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How to create a tech startup – and why you don’t necessarily need an entrepreneurial mindset

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Equality, inclusivity, diversity. These have become some of the most pressing concerns facing modern businesses. How can leaders build a sustainable startup, where productivity and fair play go hand in hand?

Enter Dr Zara Nanu, activist, campaigner, and founder of Gapsquare, a business that helps to build truly inclusive workplaces. Zara co-founded the company in 2015 and now boasts blue chips across the globe.

The World Economic Forum predicts the gender pay gap will close in 217 years—Zara says we can do it in 20 with her software. She provides insight into her startup journey, including creating a prototype and pitching to top companies without a background in stats and AI.

Check out the advice below.

Money is power

Technology can provide the insight to solve a problem

If you’re inexperienced with technology, a partner can help

You don’t necessarily have to target smaller customers at first

With software, you need to understand your market

At first, you might need to do everything

Women founders may find it more difficult to raise investment than men

You don’t necessarily need a minimum viable product

The product you have now might not be what you have in five years

Embedding diversity and inclusion in your business initially will be a challenge

You might want to hire for disruption, rather than culture fit

Narrow down the customers you target

Connect with customers with thought leadership

You don’t necessarily need an entrepreneurial mindset

There’s a big difference between being a leader and a manager

Read widely

With larger customers, the procurement department will be a barrier

Focus on data security at the beginning

Businesses are focusing much more on diversity and inclusion

Bex Burn-Callander:

Welcome, Zara. Thank you so much for joining us today. Do you want to tell me about your background? You’ve been campaigning for a long time on all kinds of really pressing issues.

Zara Nanu:

I’ve been running Gapsquare for about five years. My background is very much in social policy, not running a business. I started my career in anti-trafficking, specifically focused on preventing trafficking human beings.

I focused on a project that was looking at informing women about the dangers of trafficking. And the more I was working in that space, the more I realised that just talking to them does nothing for solving the root causes of why they would travel abroad for employment opportunities to make a living.

Women need to put food on the table.

That brought me to the subject of money and women’s access to it because money is power.

We can increase awareness about the dangers of trafficking, improve livelihood skills – things like that. But we’re not going to address the root causes of why women seek employment opportunities and ensure that employment opportunities offer value.

Without financial value, we’re not going to solve a lot of those issues.

So that’s why I started looking more into the money side of things.

That’s how I came across data that in 2015, the World Economic Forum said we’re 217 years away from closing the gender pay gap.

And globally, the gender pay gap was about 60%.

So there are a lot of issues to uncover there. We’re looking at sending people off to Mars by 2030. We’re looking at all being in self-driving cars by 2030. We’re using a lot of tech to record this podcast.

And we’re using a lot of tech to advance the vaccine on coronavirus to allow us to return to our lives.

But we’re not using tech to look at how we create more diversity and inclusivity, ensuring that it doesn’t take 200 years but rather 10 years to achieve pay parity for all.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How do you go from having that brainwave where you think technology solves so many problems, yet this inclusivity pay equality issue is out of control? How do you go to applying tech to that kind of problem?

Where do you even start?

Zara Nanu:

You start by looking at the data. So diversity and inclusion is a big topic. And often, companies think, “This is bigger than us.”

Suppose you’re a company in tech, and you’re looking to solve diversity and inclusion. In that case, it means recruiting more women into the pipeline and then progressing them through the career.

But where are they?

When you look at women in science, technology, engineering, and maths in the UK, I think 26% of young women are graduating from those subjects.

So they aren’t necessarily there.

Technology provides insights into where you find women, how you can reskill, and how you can understand the tasks performed within a job to rethink how you bring in diverse talent.

Often, we think of the head of IT, and we see a middle-class, middle-aged man in a suit.

Or we think of someone who does administrative work, and you think of a woman at a lawyer’s office sitting at a desk doing administrative work.

Technology allows us to move away from some of those stereotypes and revisit how we see certain people in specific jobs.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So Gapsquare essentially harnesses all the data out there and then uses it to draw insight into how big companies and some smaller companies can move the needle.

Zara Nanu:

Yeah. We look at companies’ data, but we also look at data by industry, geography, and by different sectors.

We look at companies’ payroll and HR data first and foremost to help them understand how they pay and do workforce distribution within their organisation.

Do they have more women in specific departments or more men at certain levels? And then, we examine why those issues are there.

We use statistical regression models to help companies understand any biases around workforce presence within different occupations or if it’s justified by length of service, education, performance, and other indicators.

And then, we turn that data into content with a broader context around geography and industry to understand how they perform around these indicators compared to others.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How did you make that switch? You’ve come from tackling human trafficking to deep tech. Have you always been very technically minded?

Did you meet someone who is incredibly technologically brilliant who took charge of that side for you?

Zara Nanu:

I think when I was 18 doing my equivalent of A-levels, if you had told me that I’d be working with statistical regression models and maths, I would have laughed in your face and said no way.

I fostered my career around what you would consider the more female kind of occupations like social sciences, management and consulting—what we would consider the softer side of things.

But I knew straight away that the only way we can scale addressing diversity and inclusion is through tech, developing a piece of software you can use everywhere. Consultants addressing this can only focus on a few people.

The only way in which we can replicate solutions and implement them for hundreds and thousands of employees at the same time is through tech and embedding this tech in HR practices.

So I met my very tech-savvy co-founder. And we just started working at it straight away, with our first minimum viable product in October 2015. Then we got our first customer, who was ready for us to look at their data at that time.

I told my co-founder we need to push something to market by January. So that was just a few months in which he had to help bring many ideas for us to build a tech solution and take it to market.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How did you meet your co-founder? Because you said, “I met him, and then we started working,” but I imagine there’s quite a good story there somewhere.

Zara Nanu:

Yeah. Wine always helps in meeting co-founders!

But I’m originally from Moldova, and I live and work in the UK. He was a friend who still lived in Moldova. He was looking for a different opportunity and a challenge—such as doing a startup and trying out independently.

So it worked out that we were looking to start something at the same time.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So you had the vision, and he had the technological skill set, and it was just kind of a marriage made in heaven?

Zara Nanu:

Yes. That’s how it worked.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You mentioned having the first customer that was interested in using this product. How did you meet that first customer?

And also, I suppose crucially, how did you get in front of more customers?

Zara Nanu:

When we started the company, we signed up for an accelerator. And we looked at a lot of accelerators and incubators that were available at that time for companies.

This one incubator understood tech, so when we went for the interview, their people immediately knew what we were looking to do. They understood the scalability of the product.

And instead of an interview, it became a conversation about making the product grow and take it to market.

We knew that they would understand our journey more than other incubators. From the point of view of setting up and growing a business, they helped us.

One of the critical things emerging around the market was you had to go and meet companies and introduce yourself. The necessary thing was to start small and work your way up—go for the lower hanging fruit.

Once you do that and have a few customers, you start going for bigger companies.

They sat down with me and my co-founder and said that all of the startups are going for the lower hanging fruit. That’s where most of the competition is. What we have to do instead is go for the higher hanging fruit because there’s less competition.

The higher-end, larger businesses are already more advanced in talking about these issues, and it’s easier to convince them.

So we did that.

We listened to the advice about going for the low hanging fruit. And we went straight for the bigger companies.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So just to be clear, what kind of company would constitute low-hanging fruit?

Do you mean going to the charity or social enterprise sector committed to this kind of thing versus the big multinationals, which are the high hanging fruit?

Zara Nanu:

The lower hanging fruit would be the smaller companies, mainly focused around the area where we were in Bristol because it’s easier to get an introduction and meet people.

They would be non-profits, the public sector, and smaller organisations because they already have a duty of equality.

What we did was go for bigger companies like Accenture, IDC and Conde Nast, even though we were told they might be competitors, so we had to be careful on how we went around it.

We thought that they might be a competitor, but they might be a partner and a channel to addressing more of the market than what we can do on our own.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I want to go back a little bit. Because when you talked about meeting your co-founder and he had tech skills. Presumably, you still need to understand all this stuff.

Did you go through any training? Did you turn up for any programmes so that you could get to a stage where you understood the modelling and the technology?

I’m just thinking a lot of the listeners might be thinking about starting a tech business. They might find a co-founder who has those skills, but they might want to upskill themselves or have a go at doing it themselves.

Zara Nanu:

I think there are two sides to this question.

When we started our tech business, many conversations were happening around how you build deep tech. You create an excellent snazzy tech solution, and then everybody else will want it, and they will buy it.

The other side of the story is that you need to understand your market.

You need to understand your bias.

You need to understand companies and what they’re struggling with, what the issues are, what keeps that HR manager up at night, and what worries them when they wake up in the morning when they need to tackle their to-do list.

Often, a lot of the tech is built based on the first model.

But what we need are solutions that are thinking about the people that will be using the software and understanding the software.

What I brought to the company is that thinking on why would they use it.

What do they need to solve? What are the questions they have every day?

And then, when you start with that, it’s easier to start thinking about solutions even without being mathematically minded.

Now, what happened in the process?

I found out that I am pretty mathematically minded. Reading a few statistical models and understanding the variables that go into that became a lot easier.

But it did start with looking at the customer and trying to understand what that customer needed.

We could put a graph in front of them that looks cool and has many lines on it, and it would be the correct information. But what does that tell them?

They want to look into a dashboard that immediately tells them where the issues are around pay equity, where the problems are around recruitment, and why there is an organisational glass ceiling.

They don’t want to see a lot of graphs. They just want to know where the issues are, how you address them, and how you keep track of progress.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I would love to talk about some of the sticking points you hit in the first year or so of building Gapsquare and how you resolved those issues.

Zara Nanu:

There are different sides to it, one side around the business and the other on how the company would go.

We were the first ones in the space of advising companies to use software to look at pay equity. In a way, that meant that we were building the tracks simultaneously as building the train’s engine and building the software.

It was hard work from that point of view.

When you’re that kind of company that’s pioneering a solution and pushing for a new, innovative way to look at things, what was always at the back of my mind was I didn’t want to become Yahoo. I didn’t want to pioneer internet search, and then suddenly, Google comes in and reaps all the reward of what we’ve built, doing things differently and better.

Keeping abreast of innovation in this space has been quite challenging but exciting in that it fuels a lot of the company.

From the business and cash sides—when you start, you do all the jobs:

  • You’re the HR manager, project manager, business development person and marketing person.
  • You’re the director responsible for the existence of the company.

So that has been challenging in terms of doing all those roles.

Then after that comes the challenge of delegating those roles:

  • Which of those roles do you delegate once you start having employees?
  • Do you let go of the HR, or do you let go of the sales?
  • You hold all the knowledge about why people buy the product, so how do you let go of the sales?
  • Do you let go of the finance?

So at every stage, there were sticking points. Overcoming them wasn’t always easy, but quite enjoyable.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How did you choose to finance the growth of Gapsquare?

Zara Nanu:

That’s a fascinating question.

So we wanted to go via the usual tech direction—getting investment, putting that investment in the company and growing the company that way. We wanted to make sure we have the minimum viable product and some customer traction before we did that so that it’s easier to convince investors.

What I didn’t know at that time is that I’m going into a market where only 1% of VC money goes to female-founded businesses.

I didn’t expect to walk into a room to pitch my investment, and people are confusing me for the waitress, making pitching very uncomfortable. I’m here pitching for a million pounds to support her company. That was very challenging in terms of getting investment.

Occasionally over the past five years, I would think, “Maybe things have changed. Maybe I can go back and pitch.”

And then you get to a room that is full of investors that are a lot of times male, white middle-class men who would challenge the existence of the gender pay gap, to begin with, before you even get to why companies need a solution to it.

So we continued to grow through sales, looking at customers, and finding customers that believe in this plan and sign up for it.

So now, we are sustainable financially because of the sales and continuing to grow.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s dark, in that’s why you couldn’t raise that early-stage investment—but striking that you turned that into an incredible sustainable business plan where you’re self-financing because that’s the dream.

But that’s shocking, especially given the business that you’re in and finding these barriers.

What did you do when someone called you the waitress? And, I suppose for any other women listening, what can they do if they are going to go on the fundraising trail?

Zara Nanu:

I think it’s getting increasingly better. And there are a lot of organisations out there like Diversity VC that is raising awareness of biases within the VC sector.

You have some fascinating research emerging from Columbia University, where they looked at pitches of male founders and female founders at Startup Grind.

They analysed all the pitches, and in the end, concluded that everybody pitched the same. The structure of the pitch is pretty much the same. Everybody goes through a lot of training with incubators and accelerators that do a similar format.

The most significant differences were in the questions that investors asked founders.

And the difference was that investors were asking women defensive questions like:

  • Why do you think you will be better than the competition?
  • Why do you think you will achieve this forecast by 2022 when the market is heading this way?
  • Why you and not somebody else?

Whereas they were asking men positive reinforcement questions like:

  • How big could this market grow?
  • Could you make this market bigger by 100%?

The questions were so different that they led to different answers.

Women had to constantly defend their business, whereas men had an opportunity to talk about the vision and the future that they could build with the company.

And that’s how they make a lot of decisions around investment.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That is fascinating and disheartening at the same time. But it’s great that things are slowly changing.

Bex Burn-Callander:

To go back, though, you were talking about a minimum viable product. What is the minimum viability of a product?

How did you know that you had enough to market with, and how long did it take to create that minimum viable product in terms of time and investment?

Zara Nanu:

I think if you ask my co-founder, we still don’t have a minimum viable product. He’s very tech-minded and looking at having a perfect product to take in front of customers.

In contrast, I come in before him to think that this is good enough to take to customers.

We continuously improve the software and release new functionality. And we have the same thing with a lot of the new functionality where I think this is ready to go in front of customers because we need to have their input.

We need them to use it and give us feedback before creating a better, more improved iteration. And my co-founder still thinks that it’s not ready, needs to be tested, and that it still needs a lot of input before we put it in front of customers.

I think there’s somewhere in the middle ground between the two of us that is ideal. But even when we released the first viable product, it was a stressful experience because I said this needed to be out by January 4th, and he just really had to work hard to make that happen.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I think you’re probably closer to what most entrepreneurs would say is the right direction to take.

I interviewed Tom Blomfield from Monzo a couple of days ago, and he loves that Reid Hoffman quote. “If you’re not embarrassed about your first product, you launched it way too late.”

Bex Burn-Callander:

How does one build a prototype? I suppose just to break it down to me as a process:

  • Do you start with a detailed plan?
  • Does it kind of ultimately evolve as you go along where you start with one idea, and then the thing that you end up with is entirely different?

Talk to me about building prototype technology.

Zara Nanu:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, what you start with will not be what you have in five years.

Specifically, because customer engagement and customer feedback are essential and crucial to building a useable product.

We want people to use the product monthly to understand their payroll and HR and how they’re evolving as an organisation in terms of their workforce. We want people to be using it frequently.

Therefore, we need that kind of engagement with customers to tell us that this button doesn’t work. Or on this data—they expect to see it in a different format. So you start understanding those things better.

I looked at a lot of what’s available on the market regarding data visualisation to see what is out there and how people usually saw their data in HR.

Then we sat down at a whiteboard to think how we could present the data around diversity, inclusion and pay equity in a way that fits with that pattern—which provides more interesting, more valuable insights.

We always had a vision of bringing statistics and data together but in a very understandable way. Because at the end of the day, not all people in HR understand statistical models. We want to ensure that we present data in business language that helps them meet their targets, which allows them to advance in their jobs. So they can focus their time on diversity, inclusion, and belonging within the organisation.

HR is an exciting space for tech because there’s a perception it’s a very people-facing department. Traditionally and historically, it has adopted technology a lot slower than other departments.

Also, HR usually has the lowest investment and budget available within a company, contributing to the low adoption of tech.

So it’s about understanding that and building a product with a pricing model that is appealing and helps people in their jobs.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I suppose with your work and inclusivity hats on, you have advice for startup founders who want to make sure that they are building very inclusive, fair businesses.

Beyond the obvious thing, which is paying men and women doing the same job the same, what are the other things that founders don’t think about and don’t notice until it’s too late that they should have had it in front of mind?

Zara Nanu:

I think we’ve had an issue, and I know many other startups have the same thing: when you’re growing, you want to recruit fast. And you think that’s okay. I’ll deal with diversity and inclusion later.

But right now, I need a person to start on Monday, or I need two people to begin next month. So you’re moving fast through recruitment and placing people within your organisation—key people who will help grow the business without diversity and inclusion in mind.

Because we’re a company that focuses on this, we said we’re going to live and embed these values in our company from the very get-go.

For instance, with recruitment, we said we want to do anonymised recruitment from the very beginning.

More than that, we create a set of questions that we place online for every job that we have available. People have to answer those questions as an application form, and we don’t take CVs or cover letters.

When we score the questions, we don’t score all questions—for instance, one to five—in one go.

We score all number one questions in random order, then all questions number two in random order. That eliminates the possibility of us piecing one person together.

Because sometimes, you read answers to questions, or you read a cover letter, and you see they’ve been to Oxford and they’ve done this—and it influences how you think about them in subsequent paragraphs.

That has an impact on how we feel, so we delete it.

If they’ve mentioned Oxford in one question, we can’t track them in the other question and know that it’s them.

If they answered the following question poorly or not necessarily with what we would expect, we wouldn’t offer them an interview. We continuously work on removing biases in our recruitment and doing things differently to increase that diverse talent pool.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Interesting. Can you tell me any of the questions? I don’t know if that’s giving up your secret sauce, but maybe one or two for anyone interested in how you can replicate a similar model.

Zara Nanu:

So in terms of questions, we would ask them situational questions.

For instance, if this happened, how would you go about it?

We were recruiting for a business development role, and one of the questions was, “If you are pitching for someone to buy our product and you see a competitor’s listing on their table, can you tell us how you would address this situation?”

It’s finding out that situational context. We ask questions in general about pay equity and how they would understand it, for instance.

Even in tech roles—for instance, we use Golang and Angular. The questions weren’t necessarily around their experience with them.

They were more around logic and understanding how they’re thinking.

Understanding how much they would challenge a business analyst who would say we want to build this bit of tech. How they would look at the product from a very comprehensive point of view, rather than the smaller piece of work that they would have to develop as part of their role.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I suppose this is quite a tricky question to answer because you haven’t run a non-inclusive business. But what has been the business impact of having a diverse workforce?

I suppose my question is that often if you have many people who think the same way and all went to the same university, you get a lot of speed upfront because you don’t have to bring anyone on the ride with you.

They’ve all been taught the same way and speak the same language.

But then, later on, you run into a lot of issues because you can’t build something that’s meant for millions of people, as you’ve just got this myopic view.

But it can also slow you down at the beginning if you have all these diverse perspectives because you have to work a lot harder on getting people to work together.

Has that been your experience?

Zara Nanu:

Yeah, it has been our experience. One of the key phrases we hear a lot from our customers or companies in general when they talk about diversity and inclusion is, “We’re looking now to hire for culture fit.”

And unfortunately, often what culture fit means is hiring people like yourself, because then it seems like they fit.

In contrast, we look at hiring for disruption. And it is more challenging because you get many more views, and you have to understand and listen to those views.

That’s the other key thing—if you stop listening to those views, people will stop telling you their opinion.

We might have five people meeting where three think differently and don’t agree with the two. But if the culture within the organisation is that they won’t be listened to, they won’t express those views.

And there’s very little value in that.

We actively encourage everyone to challenge each other. And we have conversations where it might seem like we’re arguing, but I love them because it means that we’re going to have a better outcome emerge out of there.

Similarly, we’re doing some UX/UI sessions with customers right now, and a lot of the worry is, “But what if our customers don’t like this, and they say that they don’t like this?”

To me, that’s just pure gold.

We want customers not to like things. If they like everything we show them, it means we’re doing something either amazing, and I’m not sure we’re there yet—we will be one day.

Or they’re just not comfortable and open enough to tell us of all the things they think aren’t working.

So we are creating a culture of challenge where internally, employees can feel like they can challenge anyone and express their views. But we’re also open to customers challenging us and telling us where we could become better.

If we all agree, we don’t grow, do we?

Bex Burn-Callander:

I don’t know if I’m allowed to mention this, but a little bird tells me that you recently had a big meeting with Coca-Cola. So I have to ask because that’s such a great name and a big brand. How did you get that pitch?

Zara Nanu:

When we started getting our customer base, we said let’s go for anyone—any size, any sector. Let’s just take any customer we want.

But then comes the point where you realise that actually what you want to do is zoom in into specific sectors.

You want to zoom into particular sectors because HR managers hang out together with the legal industry. They have conferences, events and newsletters on legal and HR. So the more customers you start getting in the legal sector, the more they start talking about you with other HR managers.

So you end up getting more access to that sector.

We are a little bit more targeted in what companies we approach. We need to be in a sector where their people mingle, read the same things and listen to the same podcasts, to make that market more accessible—before we broaden out to more sectors.

We’ve been doing a lot of work that way.

We also do a lot of work in terms of thought leadership. In addition to my Gapsquare role, I also sit on the World Economic Forum council on equity and social justice. And we do work with OECD and a lot of conversations on a more global level about the future of pay equity.

That’s how a lot of employers find out about our work. And that’s how we end up innovating a lot more in this space.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Just so I’m clear, you get big companies coming to you saying, “Can you come in and tell us how we’re doing and what value you can bring to this business?”

Zara Nanu:

Yeah. That became apparent when we recently ran a roundtable discussion with many big employers around ethnicity and race at work and addressed pay equity around those issues.

When you look at gender, employees are required to disclose their gender to their employer.

Whereas, if you look at ethnicity, that’s not a legal requirement. So how do you encourage your workforce to disclose their race and ethnicity and then look at pay equity to understand how the equity works in the organisation?

We ran that roundtable, and it was amazing to see the NHS at the roundtable.

There was Spotify, Vodafone, HSBC, and many more prominent players, in a roundtable that Gapsquare, a small startup from Bristol, has put together. We are discussing this significant issue that impacts hundreds of thousands of employees. It’s gratifying to see things like that start to happen.

Bex Burn-Callander:

My next question was about how you get the word out, and you mentioned thought leadership there. Does that mean that you spend a lot of time writing blogs, doing stuff on social media, and creating events?

How should leaders who are trying to grow their business get noticed?

Zara Nanu:

I think thought leadership is a big part of this, and understanding we’re passionate about your issue helps. Nobody will start a business if they’re not passionate about it because running your own company is hard work. If you don’t like it, you will not do it.

So it’s thought leadership.

It’s leading the thinking and innovating thinking around that space. But also working with customers, understanding their needs, where they’re coming from, and their challenges. Developing a lot of that thought leadership together with the customers helps.

If you write a piece in our space, we talk about pay equity. If you write an article about the future of pay equity and you do it with someone from Glassdoor, it brings those two names together and helps evolve that agenda much quicker, reaching a wider audience much faster.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How tricky is it to have those partnerships? Do you have to be on it to find people on LinkedIn, go to all the suitable events, or be members of a trade body where they’re also members? How do you find those fantastic partnerships?

Zara Nanu:

A lot of it is about listening to what customers and partners are saying. You identify the ones that resonate with you and what you believe, as well as the belief behind your company.

Once you find that alignment, it becomes easier to talk to them because they have the same value system as you. It’s easier to drop a line on LinkedIn and say, “Hey, I listened to this podcast,” or, “I read your article. And I found this particular thing fascinating. It would be great to talk about it more.”

That strikes a conversation, making the relationship more personal from the get-go. And then it’s about continuing to grow that relationship over the years.

People will leave their jobs and go somewhere else. And what we found a lot of the times is that they take us with them.

So, for instance, they move from one employer to another, and then they do that introduction, and they take us into a new company. So building those relationships is essential. But making sure they’re based on actual alignment is what is going to make them sustainable.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And what does success look like for you? What is your dream for Gapsquare?

Zara Nanu:

The dream is to make Gapsquare available mainstream. So having every company understand that pay equity needs to be a thing they do monthly and can track.

Data can lead to diversity and inclusion, innovating with how companies think. They can help their employees feel valued and feel like they’re contributing and feel rewarded for their time in the company.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s very cool. And is Gapsquare your first business? I know that when you were campaigning and battling human trafficking—was that part of an organisation? Did you found a venture to do that, or is this your first business baby?

Zara Nanu:

Gapsquare is my first company. So it has been a learning journey from day one because it is my first business—I’ve never run one before. It is a business in tech in data, and my background is not in tech and data. It’s been challenging from that point of view.

But I was reading this book the other day about growth and fixed mindset. Many entrepreneurs have a growth mindset because their challenging is fuelled by wanting to do more.

For instance, at every single closed door around investment, it made me feel like I need to prove that this is a working concept, a business that can be sustainable and will work.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Have you always had that entrepreneurial mindset? When you were a kid, were you that problem solver? Were you selling sweets to your classmates? Have you always had that, “Right—can I see a gap”?

Zara Nanu:

I don’t think so. It came more from the fact that I was looking at how money is power and how we can make sure that women have equal access to money as men do in the world. A way to do that is by running a business and being a female entrepreneur of a successful business.

I think I pushed myself to do that because I wanted to make sure that the company embodies all the values we’re trying to break in.

It’s running a business that is purposeful and profitable and values the people within the organisation.

It’s about diversity in recruitment and career progression. Embodying all these values within a company has always been very important. I think that’s why one of the reasons I pushed making sure that this is a business.

I’ve had many questions over the years of why this is not a social enterprise or a charity, including from large companies saying, “Well, shouldn’t this be a charity?”

We’re trying to move away from this being a charity, fluffy, ‘nice’, and that diversity and inclusion are a do-gooder thing. We need to be in a space where diversity and inclusion are business as usual and make a profitable, successful company.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How have you learned the new skills that you’ve had to adopt to be a leader?

Because even if you have the vision, you had this powerful catalyst to become an entrepreneur. Being a manager of people is a whole new ball game. How did you learn that part of it?

Zara Nanu:

What I’ve learned as part of the process is that there’s a big difference between being a leader and being a manager. Being a leader pays off more within a company because growing other leaders within means that the business can scale and grow.

We’ve been very focused on the difference between leading and managing over the past few months. We’ve been scaling and growing because we want to ensure that every employee feels valued and can achieve their potential.

A lot of it is around leadership.

I was reading a blog about how coronavirus has impacted project management over the past year and how many companies have been releasing and using software to project manage, which is increasingly becoming an automated task.

A lot of the role for that manager within the company is shifting away from managing projects and making sure you implement projects to work with people, making certain people feel engaged in the company.

People feel like they can express their views, coordinate, and communicate more.

The management role is moving more into that kind of coaching and leadership role already. That has been one of the most enjoyable parts of Gapsquare. The fact that it’s about growing leaders whether they leave the company or if they stay and grow within the company. They can be fully developed leaders and professionals.

Bex Burn-Callander:

It sounds like you read a lot. Is that one of your smartest routes to new ideas and figuring stuff out— you reading widely?

Zara Nanu:

Yeah. I’ve always been kind of fascinated about the human. So I love reading books about how people think and what makes them tick.

Malcolm Gladwell has always been one of my favourite authors, as has been Adam Grant. But all of these thinkers are interesting because it helps me challenge myself first of all.

Like when you read about how people react to things and what pushes things over a tipping point. With Malcolm Gladwell, one of his first books that I loved reading was called The Tipping Point. And it’s about what is that point at which something becomes mainstream?

When something stops being niche, and everyone widely adopts it.

Those kinds of things help me challenge myself, challenge decisions around Gapsquare, and bring those conversations with the team to discuss them together, understand our customers, and understand how employees feel.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s great. You mentioned you didn’t just go after the low hanging fruit. You went for the enormous companies—the big names where there was less competition.

I’d love to know when you’re dealing with organisations like the London Metropolitan Police, Addleshaw Goddard, and Serco, what do you need to do to get in front of brands that size when you’re a small company, and how do you need to present yourself as the leader of that business to get their attention?

Zara Nanu:

Yeah, this is an interesting question. I think there are dimensions to it. Getting in front of a company can be reasonably straightforward if you are savvy with using LinkedIn.

And like I said before, understanding the people that you’re trying to connect with, understanding their challenges, and connecting with them around specific issues that they’re having or that you’re having where they can help you.

I think Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People was saying that when you want to build a relationship with someone, don’t do them a favour. Ask them to do you a favour, because then people feel very warm and fuzzy about you, as they’ve done something good for you.

It becomes easier to build a relationship. So even going in and asking for help around a specific issue could be vital in building that relationship.

Zara Nanu:

With larger providers, the stumbling block is the procurement department, which you haven’t necessarily built a relationship with because you focused on building a relationship with who your buyer is going to be.

With a large company, procurement processes can last months on end. And because they’re large and used to working with large providers, they just let the process flow. But for a small SME, that means months and months of work.

I think a lot of work needs to happen on a more global scale and in the UK around facilitating procurement for smaller companies when they work with large businesses because this is where a lot of the innovation can come.

When you’re a small agile company, you can deliver some attractive, innovative solutions.

A large provider can implement that to scale across hundreds of thousands of employees simultaneously. A lot of innovation and exciting things can come out of that. I think there’s a lot of scope to do some work around improving that connection between large companies and small SMEs.

Coronavirus is providing an opportunity for us to do that. And a lot of government programmes are focusing on improving public-private relationship and partnerships. I think someone out who’s listening to this needs to address the procurement side of things.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How do you manage that as a business—these insanely long timelines? I’m talking about cash flow management and business planning. How have you managed to survive, given that you might be waiting months for a deal to be signed off?

Zara Nanu:

The good thing about running a company that does software as a service is that licenses are renewable. Once you sign people in year one, if you’re delivering good service, firm support, and strong customer support, people and companies will renew.

Renewals have been allowed us to continue to work on building a customer base.

And also, because we’re becoming wider known, it’s easier to build those relationships faster and go into the procurement process more quickly.

Zara Nanu:

Data security is a big thing and vital, especially in HR, because we’re dealing with people’s private information and people’s pay. Security takes up a lot of the procurement.

We’ve had to do the ISO 27001 certification. Once we had that certificate, it was easier to answer and bypass many security questions in procurement. Things like that can help.

Any organisation that wants to deal with data should get ISO 27001 certified from the very beginning.

When you’re starting, you don’t have that many policies. So you can write the policies and document the processes more manageable. You can do a lot of the things around certification much faster than when you’ve 1,000 employees.

Bex Burn-Callander:

It’s much harder to retrofit. Isn’t it?

Zara Nanu:

Yeah.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And great advice about getting the ISO because that must open a lot of doors.

I’ve got another question around how tricky it must be, I imagine, to be a company like yours where no one wants to say in a case study, “We had terrible pay disparities. And then we worked with this wonderful company called Gapsquare, and they fixed it all.”

You can’t talk about what you do in a public way. How do you manage to tell stories about what you can achieve when you have customers that probably make you sign 10,000 NDAs about all these things?

Zara Nanu:

Yeah, that is an interesting one. But equally, transparency and issues around diversity and inclusion are becoming more talk of the town.

For instance, because the UK government has introduced legislation around the gender pay gap and reporting on the gender pay gap on an annual basis, many companies are becoming more open to discussing that in public.

They want new talent to know how they’re doing so they can attract more talent. And they want their employees to understand how they’re doing so that they can retain their employees and help them thrive within the company.

More and more people are talking about things like the gender pay gap. More and more people are talking about race and ethnicity gaps within the organisation.

It was the anniversary of George Floyd’s death this week—it’s been a big year from that point of view. We have seen many companies actively reach out to us to talk about race and ethnicity and how they can address these issues within their business.

It’s becoming more of an open conversation, where customers were happy to talk about their experiences. Because it’s not about that point when they discovered that they have a pay gap. It’s more about the journey they’re on now and how to fix it.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s wonderful and a positive shift from a tragedy. One that you are best placed to be involved in. So thank you so much for being on the show Zara. You’ve been phenomenal.

Like what you have read?

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Let us know on Twitter @SageUK using the hashtag #SoundAdvicePodcast, on Instagram at or in the comments below, and we will get back to you. You can follow Zara on Twitter.

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Comments (3)

  • What a breath of fresh air! To finally see someone really tackling the sea of middle aged men in suits promoting other men in suits.
    Even as a man, it is depressing seeing great talent getting overlooked just because of colour, or sex.
    Very interesting
    @jemsmail

  • A great podcast, very uplifting to listen too. a hot topic and one that def needs to come in quicker than 217 yrs. My company are very gender aware, black life matters etc. and we recently had a female CEO.
    @Zoeypma

    • https://www.sage.com/en-gb/blog/wp-content/themes/sage/dist/images/avatars/custom-avatar.png

      Thanks Zoey, glad you enjoyed it!

      Thanks, Stacey