Alison Hardacre was starting to turn a profit with her first business, when she threw it in to start a new one. Seven years on, she’s soaring, writes Johanna Leggatt.

Alison Hardacre helms a successful global software platform that brings accessible healthcare to patients from Toorak to Tunisia.

But while HealthKit, the company she founded seven years ago with CFO Lachlan Wheeler, now offers a network of 150,000 health practitioners in more than 50 countries, it took a “sacrificial business” for the pair to really find their feet.

“If you look at the other successful startups, from Vinomofo to Canva, they all had other businesses first,” Hardacre explains.

“I think you do learn a lot just by trial and error, and at the time you never think your starter business is a starter business, but often it is.”

Such was the case for Hardacre, who was managing director of Australian health platform Specialist Link between 2008 and 2012, which she had co-founded with Wheeler.

By the time she and Wheeler decided to scrap the business and start again, it had become the largest online clinical software in Australia.

“It was a very, very hard decision to make,” Hardacre explains.

“It had just reached a stage where it was making money and starting to work, and then we decided to start again.”

So what prompted the pair to give up Specialist Link for HealthKit?

“We knew that we would never be able to turn Specialist Link into a global healthcare company, and having a global platform that made healthcare accessible to people in developing nations, as well as Australia, was important,” she says.

While it may have seemed a mad gamble to others at the time, it turned out to be the right move, with HealthKit achieving monumental success over the past seven years.

Patients log in to HealthKit across the globe to search for the right practitioner in their region — from GPs, to personal trainers, physiotherapists, cardiologists and dentists, among others.

HealthKit is also designed to make health practitioners’ lives easier, with a practice management software customized to any practitioner in any health-related profession across the world.

Hardacre points out that an appointment is booked in HealthKit every five seconds during practice hours and she estimates the company saves practitioners 30,000 hours each month on administration.

“It frees up the practitioner to see patients rather than deal with administration, and it brings healthcare to people who have difficulty accessing it,” Hardacre says.

While the ingenuity of the business model is clearly a big part of their success, Hardacre attributes the company’s impressive track record “absolute persistence”.

“We didn’t give up when on many occasions it would have been so much easier to do so,” Hardacre says.

“This persistence has paid off because we now have a globally successful business in a sector where software is usually country-specific.”

Another important driver of their success has been a strong focus on customer service.

“If people report an issue with the platform then we usually have it fixed within an hour,” Hardacre notes.

“Not just a response, but actually fixed.”

Of course, it isn’t just Hardacre steering the ship and she notes that a healthy co-founder relationship is fundamentally important.

“Having a co-founder whom I trust has been really vital,” Hardacre says.

“You need to make sure that you complement each other so you’re not hiring to plug gaps in your business.”

How to choose the right co-founder:

  1. Opt for someone you trust.
  2. Choose someone with complementary skills so you’re not hiring additional staff to plug skill gaps.
  3. Make sure you have similar goals and ambitions for the business.

There is a moment, of course, when startup founders realise they need to hire staff to scale up quickly, and choosing the right people in those early days is crucial.

Hardacre recommends not being bamboozled by candidates’ degrees and experience.

“Often people will come in to interviewees looking amazing on paper and talking about strategy, but what I have found is that what you are really looking for is someone who just gets on and does the work,” Hardacre says.

“Over the years, I have changed my idea of what a gun employee looks like.”
Many startups in their early life cycles struggle to determine where to commit their money and time. Should you focus on marketing and PR? Bootstrapping or seeking investment?

Hardacre says there are no hard-and-fast rules, but the focus should be on whatever is best for your particular market.

“Put your time and energy into what will bring the best experience for your customer,” she says.

“And there is also a lot to be said for just getting on with the job.

“You need to just keep working.”

What to look for in staff when it’s time to hire:

  1. Hire for skills, fit and values, over years of experience or personality.
  2. Focus on the delivery. So define the skills needed for delivering in your organisation and recruit for that.
  3. Regardless of sector, hire for resourcefulness, love of pace and learning, reliability and consistency, and being easy to do business with.