CharlieHR: From Side Project to Startup

Posted 2 years ago by Naomi Francis

Sometimes it’s the small things that define us. Side projects that are close to our heart can blow up into the venture we’ve been waiting for…or even side projects that weren’t close to us. And were more of an accident. Tom Carrington Smith, Chief Product Officer of CharlieHR, talks to us about how a side project became his and his co-founders big venture.

CharlieHR is the simple solution to a big issue. It’s the free HR platform for small businesses, automating many of the administrative burdens that accompany managing teams – from onboarding new staff to tracking holiday and managing benefits. More importantly, CharlieHR will send reminders about birthdays, so you will never have the shame of missing out on an excuse for cake again.

“We originally built it to solve a problem with one of our internal businesses but as it turns out, every business seems to have the same problem. No one wants to do all the admin around HR and then figuring out how to store it in a nice way. Nobody starts a business to manage who’s away and who’s sick.”

In September last year, CharlieHR had 40 companies/teams, now over 3,000 companies have signed up. The team of nine are mainly made up of Back-End and Front-End Engineers, Product Designers, a freelance Illustrator and some in Account Management. The crazy thing is that CharlieHR was stumbled upon. It wasn’t the software dream of Tom’s existence but something that fell into place after several other, more glamorous, side projects failed to take off.

“CharlieHR doesn’t claim to be changing the world but we’re facilitating those that are”.

Whilst developing a website with some friends which tracked University sports, which gained over 200,000 student sign ups and delved into live streaming, Tom met his future Co-Founders; Rob and Ben. Tom joined them at their company, The Eleven, where he spent three years building up three businesses within it: YOUTH Marketing, Making Pretty (design and branding) and Born Social (a social media agency). ‘In three years, we learned how to build agencies, how to build businesses generally and how to manage people’.

With a real ambition to create software, Rob, Ben and Tom created a own small team to work on side projects for The Eleven when the budget allowed. They had some big ideas and some small. But the idea of CharlieHR actually came from looking at what the three Eleven businesses were doing badly. Shockingly enough, it’s what most, if not all, businesses do badly or ‘struggle to do well’. HR.

“We aspire to get users spending less time doing admin and more time doing the things they love”.

“CharlieHR doesn’t claim to be changing the world but for the companies that are – we hope to give them more time to do the things they love by spending less time doing the things they don’t”. Tom admits that being a Co-Founder does mean that he wears a lot of different hats in the company, but ultimately his role is to look after everything that is built, what’s in the product and what the user wants. “With the same way that Marvel is taking something that has been done before and makes it accessible and easy to use. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with HR”.

But as Tom says, “Simple is hard” and he’s developed a habit of using a product and thinking about every interaction he does. “It’s often the ones that you don’t have to think about that are amazing. I always get inspired when I’ve used a product and not had to think about the process…when I have to retrospectively go back and think, ‘Oh wow, how’ve they done that?!’”. Making an easy to use, seamless product for CharlieHR users is at the centre of the team’s work ethic and the company’s mission.

“Creating a product where the functionality just disappears is inspirational and aspirational”.

CharlieHR use Marvel to reach this goal. Word of mouth did it’s job and they discovered Marvel early on and have been using the product since the beginning of CharlieHR. “Everyone within the company is involved in the product, we want to have a culture where everyone gets a say”, says Tom. “Marvel has really helped me improve communication within the team as even if we haven’t got around to coding, we can upload the designs into Marvel and get feedback from the rest of the company using the comment and annotation tools”.

One project that Marvel has been at the centre of in CharlieHR’s product is their new ‘Company Profile’ feature. Tom explains that they had a lot of feedback stating CharlieHR had nowhere to store ‘the boring but important stuff’ like a staff handbook, health and safety forms or anything else of that nature. So with this launch when you onboard through CharlieHR, you can now go and find more information about the company. That’s the biggest UX change we have made to the product since launching 10 months ago.”

Once they had the designs they were happy with for this project, they were uploaded to Marvel to share with the team and find a product flow. “Not only does Marvel allow communication to happen seamlessly and constantly but it is an awesome and intuitive product. Users from any background can pick up how to work with it instantly”.

As a group, everyone at CharlieHR has a good product sense – taking inspiration from a range of places including the non-software businesses they sit alongside. Jørgen, their Lead Product Designer, finds inspiration in Game Design and by going to events and workshops, whereas Tom has found that he pulls inspiration from the human aspect of product design. “Listening to how my friends articulate an exciting new app, like when Snapchat first came out or much more recently Find My Friends, which they are obsessed with at the moment, is usually what draws me to a product. How people use a product and how they talk about it can be unique and inspiring”.

Tom never expected to fall into the world of design but has enjoyed every second of it. For an ideas man, knowing that Charlie HR sprouted from an idea that they didn’t expect to manifest into something this size and seeing thousands of people using it is amazing. “I love it when unexpected companies sign up, like a charity, gardener signs up. We even have users from a farm in Ethiopia. Our motto is to give people more time. So if we can give them a bit more time to do the things they love doing by absorbing some admin duty, then that’s an awesome feeling”.

Writing for Marvel. Writing for fun. Eating everywhere, all the time.

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