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Karen Cariss CEO, PageUp People

07 March 2011

\"When Simon and I began the business we were straight from uni. We had no savings, no property to mortgage and it was nearing the end of the dotcom era. What we did have was passion, an absolute belief in what we were setting out to do, a computer, a phone and Simon's father, who was able to offer us office space at very reasonable rates.\"

Joint owners Karen and Simon Cariss know their company, PageUp People, has a winning formula. In 12 years it has grown to 65 employees, built itself a reputation as a leading brand in the Talent Management niche and has never had to raise capital. Karen believes their policy of ensuring cash flow as a priority has left them in a very satisfying place, especially in the more unsettled business climate of today.

The Web of Life

In 1997, Karen, a biological science student, was completing post-graduate studies and not enjoying herself. A year or so before, she had taken a break from uni to work in a large corporation. It had been stimulating but had left her thinking that there had to be a better way of doing business and that running her own would be an answer.

\"The ecosystem is a very large organisation. Much of it is not organised hierarchically at all and yet it achieves great outcomes.

\"Business organisations are a relatively new concept and have traditionally been organised hierarchically. Employees who have something to say often can't speak to the person who will benefit most from the information. Instead, they must speak to their manager who then speaks to theirs until finally through a process almost akin to Chinese whispers – and about as reliable – the information reaches a destination. (Hopefully, one that counts.) Hierarchical structures also consistently fail to recognise the contribution of their greatest asset, their people, to the business.

\"We have long since moved away from manufacturing style businesses in which people were a resource to be moved around the floor, from post to post as the work process demanded. Much of our industry is now knowledge based, and managing that knowledge and the people who have it makes a really big difference to the bottom line. It's the people who are the assets and they need to be treated as such.

\"I had these thoughts playing around in my head and knew I could do something to change business for the better. I knew Simon enjoyed writing software, very specifically database software for business application. We could see that there was a way to provide web applications for performance, underpinned by a competency framework that could help businesses find, develop and keep their people.\"

From biology to CEOlogy

Karen agrees that from studying biology to starting a company specialising in recruitment, retainment and development was the last thing she ever expected to happen. However, there have been many times and many different ways she has leveraged off her biological-study background.

One of the most important has been the practical training of doing research. She admits that research techniques – uncovering answers, asking questions, searching out results and establishing theories and principles – are her thing.

\"It's all helped build the business.\"

She also regularly applies biological thinking to her business model and has had successful outcomes.

\"At PageUp People we have structured the business across all functions to be aligned to the customer and customer needs. There is nothing siloed about the way we approach our customer. If you think about this from a biological aspect, it makes complete sense. A group of animals will be focussed on their food source. You won't see animals in the group doing their own thing. Each animal will have their role and will play a part with that role in the overall task. In our case the food source is the customer.

\"It's about the customer being number one, the people who face the customers sit next, IT and project teams sit in behind there and the executives are in the back. Employees have roles rather than jobs. But the reverse structure makes people anxious. They have trouble defining what it is they will do without the comfort of a job description. I think it is going to be a case of implementing the structure and then introducing employees to the idea once it's a working model.\"

Nature V Nuture

Speaking with business owners about the businesses they own, the question often comes up about how they let go, how they allow staff to add value, make and learn from mistakes and not fret that they will lose it all if they are not in total detailed control.

Karen believes in employing for competency, that skills can be taught.

\"It's one of the traits I admire in our people – determination, the ability to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. If the person you are employing has their core values aligned with what you want in your company then you are in the best spot. Core values are next to impossible to train.

\"We look for passion, a strong belief in self, a positive attitude and the willingness to try and achieve anything. Where I add value is in strategic planning. I am not a detail person. So there is a lot of the stuff in the business that I have nothing to do with and that I leave to those who I know excel in these areas.

\"I think when it comes to leadership, you select the appropriate style for the situation. Sometimes you're a delegator, a mentor, a step-in-and-take-control. It's about reading the situation.\"

The more you know the better you market

From a marketing perspective the company has learnt some valuable lessons. Putting out a product at a cheap price is not necessarily the best approach. Writing any database without a thought for who your customer might be and why they would choose to use you also has obvious pitfalls. PageUp People has found that the more focussed they have become as a business the better they have been able to market.

Says Karen: \"We target Fortune 500 top 100 organisations providing talent management solutions. I can name all our competitors and I can explain why you would purchase from us, what we offer that is different. We are at a stage now where customers invite us to come along and tell them what we can do for them.\"

\"This is what I am passionate about, building and growing businesses. We worked out our core focus and we built it. With that niche ownership established we are now branching out. In the end it's about not being too many things to too many people.\"

Key Achievements

My family

Developing and watching PageUp People staff grow through our intensive emerging leadership program.

Entering awards and being successful in winning them for the

Company: Ernst and Young, Young Entrepreneur award and Victorian Telstra Business Women's award.

Personal Passions

My girls

Building businesses

Horsemanship – show jumping

\"The experience of being a mother is amazing. It's a whole new journey and my very independent and confident two and a half year old daughter pushes my powers of negotiation to their limits.\"

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