Naturally every startup story is different — but one of the key details is whether or not the team comes from within the industry they are trying to change.

There is nothing more futile than a tech genius that has so little experience of life in the “real world” that their work doesn’t relate to problems people are actually facing.

For Brittany Harris, co-founder at environmental risk protection platform, Qflow, she started with no tech advantage — but a high disbelief and frustration at the lack of change in her industry. And that was a key strength.

Because we didn’t have the software experience to actually deliver anything, our first MVP was the most hideous hacky thing because that was built by Jade and I with zero software skills. 

We were probably a lot more comfortable with pushing out something a lot more dodgy. But we understood just how bad the current process is so no matter what we gave them, it was going to be better than what they currently had. 

Graduating from university as a civil engineer, I was very enthusiastic about how this industry has so much opportunity to change and for technology to improve the way we work.

But once I was in the engineering world, I realised how it is still insanely backwards and slow and although there is vocalisation of interest to digitise and change, the action doesn’t follow through with the same level of conviction. 

Then I met my co founder Jade and she was at the other end of the spectrum, on site, capturing all this data that I wanted to use in my design process. And I was like: why is there just this void, this intense fragmentation in our industry, that means that someone’s doing something incredibly valuable over here, someone’s doing something incredibly valuable over there, and they’re just not meshing. 

We were friends for two years before we even started this, continuously thinking: someone’s got to fix it, it can’t be this bad forever.

Why do industries bounce off tech?

The thing we picked up on was that people who know the technology, don’t know our industry, and our industry is such a black box. It’s a very relationship-based industry and it’s very opaque. You look at construction from the outside and you think you see it, but I’ve been in this industry for 10 years, I’m still uncovering things.

And I think that’s why it’s been so hard for tech founders to break in from outside to fix the problems we have because the problems are so messy and hidden, that it’s very difficult to find one valuable enough to really overcome and find a clever way of doing it. 

We started from inside the problem knowing the problem very intimately — but not really having any idea about the technical aspects that could solve it. 

What we found was that gave us this really unique position in terms of knowing the industry intimately enough to be able to identify the problem and communicate with people in the industry to build a clear picture of what the problem is. But then knowing enough of the technology to be able to mesh the two. 

The reality is that we had to hire that technology skill to make it work. And that’s what we did as founders.

But because we had that industry perspective, we were able to build something that really solved the problem and wasn’t just like a round technological peg being rammed into a square industry hole, which is what we’ve seen a lot in construction. 

That’s why there is still a sense of suspicion and animosity in the industry towards technology, particularly if you’re an external technology founder coming into the industry. They’re like: you don’t get us.

Starting a tech business as non-founders

We looked at what was going on from a technology perspective and we mapped out the problem space as we saw it. And then really what we did was broke down the workflow into tiny, tiny chunks. And this is the thing that, if you’re coming from the outside, is really hard to do. 

Particularly in construction, every single contractor or every single engineering firm, varies this workflow. So if you don’t really understand the intent behind the workflow, it’s hard to know what is just a nuance of that contractor, and actually what is a fundamental part of it being effective. 

So we spent a lot of time mapping out the millions of ways these guys carry out these workflows, and then worked to condense the bits that were consistent. Even if they didn’t look consistent, but we knew what they were trying to achieve with each of those steps. Then it was about figuring out where technology can fix the bits that break. 

It’s a diagram that we still use in meetings today — this workflow and all of the bits that it breaks, and then all of the bits where our technology stops it from breaking.

The discovery process from the technological front was to literally just absorb as much as we could for two months, and then once we understood how we could map that into the workflow, we ignored everything else. 

The gap in the industry was really the dumb data bit that was breaking, and then the use of that data in an intelligent way to inform decision-making. That’s where the AI and machine learning comes in. So we ended up falling in the AI vertical, purely by virtue of fixing a data problem.

Getting to know fundraising

Jade and I are incredibly privileged but we don’t come from backgrounds that have lots of money floating around. By contrast, I now know some founders who just quit their jobs and funded themselves or their family funded them — that’s not a thing for our demographic. 

I always used to find that baffling when VCs were talking about it: “go get your friends and family” and we’re like: “where the hell do you think they get their money, they’re teachers!”

I honestly had no concept of this when we started fundraising. It really hammered home how non diverse but also how friggin difficult it is to get into this space sometimes. That’s why I think EF is amazing because it takes someone who is just talented and they have a great background (although there are challenges with that as well because they will target Oxbridge graduates and there’s already bias and lack of diversity built in there.) 

They do a really good job at trying to recruit diverse talent and we talked a lot about that throughout EF. They will just take people with ideas and a great problem to solve and they will fund them, no strings attached. That first three months of stipend from EF was what meant that Jade and I could quit our jobs, not worry about feeding ourselves and paying off our debt and actually allowed us to start the company. 

That three months not only gave us the headspace to properly build out the company and go out and speak to the industry and do these interviews, but it also exposed us to the wider entrepreneurial network and community. 

All these things like friends and families around that I’d never even heard of, understanding what venture capital was, understanding how that process works, what it looks like, what the pros and cons are. That community and that space was something I would never have been able to do without the EF programme and I don’t think I appreciated that enough at the time.

So I think if you’re coming from a space where you know the industry deeply and you know the problem you want to solve, then finding those sorts of support networks that know the other half of the puzzle — the venture capital, the entrepreneurship — that’s where you want to go first. And that was what we needed. And it was amazing.

The advantages of being non-techy

Because we didn’t have the software experience to actually deliver anything, our first MVP was the most hideous hacky thing because that was built by Jade and I with zero software skills. 

We were probably a lot more comfortable with pushing out something a lot more dodgy. But we understood just how bad the current process is so no matter what we gave them, it was going to be better than what they currently had. 

Now teams like Canary Wharf have the sexy model and they always get the sexiest, so they’re happy, but they went out on a limb with us. I would also point out, we weren’t charging them for that horrible version either.

That’s something that we had to explain a lot to VCs — to overcome some of the really quite immovable barriers in this industry to start with, sometimes you have to give away that first version free.

A lot of them do understand, but there are some that just don’t get that and we obviously didn’t end up working with them. Now, we don’t do free pilots and we’ve built up the product and we’ve built up all our credibility and our client base such that we don’t need to do that we can say: yeah, you want to try it out that’s absolutely fine but you’re still going to pay for that pilot. 

Early on, free pilots were getting us through that door. And I think if you’re a tech entrepreneur coming into the space, if you’ve read all the books that say: “always get cash up front, get that buy in” you just wouldn’t get through the door with a lot of these guys. Because it’s about building that relationship and being pragmatic and… not necessarily humble, but that mutual understanding that comes with developing those relationships over time. 

Coming from the industry background, we could understand how immovable some barriers are, and how flexible others are. Now when we do paid pilots, we know that the difference between asking for 500 pounds and 2000 pounds is pretty negligible — but even getting 500 pounds can be really painful depending on who you’re working with, what stage of the process they’re in, the contracts that they’ve got set up and all the nuances of their procurement systems. 

If you’re coming at that from an external perspective, you might negotiate on price but the answer will still be No, because the problem is they can’t access the money.

There’s a lot of insider perspective that allows you to push the boundaries where it’s okay and to just let it go when you’re fighting a losing battle. And there’s a lot of losing battles in this industry that you just have to go: Okay, I get it. Let’s move on. And we’ll come back to that when the time’s right.

The most surprising discoveries

I have loved building the client relationships. Really understanding their problems and when you present them with something that looks really simple but can fix something for them, the look of realisation on their face and joy in the opportunity is just so priceless.

I even had a client call this morning and as I’m showing them the system, they’re like: “Oh, my God, it’s like the thing we use for expenses.” And I was like, “Yeah, Yeah, it is — we’ll automate that.” 

And they’re like: “but you can do that on site???” and I’m like, yeah, we can fix that for you. “OH MY GOD, REALLY?”. And we can say “YES! This thing that has clearly been bugging you is now over!”

I don’t think I realised how much I would enjoy that side of it. Going from a civil engineering background to now ultimately being a commercial person who does sales and team management, (among all the other gubbins of founding)  I never thought I’d want to be in that role and I absolutely adore it.

The importance of culture

Don’t underestimate the power of your values and your team. And the potential negative side effects of undermining those or introducing someone into the team who doesn’t buy into those values. Jade and are both female founders, we’re both from a very different industry to your typical tech founder. A lot of typical tech founders that I know have a very, very different management style and very different approach to team. They can be quite brutal. They are more “Elon Musk” than I particularly want to be and we’ve taken a really different approach to managing and growing our team.

We’re trying to run it “like women”. I know that sounds like weird — and I don’t mean that men can’t do it this way at all. But we’re taking a very different approach and we’re finding friction in places we didn’t really expect.

I think it’s because when things get difficult people default to what they know. So they go back to working in a culture that has been set up by some other company they worked for, which is typically run in a very hierarchical, very structured, very black and white way. 

We try not to do that — we try to be hyper open, hyper honest, really try to build leader-leader relationships where people are acting with autonomy and accountability, which you don’t get in hierarchical structures. 

When things are going well, it’s amazing and it is a beautiful environment to be in. But when things get more difficult, we end up with this slight crumbling at the edges. Not complete collapse — but it actually puts a lot of pressure on us to try and reform this understanding that we are not in that culture, we do not want that culture hierarchy and blame and all of that shit. 

We acknowledge that things break and we win and fail as a team and trying to reinforce that, while remotely working from home, we’ve found a lot more difficult. 

The message I would say to founders is: Pick your culture, keep reinforcing it and don’t forget. With (covid) lockdown, we found it harder to reinforce that we have to go back and address that. 

We do all hands and we show people the cash flow. I know that is not normal for startup founders to show your entire company when you’re going to burn out of runway but we want to have that kind of transparency. To say: Look, this is where we’re at. It’s not a bad position, but just so you know, this is what we’re working towards and this is why we’re all in this together.

Because we want radical transparency and honesty, that’s what we’ve chosen to do. I think the team really appreciate that and it does encourage that honesty. So with all of these things, you’ve got to embody what you’re saying. 

Define what it is you’re about, and then just keep doing it. Don’t ever get undermined. And if you undermine it, acknowledge that and then try and get back to base. 

When we’re together, we used to try and have one evening a week where we go to the pub. Now we have one evening a week where we all end the day together and we have a quick chat. Sometimes it goes on for half an hour, sometimes it goes on for three hours because we play a game and people drop in and out. Trying to bring the team together in that way has been really important.

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About the Author

MaxTB

Max Tatton-Brown is founder and MD of Augur, the entrepreneurial communications partner for "unsexy" tech.

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