Our tech start-up of the week is Formless Unison, a new Cork venture set up by HR industry veteran Denis Coleman. It’s a web-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) application for managing staff performance, particularly in SMEs. Despite having only launched last August, the start-up already has customers in Ireland, the US, Portugal and Pakistan.
Coleman incorporated Formless Unison in August 2012 after what he terms an "extensive" period of product development and market research.
He says he came up with the idea for Formless Unison and worked on researching its viability over two and a half years while he was employed at a manufacturing company in Cork, managing HR, IT and finance.
Describing Formless as a "simple" application for managing staff performance, Coleman says managers can use the platform to link their staff’s individual performance and development goals to the company’s goals, give regular performance feedback and measure staff motivation.
He said the Formless platform supports these goals with an embedded management advice.
"People who haven’t studied management love this.
"Formless doesn’t have any manuals, nor does it require any workshops or training. All of our customers are up and running without them. These are the largest obstacles to the adoption of new systems," explains Coleman.
It seems the application could also prove especially handy for those who have been catapulted into the management space by virtue of their talents, or by virtue of the recession, without any idea of how to nurture teams and staff in order to get the best out of people in terms of productivity, while also engendering a healthy work environment.
Where it’s at
As to how the name for the company came about, Coleman says he chose Formless Unison for two reasons. Firstly, he says he doesn’t like forms. Secondly, he says the word unison is all about management and helping teams and people work in unison with one another.
At the minute there are three people working full time at Formless Unison. As well as Coleman, who is heading up the operation, there’s a developer and a salesperson working on the business.
Coleman has just wrapped up a 60-day stint on the SELR8R mentor-driven sales acceleration programme in Cork. The programme, which is run by investment firm SOSventures and Cork-based Intercall mentors start-ups to help them target potential customers with the right sales pitch that’s easy to convey, quickly and concisely.
Disrupting the area of performance management
The genesis of Formless Union lies in 2006. That was when Coleman joined a manufacturing company in Cork to manage HR, IT and finance.
"They employed 80 people. Up until then I had spent my career in large multinationals in Eastern Europe and the US."
He says his initial job at the Cork company was to source and implement systems to manage the areas he was responsible for.
"I had no trouble finding and implementing finance and IT systems but when it came to HR the only affordable options were systems for managing attendance and human resource records, nothing to help managers actually manage staff performance."
Coleman says he ran into difficulty as he had been used to working in larger multinationals where there were internal teams whose purpose was to train managers in employee performance management.
Such teams had very expensive systems to help make sure the performance management was being done well, explains Coleman, but in his new role these systems were well outside of his budget.
"At the time I thought it was extraordinary that we had systems to ensure we got the best from resources like machines and materials but nothing to do the same from our most important resource: people," he says. "After years of frustration trying to use Excel and Word documents to do employee performance management I decided that I was going to make this my problem to solve."
Right now, Formless Unison mainly targets SMEs. Although, Coleman says he has been talking to "several" large organisations. This is mainly because such large firms appear to be dissatisfied with the systems they have and like the simplicity and embedded advice in Formless, he said.
At the minute, the majority of Formless Unison’s customer base is in the US, followed by Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Pakistan.
"Our smallest customer has staff, our average customer has 240. Once an organisation grows beyond four or five, staff performance management becomes a problem they need to solve," he explains.
The start-up is monetising from its service by charging a monthly subscription fee.
"Companies pay per user per month. We offer a discount to companies who pay in advance."
Investing in their people
All organisations, regardless of size and industry, need to do employee performance management even if it’s just with paper forms, according to Coleman.
"Companies decide to invest in it because they realise that when it’s done well results improve."
He points to three US professors, Brian Becker, Mark Huselid and Richard Beatty, who have studied employee performance management practices.
"They have extensively calculated that organisations that do it well averaged US$90,586 greater revenue per employee. They are very few things organisations can do that offer this kind of return," said Coleman.
Right now, nearly all of Formless Unison’s leads come via its website.
"Usually it’s the HR manager or operations manager who requests a trial. We set them up and give them a demo," explains Coleman. "During the trial we contact them several times to talk about specific performance management issues they may have and how they can solve them with Formless. At the end of the trial they either decide to subscribe or not."
In terms of supports, Formless Unison has availed of a grant from South Cork Enterprise Board and Coleman is pretty definite he wants to give back to the Irish economy by spawning new jobs.
In relation to participating in the SELR8R programme, he says it was a "fantastic" boost for the company.
"The quality of the support was amazing. SELR8R has helped us become far more structured in our approach to sales," says Coleman. "During the programme we learned how to build a sales funnel and what it takes to convert prospects at each stage. We also spent a lot of time working with the SELR8R team on our value proposition. We quickly learned that what was important to us wasn’t necessarily important to the customer."
On the horizon
Coleman says his immediate plans for Formless Unison are to "grow, grow, grow".
"We want more customers in more countries. We will continue to sell direct in the US and partner with resellers in places like Ireland, where customers want higher touch."
Coleman also has advice for those who may be thinking of embarking on a new tech start-up, based on his own experience:
"Before you start, make a plan for the worst possible outcome, not because I think you should prepare to fail but because you will realise that the worst outcome isn’t that bad."
This, he believes, will take a lot of pressure off start-ups.
"After that, work as hard as you possibly can and get user feedback as early and as often as you can."