Diary of a tech entrepreneur

Sarah Dowzell is the co-founder and COO of Birmingham-based tech firm Natural HR and firmly believes that launching a cleaning business was crucial to her development and attitude towards her career – here’s why

I was 21 when I started my cleaning business back in 2009 and would wholeheartedly recommend that those with entrepreneurial ambitions set up their business as soon as they can. Everyone wants that ‘get rich quick’ idea and. even if you fail, you’re bound to learn something.

Thinking back, I remember being eight months pregnant with my first child, and one of the staff members at the cleaning business had called in sick. I picked up a vacuum cleaner and ran it around the office – not giving it a second thought. There are some organisations where colleagues wouldn’t see their boss getting stuck in like that, but it was a brilliant learning curve and that’s why I did it.

I ran that company until 2011, and it gave me such invaluable grounding for what was to come next. Although the firm was a micro business – with only 12 people – it was truly mine and taught me about the importance of accreditation and control systems, which is where the ideas for Natural HR came from, just on a bigger scale.

Customising services to suit the business

What actually happened wasn’t the ‘lightbulb’ moment many entrepreneurs look for, rather a culmination of events – and frustrations aplenty. I’d been looking for reliable, low-cost HR software to help me deal with the growing administration requirements of running a small business – keeping track of timesheets, payroll, and HR information. Unable to find something that did everything I needed ‘off the peg’, my husband Jason, a keen programmer, developed a custom application that had everything my business required. And so, Natural HR was born. 

At the time, I couldn’t believe there wasn’t something on the market that was set up to help smaller businesses manage their HR needs – so much so that Jason and I shared the tool for free, to help out other businesses in the same boat as I had been.

It got to a point, in 2012, where we thought, “actually there’s something in this”. Businesses started to use the tool and we registered as a limited company that same year, having recently sold the cleaning business, too. It was quite a rapid journey from that point on, and by 2015 we were raising £250,000 in investment.

That was the best decision I ever made: as it stands today, Natural HR has grown to 50+ employees, raised £1.6 million in investment over a six-year period, and generates more than £3 million a year. In the early days, companies were using various different tools; we found they’d use one for recruitment, a different one to manage their absence and holiday tracking, and then they might use something else to manage expenses and reimburse people. So, for us, it was about becoming an all-in-one solution.

Identifying a gap in the market

In response, having identified a gap in the market, Natural HR provides all-in-one HR and payroll software for SMEs, making it easy to manage the HR department and enabling professionals at the frontline to engage, manage and pay their people.

But it’s not just about selling licences for us. Something that’s very important in business, is not trying to be all things to all people in order to get a sale. It will only come back to bite you further down the line.

That’s why, we’re really specific about the size of customer we target. We’ll respectfully decline business if it’s not right for us, because we believe in being honest. If we can’t serve a customer from the outset knowing their requirements, we don’t want that business because the only way we’re going to achieve growth is if we retain customers.

What’s more, you can’t forget those who make your business a success. People are hugely important. Earlier this year, it became apparent that we’d outgrown our old office and needed a new base to scale up and that is because – while we work from home on Mondays and Fridays – we genuinely believe that being in the office is what’s driving that innovation, growth and collaboration. It’s what we do differently in the market.

There are a lot of faceless vendors in our market who outsource their service delivery. While it might seem like an easier option, I firmly believe in the mantra that “people buy from people”. Looking back on my career to date, this wasn’t how 18-year-old Sarah thought she’d become the next Deborah Meaden, but the fact that I am my way to being the kind of woman who inspires the next generation is a real ‘pinch me’ moment. If I can do it, so can you.

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