really important – in a lot of ways we are better than paid alternatives out there.
Going forward we need to make sure that our paid product really adds value. We’re going to be launching our paid product in Q1 of next year and there is a host of features and services that will be paid add ons to the product as it is. The important thing to understand is that no user will ever have to pay for what they’re getting for free now. All the users that we currently have will never have to pay for something that they’re already using for free.
We want to give founders more time, time to focus on the things that really matter, and so in that instance, being able to offer a free product is really important. And being able to support our business from five people up to five hundred is key. Our ambition is to be a global HR platform.
Can you share fundraising history and advice? What do entrepreneurs want in an investor?
Fundraising is no different to hiring someone. You are literally hiring someone, creating a partnership with someone who you are going to run your business with. You’ve got to make sure that if you’re going to take any money from somebody, you are doing so from someone you truly believe in. We’ve been so lucky with the people we were able to do our seed round with: Connect Ventures and Seedcamp. We’ve got two great individuals we work with there – Sitar and Carlos. We’ve worked with both of those organisations for varying reasons. Connect are a brilliant bunch of people – they really understand us and we really understand them. They’re very product-centric, which is what we’re all about.
With Seedcamp, they’ve got great insights. They invest in a lot of companies, they’ve got a great network, and they are very strategic for us. They know where we want to tap into and Carlos has been great addition to the board. The advice is to take it seriously. Just because someone says “here’s a cheque” doesn’t mean you’ve got to take it. It’s not going to be enjoyable if you end up getting into bed with someone who’s not the person you want to be doing it with. It’s like finding a co-founder – it’s the same thing.
What are some of the KPI’s that you measure success by for both you and your team?
Within the business the key metric for us is active users – that’s very important. It’s not simply about having people sign up, it’s more about having people genuinely using the product every day – that’s our key KPI.
For me, my KPI is the great stuff the people I work with go on to do. I love to see people take new roles and step up, even to leave and to go on elsewhere and do great things. I get all of my enjoyment and satisfaction by seeing people do great work. I know that there’s only so much value that I as an individual can create. But I know that if I hire great people, support them and work with them, that they can go and create 10/20/30x as a combined unit. That’s what excites me. I’m so proud of some of the people we’ve got at Charlie and in previous businesses who on a daily basis I look at and am think ‘you’re a thousand times better than I’ll ever be’.
What is the long term vision as well as the more imminent milestones?
Long-time vision for Charlie is to be global, to constantly save staff time and make entrepreneurs and those running businesses’ lives easier, so they can focus on the stuff that really matters. We know that the growth and development of tomorrow is going to come from the small businesses of today. In that instance, we want all of the small businesses spending time on the stuff that they love.
The big milestone for us is Charlie OS.
Burn the Boats
Burn the Boats moment – what enticed you to co-found Charlie HR?
I think it was seeing people using the MVP we put out. Also realising and knowing that people are the most important part of the business – you’ve got to have good tools for looking after them, and they don’t exist.
How do you think founders can identify nascent and attractive markets that are ripe for disruption?
Solve problems that you know about – don’t look for problems. If you’re hunting for problems to try and identify stuff the chances are it’s going to be too much of a stretch. It’s got to be an obvious problem that you have and want to solve.
Who do you surround yourself with/ what business support networks do you value?
There are a few that I value. Rob and I have been lucky in that we’ve had coaches over the years. There’s a lot of people within the Eleven community who I’m able to access who I have a lot of respect for. Broader than that, my Godfather – he’s very helpful in lending an external view. In terms of support networks, you need different buckets of people. People that can lift you up, people that can criticise you, people that can help you solve problems, and it’s about knowing who to go for, for what. You build that up over time.
In ten years’ time how would like people to talk about you and Charlie HR? What does success look like?
I’d like them to talk about the brand and the personality that Charlie has, and the realness of it which is what we’re trying to create. I’d like people to talk about Charlie with fondness, like you would talk about a good friend. Charlie HR’s personality is human! It’s how you should treat everyone within your business: with love, respect, compassion, and realness – rather than process and rigmarole.
Founding team from left: Tom Carrington – Smith, Rob O’ Donovan, Ben Gateley