On this episode of the NTP Podcast we interview Phil Ireland, CEO & Co-Founder at Hone Carbon. We discuss what the team at Hone Carbon have been working on, Hone group progressing through a Series A funding round and resources Phil would recommend to our listeners. Hope you enjoy the interview!
Here you can source all the things we have talked about in the podcast whether that be books, events, meet-up groups and what’s new in the newcastle tech scene.
Can you give us a quick overview of what you do at Hone Carbon
So Hone Group has just gone through a series A round
How did Hone Carbon come about?
What is your experience working in the Newcastle technology scene?
What has your experience been like working in the remote space in the last two years?
What does that growth in your team look like?
How close does your team work with their customers?
What has the biggest challenge been?
What was your university experience?
How do you manage your day?
Are there any productivity tools you use?
Are there any courses you have done or books you have read that you would recommend?
What is the easiest way to get in touch with you?
James: Welcome to another episode of the NewyTechPeople podcast today we have Phil Ireland CEO and Co-Founder of Hone Carbon welcome Phil.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Thank you, thanks for having me.
James: Can you give us a quick overview of who you are and uh a bit of the backstory of Hone Carbon?
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yep so I run hone carbon which is a newcastle-based business. I’ve been here in this role for about two years I’m growing that company as a subsidiary as part of the broader home group prior to that my career has mostly been international advocacy and campaigning and policy.
James: Yeah nice it’s very interesting backstory and and to get into that um and then hone group has just gone through quite a successful series A round is that correct?
Phil – Hone Carbon: That’s correct yep.
James: We don’t get too many startup stories that get to that series A round in Newcastle we’re starting to get more of them but can you give a bit of a back story on the journey today or the journey to series A?
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yeah so Hone group itself has actually gone through a number of names but had three founders all from Newcastle. Anthony, Will and Jamie and they’ve brought the company through the last six years through a number of seed rounds and early raise rounds and have got our hardware and software suite to the maturity signifi enough the to a state that’s good enough for a series A so we just completed a series A with a grain court taking a major stake in the company.
James: Nice so if we backtrack what does hone group do? What does home carbon do?
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yeah so Hone group tries to reduce the cost and complexity of measuring things and we use spectroscopy to do that yeah so across our products we’re using miniaturised spectroscopy and chips to measure different agricultural commodities in real time so our flagship instrument the home lab red we use to measure grain protein and moisture canola wheat and barley hence grain corp’s interest in honed carbon we measure soil organic carbon which you need to measure to generate and account for carbon credits as part of carbon markets and we also have another product called the home lab black which measures which uses a different type of spectroscopy to measure liquids and it’s currently being trialled in wineries around the country to reduce the cost of measuring all the different things they have to measure within the wine making process.
James: Beautiful I imagine there’s many things that they’re meshing together right.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Absolutely there there are lots and lots of different applications of spectroscopy it is a technology that’s been around for 60 70 years but only in recent years has the technology really been miniaturised and being produced on a scale that allows it to be used in the field and at a point that’s cost competitive for the general user.
James: Yeah cool okay one more thing you mentioned the the major investor for the series a is a bigger company within the same industry is that right similar industry.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Well grain corp is a commodity trader yeah they’re not in the technology business that measures moisture and protein of grain but they’re in the same sector.
James: Yeah nice I feel like that’s a pretty interesting story to just make like get that alignment there and you see the the bigger organisations in complementary fields.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Correct they’re taking that thing and I think that it’s a really you hear a lot of success stories I guess in startup world where that’s the sort of avenue to go for for your investment as opposed to the the mums and dad dollars to get it you know from you know the ground up to the first round and they’re they’re a customer and have been a long-term customer and so they’re familiar with our technology our staff and can have a reasonable amount of confidence in what we offer.
James: Yeah beautiful if we reverse it back i think this is a really exciting story you’re seeing a newcastle based organisation get to that series A that journey is no doubt a quite an interesting one would have had your peaks and troughs along the way there’s a lot of people out there especially our technology listeners that look at startups and taking it from an idea or a product to where you’ve gone how did hone carbon come about and then the journey of home carbon becoming part of hone group?
Phil – Hone Carbon: yeah so hone carbon came about around two years ago and we’ve been in market really for 12 to 18 months yeah the company has for a long time looked at measuring soil analytes and there have been previous iterations at our technology that’s enabled that I came on board to really spearhead and lead that effort a lot of my background was in climate change advocacy and campaigning so I recognised that there was a significant gap in how we measure and account for carbon credits and obvious and one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of carbon farming in Australia is the cost and ease of measurement so recognising those challenges and seeing this local business i made a pitch to come on board and run that essentially with an impact focus to lower the cost and complexity of running a soil carbon project.
James: Yeah so how did it come for you being non-technical to get the product to market to work with i guess technic people that are i guess more technical minded in building the product getting it to to market because I think again that’s an another challenge a lot of startups face where you’ve got a non-tech co-founder or a non-tech partner in the business trying to find their tech co-founder trying to find people that can actually build what the market needs.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yeah it’s a great question so our business is filled with phd’s and technical people and we’ve really got our bases covered there what I’ve been able to do is work alongside them and engage my experience in stakeholder management advocacy people management and also fundraising so not-for-profit sector actually isn’t that different to a startup in many ways and I’ve been able to leverage my skills and networks in those areas and complement the technical background I should say I do I do have a background in a science degree from newcastle and a doctorate that looked at climate change adaptation so there is I do have a framework to understand spectroscopy and what the technology is but I certainly am not an expert in spectroscopy.
James: Yeah it’s nice it’s just really interesting because i feel like a lot of people again in the startup space have an idea they come from a non-technical background and then partnering with somebody that can actually bring something to life is a real challenge and on the flip side of that there’s a lot of technical people out there who can build a product or products but don’t have some that industry knowledge or somebody that can understand what an industry is actually prepared to pay for i feel like finding that mix is a it’s a very real challenge.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yes absolutely very nice so that’s the hone carbon journey and hone carbon makes up about a third of roughly the home group and home group as a whole and now how big organisation now so we have around 20 staff.
James: Nice base here in Newcastle based in newcastle in hunter street yeah cool is there any reasoning behind hey just the founders grew up or work around newcastle any reason for newcastle in particular?
Phil – Hone Carbon: So the founders did all grow up in newcastle I also grew up but then moved away and came back I think the long-term value of us being here comes to really like quite obvious qualities and that’s the quality of life in newcastle is exceptional the cost of living is less and also just practically running a startup in a place like newcastle is cheaper real estate’s cheaper staff cost of living is less so staff expect to be paid less and all of those different things it’s just a much simpler environment to to kick that off.
James: Yeah can you talk to I guess that the the local newcastle tech scene or the startup scene I think you know you’ve spoken before and to local companies and things like that what’s your experience been like from a startup perspective?
James: Yeah it wasn’t something I was particularly familiar with before the last couple of years but I have been surprised by how many tech startups there are here and also how many tech skills previously in the not-for-profit sector I was aware of a lot of tech staff that lived in newcastle and worked remotely because this was a good place to live but i wasn’t so familiar with the number of small tech startups that are here and the excellent avenues for capital such as newcastle or hunter angels for capital raising as well.
James: Yeah that’s an interesting story because i feel like seven plus years ago students that came out of newcastle university looking for a tech job probably had to go to sydney if they’re looking for an opportunity there’s a few jobs locally but not a lot and these days it’s the opposite like we can’t get enough technical talent coming out of university for the amount of jobs that are creating locally and a lot of that has been local start-up success stories as well as corporates and enterprise investing in technology but i feel like the breadth of roles available now for students is is phenomenal and and with big companies and not-for-profits and to be frank the whole tech sector moving to remote working that certainly puts newcastle in better stead on the remote work part how’s that experience been over the last two years for your organisation?
Phil – Hone Carbon: Mixed so we have we do essential assembly in and scientific work in our offices so some work some staff have been able to be in our offices and our offices are also quite large so we’ve been able to meet the square metre requirement for staff who’ve needed to work at home that’s been fine really we try to offer flexible working arrangements so that was part of the culture yeah already so that hasn’t really been challenging what is challenging is recruiting in a market where all of the big tech companies also now offering remote work to everyone so it’s kind of leveled the playing field across the whole whole tech recruitment market.
James: Yeah i completely agree I feel like the days of offering flexible work being a perk is now an absolute expectation from a candidate’s perspective and being able to offer you know fully remote work you’re now not competing with other local organisations you’re competing with the blessing and gambler and correct companies in the u.s um so let’s just change that market but that’s where coming to an organisation like yours you the team’s built in newcastle and if somebody wants to work with founders or wants to work with an organisation where they can touch and feel the product on a weekly basis work with the founders face-to-face i feel like that then becomes a selling point for you guys as opposed to that fully remote work.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yeah absolutely our all our staff can interact with everyone and you can be part of a business that’s in the process of scaling up and as wonderful as Atlassian and Canberra are they’ve kind of made it already so you’re slipping into existing roles and doing a set thing which is appealing to some people but we offer we have a very different value proposition and everyone that comes in is part of building our whole value proposition and in terms of our values we very much run first at people then product then profit so people at the core of everything we do.
James: You mentioned before the team going from 20 to 40 what are the sort of roles what does that team growth look like for a company like hone
Phil – Hone Carbon: We’re certainly learning as we go but there’s a lot more customer facing roles so as we bring on customers there’s obviously an increased need to support them and walk them through their various projects so a lot of customer facing work obviously the requirements in our technology to for our uptime and everything else become more stringent so making sure our tech team is really robust they’re the two key key roles i think we we also are as we scale assembly everything associated with um production engineering as well needs to be scaled where does the production take place at the moment in newcastle. We do assembly in a bit of manufacturing of components that come from a range of different places. Not only the software being done here in newcastle but the actual assembly that’s beautiful the full suite here in newcastle absolutely i don’t know of many other companies that do all of that but all of our hardware goes through the the newcastle office.
James: Yeah that’s nice and supportive you know obviously the economy likely and that technology community locally as well now you mentioned just then that team growth that product and the customer focus part i feel like in technology in particular there’s a lot of focus on the technology i have built the best product there is it’s the code’s really well written um it looks beautiful but there’s a thousand apps in the app store that are really well written and look beautiful but don’t make a dollar i feel like that focus on the customer is a big thing that’s potentially overlooked in a lot of technology spaces how closely does your team work with you know your own product or your own customers in driving your product roadmaps?
Phil – Hone Carbon: Very closely so our technology is quite specified and it’s not cheap so we work quite closely with all of our customers to make sure that our development pipelines are appropriate for their needs but also we’re getting feedback to continue iterating on what we’re doing.
James: Yeah and you mentioned earlier today as well a couple of the new products that might be coming down the line as well is that driven by clients tapping you on the shoulder hey i would be interested in xyz.
Phil – Hone Carbon: To be honest one of the long-term challenges of our startup and i think a lot of startups is the need to focus and there’s a lot of different applications and uses for our technology but we have to be really strict about identifying what is the critical path to surviving and thriving over the next couple of years and how do we achieve that so spectroscopy can be used to measure lots of different things and we get approached all the time to go down different avenues some of those are appropriate but most aren’t the right focus for now because we really are we try to be fixated on delivering for the customers we already have and scaling out that market the ability to say no it’s very difficult right very difficult.
James: Yeah and it’s been saying hey i’ve had personal experience there we we build a recruitment business based on newcastle technology saying newcastle technology so we’ll walk away from you know an accountancy role or something like that that isn’t our absolute bread and butter or work away from a role that’s not not based here and that’s been our focus i feel like having a nation doing that really well can be the differentiator and once you’ve broken through that wall as you guys do and then you can add the different verticals right? And it’s good to say as well because that’s another challenge of startups or scale-ups right is you know diversifying too quickly and then not nailing your actual market.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Absolutely.
James: Yeah nice it’s a success story obviously just going through a series A round but what’s the biggest challenge being today?
Phil – Hone Carbon: So with hone carbon I think it is prioritisation actually it’s saying no to things and recognising what do we do with our still relatively scarce resources and scarce time and making sure that’s focused on the long-term path to success. Yeah that’s it in a nutshell it’s what are we focused on and how do we how do we make that focus.
James: Yeah nice yeah that’s it i’m sure no two days are the same and there’s different challenges pop up from time to time but it’s always interesting to hear you know whilst everything is looks rosy from the outside that there are those challenges going on in the inside. In your personal journey you mentioned you had quite a diverse background and you did a bachelor’s and master’s is that right?
Phil – Hone Carbon: I did doctorate yeah I did a science bachelor of science, bachelor of arts, honours and then straight to phd technology spaces well it’s called education space is changing.
James: Yeah especially in technology spaces there’s uh there’s short courses where people can go from high school do a short course and get a software development role there’s also people that really swear by going and doing the degree um there’s different varying benefits people see out of doing degrees i’m really interested in seeing or hear from you what your experience was like going through those degrees and then what benefits that you think you you got from there?
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yeah that’s a good question I think there are lots of different pathways to a lot of different roles and not all require university and maybe a decreasing number require university I think my own journey university was certainly critical in shaping who I am today and my interests and passions ironically I really only started the phd because I met my current partner and they’d offered me a scholarship and it was just convenient at the time but I think for me it certainly gives you a grounding in rigor and process and particularly dealing with a scientific company understanding the scientific method and repeatability and reproducibility is very important and anyone any science degree is certainly a plus for people coming into our business because you do understand those things and certainly in terms of a phd that’s not a requirement for any of our roles but I would say whilst it being one of the harder things I’ve ever done it does really grind you down to be very particular in how you speak and the claims you make and how you write and i think it can be very useful in a startup and funding environment because you have to be very truthful and specific and accurate in what you say and how you talk and I think it gives that training so to speak.
James: Yeah and that’s not the exact answer that other people have said but there’s a lot of similarities there with university being somewhere that teaches people how to learn teaches people how to you know write and write in particular ways what you just mentioned there is a phd in funding or being there you know a CEO it’s really I guess insightful and quite common with a lot of the traits that other people find through there. What was the phd?
Phil – Hone Carbon: I looked at climate change adaptation policy and practice.
James: So very relevant to what you’re doing today highly likely you would wouldn’t be in the role you are right now without having done that right?
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yeah I don’t think I would have gone into the different roles I went into previously I should say in the not-for-profit sector I worked with digital campaigning organisations so there was a lot of tech staff very much involved in the tech space but yeah my doctorate did enable me to dig deep into climate policy but also understand the fundamentals driving the carbon market for example which is what drives the need for soil carbon measurement.
James: That’s beautiful you’re a CEO and Co-Founder of Hone Carbon that sounds like a big role you’re obviously growing and changing the businesses ever evolving how it sounds like there’s a lot a lot going on that definitely would be in a role like that how do you manage your day?
Phil – Hone Carbon: Oh um poorly no i’ve got a couple of kids as well so my day normally starts with them waking me up I think I start we start each day with a well we’ve got a number of processes. I like to get to work a bit early to get on top of what’s happening but then we also we do a stand-up to identify a big achievement for the previous day and the big achievement for the day yeah i really am a firm believer in not insisting on everyone has comprehensive to-do lists because a lot of things come up but rather being able to end each day with being able to say i’ve achieved this one big thing.
James: Yes if you can walk away from every day having achieved something significant that’s good days do get away from you with meetings and customer inquiries that come up and issues you’ve got to troubleshoot so I’d say about half of my time is proactive and half is reactive.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yeah and I’d like that ratio to become less but that’s the reality of it now I think that’s everyone’s dream right is to be proactive in in everything and email is the devil sometimes you wake up you you’ve got other people’s priority which is email seeing your inbox and then your day gets you know down down a bit avenue that you hadn’t planned on.
James: Correct you mentioned two key stakeholders there are your customers and b team or a team b customers either way there that is pretty much how your role split as the CEO of the the company it’s changing over time.
Phil – Hone Carbon: I think a lot of the last two years has been about bringing in key investors and people interested in that value proposition and also bringing in our high level customers we are predominantly operating in a b2b space so we have a few very large customers so managing those relationships bringing them on and then passing them off to our product manager or customer success staff members after that so i still engage in that high level stuff but then also managing the team and working on governance yeah beautiful that is that that third case stakeholder your investors um it’s something the more co-founders or the founders i speak to go through that investment rounds some of them.
James: I’ve heard their jobs become full-time investing you close one round and you start working on that next round is that part of your experience to date?
Phil – Hone Carbon: We have had a gap there will be a gap but it’s fair to say that we are constantly thinking about our last round and our next round and when that is and how long our runway is and how fast we scale and how many staff do we bring on and how does that match with our revenue and when do we need to do the next raise so at this point in the business it’s always front of mind.
James: Yeah nice back one step to to your day do you use any tools with managing your day?
Phil – Hone Carbon: I operate inbox zero so and I do rigorous filtering because as much as people in my previous job everyone debated when will the death of email occur and I can assure you it’s not occurring any time soon this is the primary method of communication between me and all my stakeholders yeah so it is the thing i absolutely have to stay on top of and I function on the three d’s when I go to an email I focus I have to do something about it delete it or delegate it I can’t open it and close it so my email list functions really as a to-do list and then google calendar along with that of all the productivity management tools I’ve used a lot of them as we all have over the years actually using g suite properly yeah is sufficient for me most days.
James: Yeah there’s a lot of different you know thoughts in and around email you know you get the introduction of slack and things like that over the past oh you know a few years but yeah I’ve tried inbox zero myself to varying degrees of success i think each year i start back on zero and as the year progresses it gets progressively a big and bigger number and those little notifications.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yeah agreed I think what slack’s done is we all initially loved it now it’s like oh god slack but it’s removed the need for internal emails which I think has actually improved the utility of the inbox because the inbox is primarily external communication so it’s actually like a mailbox.
James: Yeah I completely agree I feel like it can improve those internal communications as well you know and especially if you set up slack well within your organisation and it’s not just a shoot fight where everyone wants you know to respond straight away and there’s certain channels from certain you know ways to operate within that so I think you know getting those communication guidelines set up is pretty key right good nice mate you mentioned like a daily stand up and then an end of day one one big thing you’ve achieved the day before any challenges and then end the day what have you achieved hoping to achieve one big thing is uh that across the organisation you guys use that as a bit of a tool?
Phil – Hone Carbon: We have slightly different practices within each team it’s fair to say we have a stand-up within each team but for some teams that’s more a comprehensive list for some teams it’s more about triaging for some teams it’s about collaborating on a project yeah so the practices i mentioned are more for our our team within the business.
James: Yeah nice you’ve obviously well educated from a formal perspective from an informal perspective is there any courses you’ve done or any books that you’d highly recommend to people?
Phil: I mean the best book I have ever read professionally speaking is called ‘How to Have a Good Day’ the author I think is Carolyn I want to say Carolyn Lucas but I think that’s the greens leader in the uk it’s Carolyn someone.
James: We’ll find it and link it up in the podcast.
Phil – Hone Carbon: It’s an excellent book and a lot of what has come out in professional development books after that has drawn on that so I really do recommend that.
James: There are lots of resources out there now yeah uh outside of right races there are as you said there’s books and there’s audiobooks there’s podcasts now. Is there any other avenues you looked at for continuing education?
Phil – Hone Carbon: Yeah so podcasts I listened there’s a good series called ‘Diary of a CEO’ yeah I listen to that fairly regularly and it’s good but also i mean one of the challenges with books and podcasts is they’re trying to essentials or create a script for every startup experience and the reality is it is also different I could talk to you for weeks about the very unique journey hone carbon has taken how that does and doesn’t relate to other journeys so I think the key with any of these resources is to see them as an example but recognise there are there aren’t very specific templates for growing startups.
James: Yeah in my experience I think one of the most important things you mentioned today around that startup journey is like listening to your customers and the the customers being the ones that are defining your product roadmap and one of your biggest customers being the major investor in your latest round so yeah um i feel like being customer focused and building a product around that has been it sounds like that’s been the key.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Absolutely and often in the tech space we’re dealing with new markets the soil carbon market is a new market measurement for that is a new market we’re using hardware and software tools that are new. We run a mobile app to run our instrument mobiles have only been around for a decade or two so a lot of these things are new and we don’t as product owners but as customers we’re not all clear on what we actually want and we don’t know what the next year or 10 years will look like so I think there’s a lot of uncertainty but a lot of kind of creativity and playfulness that has to go along with that process of designing and delivering products that ultimately delight your customer yeah and as you mentioned like you’re not actually dealing with new technology as a whole like it’s been around for more than 60 years but what’s new about it is i guess how quickly you can build it the the cost of the build the size of the build and putting something that used to be maybe only accessible to the very few into the hands of the many yeah and then being able to it’s not a brand new technology but it’s just taking a technology that’s changed or evolved with you know with the time and being able to get in the hands of more users right.
James: Yep absolutely so it doesn’t need to be something that’s brand newly created or whilst it is new and there’s new avenues for that technology it’s not creating something from absolute scratch.
Phil – Hone Carbon: Right correct and I think this technology has process has kind of progressed in this way because of the miniaturisation of chips which has happened for a whole range of other reasons predominantly phones and smart watches but spectroscopy has been able to draw on advances in technology to to create much smaller instruments that are portable and wireless.
James: Beautiful that’s nice for those that I guess might be going through a similar journey themselves that might want to reach out for some advice or to hear a little bit more about you know the journey going on they think they might be able to contribute to your growth at some point and what’s the easiest way for people to get into contact with you?
Phil – Hone Carbon: So hone has I think we’ve got LinkedIn pages and also a form on the website that we’re pretty responsive to obviously I’ve got a personal LinkedIn you can reach out to me there.
James: Yeah and you’re happy to help
Phil – Hone Carbon: Absolutely happy to ask a question yep don’t expect a response in a day but I generally get to everything within a week that’s my response time.
James: I think that’s a good response time imagine you know you got busy enough days as well but yeah that’s fantastic mate thanks for coming on and sharing the journey um it’s great to see another newcastle success story I wish you guys all the best and now going to that next journey.
Phil – Hone Carbon: My pleasure thanks for having me.