News & Views
A personal view from the HARBOUR wall : Goodbye 2022 – you were so very valuable, but I’m glad to see the back of you

post by Alex Hens - CEO; Founder; (self-titled) Solutionista

Bit of a personal ‘open up’ this one, but 2022 was… well… a real “wake up and smell the coffee” kinda year. And when you run a business you started, or at least run it the way I do, then business realisation and change does seem to run parallel to personal – perhaps no more so in a year when you turn 50. 


In May 2023 this business turns 15, and I’ve gotta be honest, it’s amazing we’ve made it this far. When Tony and I started up back in 2008, right as the financial crisis engulfed the world, we didn’t have much of a clue as to what we were going to do – but it was definitely going to be digital, likely to be around the recruitment / employer brand space, but other than that, we just wanted to create solutions whilst taking pride and enjoying what we were doing. Business plan? Grand ambitions? Not so much I gotta be honest. 


So pootle along we have – or at least we did. And along the way we certainly had fun. And we built a hell of a lot we were very proud of – in terms of clever and complex digital solutions, as well as some particularly deep and long-lasting relationships with clients, many of whom I’d count as friends. For many they told us we redefined their appreciation of what business partnership could actually look like. In a world where we entered the market determined to change things up from “computer says no” merchants, we got along OK. 


We created much better candidate experiences for our clients’ applicants, always seamlessly aligning with and enhancing their employer brand, smoothed Recruiter and Hiring Manager interfacing with flexible workflows, plugged into a wide range of 3rd party facilities (from psychometric and situational judgement tests to video interview platforms , background & DBS check providers, HRMS’ and even in some instanced “pumped our MI into data lakes”), delivered kick-ass OnBoarding solutions and evolved that further into distinct induction and contractor engagement solutions. All of this whilst saving clients’ huge amounts of time, significant money (by any and every measure) and sleepless nights - be that through ensuring compliance in highly regulated sectors or simply having a “human first – technology enabled” approach where real people work with real people to find the right solution whilst also providing best-in-sector support and day-to-day pragmatic help. Hell, we even picked up some awards too – which was nice (and led to some very fun nights I can assure you :)


Trouble is though, this software / internet malarkey is a particularly fast-moving world – and being nice people and doing a great job isn’t enough on its own. So as we stepped into ‘22, having sought to change things around in ’21, it was clear that we needed to all the more boldly change-up or … well … consider brushing up my barista skills. We’d tried a couple of hires that didn’t work out, but in all fairness they were never going to because we hadn’t been facing up to some hard internal truths ourselves. And it was fair to say that after 14 years’, delivering what we deliver should have been more like launching a new yacht down a well greased slipway – not something more akin to childbirth each and every time. Now I’m damned sure that to our clients we appeared like the graceful swans we wanted to look like – but by god we were kicking like mad against a rushing flow (often, unwittingly, of our own creation).  Mixed metaphors aside, we’d always run lean on cashflow, never truly charged for the time and effort we’d put in, and it was time to make some tough decisions or let reality catch us and make the toughest decision of all for us.


Spring ’22 saw us undertake a restructure that reduced the company by c.30%. The advice says “cut deep to cut once”. The whole experience is one I sincerely hope I will never have to run again – but as difficult and horrible as it was for Tony and myself, as well as others in the senior team who remained, I do not doubt it was all the more so for those who we had to let go. By May we were moving on with our new structure and by July we were trading back in the black.


By the end of the year we’d completed a significant build for a leading law firm TLT , stepped up from an interim to a full blown solution for LV General Insurance , had recruited an apprentice and two new HARBOURites to grow our Support Team, and an Operations Manager. For the first time in… well… I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say a hell of a long time, if not forever… we were in a place where we could breathe. Cashflow positive. Processes improving. Positive people. The reality is that often when you’re “under the cosh”, you just don’t realise it – you can’t afford to or don’t want to allow yourself to; it’s just about getting up and getting on and ensuring that you make it to the end of the month to meet all your commitments. Coming into the Christmas break gave a further opportunity to reflect, and to give thanks for those who remained and those who joined, because it's only through everyone pulling together in what were uncertain times that we’d delivered what was a remarkable turnaround.


So what next?

Personally I’ve done a hell of a lot of learning over the past couple of years – when things aren’t right in a business you run, as with your personal life, then there’s only so long you can “ostrich it” or allow yourself to be distracted (be that of your own doing or by others) before you realise that true change has to come from within. When Tony & I started this adventure together we were literally all things within the business, and the truth is we never really grew out of that mindset – all be it with the best of intentions to shoulder the burden of business. Sure we continued to enjoy what we do, more or less, but our approach was way too personal and, to be blunt, pretty inefficient. Certainly our grip on things meant it wasn’t scalable – and we know the people around us here deserve more. Better. Greater opportunities for all the brilliance they bring to our business. Being nice people and taking pride in delivering great product with phenomenal client service and support doesn’t naturally bring a level of growth that can sustain people’s ambitions – or, these days, spiralling living costs. Certainly not in a market that’s awash with companies seeking unicorn valuation status at, quite literally, pretty much any cost.


So as the end of the last year took shape our new structures gave opportunities for people to step-up and into roles where they could really start to flourish – and goodness me, what a revelation that’s been / is being. We’ve finally kicked our ticket and project management software into a shape that will allow us to better manage, monitor and MI our processes (massive respect to Becky & Claire in regard to the hours and effort put in to that project) and are shaping a clear re-assessed perspective on who we are, what we do and where we want to go. And of course – our why.


And I don’t think I’m overstating it to say I feel we really are in the best shape we’ve been since the days when it was just two overly keen and ridiculously enthusiastic blokes in their respective spare bedrooms – a kind of recruitment software Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (although at times it was absolutely more like Laurel & Hardy).


And the biggest realisation of all is what comes with this new found business balance. Namely the opportunity to breathe. To think. To plan. To actually do what we do best : be creative and back ourselves to build solutions that make a difference. Just now we can do it from a place of calm – and we’re gonna take those 14 years of lessons and… well… I really believe the sky is the limit. So watch this space. It’s been a winding road to get to you ‘23, and whilst I’m grateful to all who have played a part in the getting here, it’s the where we go next that really excites me.


Additional bit 

Recently this fell into my inbox from the brilliant Seth Godin (best-selling author and all-round marketing mega mind) which I feel nails a pretty key lesson we’ve had to learn. I’ve tweaked it ever so slightly (the original being here ) as it refers to freelancers trading their skills, but I think the same can be said of a certain type of business founder – a category in which Tony & I certainly fall into – or at least fell into :


Pareto optimality 

It’s easier to understand than it is to say.

The baker and the blacksmith should trade. The baker can make a loaf of bread more easily and efficiently than the blacksmith, and the blacksmith would ruin her productivity if she stopped making rakes and horseshoes in order to put a loaf in the oven.

And yet some business founders have trouble realising this. We think we should do every job ourselves. Be an active participant in, or certainly aware of, every part of the process. That’s not only non-productive, it reduces the magic we have left for the work that only we can do.


< Back to Blog
Join Our Newsletter

Enter your email address to receive our monthly newsletter.