The staffing wins and woes of uber successful UK start-ups

Brexit, skills shortages, the gig economy; start-ups are overcoming obstacles to build top teams. Here’s the talent outlook from Startups Awards winners

As the adage goes ‘there’s no ‘I’ in team’ and this saying is never truer for early-stage start-ups where, without a stellar team in place, there would often be no business.

A great team makes a start-up more productive, efficient and innovative. Take UK credit score provider ClearScore for example; over the last year the two-year-old start-up has scaled from 20 to 100 staff and has now taken customer numbers to in excess of 4.6 million.

Or look at Housekeep, the on-demand home cleaning start-up, which has capitalised on the booming gig economy to serve over 20,000 customers, and counting.

UK start-ups are dependent on being able to attract and maintain talented people and yet, now more than ever, they are having to navigate an economic landscape which poses many staffing challenges and complexities.

Britain’s impending exit from the EU is having a very real impact on the ability for UK businesses to recruit (see below), while ongoing reviews of the employment status of workers in the gig economy is creating a legal minefield for start-ups reliant on ‘giggers’.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Through strong leadership and management, creative methods, and a little “magic”, start-up businesses are building teams which are going the extra mile to achieve new goals and hit record milestones.

At the Startups Awards winners’ dinner, we asked uber successful UK start-ups – with teams of eight to over 150 – to share their staffing wins and woes. Here’s what they divulged…


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The Brexit bottleneck

Guy Buckley-Sharp, ClearScore: “I joined ClearScore last year when it was 20 people. We are now just at that inflection point of 100 people and a lot is said about 100 staff being the point of where those scaling challenges are.

“The business has gone from a million users and now we’ve got over four and a half million; we had 20 employees and now we have 105 – we didn’t expect all of this to happen so quickly.

“There’s a challenge in terms of staffing and we will be affected by Brexit I think as a lot of our employees are skilled tech guys from across Europe.

“During the end of last year, we had candidates in the recruitment process that then dropped out as a result of Brexit – so we saw a very real impact.

 “The impact of Brexit is most obvious when you have somebody who’s in the hiring process and they then say ‘no, I’m going to take a role in Paris because of Brexit’ and that did happen. That’s a challenge for us and one that the business faces in scaling but there are challenges all round but we’re excited.

“We’re getting very bullish and we’re monitoring what our real value is. We’re positive about our growth and we expect to continue.”

The gig economy

Liam Dickerson, Housekeep:

On the employment status of those in the gig economy, we’re keeping an eye on the situation.

“However, we don’t really operate in the “gig” economy, but instead cleaners can use Housekeep as a place to find regular, long-term clients. We expect any changes to affect everyone in the marketplace in the same way, so we’re making sure that as ever we’re at the cutting edge of what’s going on and want to make sure Housekeep continues to be the best place for cleaners to find work.”

David Cox, haysmacintyre: “The gig economy is an interesting area of tax law and one of these things that not often the everyday person in the street would hear about; yet everybody knows an Uber driver or a Deliveroo driver.

“It’s a bit like the Jaffa Cake VAT case and in the same way this is the only employee tax case people that will ever really hear of. For Housekeep it’s good to hear it won’t destroy your business, but it will destroy a lot of other businesses on where their margins are.”

Getting staff to buy in to the business mission

Steve Folwell, LOVESPACE: “Staff need to feel your company mission but I think getting them to buy into it is magic really, I don’t think it’s something you can write down.

“Whilst we all want to do good things and change things, it’s difficult to persuade people to think that this business is what their life is about.”

Jasper Martens, PensionBee: “What I’ve experienced in joining PensionBee is that you can have a balance of both company mission and personal mission.

“Pensions is not the most exciting product in the world but solving the UK pension problem was definitely one of the reasons I joined PensionBee. I feel that all our new colleagues who joined after me bought into the mission of the company but they’re also on a personal mission; so, they want to get from A to B or A to C and they want to use PensionBee for it.”

Incentivising staff to work towards a shared goal through recognition and celebration

Liam Dickerson, Housekeep: “The thing that really brings our team together is having a really clear target on what we’re trying to achieve and making it crystal clear to everybody how they can contribute to that.

“We have one metric in our business which is active users and so, for the final quarter of last year, we set a moon-shot target of where we wanted to get our active users to, and told our staff that we would take them on a trip if we hit that target.

“It transformed the way we worked for those three months as everyone was clear on how they contributed to that number; to retaining ‘Housekeepers’ which, in turn, drives retention of customers. We hit the target and we took the whole team to Barcelona for the weekend.

“We won in two ways; both by hitting the amazing target we set and by pulling the team together in a way that we hadn’t done as the trip was an incredible experience. The business results that we achieved because of the way that we structured the process, and organised the trip itself, really bought the team together.

“The pace of business didn’t change that much but it was more that people really focused on exactly what they were doing. We probably let some plates drop that weren’t as important because we were very focused on one particular metric but having very narrow focus is a big benefit.

“It’s something that we’ll definitely be doing again this year – setting ourselves another crazy target!”

James Davidson, tails.com: “The crazy thing is that if you worked in a much more established company, your annual bonus alone might well be double the cost to take a whole start-up company away to celebrate achieving such an audacious target.

“It gives you some perspective of how relatively little it costs to take staff on a trip like that!”

Cultivating an environment of openness and transparency

Luke Barlow, Netduma: “A big staffing lesson we’ve learnt recently is that, as senior management, you’re always thinking about your business and you’re always talking about it so you’re probably privy to information that your staff aren’t. You can sometimes forget that they don’t often know a lot of this information.

“They may not know why they’re doing something so the motivation for us isn’t providing a pay rise – although I’m sure that would be a motivation –  but it’s communicating why they’re important and why they matter.

“To give you an example we’ve got our main tester who’s been working every weekend recently and he’s done it happily because he knows that, without him, we’re up s**t creek! He knows how important he is because if it doesn’t get tested well then we’re not going to get a good deal.

“So that’s why, for us, the best way to motivate staff is to communicate why something’s important.

“We usually hold a Monday morning huddle so that everyone knows what’s going on. There’s about eight of us full-time – so usually everyone knows what’s going on anyway – but when we have meetings we get everyone to walk around the office together, a lap, and talk about everything that’s going on in the company.”

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