Paul Du Bois, founder of Appenate tells us about digital data collection forms.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Paul Du Bois: We’ve been very blessed in that the pandemic has not massively changed life for us here in Australia. There was a lockdown period last year, but that was only a couple of weeks. Mostly we’re back to normality now. While the time zone sucks for business, living on an island continent has its benefits!
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Appenate.
Paul Du Bois: I spent my early career working in and leading software development teams in large corporates. Thereafter I moved into software architecture and then became CTO at a Brisbane-based ERP company. Over this time, I moved to Australia from my native South Africa and also from Perth to Brisbane. My goal was always to start a company and build a business that was genuine and committed to its customers. Just after my 30th birthday, I had a mini mid-life crisis about not yet starting my own venture. My wife – heavily pregnant with our second child – encouraged me to “give it a go”, so I quit my job and started up what has become Appenate.
How does Appenate innovate?
Paul Du Bois: The no-code space is quite dynamic and broad. I think we innovate by trying to bring a number of features together under one platform. So instead of needing to stitch together a job dispatch system with a forms app with an OHS app, all linked via Zapier or something, companies can use our service to create their own set of apps tailored to match their business processes, all with low risk and no coding required.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Paul Du Bois: I have always believed in running a business conservatively, so we operate with a cash buffer equivalent to around six months of expenses. Many other companies would plough that surplus cash into advertising or hiring, but we’ve grown methodically and sustainably, even though COVID, thanks to that buffer and other considered decisions we’ve made.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Paul Du Bois: Not really. My approach to HR is pretty much “don’t be a douche bag” – this applies both to how we treat our team members and what we expect from our people in turn.
There have been a couple of cases where we’ve had to part ways with a team member, but I see those as learning examples of us making a mistake in the hiring process.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Paul Du Bois: We’ve definitely become more sophisticated as our customer base has grown. In our early days, we had no system because we knew every customer by name (easy when you only have five clients!). These days we use ActiveCampaign, among other tools, to keep track and stay in touch with new and existing customers. I do still really enjoy catching up with customers, especially our longer-term folks.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Paul Du Bois: We did receive the Australian R&D tax break a couple of times in our early days, and that certainly did help. However, this facility has become very difficult for software businesses to claim in recent years, so we stopped it a while back. There was never a time, though, that the business depended on grants. The R&D payment just helped us grow a little quicker. I personally think that building a business based on grants is a difficult proposition from a sustainability perspective, mainly because governments change their minds often.
Your final thoughts?
Paul Du Bois: Innovation comes in all shapes and forms. Don’t feel like you have to “change the world”. Start in a field that you know and find *something* that will make someone else’s life better or easier. Then ask yourself (and them preferably) whether that thing is a) worth paying money for and b) solving a real problem. Starting a business on this premise is a good way to begin.