We caught up with Debbie Harris, founder of elderly social care platform Autumna, to hear about how the care industry is innovating, and how her company is helping people find the right care homes for relatives in need…
Tell us about Autumna
If I said ‘Autumna is an elderly social care platform’, I might easily lose 90% of your readers in that sentence alone. No one is really interested in elderly social care until they need it. The trouble is, when they do need it, they’re usually at crisis point, and then watch what happens when they start trying to find independent, impartial advice on the subject for the first time.
Autumna changes all that. It’s Rightmove for elderly social care – that’s home care, live-in care and care homes. All 23,000 registered care providers are on our platform, crucially, in a format that is easy to navigate and compare – just like Rightmove.
It sounds simple enough, but ask anyone who has tried to get up-to-date online information and advice on elderly care, and you’ll hear the same story: the information is out there – somewhere – but is so disjointed, random, and in many cases misleading, that making the right choice is down to luck more than judgement.
How did you come up with the idea for Autumna?
Back in my younger days, I was actually an estate agent, and the way that Rightmove came in and transformed the market was truly game-changing. We are doing the same with Autumna and we’re starting to make people sit up and listen.
As with so many business ideas, Autumna was born from need. My aunt needed a care home, she was self-funding and there was nobody, quite literally nobody, who could help me choose the right care home for her.
I have now been working in social care for over 10 years, with a company that offers bespoke care searches for other families who are self-funding their care and either don’t have the time to search themselves, or more likely are completely lost in, and confused by the system. The problem was, even our team who knew the sector well were spending hours on the phone trying to find the information we needed, and I just thought there had to be a better way.
We launched Autumna in August 2019 as a direct result of the difficulties we faced looking for care and we have focussed entirely on the needs of the consumer. One of the crucial distinctions of Autumna is the fundamental premise that the consumer needs to be given information based on their needs, not because a company has paid to be at the top of the list or paid us a referral fee for an introduction.
With Autumna, the hierarchy of the site reflects the amount of relevant information a provider gives the consumer. So, the smaller providers – 80% of the market – are put on an equal footing to the large groups. If you’re going to be independent, impartial and trusted, you can’t allow yourself to be influenced by the ‘highest bidder.’
People looking for elderly care need to know they’ve made the right decision for them, not for us.
What do you think the main issues with the care industry are?
Safety from infection within a residential care setting is obviously the big worry for people at the moment, and probably will be for some time going forward.
Again, information on the subject has been badly lacking. Media reports have often been misleading. There are many cases where social care has managed the COVID situation brilliantly, but as a journalist once put it to me, ‘We give good care,’ isn’t a news story. The truth is that at least 60% of residential care has remained COVID-free during the pandemic – it’s just that no-one knows which 60%.
That situation has to change and it’s why Autumna launched S.A.F.E. (Symptom Assessment For Everyone). S.A.F.E. allows care providers to upload 3rd party validated information about their infection control procedures. It means that families can now search for S.A.F.E. care homes.
What advice would you give to other women looking to start a business?
This is an interesting question and the answer that immediately comes to mind is: Think like a man.
Now I have to try to explain how I think a man thinks, and how it helps me to think like that.
You have to understand, that I am of an age, and from a background where it was only men who went into business and this possibly won’t resonate with your younger readers. But I think to begin with, I struggled with confidence. I had what might be called ‘Imposter syndrome.’
Add that to the fact that I was trying to move a whole service sector that didn’t want to be moved, and you can see why there might have been times when I thought, ‘How did I get myself into this? Why am I here?’ But you have to push on through, and you have to keep the passion for what you started and eventually, everything will start to fall into place. For me making sure families make informed decisions about care is my passion. It might not be on your radar yet – but it will be. If you are lucky you will get old and by then I hope that some of my initiatives will be benefiting you.
On a more practical side, be prepared for some long, long working hours. If you have a husband who snores, get him to sleep in another room. You’re going to need all your energy and you can’t be waking up tired. A bad night’s sleep is the entrepreneur’s enemy.
What can we hope to see from Autumna in the future?
Disruption in social care. We constantly scour the hospitality, estate agency and healthcare sectors for innovations and trends. Social care provision is a combination of all of these sectors and the providers need to wake up to this reality. We are going to help them.
I have a history of disruption that has already profoundly influenced the sector. I introduced the care home reviews, back in 2010, when people thought it couldn’t be done.
Now with Coronavirus, many industry sectors have had to change their thinking and Autumna is going to support the elderly care sector to do the same. Sourcing care in the future will be fundamentally transformed and Autumna will be in the vanguard of that happening.