Reflecting on the journey with EmpowerRD’s CEO and founder Hari Sandhu.
EmpowerRD is officially 5 years old! To celebrate the occasion, we sat down with our CEO and founder, Hari Sandhu, to reflect on the journey, toast some key milestones and look ahead to the future.
In 2017, Hari saw that the industry was incentivised in the wrong way and wanted to change this. R&D advisors used outdated techniques and were under no pressure to lower costs. The objective was to meld R&D experts with cutting-edge technology to make the process time-efficient, cost-effective and more reliable.
EmpowerRD is now trusted by over 900 of the most innovative companies in the UK, and is leading the charge in setting the new R&D claim standard.
When you started the business, what was the 5-year plan – where did you think you’d be in 5 years?
We’ve certainly meandered! I mean that’s the way of any early-stage business. As a first-time founder I was slightly deluded and thought we could execute the plan exactly. I quickly realised this would not be the case! The reality is that you have to roll with the punches and enjoy the experience.
With that in mind, I believed we’d have a fantastic team, a respectable brand recognised throughout the UK and created measurable change for the greater good in our field. I’m especially proud of our influence in driving a decrease in pricing in our industry. I think we’ve done quite well!
What was the most challenging thing about going from your day job to founding a startup?
It’s difficult to get a business up and running – it takes a lot of sacrifice and hard work. People enjoy the idea of being an entrepreneur, but it’s got to be something you’re passionate about. If your idea isn’t the first thing you think about when you wake up or the last thing you think about before going to sleep, I wouldn’t recommend starting a company.
It was really tough to lose that support bubble you have in a corporate environment. Without it, you’re exposed. The bubble stops you from feeling highs and lows; building a startup from the ground up is a rollercoaster of emotions!
Getting clients is key to a startup’s success. What would you say to EmpowerRD’s earliest clients?
EmpowerRD has a number of clients who were early adopters, and have continued with us as we’ve grown, which is really special. I’m eternally grateful to our clients, who have joined us on the journey and crossed the chasm from the mainstream.
We couldn’t have gotten where we are without early adopters who gave us a chance – everyone from very small to AIM-listed businesses, in every segment of the market.
Broadly, how do you see the role of technology has changed in the last 5 years?
Technology has certainly changed, but in professional services, we’re still learning about its role. There’s always resistance, but it’s all about understanding how we can really utilise the benefits of technology.
In my opinion, it’s not enough to just focus on tech; it’s the combination of people and the strength of systems or tech that can really help the world of work. Some businesses think that tech replaces people, but I strongly believe you can marry the two to play to the strengths of both.
What role do you think tech will play in 5 years’ time?
COVID dramatically changed how we all used technology and how we work in the last 2 years, and it will be significantly different in 5 years’ time.
The change I’m most interested in is one that our platform roadmap will be able to demonstrate – not just for our industry but also more broadly. I think we’re now moving beyond technology as a standalone enabler. Instead, we’re focusing on combining the credibility and expertise of humans – their grasp of nuance and ability to think in abstract ways – and the structural framework, and process efficiency and accuracy of machines.
I think this combination of people and technology could also be a template for how other professional services organisations bring about the workplace of the future.
People are at the heart of EmpowerRD. What was the labour market like 5 years ago, compared to now?
When we first started in 2017, the labour market was excited about working in startups. You could really get access to great talent. The startup ecosystem was just moving into the mainstream, so there was a lot of interest.
Then COVID hit and the landscape changed. You could still get great talent but people were uncertain of what the world would look like. This uncertainty led some people to resist change, but others pushed to try new things.
During the 9 months following COVID, we saw a manic rush of people trying to get into early-stage businesses, since they were thought to be flush with cash. Now, in recessionary times, candidates are weighing up security vs. passion. The labour market has changed quite a bit in the past 5 years!
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to hiring?
The most difficult aspect is finding individuals who are compatible with the company’s culture – is someone able to fit in with the team. This is a genuine challenge. EmpowerRD’s culture is vitally important – it comes from the top down and the bottom up, and everyone has a role to play.
What do you think the R&D landscape will be like in 5 years’ time?
I think it will be more tech-enabled. Since EmpowerRD was founded in 2017, we’ve seen more and more tech-enabled advisors crop up, and I expect this trend to continue.
HMRC has already implemented measures to combat fraud and abuse of the scheme, and it looks like future compliance standards will be tighter. With stricter measures in place, the industry will lean on tech significantly more to ensure it gets to the right – i.e. what is qualifying R&D.
Also, as a result of our efforts to democratise the industry through tech, we’ve seen a drop in the costs advisors charge for claims. I anticipate and hope this will be a long-term trend.
But also, I think we’ll see more traditional providers realise that their model isn’t viable anymore; either consolidating or selling while the market is still good. Whilst the traditional models may still work on the most specialised and nuanced of claims, it just isn’t cost effective or efficient for businesses anymore.
Finally, where do you see EmpowerRD in 5 years?
What I want to see in 5 years’ time is the tax authority singing from the same hymn sheet as EmpowerRD. Recognising that there is a better way to get to the right answer, not just an answer.
I believe in 5 years’ time, EmpowerRD will have cemented its reputation as the premier trusted partner to companies wanting to build high quality R&D claims in an efficient, tech-enabled way. We’ll continue to serve more clients, from first-time claimants through to large companies with complex claims.
I anticipate that we will continue to enjoy a positive working relationship with HMRC and the broader industry, engaging with them and industry bodies on standards, policies and legislation.
And of course to make this happen, both our platform and our team will have expanded, as a result of continued investment in the partnership between people and technology.
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