The young executives driven to be a success: 'Our platform is just a matchmaker for pharmacists'
Friendship and business do not always go hand in hand, but for young online entrepreneurs Michael Budden and Johnny Clarke, their friendship is what makes growing their business even more exciting. The 26-year-olds from Belfast are co-founders of Locate a Locum Now - a pharmacy locum recruiting online business. They have been good friends for the last eight years and bring complementary skills to the partnership.
Johnny is a pharmacist and Michael is a graphic and website designer and together they work on their business in the evenings and over the weekend.
"We are essentially running an online platform that matchmakes locum pharmacists with pharmacies who need pharmacists for cover," said Michael, as Johnny is currently working as a volunteer pharmacist in hospices in South Africa.
"We supply pharmacies all over Northern Ireland but over the last six months we expanded throughout England so we are trying to grow over there as well."
The business was born out of necessity as Johnny found out at first hand as a pharmacist locum just how difficult it was to get work after he qualified from Queen's University, Belfast.
"It was started by Johnny late 2013. I helped him with some marketing and business development and then I became co-founder after a few months in 2014 and we have been working together ever since," said Michael, an Ulster University graduate.
"We are friends and have been for years but essentially it was Johnny's experience as a locum pharmacist trying to get work that was the spark for us to set up the platform.
"He came to me with the idea to set up so it was a natural step as the two of us were working together on it so closely.
"Everybody may have their scepticism about us working in business as friends but we work together very well together and know when to put our job head on to do what have to do and get on with it.
"We bring different knowledge and skills to the business. He knows more about certain things and I know more about other certain skills, so it just works."
The concept behind Locate a Locum may be simple but both partners are astute to know what users actually need to make the process as streamlined and as effective as possible.
Michael said: "The platform actually helps both pharmacists and pharmacies to get what they need, which is probably why so many people use and like the site.
"If you are a pharmacy locum, what you would traditionally do is leave your business card and CV around all the independent pharmacies throughout Northern Ireland, doing multiple miles in order to get on the pharmacy owners' list.
"As Northern Ireland isn't that big, most locums would be prepared to work anywhere, so getting around all the pharmacies is hard. Johnny went through that bit as well. Pharmacists would have to get their list out and phone around to get the over that they needed, so there is pain on both sides involved."
The site reduces that 'pain' of quickly securing professional holiday or emergency cover for busy pharmacies and it now has 500 pharmacists registered and over 150 pharmacies - mostly independents - over the last two years.
But the business has recently signed up Rowlands Pharmacy, the third largest pharmacy chain in the UK, and is currently in talks with the second largest pharmacy group. The site has become so established in such a short space of time that now English pharmacies are using it to recruit temporary pharmacists from Northern Ireland to provide cover weeks and months.
"We have found there is a demand for pharmacists from here as Queen's has such a good reputation. We are now lining up work for local pharmacists in England where the pharmacy pay all their travel expenses just to get them there," said Michael.
Initially pharmacists were charged a registration fee of £15 a year but now pharmacists can register free and the business takes commission on the daily charge per shift to the pharmacy provider.
"All the money that comes back into the business stays within the business. The natural progression is for us to keep improving the site and signing up more pharmacies and the end goal is to create a business that is making a lot of money and able to pay us."
Despite Johnny travelling with his volunteering over the last nine months, the business partners have been steadily working on adding new features to the website this summer that will make it even easier to use - as well as developing the site for future expansion.
He has not experienced the benefits of working out of Entrepreneurial Spark offices but Michael has really valued the provision of meeting rooms where he meets with representatives from large pharmacy chains instead of taking them to a nearby coffee house.