Zero to Sixty–Automate your HR in sixty days

Tom Houghton, Vice President at Bearded Builders
Sep 15, 2021

When Tom Houghton joined Bearded Builders, their HR practices were just a single, underused filing cabinet. In this episode of PIVOT, he shares how they transformed their entire HR process in sixty days and the lessons he learned along the way.

How fast should you introduce automation into your HR processes? For Tom Houghton, Vice President at Bearded Builders, the answer was sixty days. That’s right, sixty days. When Tom started at Bearded Builders, HR was contained in a single neglected file cabinet with a few papers inside. While there was a clear opportunity and a need to update their practices, Tom knew starting small wasn’t an option. 

In this episode of PIVOT, Tom shares his approach to this impressive transformation and breaks down the business reasons behind the scenes.

On this episode, you’ll hear:

  • [01:10 – 02:04] How the HR practices looked when Tom started
  • [02:24 – 03:21] Why not start small?
  • [03:31 – 05:11] Tom’s guiding strategy through the process
  • [05:23 – 10:24] Business drivers and lessons learned
  • [10:45 – 11:48] What does HR look like today?
  • [12:45 – 14:06] What is Tom’s pivotal people moment?
  • [14:20 – 15:27] Where should you start?
  • [15:37 – 16:55] What is Tom most optimistic about?

After you listen: 

Ask a SMB Workplace Question and get featured on POPS! The People Ops podcast.

POPS Star Bio

As a former founder, Tom Houghton knows the challenges facing small businesses today. He is currently the Vice President of Bearded Builders, a home remodeling agency based in Maryland. In his role, Tom leverages his years working in Hollywood and a passion for storytelling to bring dreams and ideas into reality.


Tom: Spend a lunch break or spend a morning thinking about and calculating all that time. Cause I sure did when we started and it’s shocking when you start thinking about how much time you lose trying to track down some of that stuff and making sure things are in the right, please.

Didi: It’s the people ops podcast from Zenefits, the only show dedicated to small businesses, sharing stories, pivotal people, moments. I’m your host, Didi D’Errico. We talk a lot on this show about the benefits of automation and the power it can have for small businesses. What we don’t talk about often is how quickly you could or should introduce automation into your HR processes for Tom Houghton.

The answer was 60 days. That’s right. 60 days. Tom is the VP of Bearded Builders, a 12 person renovation company based in Omaha, Nebraska. When he joined Tom saw an immediate need to update his company’s HR practices. 

Tom: Coming into the business. HR was run by our owner, Eric. And obviously, as you know, in small business, there’s only so many hours in the day.

And when you’re the owner of the business, you’re dealing with a lot of things, a lot of headaches and challenges and thinking about strategic growth, et cetera. So when I joined the organization, it was something that I saw that I could take off of his plate and looking into how things were previously run at no fault to him.

Because again, Everyone’s always so busy and small business. Our HR was literally a file cabinet with there would probably months that would have flown out. Had I opened it. And it’s just a challenge for people to stay on top of these things to stay on top of personnel changes, even things like w four forms or an employee wants to update something.

How do you track all those changes in a manual process? A lot of that stuff falls to the back burner when really it shouldn’t for compliance reasons, et cetera. You want to make sure that you’re running things on the up and it’s challenging to find time to do that. 

Didi: Now you might be wondering why not start small, like automating one function at a time, something like recruiting or payroll. As we jump into the conversation, Tom explained his approach to an impressive transformation.

Tom: Originally it started off small, uh, as all good things do. And then you start running down the rabbit hole and you’re like, oh my goodness. Look at all these other great things that can come along with this. And so truth be told, I think all of this is interconnected and interwoven. And so that is why I think it makes sense if you’re starting to move one piece on the chess board, if you will, you just want to play the game all at one in one go And I think there’s a lot of benefits to that. There are also a lot of challenges to that,  but a lot of the benefits is having on one place and leveraging all this forces, your hand.

At being committed to it. So if you tip toe in, there’s a little bit of that, like half and half out mentality where you’re gonna be still using some old processes, some old systems. And then what ends up happening is you’re not leveraging either system. You’re not leveraging your old stuff for the new stuff.

So going all in for us was a strategic move to make sure we were committing to something. And following through with that committment. 

Didi: So, can you talk a little bit about what was your guiding strategy that you were then trying to align the two, get rid of the moths in the cabinet, but also looking proactively for your.

Tom: There was a number of hurdles that I felt like we needed to solve. One was the Moss and the cabinet one was of course I think a lot of people in small business understand this payroll always seems it doesn’t matter where you go. It always seems like it’s a headache for someone somewhere in the process.

So how can we streamline that process for our team, but really the heart. What got us going was Eric, like I said, Eric’s our owner. And he has such a great heart for people. It’s one of the reasons why I love working with them for our team too. Like how can we make their lives better? And how can we do something as a small business that most businesses can’t do?

What can we do to help benefit our team? And so how can we look at things like benefits, health, benefits, 401k, other things. And again, I’ll be honest as a small business. All of this seems so untouchable or it’s just such a huge mountain to climb that you’re strategically thinking about the roadmap ahead.

Okay. Well maybe we start with, how do we just organize all of our personnel files? Oh, now we can do payroll sum it through system. Okay. Is there a system that talks with both of these, oh, let’s figure out, is there something else here? This is literally the process that I went down, which was like, how can we start to check all these boxes under one roof in order to make sure it makes my job easier in the long run, which is selfish.

But at the same time, it’s also protecting the business because I’m saving 30% of my time into all this stuff. That’s a huge cost for the business. And obviously I’m very concerned about ROI. And so that’s also, again, why we’re looking at a fast paced timeline is how quickly can I do this? So that way I can also drive the ROI much faster.

Didi: All right, let’s get to the big question. What was the business reason behind why bearded builders pushed to complete their HR transformation in just 60 days? 

Tom: Honestly, it was just to get it done before the end of the year. That was my goal. And the reason why is because I was looking at 20, 21 as we want to start fresh with a whole bunch of great things in 2021.

So how can we speed through this as quickly as possible? So that’s where that 60 day timeline came through. And the other thing is honestly, I’m a big fan of small business because I feel like you can do a lot of this stuff so much faster than big business. You can be so much more agile. And that’s what I was really trying to push and show that.

With, as a small business, we can turn the ship really quick. 

Didi: before listening and, and have either automated a little bit of your business. Are there some important learnings or some really important questions maybe that you asked in the process of moving forward? Because you talked about kind of one question led to another, that started that small idea turned into something much more holistic, but really smart, maybe guideposts that you really looked at in the process of automating your, uh, 

Tom: Two things right off the bat, come to my mind.

It’s knowing your why, and knowing who who’s going to be responsible for it. So knowing your why is so crucial for business and a lot of things, but especially when it comes to people, operations people, our ROI, without our people, we’re not able to perform the work that we’re able to do. We don’t have the team, which means we can’t impact our clients who are also people who were trying to.

To show love to, without losing focus of that long, the way obviously muddies the water. And again, I’ll be honest through the process when we got to the benefits portion of it to actually like health care benefits. That was the most challenging thing for me to go through that season and just managing all the aspects of health and dental and all of that.

And it’s very easy to just get overwhelmed. All of the options on the table and you just lose focus of your why of like, all I’m seeing is numbers and charts and things like that. And you just, you lose focus of it. So keeping that centrally focused was crucial to making sure that we made it to the finish line.

Didi: So knowing your, why was your number one piece and your number two piece 

Tom: of advice? Uh, who is going to be involved in this. And obviously if we’re going to have questions and just creating a centralized structure for, okay. If you’ve got a question about this is who you should go talk to you and small business like ours, a lot of that ends up just coming back to me.

That last one probably also goes to like expectations set, which is obviously crucial. Cause my favorite saying is unset expectations. Go on, right? So people, if it’s not clear to them, they’re not going to know who to ask or, and then it just turns into a frustration when it was actually supposed to be a benefit all along.

Just making sure there’s clear expectations of who’s responsible for what I’m not that’s communicated to the team is, is obviously, did you have a big aha anywhere in your process of moving from the moths to the automation? 

I think I probably had too many ahas, but if I could boil them down, I think two aha moments.

The first one was okay. That it could be done when you set off to complete something like this, reset a timeframe and you’re working on it. There’s part of you that obviously believes it can be done, but then you start getting into it and you get the weeds. Like I said, and I think coming through on the other side, I obviously was able to do this so I can say it can be done.

There were times of those seasons of doubt, if you will. The self-doubt even maybe, but we were able to pull it off. And a lot of that, again is not just me. It’s having a team that can help support you. So again, that’s where it goes back to like getting people involved in this process is crucial, especially in small business.

 The other aha moment for me was we were able to offer more than we thought we could. And that was just through doing more due diligence. So basically we started off in saying, okay, we want to solve this problem, which is outdated HR system.

Tom: We figured out a better way to do that. But then we also had this other mission, which was like, how can we benefit our employees lives by offering more benefits? And so we started off by just saying, okay, can we offer health benefits to our employees? And it was like, yes. Okay. We can do that. Fantastic.

What about a 401k? Yeah, we did the research and we can offer a 401k too. And obviously all of these are costs to a business, but a lot of them to a small business, I feel like they’re untangible or unknowables until you start getting into it. But then you’re also going to be calm enough to sink so many hours into figuring all this out.

You’re using technology tools like Zenefits. You can see a lot. Broken out very easily for your organization. And so it was very easy for us to weigh the costs of this in order to make sure that one, we could cover the cost, but two, that ultimately the benefit of it outweighs the costs, which is the benefit we’re making in our employees lives.

That’s what got us to why we’re really doing this is that we want our employees to not have to worry about what am I going to retirement, things like that, where originally it seemed untangible. But as he went through the process and we went deeper down the rabbit hole, we realized like we could do it.

So that was another great aha moment. I think for us, with Jack that we could offer more and it was possible. And a lot of that cost was minimized because of using technology. 

Didi: So today, if you were to take a snapshot of, you started with a filing cabinet and you couldn’t keep up with the information, you talked pretty eloquently there about adding benefits.

Have you had the opportunity to hire anybody during this time or do any onboarding as part of the equation? If you were to look at, if you thread together, all the pieces of what HR automation looks like today, how would you make the snapshot of what that 

Tom: is? So we have had the opportunity to hire on more people and we will be continuing to hire here obviously, because demand is increased.

And so we need to, and that was something that was very daunting previously, because how do you handle new candidates? How do you onboard the material company without a system in place? Obviously it’s just a mess for them. And that’s of course not what the first one impression you want to give it to a new hire is, oh, we don’t actually.

Yeah. And we had a system in place, but obviously, like I said, it was outdated. Yeah. Manual a lot of paper. And then where did that paper go? Who did that paper go to? So having all one place that we can have, it was crucial and it has made our onboarding so much better. We’ve hired two new people since we’ve implemented the new technology systems in place at Zenefits.

And the process has been super exciting. We’re looking at our old process and looking at this new process that Zenefits even walks you through, and this is way better than what we had before. So we should just use that instead. So not only is it streamlining, but it’s also leveling up if you will, which was a huge benefit.


Didi: have you updated or created a handbook in the process? I’m going back to your you’ve got builders who were in people’s homes during COVID, are there some new mandates and safety and security things that you want to make sure that everybody who could, especially the new people that come in are all on the same page for what you need to do and to do it.

Tom: Yes, we have a handbook and the handbook we previously had was done in word very simple. And now we’ve been able to do more and using a template actually from Senate’s, which was a great tool to help give a more robust picture and leveraging technology. We’re able to update that a lot faster than we were previously.

Didi: So maybe to bring this all together, if you could share, we call them pivotal people moments, but an example, a compelling story. You’ve talked a lot about this, but about the end result of creating this foundation that maybe highlights your mind shift and the impact shift of what people operations is doing for your business.

Tom: I think the biggest shift for us, the big moment is changing from being reactive, to being proactive. And I think in small business, a lot of that time is wasted in being reactive when problems come up or when issues arise or when you have to solve a challenge. The more, you can actually go on the offense and be proactive with something the better it is for you, the person who has to handle that for your team and for the people you’re interacting with in this case, our clients.

So having everybody on board in one system, And leveraging technology, keeping everything in one place. It has just been a huge game changer for us, so we can be more proactive. So that way we can hire more people and hire them more efficiently than we used to. And like I said, with compliance, making sure that when I lay my head down on the pillow and I can actually sleep well, because I know that.

We’ve done these checks and balances to make sure that everything is a, okay. These are the things that I think a lot of people see the headache of. Well, we’ve got something that’s currently working, quote unquote, but is it really working? It couldn’t be better with something different. And that was like, like I said, last year, I think posed to a lot of people, ourselves included.

And that’s where we said we have to be doing something different. We have to be doing something better. We know that it exists out there. What is it? 

so if there’s a listener here who we caught their attention and they’re saying, huh, I got a couple of Excel spreadsheets, maybe have a moth or two, where would you advise them to start?

Tom: I think the first question that you have to ask yourself is how much change are you willing to tolerate? Because it is a change in order to do this. And I think this has been a great experiment for our team, a human experiment on how much our team has been able to handle change and change is always difficult, but change is a part of life and it’s a part of growth and so many good things can come through it.

There’s pain in the temporary season of the change, but usually it results in something more beautiful on the other side of it. And that’s been a good place to start. step one is recognizing the problem. Step two. Is, are you willing to do something about it?

And if so, what does that look like for you? So I recognize this problem. I know the solution to it is automating this process. How much time and effort can I put into this? How much time do I want to put into this and how can I do this as quickly and efficiently as possible? And for us, that was that 60 day goal and going all in on this, because I knew if we went all in on this, it would be beneficial to, to be committing to that and saying goodbye to the old ways and hello to the new ways of doing things.

Didi: Finally, given lots of change and tumbled in his business during the pandemic, we asked Tom what’s he most optimistic about going forward? 

Tom: What’s most optimistic for me is the growth that we’re seeing in our area specifically in our field, a lot of demand. So the demand is there. The question is what do you do with it?

So we’re trying to capitalize on it as much as possible. So I’m excited that we’re in a position now to leverage. Some better systems and processes in order to capitalize on that growth. So that’s what I’m most excited about for us. I think for small business in general, though, I’m excited to see the rebound that’s going to happen.

I really think Americans, they’re becoming more aware as you drive right. Different cities and see places that unfortunately were able to make it last year. That means there’s a lot of opportunity out there for new places to come in. might call to action for you. Well, let’s go support your local small business communities.

We need support from the local communities. There again, maybe that’s just my optimistic side of things, but I truly believe that communities will rally around small business and we’ll continue this growth into something much bigger than we ever could dream before. So I’m excited to look at last year, as a shift in thinking that we were all on a routine and we had to get out of that routine.

And so now be thinking as you’re out there, how could we go do something differently and leverage a small business in order to get something done? 

Didi: I’m Didi. And this was pivot. If you want to learn more about inspiring people, operations stories, like Tom’s checkout,, where you’ll find bonus resources profile.

And even a link to order our new book titled guest it, people operations. Also, if you have questions you want us to answer on our show, check out the link in our show notes below and we’ll get it covered.


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