For many small and emerging businesses, getting worthwhile employee feedback and reviews is an expense they simply can’t afford to carry. Wouldn’t it be great if they could use an inexpensive piece of software to take care of HR in the same way as they’re now able to for payroll and accounting?
Well, if South African startup Hi5 has its way, that vision may soon be a reality for companies around the globe.
Founded in 2015, the app aims to make things like peer review and recognition, culture management, and employee wellness as simple as possible.
Engage Me recently got the chance to chat to Hi5 co-founder Gary Willmott about the app’s origins, the challenges and lessons learned in getting it to market, and his thoughts on the evolving nature of HR.
Solving a problem
Like most great businesses, Hi5 arose out of the need to solve a problem. According to Willmott, the idea came about after he realised that his other business – digital agency Urbian – needed some HR help.
At the time, he told us, “we were growing quite substantially and we needed HR”. But, being an SME, he had to balance that need with the constraints it would put on the business’ budget.
In the end, an independent HR consultant was brought in. While Willmott says the expertise that consultant brought in woke the agency up to the power of employee engagement, “we couldn’t afford the time and the administration.”
After looking for automated solutions and finding nothing to their liking, they decided to build
their own bootstrapped solution.
Little did they know they had a winner on their hands.
“It turns out a lot of other companies have similar problems, so we released it to them for free actually and they liked it,” the Hi5 co-founder told us.
Initially, Hi5 was released for free, just to see if it worked. But demand was so high that it quickly became clear that there was potential to spin it out as a full-fledged business.
Going to market
That was two years ago. Six months later, Hi5 was released to the general public. In the time since, more than 2 000 companies have adopted the freemium employee engagement product.
While most of these customers are SMEs – Willmott believes this will always be Hi5’s primary market – there are also some large national players on the list.
According to Willmott, much of that growth has come without having to exhort companies to try Hi5 out.
“Most companies get it and they like it,” he said, adding that he always tries to keep things as open with the company as possible. In return, he expects similar levels of openness.
“I prefer to get straightforward answers from clients,” he told us. “I’d rather they told me Hi5 isn’t going to fit in with their systems than try to make a square peg fit in a round hole.”
Another thing Willmott’s learned in taking Hi5 to market is the importance of keeping in regular contact with customers.
“We’ll touch base with companies at least once a month,” he told us.
Interestingly, the Hi5 team has found that when app engagement is down in a company, it’s almost always because the leadership in that company isn’t driving its use.
“That’s a big thing for us,” Willmott said, “to make sure that leadership does buy in, they do take part, and that there are certain champions within the company”.
For Willmott, a major part of getting Hi5 to a space where it could do that was putting together the right team.
Initially, resources from Urbian were used, but it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t a viable solution.
Not only was there not enough time free among the agency resources, the expanding demands of the Hi5 platform meant that specialists had to be brought in.
While the expertise that’s worked on Hi5 is varied, Willmott points out that everything the company does is built upon a singular mission.
“We always look it through one metric,” he told us. “How can we help people grow? Because if people grow, then the company grows”.
The frustration of HR today
Given that he’s now the co-founder of a company playing firmly in the HR space, I asked Willmott about the current state of HR and where he thinks it’s headed in the future.
Unsurprisingly, given his background, he draws comparisons between HR and advertising.
Around five years ago, he pointed out, “the advertising world was full of people using jargon and trendy words just to puff themselves up, but it didn’t make sense to employees and other stakeholders within organisations”.
“I feel like that’s what HR is today,” he said. “I feel like, employees are very frustrated”.
What companies need to realise, Willmott suggested, is that “organisations that are quick to move, that are agile, that empower people are the ones that are going to make the change and actually be around for the next few years”.
To his mind, these companies will look to automate people management and growth in the same way as they have other aspects of the business.
It’s something that stands to save companies money and buy their people some much-needed time.
“Employees are getting so tired of meetings about meetings,” Willmott said. “So it definitely has to automate and get a lot smoother”.
As in other fields, this automation may result in job losses. As the Hi5 co-founder points out, if people currently in HR are going to survive this, they have to demonstrate value beyond their traditional role.
The future of Hi5
Willmott doesn’t have anything quite so disruptive in mind for Hi5. Instead, he wants to use it to empower organisations who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford HR.
“We really want to help people grow, so companies can grow,” he said. “We want to be the Slack of HR, where it’s that one tool that everyone uses in small companies”.
“We’ve got a long way to go, so it is quite ambitious,” he added, pointing out that this ambition was driven by far more prosaic goals:
“Our biggest focus right now is to make the onboarding and the Hi5 journey very simple and easy to use”.
“Obviously,” he concluded, “we want to do that on a global scale”.