An Interview with Devan Sabaratnam

Devan Sabaratnam Interview

In this interview, Devan Sabaratnam shares his experiences as an entrepreneur and owner of HR Partner — a software that saves busy teams’ time by streamlining tedious HR tasks.

I dive deep with Devan as he shares how he overcomes roadblocks, balances work-life and found a competitive edge. His biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs starting a business: Don’t take your eyes off the ball, learn to do things that you don’t enjoy doing and learn how to say “No”.

Be sure to follow Devan on Twitter for a close up on how guitar-loving entrepreneurs successfully operate!

Can you tell me a little bit about HR Partner? When did you first get bit by the entrepreneurial bug?

I have been working for myself since I was about 19. After I had finished high school, I trained to be a commercial pilot, but when I graduated with my wings, the local aviation industry was dead. It was around that time (1985) that my dad bought one of the first IBM XT’s in Australia. I started playing with it, and was hooked on computers, and it became my career – using my skills and love of the technology to help other people to benefit from it.

I then spent the next 30 odd years specialising in helping mainly small businesses around the country with setting up their accounting, payroll, inventory control and supplier chain management software. It was while doing this that I realised there usually wasn’t a product available ‘off the shelf’ that would meet everyone’s needs, so we started writing custom databases and accounting systems for our clients too.

Back around 2005, we saw that a lot of small businesses didn’t have any sort of formalised HR systems in place, so we wrote the initial version of HR Partner to fill that need. The original version ran as an installed client/server system on Windows, and was tied onto one specific payroll system.

In 2016, I decided that wanted to cease the consulting and custom development work so that I could spend more time with my family, so I decided to rewrite HR Partner from the ground up as a web based, SaaS solution which my clients could subscribe to.

Its part of my plan to have a system that can provide me and my family with steady recurring revenue without having to rely on the swings and roundabouts of bespoke development projects. So after nearly 30 years, I am a ‘startup’ again!

What does HR Partner do that makes it better than the rest? In other words, how did you find your competitive edge?

Almost every custom software solution we write has focused on the user’s viewpoint. I am proud of the fact that before we start any development work, we spend time with the people who will be using the software to make sure we get their true expectations of what they want out of it. There’s nothing I like more than having people actually enjoying using something I wrote. The fact they are saving time or money using it is an added bonus.

We’ve set up hundreds of payroll systems for clients over the years, and almost always, the Payroll or HR officer would start talking about how they wished that the new system would do just that little bit extra to help them with tracking staff training or performance reviews or other employee related tasks.

We collected all this feedback over many years, and finally one day I decided to sit down and write an HR system that actually included ALL of these little things that our customers were asking for – the first version of HR Partner was born out of that, and it sold quite well for us back then.

I have taken all the same philosophies as the original system with this new web based version. We’ve kept what people really liked, and added to it, and are looking forward to introducing a host of new clients to our brand new HR Partner web app.

What does a typical day look like for you? Is there something you make a point to do each day?

I live in a fairly remote part of Australia, and as a result, the startup and developer community here is fairly small. It is really hard (and expensive) to get to conferences and meet ups in order to meet like-minded entrepreneurs, so I tend to use technology to fill this gap.

Every morning, I try to go on a 1 hour walk around the foreshore where I live. While doing that I tend to listen to podcasts which are focused on design, startups and growing a business. I always love hearing about the challenges and achievements of others, and that helps to motivate me.

When back in the office, I tend to visit startup blogs and news sites (Startup Savant is in that list) to keep the motivational energy flowing.

I work from home, so I don’t have a set routine everyday, but instead rely on what I have to do, and how energetic I am feeling on the day. As I have gotten older, I have realised about the importance of balancing work and life, and preventing burnout from too much of the former.

My office space actually double as a music studio, and I keep several guitars and a keyboard handy next to my workspace. Every time I feel that work is becoming too much, I can turn my chair around and pick up an instrument and play for a while. It helps take my mind off and stress or pressure from my business life and also engages another passion of mine, which helps to keep me fresh when I turn back to my PC again.

Did you run into any roadblocks when writing a business plan for HR Partner? Can you share with us any tools or resources you used to simplify the process?

I never had a formal plan for HR Partner, because it basically grew out of this overflowing ‘wish list’ that we had collected from our clients over the years.

One thing that I will consider a roadblock though, is that when we wrote the Windows version of HR Partner back in 2005, we tied it intimately to one particular payroll vendor. That helped initially, because they helped us to market it via their dealer channel, but after a few years, their focus, direction and technology changed, and they didn’t really communicate that well to us, which resulted in a lot of frustration for us, and ultimately ended up with that product becoming stagnant.

When I did the rewrite of HR Partner as a pure web app, I didn’t want to repeat the same mistake, so I have made this new version a lot more capable as a ‘stand alone’ product, and also built integrations with many different payroll vendors to avoid the ‘lock in’ that we experienced with the old version.

A lot of business experts will say that a business plan is a necessity, and I can understand that if you are looking to get a loan or formal investment from outside sources, but for us, because we are bootstrapped, and the technology driven world we work in can change so much in a short space of time, I tend not to plan anything long term, but try to stay nimble so that I can pivot or make changes quickly.

What is the biggest business mistake that taught you a powerful lesson? Would you mind sharing how it changed your business?

The biggest lesson I ever learned was “Don’t take your eye off the ball”. Back in about 2002, we went through a big change in my consultancy business. We grew to about 12 staff and I pretty much handed the reins for things like book keeping and financial management to other people while I tried to focus on writing code and customer relations.

About a year down the track, I realised that financially, we were in a real mess, and owed the tax office a large debt. To be fair, it wasn’t really the fault of the people I let take charge. It was entirely my fault for ‘delegating by abdicating’, rather than making sure that they were making the right decisions and doing the right thing long term.

We recovered from that, but it was a lot of hard work and stress, and since then, I have promised myself to always stay on the ball and keep an eye on all aspects of the business. It is so easy to ignore or de-prioritise things like book keeping and invoicing, especially if you don’t enjoy doing it (as I don’t). But a good business person, in my opinion, has to make sure that they spend the same amount of care and energy on things they don’t enjoy, as well as the things that they love doing.

For keeping your business finances under control, do you have an accountant, accounting software, or both?

Yes, we currently use Xero accounting in house, and we also have an accountant that has been helping us for years. I love that in Xero, our accountant can log in from time to time and keep an eye on things, and that helps us with the ‘lesson learned’ that I spoke about in the previous question.

It is still hard for me to get to the weekly invoicing run and bank reconciliations because it is not something I love doing, but I do make the effort to be consistent at it, because I want to avoid the inevitable shock months down the track if those important tasks are not taken care of on a regular basis.

When times get tough, what would you say motivates you to keep going? To not hit the snooze button and to keep fighting for your goals.

This is a good question. As pretty much a solo business operator, there are times I wake up in the morning and feel a sense of trepidation about starting the day. In those cases, I go back to what my life coach taught me years ago – and that is to go right back to the core reason that I run my own business.

Everyone will have a different goal. For some it will be the money, for some, the lifestyle, for others it will be the chance to make a difference, or be near their kids during a work day, or to be able to mix work and travel, or to get the approval of family.

The point is that everyone who works for themselves has a driving reason for doing so, and when things get too hard, it is important to go back and revisit those core reasons – even to the extent of imagining where you were and what you were doing when you first made that decision and were filled with excitement and energy.

The other thing I do when I am feeling burned out, as I mentioned earlier, is to turn away from work completely and recharge via my music. I find great joy in picking up a guitar and learning a new piece. Some people don’t understand why when I am tired and brain drained from work problems, that I would exert more mental energy on learning a difficult piece to play, but for me, I find it invigorating to use a different part of my brain to create music rather than code. I find that I come back to work with renewed energy and creativity after an enforced music break.

I think it is important for everyone to have another passion outside of their work. Whether it is your kids, your pet, a hobby or reading a book. Putting down tools and engaging fully with another passion is a great tonic for finding your motivation again.

Did you have a hard time starting your business? How did you handle time and resources constraints?

Actually, the opposite was true as far as starting a business. It was the early days of personal computers, and so I had people coming to me and asking me for my services all the time. With this current launch of HR Partner, the world has changed a great deal, and there is just so much competition and familiarity out there, that it is hard to get your message out.

I always thought that developing HR Partner would be the hard part, and that the marketing would be a breeze, but in actual fact, the opposite is true. I have discovered that I am just not adept at marketing in this new world of social media and digital marketing.

But one of the best things I’ve done this year is to engage the services of a brilliant marketing consultant to handle this aspect of the business for me. Hannah is quite literally based on the other side of the world from me, but these days, remote working tools are so good that we can work together easily and in almost real time.

I think one thing that especially small business people are guilty of is the “I’ll do it all myself” syndrome. It is all too easy to think that you can do all these ‘small’ tasks like building an email list or running your social media pages in your spare time here and there, but at the end of the day, the important thing is to remember where your true strengths lie, and then to delegate those other tasks to people who are well versed in that area.

I strongly believe in reading. Do you have a book that you highly recommended Startup Savant readers and I grab a copy of?

I don’t read as much as I used to when I first started my business, but I will have to get back to it, as I really do enjoy curling up with a good book.

I would recommend that anyone looking to start a business read “The E-Myth Revisited” by Michael E. Gerber. It is an old book, but I think the lessons in it are still applicable to the modern digital economy.

The book talks about the 3 personas required to run a business—The Technician, the Manager and the Entrepreneur. Most people who start a business are “Technicians”, and struggle with the other two aspects. This book does a great job of preparing you to build a meaningful business that can scale and won’t take over your life. I still go back and revisit it from time to time.

The other book that I found quite profound, which I read only last month is “From Impossible to Inevitable” by Aaron Ross and Jason Lemkin. It is especially good if you are thinking of starting a SaaS or web based business. Plenty of good lessons on getting your first users and building your business in there.

What are the top 3 pieces of advice that you would give someone starting a business? What do they need to know from the beginning?

My first piece of advice would be as I outlined earlier—“Don’t take your eye off the ball”. Be careful that you don’t do delegation by abdication. By all means hire other people to take care of stuff that is not your core skill area, but always ensure that you are on top of what they are doing.

Set up some form of KPI (key performance indicator) reporting so that you always know what is happening with your money, your customers, your team and your products. You need to spot trends quickly by looking at the big picture.

The second piece of advice is to learn to do things that you don’t enjoy doing. Many business people I have worked with over the years hate things like reading financial reports, or negotiating with suppliers, or attending roadshows etc.

It is perfectly understandable that people will tend to stick with doing what they love and avoid things they don’t enjoy, but if it is critical to your business, you have to learn to face the discomfort and dive in. Even if it is alongside someone else who knows how to do it better, you have to take the opportunity to learn and familiarise yourself with all aspects of your business.

The third simple piece of advice is to tell you to learn how to say “No”. This is one of my biggest faults, and caused by me always feeling the need to be liked by everybody and not to displease or let anyone down.

I always thought that saying “No” to people would result in them having a negative perception of me, and I was completely surprised to eventually find out that the opposite was almost always true. I still struggle with saying “No” these days, but with practice and experience, I am getting better at it. And I am happier as a result.