HR start-up struck gold by accident with cloud tech
The married co-founders of a cloud-based HRTech platform said cloud-based tech came at the ‘perfect time’ for a business which began as a hobby.
Birmingham-based Natural HR’s software started life as an internal tool built for co-founder and COO Sara Dowzell’s small cleaning business.
CEO and co-founder Jason Dowzell, a technologist with over 20 years’ experience in IT, hoped to save his wife some time by replacing her staff’s paper timesheets with a basic online tool.
Built in his spare time as a hobby, Jason thought little of its appeal beyond his wife’s business, but in 2010 put the tool online for free.
“We got a bit carried away with it,” she told BusinessCloud. “Anyone in the world could sign up and use the platform for free because it was just a hobby that Jason enjoyed doing in his evenings and on weekends.”
The tool gained a flurry of users, who Sarah said were curious about how it could be free, and if the information was safe in the relatively new world of cloud tech. “At its height, we had 13,000 sign-ups in countries I'd never even heard of – it was quite a geography lesson!” she said.
The timing was perfect, she says, as people were moving toward cloud-based software just as Natural HR was cementing its user base.
“Having people sign up from all over the world was effectively our product development. We had organisations feeding back what they would want the product to do,” she said.
Jason's new day job required the couple to relocate, and shortly after they had their first child, the success of the app was beginning to cost time and money.
“Over the next year or so we got a lot of people signing up, and it was beginning to cost us money to host and secure the system,” she explained.
Still without a business plan, the couple had to make a decision about the future of Natural HR – close it down or make it their day job.
In 2012 the business was incorporated, with a paid version introduced in 2013 – a move which was a ‘major challenge’ for a single developer.
The tool, which now incorporates GDPR-compliant time management, attendance, performance and expenses in one place, was ahead of its time.
“No one questions the cloud today,” she said. “If I'd have known then what I know now, we'd have done things majorly differently. For so long, we didn't see this as a business model.”
The investor behind one of its many free users had seen the product in action and asked the couple about their plans for monetisation. Ultimately the funding wasn’t suitable, but the idea of an office, staff, and financial backing appealed.
“Suddenly we'd gone from wondering how we'd monetise the product to how we would appeal to investors.
“The amount of time that went into slide decks and pitches reached a breaking point.”
The couple came into contact with Midven, a Birmingham venture capitalist firm, who invested £235,000 into Natural HR through its Early Advantage Fund in 2016.
In March of this year, the company secured a further £250,000 investment from Midven, using equity finance from the Midlands Engine Investment Fund (MEIF).
Now with 22 employees, and hiring for seven more roles, the company is seeing unprecedented growth.
“It's a busy time in our growth stage,” said Sarah. “We've got a small product team in place and we are looking to bring on another three developers, as well as marketing and finance.”
Since 2016 the company has seen 100 per cent growth in both customers and revenue, a goal which Sara said they will continue to aim for as they introduce new features.
"We're aiming to see that same growth by the end of December, it will be a big challenge, but we are very ambitious and we'll probably set that anyway.”