Getting To Know You: Jonathan Richards, CEO & Founder, Breathe

Jonathan Richards

Jonathan Richards, CEO & Founder of Breathe HR tells Business Matters why he chose to focus his attention on helping SMEs with their HR needs.

What do you currently do at Breathe?

My role at Breathe is CEO, which in normal times means an equal split between nurturing the culture and setting the strategic direction – in that order. In early COVID times that changed to 70% culture and 30% impact management. Just recently that has transitioned to 50% culture, 20% impact and 30% strategy (‘come back stronger’). If a business is to stand a hope of thriving in the times to come, then now is the time to start thinking about developing a return to work strategy, so they can come back stronger.

What was the inspiration behind your business?

It started with a desire to create a better way for SMEs to manage their employee admin. My background was in implementing HR systems for mid-sized companies, but I enjoyed working with SMEs and wanted to help them. SMEs face much of the same complexity around managing people as large corporations, but without the same breadth of resources and/or skill sets to do so.

More broadly, I take inspiration from all over the place. I read very widely but there were probably two people in my business career to mention that really inspired me and influenced my direction. They both come from the days when I worked in the City. I had an MD at a City firm I worked for who was the first to give me a break. I really shouldn’t have landed the job I got, but he saw something in me. That set me up for the way I like to work with other people. Everybody deserves a chance.

Another was when I was Management Accountant for a US stockbroking firm. My boss, the Finance Director, was very open and inclusive. He said: “talk to me if ever you think you’re going to leave. Tell me and I’ll help you.” When the time came, I took him at his word, told him I wanted to leave and he did help me. That stuck with me along the way. I never underestimate how seemingly small actions you take can have huge impacts on people, it’s always worth remembering that.

Who do you admire?

Anyone who is prepared to take a business idea and make it happen. Ideas are easy but having the drive, determination and ability to build a motivated team around you is hard. Anyone who runs their businesses by leading with culture, really. There are two big company bosses who come to mind that I particularly admire for doing this, Satya Nadella at Microsoft and Bob Iger at Disney.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

I don’t like looking back – things happen the way they do for a reason. My various career and business moves all add up to the person I am and business I run.

When it comes to things that didn’t work out – well, ultimately it’s OK if I learn from them. If I make a decision that turns out to be bad, then the best thing I can do it is to learn from it and move on. I’m never afraid to say that I’m wrong. For me, the worst thing to do would be to not make a decision. Get out there, try something, see if it works. If it doesn’t, change it and try again Fairly early on, in fact just before Breathe came about, we had the mantra: “do it, review it, revise it” on the basis of just ‘get out there and try’.

What defines your way of doing business?

‘If you put your people first, they will look after the rest’. Our job as leaders is to try and show our people where we are going, what their role will be in getting us there and then give them regular progress updates / course corrections.

My leadership style is very open and inclusive, always listening to and taking in people’s views. With a balance – we’re a small business that’s growing fast so we have to make decisions quickly. I’m never afraid to make decisions but I’ll always try to take input, process that input, and then come out with a decision.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Don’t overthink it, keep it very simple and get started. There’s nothing better than getting experience in the field and as very few businesses need large capital investment up front, I’d say just get going. Over-strategizing and planning can really hold you back, too much time spent projecting and trying to work out details and scenarios that haven’t happened yet or might not ever happen is simply a waste of time. I think a lot of people underestimate themselves, and it’s their self-doubt that holds them back in the end.

Trying to create something worthwhile, something you really care about, and having the courage to go for it is what you should be striving for. In itself, it might seem daunting but tackling the first hurdle is always going to be the hardest – after that, things tend to take a shape naturally. Persistence is key.