'Corporate life is so cushioned, it doesn't prepare you for how tough startups are'

This former HR manager decided to ditch the corporate scene to set up her own company.

By Aisling Teillard CEO, Tandem

IT SOUNDS A bit dull, but for my whole career I’ve been in human resources, working in a variety of different industries – and I’ve loved it.

I’ve worked for banks, software companies, security firms and everyone in between. There probably isn’t an industry I didn’t hit in some way, but always in the area of HR.

Before setting up my own business, an HR tech product that helps drive a continuous feedback culture, I was HR director for O2 Telefonica.

I had been in HR for over 20 years, but when Three came to buy out O2, it gave me the opportunity to try something new.

I never sat down and said to myself, “I must build a HR tech company”. I had actually always thought of working in a consultancy business, so I moved into that area first.

However, I just found myself working the same crazy hours that I did while I was working for corporates, so I figured we needed a more scalable model that doesn’t involve me being on-site everyday.

So we naively thought, ‘Why don’t we build a HR tech product?’ It was that basic at the time.

Getting out of HR

I always thought I needed to get out of HR and had a deadline in my head – which was a bit artificial – of leaving the area by the time I was 40.

I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t stay in the same role for more than about seven or eight years. If you stay in a job for too long, you can fall into a vicious cycle of not challenging yourself any more. So I’ve always been one for changing things up, moving jobs and trying new things.

Certain aspects of my time working for corporates sort of prepared me for the startup scene.

I always had these projects where I was starting something from a blank sheet of paper with no roadmap, which I suppose is like any startup.

What is very different in the startup world is that you obviously don’t have a big budget behind you like you do in corporates– we definitely didn’t have a nest egg to fall back on.

Tandem 2 Tandem co-founders Aisling Teillard and Jim O'Brien
Source: Shane O'Neill Photography

Being in a startup, there is no money and no resources, you are the CEO and personal assistant all in one. Nothing in the corporate world prepares you for that, and I don’t think you could prepare yourself for just how tough it is when all you have is your co-founders to rely on.

Corporate life is so cushioned, you don’t really have to be that commercially minded. You just have to do your job and not worry about anyone else’s.

As a startup founder, every day you wake up uncomfortable because you know you haven’t got a clue how to do half the things you need to do that day. But you learn really quickly.

In my last few roles, I had a personal assistant and losing that takes more than a bit of getting used to. There were a few hard lessons that were learned around managing my own time.

I was spoiled because when you get experienced in an organisation, people tell you where and when to show up, they have little information packs ready for you and a slide deck you can present.

I look at my calendar now and have a newfound respect for the PAs who supported me all those years. I probably didn’t appreciate them enough at the time.

But it’s not just time management. A lot of my experience was in HR so there have been so many new skills I’ve had to learn.

For instance, the whole sales and marketing side of a business is new to me. But also, I needed to learn the vital skill the best entrepreneurs have – the ability to put yourself out there.

Formation of the idea

Before the idea for Tandem properly took off, I first joined a consultancy organisation and we specialised in performance and behavioural management. We were preaching one thing, but there wasn’t really a product that matched what we were preaching.

It has become more mainstream in offices now, but at the time we were talking about ongoing feedback culture and how that improves employees’ performance. Of course everyone agrees with you, but nobody really does it.

We were thinking, ‘How do you actually get people to do it and how do you make people accountable for doing it? How do you ensure managers are giving feedback?’

We looked around for a product to sell, and we just couldn’t find it. We went to all the HR tech shows because we didn’t really want to build as such. Anyway, we didn’t find what we were looking for, but we still figured there is a market out there for it.

My co-founder, Jim O’Brien, was working in training performance management. He would meet the same managers doing his courses, and they would never practice the advice that he gave – that feedback is essential. So it was out of that frustration we felt something needed to be built and thought, ‘Why can’t it be us?’

I had built tech products before in O2, but they were always very much in-house tools to the company, so of course this was a bit different to me.

Source: TandemHR Solutions/Twitter

We started building Tandem’s product by hiring in Clare Bonham to be our chief technical officer, who has since become my co-founder. We could easily have outsourced the build, but we preferred to have the chance to properly shape it.

So, it was very simple in the beginning. We decided, let’s build a tech product that will encourage people to do performance management well, and we did.

Even when we started building the product, we were still coming at the problem with trainers’ eyes. We thought the core of the business would still be teaching people how to improve performance, but it became clearer over time that we were a product-based company. That’s how Tandem was born.

Opening doors

It was September of last year that we really started to take the company very seriously as an HR tech firm. We prototyped the design last year and started to build it before Christmas.

We showcased the idea at a big event in my area called HR Tech in March in London, so that was effectively our launch day – like all startups, we were finishing it off right up until the night before.

The launch went great and we secured some early customers there, which showed us we were onto something, and then rolled it out to a host of other companies over the summer.

We went back to HR Tech’s big European show in Paris in October and won the event’s startup competition. Even as a finalist in that show, it means that any person who works in HR technology will know about you product and knows that you’re serious.

It’s a bit like what Oscars do for actors, it validates you. It meant customers came looking for us and investors in the area wanted to know what we were all about.

Aisling Teillard is the ‎co-founder and CEO of Tandem. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.

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