Talking tech: Interview with Duncan Davies, CEO of Notify

June 2020
Read time: 11 minutes


We called Duncan Davies, CEO of health and safety tech platform Notify, about how COVID-19 will change business operations and how collaboration is key…

With the COVID-19 pandemic likely changing how we do business in the future, there may never be a better time for a workplace health and safety tech platform such as Notify.

We spoke to Duncan Davies on the common issues businesses face, and gained his insight into how the coronavirus pandemic might impact businesses’ risk and employee engagement. 

How did Notify come into being?

My co-founder and I wanted to bring the benefits of technology to the health and safety sector, which can be a bit of a dinner party conversation killer at times! Our backgrounds are in technology around autonomous vehicles, telematics and other similar sectors. We could see that the software for health and safety was not working as well as it could be. It seemed to have been left behind; there's lots of software for HR and marketing, CRM systems and finance and HR systems, but health and safety itself has been a bit neglected.

Our background gave us an understanding that if you can get hold of a lot of data, you can start to interpret and predict it, much as has been done so far with driving and insurance. We thought we could help people be safer at work by using that same method.

I remember reading a stat that said one worker is killed every 15 seconds somewhere in the world. That’s unacceptable! And in the same period 153 people are injured or made unwell at work. Those sorts of stats made health and safety seem like a great area to try and use technology to solve problems. Though technology can't fix everything, this is definitely an area where it wasn't particularly well served and where we could - by designing familiar, easy to use technology - engage with people, get information and data, and then help make people safer.

We’ve given ourselves the ambitious target of making a billion people safer at work. That's our mission - and we are determined to achieve it!

About Notify Technology Ltd

Industry: Information Technology & Services
HQ: Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear
Ownership: Privately Held
Size: 11-50 employees
Sub-sector: Software, Hardware & Developers

What challenges did you face at the beginning?

From when we started in May 2017, for the next year or so, it was just my co-founder Andy Dumbell and I, and our now-Head of Finance Liz Alexander helping out on the numbers side. We had to try and do everything ourselves. It was, unsurprisingly, everything that’s typical of a startup. We worked long hours, we took no salary for a year or so. It was quite lonely and quite hard work at the very beginning.

For the first year or so, the office consisted of me at my house, Andy in his house and Liz in hers. Occasionally the office was my car for a board meeting. One famous board meeting definitely took place in my Audi!

How did the business progress?

Luckily, we were reasonably successful at winning some great clients, and in the early days we won clients such as Alexandra Palace and London Zoo. That was really exciting to get names on the board, but then obviously we had to learn to run quickly to make sure we could deliver for them.

Then the exciting part happened - you need to start employing people! When we got our investment in 2018, we were able to commit fully to the business and employ people and create jobs.

What was your experience with fundraising?

I'd done bits and pieces of fundraising before in previous lives, so I was familiar with how it all worked. It was quite time consuming - it always takes longer than you think it will! We did the usual rounds of going to investors and often had the response that the health and safety area was not “exciting” enough.

Luckily, we ended up working with Mercia Asset Management, who have been great. They focus on regional startups and are based in the North East. I was quite keen to work with somebody who understood the kind of regional economy and culture that we live in.

One thing we learnt is that is takes longer than we expected. We started fundraising in May 2017 and we very much thought that we’d gain investment quickly. We eventually had investment in November 2018. All in all the experience was a learning one.

What was it like finding the right staff?

Firstly, you need an office, particularly when your car is your boardroom! We found a place to live and use as an office space. Then, our focus was on bringing on the right people and finding the right talent to recruit and then to retain those people. We've done really well at that, but it’s a hard slog because you interview a lot of people to try and find the right ones - that's so time-consuming.

What common issues do businesses encounter in terms of health and safety?

Many businesses don't really know what a risk assessment entails, and health and safety has been seen as a bit of a dull and boring thing to check off, rather than something that is dynamic, changeable and helpful. 

I think the other main issue we see all the time is about engagement with employees. It’s really important. We have one client where they logged under 40 near-misses in the year prior to using our software. In the first 10 months of using us, they had 400 near-misses logged. That was purely because in the old days, employees would have to ring up and report something, or complete a paper form – moving from that process to quickly using an app meant that reporting was much easier and more appealing. Plus, they know that their report is going to be seen quickly and then followed up.

Has the collaborative nature of the technology made the business more successful?

Absolutely. One of the main issues we found in businesses was that employees were reluctant to report incidents as they felt that the issue was never looked at, or they were never told that there was a resolution. In the early days, we added a feature where if you choose to add your email when making a report, you'll receive an email back telling you that your report has been submitted along with the thanks of the business, and if an investigation occurs, you’ll be told the outcome. This has helped employees go from not bothering, to being an active part of the process, just by adding a simple thank you and keeping employees abreast of what’s happening.

Employees suddenly being able to have their voices heard makes such a big difference. We have really leveraged the power of technology to help create actions for change, alert reminders and to help businesses avoid having to create extra processes and rely on individuals to make things happen. It becomes a group process.

What impact has COVID-19 had on the business and your clients?

As we're a technology business, homeworking hasn't been a huge challenge, thankfully. For us, the key thing has been to understand what the impact has been on our clients.

We've now got around 50 clients across a range of sectors, from those that will probably not be that affected all the way through to pretty badly affected indeed. Trying to figure out what we can do to support them and what they need has been our primary focus right now.

"Quite early on in the pandemic, we updated our Near-Miss software, which a lot of our customers use, to include COVID-related issues that might crop up in terms of health and safety at work."

This might include employees showing symptoms, or employees being worried about the illness, or staff not socially distancing – we’ve built those concerns into the technology. That's one of the benefits of the way that modern software is built; it’s fully customisable.

For us as a business, the greatest impact has been on the teams that would normally be advocating for the business with making connections. My sales team have probably struggled the most with lockdown because they're sociable people. They like the buzz of an office, and they like talking to clients and prospects, and that's not quite the same on a Microsoft Teams call or a mobile conversation. It's been difficult for them, suddenly being trapped at home and having to do remote calls rather than enjoying the kind of energy and vibrancy of our office. We’re doing what we can to help alleviate that.

In the current climate, on a scale of 1 to 10 where is health and safety currently for businesses?

It’s a 10. Suddenly health and safety has been projected to the fore in all businesses large and small. There are new challenges and issues to overcome which were not there previously. Not confronting these and providing solutions can result in serious consequences. For example, what policies / changes have you made around communal areas such as coffee machines, printers etc. where equipment is shared? Do you have to implement a deep and more regular clean of the offices? Have you had internal face-to-face meetings yet - how do you manage these? What about travel? Do you have to exclude visitors to your offices? Are you staggering work times? Do you have a work from home policy? Each of these areas and more needs to be worked through carefully to ensure every one of your employees is safe and has peace-of-mind while working.

How do you think businesses will need to adapt in the aftermath of COVID-19 in terms of health and safety?

Even businesses that don't believe they're very risky, such as software companies like ours, underestimate the difficulty of getting the team back to the office.

What sounds like quite a simple first step – returning to the office - has a 25-page government document covering things that companies should check and make sure happen. You need to consult with your employees and find out who feels comfortable about coming back to work, who needs shielding, or who's worried about getting the virus outside of work etc. It’s not an insignificant task.

What's particularly interesting is that companies that have classically thought they're not “that dangerous” are now finding that they need to fully understand risk assessments. They don’t manufacture big equipment, they’re not running difficult labour-intensive businesses, but now they must be fully compliant with risk assessment procedures.

I reckon three months ago, not many people in the world knew what PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) was, and now it's on the news every night.

"In contrast, in our line of work, PPE has been hugely important since the very beginning. Now it’s something everyone talks about."

Now that we all have a workforce that's a lot more engaged and clued-up on work risk and is very sensitive to it, you’re going to have employers who want to do the right thing morally, but also get their businesses back on track.

As a business, you want your employees to be able to tell you their concerns as quickly as possible, because it demonstrates to them that you care and that you want them to have peace of mind. It also helps the business, as that data can be incredibly useful in helping you better manage the company, deliver a better service or increase sales and productivity.

For COVID-19 specifically, if you help to stop employees becoming infected because they're all helping you to spot safety problems, then the business will have less absence and a more secure workforce in these difficult times.  You’re therefore more likely to have higher productivity as a result.  

What will be the most important thing to focus on in future?

What we believe is going to be critical is showing that as a business you’re doing the right things, for example, performing risk assessments and following the latest government guidance. At the same time, you need to give your workforce the ability to let you know if they have a concern, or indeed let you know if there's been a near-miss or incident. For example, if they see a colleague who's not observing the social distancing rules in your workplace or surfaces have not been cleaned sufficiently, then you likely want to have that information so you can do something about it.

This process is quite new for a lot of organisations. Down the line, the rules are going to change and keep changing, so there will be people who will need adaptable solutions for keeping track of changes and new procedures, rather than relying on perhaps the old way of using paper and spreadsheets. What will be really key is businesses having the flexibility to move with the times as things change.

Additionally, as the new generation comes into the workforce, employees are more technically savvy and mobile dependent. Filling in a paper form is just not appealing. It's becoming a business necessity to digitise with something that looks good and is easy to use. I know health and safety is not necessarily exciting for everyone, but risk assessment is part of our everyday lives anyway. We do it unconsciously, even just in crossing the road.

For some reason, we have this British notion that health and safety gets in the way of doing our jobs. It’s seen as being there to tell us what not to do, rather than helping. Part of our mission is to help raise the profile of health and safety and help people realise that in the same way that we do unconscious risk assessments for our kids and loved ones, our employers owe it to their employees to do it for them also.

What advice would you give to others thinking of founding a business and creating a technology platform like Notify?

Find the right people! I was very lucky - my co-founder provides all of our technology brains and is really smart and creative. If I'd have done it on my own, that would have been a lonely and more difficult journey.

What has worked really well is that Andy and I cofounded Notify because we knew we could work together well, rather than being long term friends who thought of an idea together. We have that separation. It’s meant that Notify is a proper business with two people who have a shared ambition, and can be really honest with each other. It’s helped us to think objectively about the hard decisions.

Also, you have to remember to enjoy it! We had a session with a business coach that I've enjoyed working with when we’d been running for a year, and she asked if we’d ever written a list of the things we had achieved. I realised I had only written a list of what we still had to do. It’s important to remember the successes as well as the challenging goals. 

Sometimes you've got to step back and really look at what you’ve achieved. I remember thinking employing one person with a job we’d created was an amazing thing – and then we created ten! It’s definitely worth celebrating your achievements.

Our entire team is passionate about making people safer at work - it’s what gets us up in the morning! If anyone wants to discuss any specific challenges or have any ideas that could make a difference in the current climate, they’re very welcome to contact me. I’m always willing to chat and our details are at:

Looking for further insight into managing and developing your business? Email us to find out more at [email protected].

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