Profile: Dean Sadler

Dean Sadler was one of the team behind Plusnet broadband but now helps firms find staff online. Lizzie Murphy reports.

Dean Sadler, co-founder of recruitment software specialist TribePad

It was 1998 and Dean Sadler was nearing the end of his PhD at Sheffield Hallam University when he saw the job advert that would change his life.

It was for a software developer at internet service provider Force9 in Sheffield, the start-up company that would later become Plusnet.

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“People didn’t have the internet at home so it looked like an exciting opportunity,” says Sadler.

He got the job but with three months to go until the end of his PhD, he had to make a difficult decision. “I asked to put my PhD on hold but I never actually went back to finish it,” he says.

Sadler built the software that ran the business. “By the time I left, there were 40 developers working with that software,” he said.

He describes the next nine-and-a-half years as a “rollercoaster ride” as he worked alongside Plusnet’s founders, Lee Strafford and Paul Cusack,

“We used to have a bell in the office that rang every time we sold a broadband line,” he says. “It used to go off once a week in the early days, then it was once a day, then a couple of times a day. Eventually, we had to take it down because it was going off all the time. It was a really exciting time.”

The company began by providing a dial-up internet service before broadband came along and changed the business.

By 2004, Plusnet had become the UK’s sixth-largest internet provider with almost 200,000 customers and floated on Aim, which valued the business at around £35m.

In 2007, BT took over Plusnet after buying all the shares, worth approximately £67m.

But shortly afterwards, Plusnet’s chief executive Strafford and finance director Neil Comer were dismissed by BT after they were accused of plotting to launch a rival business following the acquisition.

At the same time, Sadler, chief technical officer, decided he had had enough and handed in his notice.

“In the early days it was like a rocket taking off,” he says. “Nobody had broadband. But by the time BT came along everyone had it. I wasn’t really a corporate type of person and BT is one of the biggest corporates in the country. I wasn’t involved in any interactions between BT and Lee, I’d just had enough.”

The 43-year-old says he hasn’t seen Strafford since the sale of Plusnet. “Business is like a marriage. I was seeing Lee more than my wife and children so after nine-and-a-half years I needed to get a divorce.”

He adds: “I made a conscious decision to go and start up my own company because I really enjoyed the rollercoaster ride of Plusnet. I wanted something new and challenging.”

The new challenge came in the form of software recruitment specialist TribePad, which Sadler owns alongside Alexis Twigg and Lisa Scales.

The business was born after Twigg heard Sadler speak at an IT conference. He had an idea with Scales to create a video interviewing platform but didn’t know how to build it, so Sadler came on board. The business grew into a recruitment software firm.

The company first launched its software, enabling organisations to carry out their own recruitment processes in-house, in 2010, after 18 months of development work.

TribePad allows organisations to publish jobs online, search for candidates, process applications, match candidates with jobs and engage with future talent in one place.

The company, which currently employs 12 people, turned over around £500,000 in the last financial year, but expects to hit £1m this year.

Sadler has built a platform with 35m online profiles to date and over a million users. He has invested everything he made from Plusnet and he didn’t start taking a salary until this year.

While it is currently predominantly selling into big companies like the BBC, services company Sodexo, Sadler says the plan is for TribePad to target smaller companies, which have more than 500 employees.

It is currently working with nuclear services technology provider National Nuclear Laboratory. “Although it’s a big business in terms of revenue, it only recruits a small number of people annually,” says Sadler.

Sadler says anecdotal evidence suggests that TribePad’s software, which costs between £1,000 and over £5,000 a month for large corporates, has saved some companies £1m-£2m a year compared to using recruitment agencies.

“The biggest job board out there is Google,” says Sadler. “We put a lot of effort into getting jobs from TribePad high up search engine rankings.”

The software can match more than a million profiles in less than a second to a job and it also allows hiring managers to push that job out to different channels such as job boards and social networks.

TribePad launched a “social search” product this year, which allows organisations to search online profiles across sites such as LinkedIn for suitable candidates. It has also launched a version of its product tailored to small-and-medium-sized businesses.

Versions of its software are available across the world in 37 languages.

The software is built like an iPhone app with added features, such as video interviewing capability.

“We like to push the boundaries and try new things all the time,” says Sadler.

He adds: “Reputation will be critical in the future. The nature of work is changing and in 20 years’ time not many people will be on long-term contracts. People will be hired for specific projects and will have to start building up a profile that showcases all their skills. In the future we will have to have a CV that updates in real time.

“The recruitment industry is really interesting right now. People are still thinking about CVs from 10-20 years ago. It’s going to be absolutely irrelevant where you live and where you went to school. What matters is getting yourself in front of people who need your skills.”

Sadler has firm views on TribePad’s future. “I don’t want to do an IPO and sell the company,” he says. “I want to keep it for myself. We haven’t taken on any debt or outside money because we don’t want to have to listen to financiers. You can’t build what you want to build when you have to focus on the share price.”

The father-of-three lives in Sheffield with his wife, Karen, and daughters. “My house is pink,” he jokes.

His proudest achievement, he says, is never having worn a shirt and tie.

“When I was 12, my dad got cancer and nine months into his illness he was made redundant from his engineering job,” he says. “He became a taxi driver and had to work a lot of midnight shifts. I decided then that I never wanted to be in that position working for someone else and having to turn up for work every day in a shirt and tie.”