Unlocking growth: How The Data Shed scaled its team during Covid-19

Kane Fulton, July 17, 2020 5 min read

It has been a busy year for The Data Shed. Based in Leeds, the data services company helps other businesses access and interrogate their data in a user-friendly way. It offers consultancy services and launched its first product, a SaaS data integration platform called The Data Refinery, in 2019.

During lockdown, a time when Covid-19 caused many businesses to enter survival mode, the company expanded its Mabgate Mills office to accommodate new hires and announced an 18-month extension to an existing contract with gambling self-exclusion scheme GAMSTOP.

For CEO Anna Sutton, who cofounded The Data Shed with CTO Ed Thewlis in 2014, it has been business as usual in many ways. Having chosen not to furlough staff, the company worked remotely during lockdown. Its clients did too, says Anna, adding that the company’s new business pipeline was “fairly full” before the virus struck.

“We’ve had a fortunate experience whereas other people have had horrific situations to deal with,” says Anna. “If you trust your team, hire well and have a great culture then it’s amazing what it’s possible to achieve with the power of human positivity and collaboration.”

The Data Shed’s Data Refinery

Hire power

The biggest change for The Data Shed has been conducting business activity remotely: from signing contracts to onboarding new employees and discussing legals. In addition to meeting the continually evolving needs of its clients on the consultancy side, the company ran its first online workshop to help a regional telecoms firm eke value out of Data Refinery.

“Onboarding has gone really well, but I think it would prove more challenging if somebody joined us in a management role,” Anna says. “It’s fine from a team point of view, but being remote makes something as personal as line management a real challenge as you have to build rapport from scratch.”

Additionally, the company underwent a senior team restructure, splitting into separate operational and technical teams to undertake strategic and structural work more efficiently. Anna says that the idea came from her time on the PwC Scale programme, held at Bruntwood’s Platform tech hub, which helped her structure the company’s value chain and growth for the next three years.

Some aspects of operating remotely have proved easier than others for Anna, who comes from a marketing background. Like many founders during lockdown, she has felt a duty of care toward her employees.

“I found working out the best thing to do for the team quite stressful,” says Anna. “I felt so responsible for their health and wasn’t comfortable risking them coming in on transport every day when they could so easily work remotely.  Obviously a lot of us are parents, which means that some might not be able to return to the office until September at the earliest.

“At the same time, I’m conscious that the office needs to be there – In my 20s I forged some relationships that will probably see me through to the end of life. It’s such an important part of your career, so I would hate to rob anyone of that opportunity.”

The Data Shed’s growing team

Proactive measures

The company has implemented various measures internally to keep spirits high, including conducting a successful work from home test the week before lockdown and reducing meeting lengths to 25 minutes (for half-hour sessions) and 45 minutes (for hour-long ones). Anna says that productivity initially dipped as workers readjusted to their new conditions.

With some team members struggling with home setups, focus then turned to helping employees work as comfortably as possible. Care packages consisting of equipment and other items were sent out, and the team held a sunflower seed-growing competition while hosting online baking sessions led by an avid sourdough bread baker in the team.

Learning and development is the next area that the company is keen to address. Anna plans to implement structured processes around helping its employees develop both personally and professionally.

“There’s a danger that the one-to-one and personal development aspect of learning and development can fly under the radar at times like this, and I don’t want that to happen,” says Anna. “Some of our people are currently taking AWS certifications and exams, which is great.

“At the same time, everyone is busier than ever and I’m conscious that people need to maintain a work-life balance. I want to make sure people have the opportunity to do training that’s relevant to the business and broaden their skills in the process when they have the time.”

Anna is passionate about the digital tech sector in and around Leeds

Keeping spirits high

Anna has been keeping her own spirits high by connecting with her peers in and around Leeds’ tech sector. She is part of the steering group of Leeds Digital Festival, which recently opened nominations for its awards ceremony that will take place on September 30.

Anna is also a strong advocate for diversity in tech and has been holding fortnightly Zoom calls with other female leaders from the city – including Zandra Moore, cofounder and CEO of Tech Nation Upscale 5.0 company Panintelligence – in addition to Sarah Tulip (Director at EY); Mel Parker (founder of Graft Talent) and Deb Hetherington (Head of Innovation at Bruntwood Sci-Tech).

“I’ve been hearing some really positive stories of Leeds tech companies such as [Tech Nation Rising Stars 1.0 winner] Vet AI who are doing amazingly well,” she says. “It’s been great to be able to chat to other people and offer advice and keep each other going. I do think that as a city we’ll come out of this stronger.”

Looking to the future, Anna predicts that the toughest times lie ahead for businesses that have survived lockdown. The Data Shed plans to market Data Refinery as a solution that can help, using a series of upcoming case studies that are being conducted with several companies currently trialling the product.

“It’s going to be an interesting 18 months as companies look at their marketing and operational expenditure, making choices about where to spend their money internally and externally,” says Anna. “We’re so lucky as a company, and it’s important for us – and our responsibility – to help our local sector get through the recovery. If we come together and collaborate as a city, I believe we can.”

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