When PageUp’s Karen Cariss developed her ‘anywhere software’ web-based interface for her clients, it was revolutionary. She tells AMANDA GOME how PageUp, and the rest of us, have taken the concept and run with it. Reader Bruce asks: Do you see a threat to
When Karen Cariss (right) and her partner Simon Cariss launched a web-based people management software system in 1997, she was a 24-year-old biochemist and Simon was her boyfriend.
Last financial year, their company PageUp turned over $5.5 million and provided software development and application services to big companies like Thiess, Macquarie Bank, BHP Billiton, Coles Group and NAB.
Karen tells Amanda Gome how she got started, managed the growth and what she is looking forward to now. Karen is happy to answer your questions. Send an email to [email protected]. One reader has emailed questions, to which Karen responds (see end of text).
Amanda Gome: What niche did you see?
Karen Cariss: We saw companies had two problems. They wanted to reduce the cost and time taken to manage internal and external recruitment and also improve the management of the use of people within an organisation. We saw an opportunity to build web interfaces to business applications.
Simon had been building database applications for various businesses part-time while he was at university. It was difficult to build software that had to be loaded on to users’ local computers as you couldn’t control their environments (they could be running other software that meant your software didn’t run properly) and releasing new versions was a time consuming and labour intensive process.
Building a web interface meant we could run the software on our own servers and our clients just needed access to the internet and they could log into their software from anywhere.
At the time we called it ‘Anywhere software’ and we said to the IT graduates we were trying to recruit that ‘client-server’ was dead! (the old style of software). It was revolutionary!
What did you need to start your business and did you start from home?
A computer, phone and determination! Although Simon had been working from home while finishing his uni degree, but when we formed the company we started in offices. Conveniently Simon’s father had some spare space at the back of his offices, so we were able to sub-let some of his space.
What was the biggest strategic mistake you made in the early years in software development?
When we were first trying to move into product sales, away from selling consulting hours, we knew nothing about basic marketing principles – pricing, positioning, distribution, etc.
We did not understand the value of market research and just learnt through trial and error. After many errors and months, we probably got to the same point as a few thousand dollars of market research would have got us to, but it’s difficult to see that as a cash-strapped start-up.
In distribution? What did you learn?
We spent around six months trying to negotiate a deal with large recruitment firms when we first built our online recruitment management system to distribute the software through them to their client base.
As recruitment was their core business they saw our tool as a threat rather than complimentary, so we finally decided we needed to go direct to the market ourselves, which was daunting given the solution was best suited to large corporations and we were a tiny company of around five staff at that stage.
Were you successful at marketing? What did you learn?
In the early days we didn’t even know what marketing was! So I guess along the way we have learnt everything from your ‘4 Ps’, to competitive strategies, various distribution models, etc.
We now have a lot of clarity about who we are, what problems we solve, who our target market is, what they are looking for, why we are different to our competitors, firm pricing strategy – we have found the more focused we have become on our position in the market the easier it is to secure new business as you know who to speak to and what to say. That said, our space is still highly competitive.
How did you get your first clients?
Our first clients for our consulting/custom software development came from the network contacts that Simon established while working part-time during his final years of uni and from his industry placement work experience.
Our first clients using our recruitment management solutions came through the recruitment agency linkage we created when we first developed the tool. So although recruitment agencies turned out not to be the best distribution channel, they certainly helped us kick-start our experience.
How have you changed your approach to winning clients?
We refine our approach after every sale opportunity – whether it was successful or otherwise. Both Simon and I were originally key to all sales activities, but now we have a team of talented staff that develop business with new prospects, current customers and internationally.
There have been many changes to get to this point, mostly around capturing the process and what worked well for us and transferring that to others. We are still involved in key opportunities.
And to keeping clients?
Although we have a strong record of keeping our clients, we are constantly investing in better ways to meet their requirements and create ‘raving fans’.
We recently restructured our team to create an additional role in response to client feedback around the ongoing support they were seeking. It’s early days yet, but this new structure appears to be working very well. You need to be conscious of the training required for staff to have the knowledge to perform at an exceptional level.
Internal training is an area we are constantly improving and investing in, and we seek regular feedback from the staff to help us deploy the best training. Always work to do on creating ‘raving fans’.
You have 60 staff. What is your top tip for hiring staff?
Hiring in the current market is difficult. The key is to really know what you are looking for and to be using a broad range of mechanisms to find a match. We use everything from standard internet advertising, networking, employee referrals, through to some of the latest web-based technologies.
Export: what percentage of revenue comes from export and what is your main market?
We are only just starting our export adventures. We are really seeking global deals to allow the corporation to use the system anywhere they operate. Typically, decisions are made in Europe or America. We have offices in London and Shanghai to support our global initiatives.
How did you get into export?
As we were selling to large corporations that had offshore operations, it made sense for us to export. Exporting is helping us support our global customers better and localise the solution.
How do you stay focused on the business after all these years?
The business and associated challenges change on a daily basis, so there is always something new to keep your attention. Both Simon and I are very passionate about the business, the benefits it brings and the achievements our team can make by working in a rapidly growing business.
I recently had my first child, which has added a new dimension to our lives. It has certainly been a challenge to get through the first few months while ‘maintaining business as usual’ activities, especially as there is not really such a thing as ‘business as usual’ at PageUp!
I have also just completed our first acquisition – a talent management consulting company – which is really exciting and adds a new dimension to the solution we can offer our customers. So there is plenty to keep us focused on the business.
You are 33 years old and running a global business with revenue of $5.5 million in 2006/07, up from revenue of $3.7 million in 2005/06. Who are your clients and what is your biggest challenge going forward?
Clients include Thiess, Macquarie Bank, BHP Billiton, Coles Group, NAB, CBA, Computershare, Flight Centre, AMP, IAG, The University of Melbourne, Brisbane City Council… our biggest challenge continues to remain managing the growth of the business.
It is critical to us to ensure we maintain an exceptional level of service to our current customers, while growing rapidly both on a domestic front and now internationally.
Ensuring we don’t forget who we are and what has made us successful is always of the forefront of my mind as we move forward to add to our offering. Ensuring we maintain visceral relationships with our clients and listen to what they are saying is critical to our future success.
How is your industry changing?
Our industry is brand new. People have been recruiting people through the internet for less than 10 years, so it is changing almost daily. Changes are driven by both new technology and changing labour availability along with globalisation forces.
We compete mainly with American companies, so need to think on a global stage right from the outset. Our clients and the candidates are getting more sophisticated, further driving advancements in our solutions. The way companies manage their people is going through a revolutionary change. It is a privilege to be part of the solutions supporting these changes.
Karen answers: Yes, we are profitable, even though we put a lot of what would be our profit back into funding the growth strategies. The numbers are only approximates and have changed again recently anyway with our acquisition being completed.
I assume the large portals you refer to are the job boards. In a rapidly changing industry everything is constantly under threat. Our solution allows clients to broaden their sourcing avenues, which does mean that the clients are not necessarily as dependent on the large portals. I do believe though the large portals will always form part of the mix.
And Bruce adds: Thank you very much for your response and good luck. Aussie tech entrepreneurs and inventors are the hope of our future, (as distinct from just digging-up the national sandpit and sending it off to turn-out more pollutants!).