5 mins with…Jane Sunley, founder and chairman of Purple Cubed

We chat to Jane Sunley, founder and chairwoman of tech company Purple Cubed, she tells us that companies need to optimise their people and how leaps of faith are necessary to drive your business forward.

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Please explain who you are, what your business is, and what it does/aims to achieve?

I am the founder and chairman of employee engagement experts, Purple Cubed. We blend technology and expertise to help companies deliver their people plan and become great places to work.

What time does your day usually start and end?

I’m a morning person so always up at 5.15am. I have a catch-up over breakfast with my husband who also runs a business, then I’m either off to the gym or getting all my writing out of the way before starting my day job. When I’m not working on Purple Cubed, I enjoy writing business books with my latest being ‘The People Formula: 12 steps to productive, profitable and performing business’.

I tend to do whatever it takes when it comes to the hours I work and because of this, I am fortunate to be able to work pretty flexibly. My work day could end at 3pm or late evening depending on what’s going on although during the week, I’m usually in bed by 10pm.

What is your favourite part of your job and what is your least favourite part?

I love pretty much all of my job especially the people parts. We have fabulous clients – seeing them improve their results is brilliant. And of course nurturing our own people is a great thing, for instance, our HR director first came into the business on work experience (many years ago). My least favourite part would be on the rare occasions that we uncover a glitch in our software (which all tech companies do). Thankfully our team is super responsive and sort out any issues very quickly.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I noticed that companies weren’t optimising their most valuable asset – their people. Fundamental stuff like two-way communication, idea generation and succession planning just weren’t in place in so many companies. My light bulb moment was to digitise all of the softer people stuff and the result was our award-winning software, Talent Toolbox™.

How did you fund your business?

I sold back my minority shareholding in the company I was running although it provided nowhere near enough capital, so I went into business with someone who was a presenter and trainer. This gave us the cash flow to develop our software, although it still wasn’t a straight road. Coffee Republic founder, Sahar Hashemi, said at the time, “Leap and the net will appear” – fortunately for me it did!

A lot of really helpful people also popped up and did things for way less than they should have charged because they loved my idea. 15 years later, Purple Cubed is still going strong without any outside investment. We probably would have grown quicker and a lot larger if we had this; however, we love our business just the way it is and so do our clients.

What has been the biggest challenge for your business?

With a tech product it’s necessary to keep ahead of the market – this is a big challenge for a smaller provider. We realised we needed to fully optimise our product about five years ago. This involved moving from an outsourced team of three techies to an in-house team of ten – and then completely rebuilding the product. This took a massive leap of faith and added a lot of overhead, however, it was absolutely the right thing to do.

What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to growth for SMEs in the UK?

I find there are two main obstacles. The first being the old chestnut of slow payment, especially from some well known companies that should know better! Secondly, some prospective clients will always want to go with bigger, more mainstream providers as they are viewed as less ‘risky’ than more innovative and agile providers. Thankfully you still get the companies who recognise the benefits of investing in a ‘cool and fast’ supplier over a large ‘adequate and slow’ one, helping to fuel SME growth.

Have you made any mistakes along the way and how did you overcome them/learn from them?

Who doesn’t? Mistakes are necessary for the learning curve. The joy of a small business is that you can try stuff out and if it doesn’t work, you change it quickly. There’s nothing wrong with a calculated risk as long as you’re clear about how much resource you’re prepared to give it.

Understanding what success ‘looks like’ from the start means you can react quickly if it’s not working.  I often find that people make mistakes when they dive in with tactics (the how) when they should first be exploring the context (the why).

What previous experiences have helped you in starting your business?

My boyfriend and I gave up our jobs to get married and move to London when I was 22. We slept on a friend’s floor and lived on boiled rice for months – this taught me there is no Plan B – you just have to make it work. After that, I worked in larger companies where I learnt a lot, including how not to do it! This really shaped my thinking when I was asked to run someone else’s small start-up business. I quickly learnt a lot about finance, cash flow, multi-tasking, resilience and ‘keeping it real’.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to start their own business?

My top three would be:

  • Think it through properly to avoid being carried away by the excitement of the idea; so many people come to me for advice yet haven’t started any sort of business plan.
  • Make sure you’re the type of person who can work alone and get things done – even if you employ people, the buck stops with you.
  • Think about bravery and resilience – this is necessary to be able to act on the opportunities and overcome the setbacks. 

What would you be doing if you weren’t running your own business?

I’ve written four business books, including a best-seller. I just love writing and so would allow myself more time to write books, including a few novels. I’ve also been a trustee of a number of charities and regeneration projects and enjoy business mentoring and so would probably do more in these areas to keep myself busy.