HARE Digital grew from strength to strength last year, evolving from a run of the mill web design agency, to providing industrial businesses with technology and software for the digital future.
Founder Chris O'Hare moved the business into Sussex Innovation Centre after winning the 2015 StartUp Sussex award with his sales platform Checkpoint. In a little over two and a half years, the business has grown to employ more than 10 staff, changing several times along the way.
The story began in 2014, when Chris, then a freelance developer, was working in a manufacturer's factory for a couple of weeks, collating a database of warranty returns. "There wasn't really a typical 'lightbulb' moment with Checkpoint," says Chris. "Instead, I had a problem presented to me, which was how manufacturers would connect with their customers. Being a computer scientist, my first thought process when problem solving is always 'how do you automate and modernise a data process?' I found there was no easy collation of data between manufacturers, customers and distributers, and started to ask myself: why not?"
Chris came up with the concept of creating a multi-tiered e-commerce system, that allowed customers to buy from the manufacturer, but also allowed distributers and dealers to buy from the manufacturer, in a huge database. The platform would streamline communication between manufacturers, retailers and end customers, ensuring greater visibility across all tiers of the value chain.
Initially, Chris found his main frustration with starting a business was not knowing what to do. "An idea is one thing, but running a business to get an idea off the ground is something else." Lacking both experience and capital, he found he had to take on the role of what several people would normally do in a bigger-sized business. He knew that to access knowledge, he "needed to go where knowledge was taught", signed up for a part-time Masters in Computer Science and Business at Sussex, and entered the StartUp Sussex competition.
"I won the £10,000 first prize, which was great – aside from the money, it was that competition that really gave me the confidence to grow a business from scratch. StartUp Sussex helped me to get answers to those questions you can't solve on your own, that prove whether you have a viable business. You can’t go forward without that kind of confidence in yourself and your ideas."
Chris' winnings from the award provided him with sufficient funds to rent an office for an entire year – all he needed to get his business off the ground.
"A crucial part of my first few months in the Centre was focusing on being established - in other words, showing a good image to the customer. The key element of my business plan is 'getting a foot in the door' – allowing clients to visualise what they're getting, and to understand that they’re getting value for money. To build the business, you don’t work in the business, you work on the business."
Chris soon began to secure bigger contracts doing freelance work, and using the money from these jobs, he was then able to hire staff and expand his team. He believes that the community at the Centre was a big factor in helping to grow the business organically. "My favourite part about being a tenant here is being able to talk to the other businesses … not only has it allowed me to get fresh perspectives, but I've also had work passed on to me by other companies. We have an open-door policy, so that other companies can always come in and find out more about the business, ask questions and have a chat."
Despite originally winning StartUp Sussex with a product, HARE Digital has evolved into a technology agency – but still finds time to innovate new products and ideas. "We're always developing new products, that's what we strive for. I come from a software background, so I played to my strengths and focused on that area initially. But the various shifts and pivots the business has made have allowed us to identify our other areas of expertise."
The next move the business made was into the rapidly growing 'Internet of Things' (IoT) sector. "Our IoT work is like being an R&D department for medium to large businesses. After going down that path, I realised the myriad of products and services that the business could go into. There’s lots of avenues that the business could take, which is key for entrepreneurial success. We don't want to get stuck on one area."
HARE Digital have built vehicle tracking technology and software that is utilised by big companies, including Subaru, JustEat and Deliveroo. Having contact with such well-known brands is a qualifier of success that has Chris optimistic for the future.
Not only has the business developed, Chris feels he has come a long way personally. "I'm more confident, especially from having meetings with those big clients, CEOs of conglomerate firms. The positive effect our software is having on those businesses is also a good way of measuring our success and boosting confidence – it's rewarding knowing that we're helping companies to operate to their full potential."
HARE Digital grew 400% in their first year, quite an achievement for a start-up business. In the third year of business, they are forecasted to turn over £500k, a huge growth for a business started from "essentially nothing". The team size has grown into double figures, and the number of clients has been cut to a handful of the biggest accounts. This allows HARE Digital to be more agile, with less clients but bigger contracts and better business relationships.
In December 2016 Chris won the Sussex Business Award for Graduate of the Year, and a year later, his company became a sponsor at the awards, as well as being a finalist in the Most Promising New Business category. Chris judged the category of Business Person of the Year alongside Sussex Innovation's Executive Director Mike Herd, who had awarded him with the StartUp Sussex title just a few years earlier.
"To me it's an obvious step for the business – it paves the way for us to be associated with the big digital success stories in Brighton. In the future, I want our reputation to grow to the point where people say 'wow!' whenever someone says they work for HARE Digital, just like people currently do about Google. To do that you need to keep your business fresh - always doing exciting things, and thinking outside the box."