‘Maid in the Midlands’ – from cleaning toilets to HR tech entrepreneur
Sarah Dowzell is a mother, entrepreneur, HR specialist and now Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of Birmingham-based company, Natural HR.
The company provides cloud-based HR software to medium-sized businesses, and was born out of Sarah’s own need for a HR system to manage employee records when running a cleaning business in 2009.
Having made a success of that business, Sarah sold it to pursue her ambitions within HR and to develop the now 20 people strong organisation that is Natural HR. Alongside her is business partner, tech enthusiast and husband, Jason Dowzell, who supported in making Sarah’s business idea a reality.
Sarah talks to Business Leader about the growth and challenges of HR tech, what it is like working with her husband, and what the future holds for the company.
Can you give me an overview of Natural HR?
Natural HR is a Midlands-based company, providing cloud-based HR software to medium sized businesses. It’s targeted at those who have a need to manage their people-related data and business processes through the employee life-cycle in a more efficient way than spreadsheets and disparate systems.
As a rapidly expanding business, which was originally established by myself and my husband, Jason Dowzell, we now have 20 employees and service businesses globally.
What was the inspiration behind setting up the business?
The inspiration for the business actually came from a need I had for a HR system to manage employee records when running a cleaning business in 2009. From running this business, I also developed a real interest in business and HR. I then decided to undertake a BA in Business Studies as well as completing the CIPD and CHRP via distance learning.
By doing this, I developed the insight needed to establish a successful and ambitious business, but also a business with a HR focus. Both my husband and I felt strongly that a tech-based start up would provide both the solution I was looking for back in 2009 as well as solutions for many other business owners and HR Directors.
What products and services does the company offer?
Since launching in 2010, we’ve been building a comprehensive suite of HR functionality that equips a medium-sized enterprise with everything needed to build an effective and efficient HR operation.
This includes your core HR database, self-service, recruitment, performance management, time and attendance, expenses, reporting and analytics. Natural HR also comes with customisable workflows to help businesses automate and streamline processes, such as onboarding and offboarding employees.
Today’s cloud HR solutions are more affordable and offer rich functionality, however most vendors provide a one-size-fits-all system and leave it to you to learn how to use it. At Natural HR we believe customers deserve more. For us, it’s more than just providing you with an all in one technology solution.
We are passionate about ensuring you get the most out of our software. I pride myself on having an organisation with a friendly and approachable customer success team who are dedicated to helping customers get set-up quickly and providing ongoing training and technical support.
Is the HR sector doing enough to embrace tech and the changes it brings?
This is a good question, and recently at our first customer conference in Birmingham, we had Andrew Spence – a HR tech specialist – talk about the need for HR professionals to embrace technology and actually be ambassadors for it within their organisations. He definitely felt there was room for the sector to embrace it further.
We have been lucky to see 100% growth year on year at Natural HR so it is clear that HR professionals are seeing the benefit and seeking out technology such as ours.
I think the key is helping them understand how it will support and improve their practice as professionals and their organisations more broadly, but also making the technology accessible. At times, in the tech world, language is used that distances people from it, making it feel daunting. Natural HR wants to demonstrate that tech doesn’t have to be daunting to be highly effective and I think we manage that through our approach and technical support.
You have been described as ‘Maid in the Midlands’ – can you tell me about your work history and how you ended up co-founding the company?
I was a cleaner! That’s how I started out. By 21 I was running my own cleaning business, and as I mentioned, it was in this time that I realised both a passion for business and HR as well as an evident need for a solution to my employee record woes!
I studied to make sure I had the knowledge and skill set and alongside my husband, Jason, who also had experience working in tech, we established our tech start up. Together, we’ve turned Natural HR from an idea into a reality that provides us with a living as well as providing businesses globally with a great tech solution! I’m very proud to be able to say that at just 30 years old.
What are the pros and cons with working with your husband? How is he involved in the business?
Jason is the Co-Founder and CEO of Natural HR so he is very involved with the business. It’s great working together. I was initially a little worried about whether it would be problematic, but I actually think it is beneficial to the business and business culture. We’re both parents to our two young boys, but I think our family values also translate to the workplace.
We both look out for our employees in a similar way and work together to ensure their well-being is always taken into consideration. Both being senior in the business, but also with parenting responsibilities like parents’ evenings, school plays and the like, we can share that out so that the boys always have one parent present, whilst the business also always has one of us on hand.
A definite pro of working with Jason is the fact that I know my business partner very well. I can now almost predict the decisions he will make and what he will think is the right or wrong way to move forward, and I think he’s the same for me. The con is that it is very difficult to switch off from our business; it’s a long day for both of us as we’ll continue to work from home in the evenings when our children are in bed. It’s the reality of start-up life though!
What are the future plans for the company?
We intend to continue growing both nationally and internationally and our figures seem to suggest this will be the case! Centrally, we’ll continue to develop the software taking into account customer feedback and changing demands.
We know we are already but our ambition is for Natural HR to be synonymous with the best all in one HR tech solution for medium sized business, with a human face and a great support, making working with us as a business, a joy.