Secrets of Success: Steffen Wulff Peterson, co-founder of Sona

  • October 4, 2021
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Have you ever wondered how many people have ‘desk-less’ jobs? Steffen Wulff Peterson did and now he’s revolutionised the way that they communicate and manage their day jobs for the better …

His Sona app makes common every day tasks extremely easy and convenient for employees to complete autonomously so they feel more empowered and valued at work.

What products or services do you provide?

The Sona employee app is designed for the specific needs of ‘desk-less’ workers in industries like healthcare, retail, hospitality, logistics and manufacturing. Sona is a mobile hub for them to:

  • View and claim shifts instantly
  • Access and manage their schedules
  • Book annual leave
  • Get real time company updates and message team members 1-1
  • Leave feedback for managers and head office

Then, aside from the above, as more workflows can be automated, managers are freed up to focus on mission critical work.

What type of businesses do you work with?

Sona is designed for the needs of ‘desk-less’ industries such as health and social care, hospitality, retail and logistics. There are 2.7bn workers globally who don’t work at desks so it’s a massive market opportunity. At the moment we’re focusing on building our customer base in the UK and Ireland as our home market but we’re keeping our eye on opportunities to grow in other markets.

What problem does your company solve?

The biggest problem our customers come to us with is the cost – in both time and money – of managing their frontline workforces. This has always been a challenge in the industries we serve but the pandemic has brought extra pressures – especially on staff availability.

Even once the week’s rota is set, managers often find themselves spending way too much of their time finding people to cover shifts. And if they can’t find contracted staff that can help, they resort to hiring agency workers at extra cost to the organisation. 

For example, before working with us, one of our customers could spend up to 3 days a week completing and then filling their rotas. With Sona the process of contacting staff about available shifts is automated and takes 90 minutes and they’re spending less on agencies too.

What is your USP?

Our key point of differentiation in the market is our focus on the needs and wants of our end users – frontline workers. Most enterprise technology is built for desk-based workers, regardless of industry. What then happens is their desktop systems are ported into an ‘app-like’ experience for use on mobile devices, which results in lots of friction.

We have the benefit of a lot of prior experience working with, and in, the industries we serve so we know that our customers are not going to get the full value out of technology for their employees if it isn’t easy for them to access and use. So we build for mobile first and with the end user experience front of mind at all times. 

We’re taking our inspiration from the world’s leading consumer apps. Viewing your schedule should be as quick as looking up a restaurant on Deliveroo and booking annual leave should be as easy as booking an Airbnb – that’s the bar we’re setting ourselves.

What are your company values? Have you ever had them challenged and if so how have you dealt with it?

We share a series of core beliefs that guide the way we want to work:

  1. The desk-less user experience always wins
  2. Don’t build features, solve problems
  3. Less is more
  4. Our customers are partners

These beliefs get challenged all the time as they can often be in conflict with each other. For instance, we want to work in partnership with our customers to build the best possible product for them, but not in a way that compromises the experience for the end user. It all comes down to transparency and communication. 

The first level of that is being fully aligned as an entire team. We have a daily all company meeting and we live in Slack, Google Docs and Hubspot so we have no information silos. 

The next level is having close relationships with our customers built on trust. In our experience it’s more common for supplier relationships to break down due to broken promises and poor customer communication than issues with the actual product.

How do you ensure that you recruit a team that reflects your company values?

In the past we have had outstandingly talented people, but who turned out to be bad cultural fits. We have firmly decided that this doesn’t work for us. Being remote-first means we have access to a huge talent pool so we should never need to compromise on culture in order to make excellent hires. 

Implementing the fluffier concept of company culture concretely into the hiring process requires that you define the traits a candidate must have and those they can’t have. It helps to write down these traits along with good interview questions. We always have multiple people involved in the recruitment process and we all score candidates on our values. That way we get consensus around the person being not only good at their role but also a strong cultural addition. 

When it comes to recruitment strategies and tangible advice we often look to Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) here: https://a16z.com/content/. 

 Are you happy to offer a hybrid working model of home/office post-covid?

Sona’s current team is fully remote and that was our intention regardless of the pandemic. We were already used to that way of working so it just made sense.

It will become more hybrid over time, with a firm emphasis on individual choice. Everyone gets a co-working allowance so they can have an ‘office’ away from home – whether that’s what they want to do every day or simply to mix things up. Now that travelling is easier we plan on getting together at least once a quarter for planning and in-person socialising as that’s still important.

For us, the benefits of not returning to offices en masse outweigh the downsides – as well as saving on fixed costs, we can offer truly flexible working and hire from a much wider talent pool. A number of the team have been able to make the most of opportunities to travel or relocate without disrupting their work or productivity, so it’s a win-win.

Do you have any tips for managing suppliers and customers effectively?

  1. Digitise and automate as much as possible. It’s much easier to stay on top of everything when you have a single source of truth. And the beauty of using dedicated systems is that their in-built reporting makes staying on top of the numbers much easier.
  2. Everyone should get customer updates. Whether it’s positive or negative, every area of your business benefits from regular customer feedback.
  3. As already discussed, make transparency a virtue in your organisation. It starts at the top – don’t be afraid of bringing up difficult issues or being challenged by colleagues. If you create a culture in which no-one is afraid of being honest (but respectful), that’s the path to building strong long term relationships with customers. 

Any finance or cash-flow tips for new businesses starting out?

There has never been more startup funding available across all different types and formats. But in addition to that, for SaaS businesses it has become increasingly normal to charge annually upfront, which is a huge boost to cash flow. It can feel uncomfortable to make the ask in the beginning, but most customers are used to this by now and sometimes they even prefer it so as to avoid invoicing 4 or 12 times per year. If you have to, you can offer a discount in return which is often worth it.

If you could ask one thing of the government to change for businesses what would it be?

We’re a multinational team and firm believers in the value that bringing people from different cultures and backgrounds together creates. At a time when our customers’ industries are struggling to recruit the people they need, the government should be looking at all viable means to help UK businesses attract and retain talent, including through the visa system.

What is your attitude towards your competitors?

We embrace competition. For a start, if you have no competitors that can be a sign that you aren’t in a lucrative market. Investors often like to see that there is some competition as that helps to validate your proposition – they just want to understand how and why you think you can win.

As our target market is so large, it’s incredibly unlikely that one platform will beat out all the others. Every organisation is unique and so they will all have different criteria when evaluating providers, and that’s a good thing as it enables newer players like us to become established.

Finally, just like in professional sports, competition is a vital motivator. We wouldn’t be in business if we weren’t motivated to build something better than what’s gone before.

Any thoughts on the future of your company and your dreams?

Although they make up 80% of the global workforce, just 1% of funding for enterprise software is dedicated to developing technology for employees in frontline roles (who do most of their day-to-day work away from a desk). We believe that over this decade the technology gap between desk and non-desk based workers will close significantly. 

The proliferation of dedicated tools to empower non-desk based staff will have the same transformative effect as the adoption of company email. The future of work is knowledge work, regardless of role type and location, and we want to be at the forefront of that movement.

We’re in a really good place to ride the current wave of digital transformation in non-desk work. The pandemic has not changed the direction of travel, it has simply accelerated the pace  of change in lots of areas, including adoption of workforce management software. So with funding and customer validation for our product in place we are in a good position to grow into an expanding market. 

Covid is also leading to a complete restructuring of the overall labour market and changing people’s attitudes towards work. We call Sona ‘The employee app for tomorrow’s workforce’ because, through our technology, employers can give staff the greater autonomy and flexibility they have been calling for.

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Secrets of Success: Steffen Wulff Peterson, co-founder of Sona