Spotlight on Zara Lord - Founder of uPaged

Our interview series spotlights Zara Lord's intrepid journeys: what makes her tick, what gives her joy, and what keeps her grounded through the weird, wild, and wonderful moments.

Zara Lord is the founder of uPaged, Australia’s first digital healthcare workforce marketplace. uPaged provides hospitals with a direct connection to AHPRA registered, experienced nurses. uPaged empowers nurses by showcasing their unique abilities in a digital talent profile, allowing their skills to be matched to wards and patients needs, all at a fraction of what is charged by traditional nursing agencies.

uPaged’s on-demand talent marketplace is disrupting an antiquated and manual process, rife with confusion, frenzied back-and-forths, and onerous admin. In a fragmented market with little transparency, agencies have been taking a big clip of the ticket - leaving hospitals, patients, and nurses with a raw deal. After experiencing these pain points herself as a casual nurse, Zara was inspired to use technology to make the process better.

As a founder, Zara spikes across many dimensions that we believe are critical for success. When we met Zara, we were immediately struck by her growth mindset and her hunger for knowledge. Zara grew up in the country; she learned from a young age that if she wanted something, she had to build it herself. As she says, “You never know what you’re going to need to learn next”. Her problem solving skills and can-do attitude are rare, and hard to teach. We’ve also been blown away by Zara’s ability to rally an all-star team, and surround herself with a network of advisors, experts, and other supporters.

Zara and the uPaged team

AfterWork invested in uPaged in June 2021, alongside some fantastic strategic angel investors. uPaged was also the recipient of the Australian Government’s Boosting Female Founders Grant.

We’re lucky to play a small role in uPaged’s story, and to have a court-side seat to watch Zara build a much-needed product. We were excited to sit down with Zara and get to know what makes her tick, what gives her joy, and what keeps her grounded through the weird, wild, and wonderful moments.

Zara - how did you get the idea for your business?

As a Registered Nurse, I had worked on both sides of on-demand nursing . I’ve been the nurse in charge in ICU, receiving casual nurses that I didn’t know from a bar of soap, and doing my best to allocate them appropriately to patients.  I’ve also worked for nursing agencies and been placed at short notice into hospitals to do ad hoc shifts, and having to learn to adapt and prove myself in a short period of time, with new teams and in new environments.

I loved the ability to top up my income and gain new experiences, but being a casual nurse wasn’t without its challenges. When you arrive on a shift, it’s assumed you know nothing, and your allocation of patients rarely takes into account your experiences and skills. That often leads to a bad initial experience at new facilities, which has long-lasting reputation impacts for both the nurse and the facility. Then, when I learnt about the kind of fees that recruitment agencies charged hospitals… I knew there was an opportunity to use technology to do things better.

Talk us through your journey… How did uPaged evolve from an idea to a living, breathing thing?

I spent two years doing research, to uncover the pain points of every stakeholder involved in the placement of contingent nurses. I built a clickable prototype, and presented my idea to two hospital CEOs. Both saw the obvious need for this kind of product. They gave me their backing - agreeing to a trial. From there, I had a minimum viable product (MVP) built, which taught me a lot about what not to do, and informed version 2 of the product. The best part of the journey has been onboarding developers and UX/UI designers, and working closely with them to build the product. Having technical talent join the team has been a game-changer.

I was lucky that doing shift work allowed me to be self-sufficient for the first two years. Some weeks I’d do long days at the office Monday to Friday, then throw on my scrubs at 6pm on Friday evening, and head into a weekend of twelve hour night shifts. These are the unglamorous things you do as a bootstrapped startup founder… but it kept me close to my customers and users.

What has been biggest barrier to getting your business off the ground? How did you overcome it?

Navigating the complexities and the conservatism of the healthcare sector has been the most challenging barrier. The healthcare industry is, at the best of times, reticent to work with startups; they want to do business with established businesses that have a proven track record. This has excluded us from some tenders, even when the uPaged platform was highly aligned with the ask of the tender - such tools to stamp out bad practices, poor performance, and non-compliance. We’ve overcome these barriers slowly and surely, through diversifying the clients we approach, and building up our track record. Although the odds have sometimes been stacked against us, we’ve won tenders with private companies and innovative healthcare providers, which has helped us to establish ourselves as a respectable and trustworthy player.

What inspired you to make ‘after work, work’? Was there a pivotal moment where you were struck with a certain clarity? Or did you systematically work through the decision?

From fairly early on, uPaged became my main hustle. I gradually transitioned, decreasing my nursing hours, and dedicating more time to building uPaged. I realised you couldn’t successfully ‘dabble’ in building a company, so it wasn’t long before I was pointing 5 days a week at uPaged, and picking up nursing shifts on weekends. This meant I don’t have to pay myself much from uPaged, giving us more budget to bring onboard a talented team.

I do enjoy nursing on the side - it keeps my skills current, and I use a great app to pick up a range of interesting work, when it suits me, at places where I want to work…

There’s no better customer research than scrubbing up and scrubbing in

Outside of your company, what are you into right now?  

Boxing - I found some boxing gloves and pads in my shed, and have been getting into this with my sister. I also enjoy a soft sand run and swim. It’s a quick win, and puts me in a great state of mind.

Zara and her sister Ali, who is the CEO of events company Headbox Australia, have co-located their offices in Surry Hills

What inspires you and keeps you focused on your north star?

Customer feedback, which shows us the genuine impact we’re having on the healthcare workforce - especially at a time when healthcare workers are feeling the full brunt of COVID and considering their career options. We make it easier for them to stay engaged with an industry that desperately needs them.

Getting a job as a healthcare professional sucks. It’s time consuming, requiring a lot of paperwork and compliance-related admin, before you even know what the facility is going to be like to work at. uPaged is makes the job matching, application, and onboarding process delightful for healthcare organisations, and provides healthcare workers with so many alternative work options.

Talk us through a standard day in your life as a founder…

The only standard part of my day is our morning standup. At 9:00 am everyday the team gets together for a 20 minute chat on ‘what you achieved yesterday, and what are you working on today’ chat. There' have definitely been times where the standup turns into an ideation session, but it’s great to have the entire team weigh in on product and service delivery decisions. Other than the standup, my days are varied! I currently wear a few hats - across product management, business development, operations, governance, and managing investor relationships.

What unusual or childhood experiences prepared you for what you do today?

When I was fourteen, I wanted a car of my own. I pulled a 1976 HJ Holden Kingswood out of the dump yard of my parents cattle station, and went to work on getting it going again. I knew which of the jackeroos were mechanical and recruited them to help me understand what was going onunder the hood. After purchasing a second-hand alternator for $100, I realised that the problem was just a shorted-out wire. After I fixed that, the car ran like a dream. The car had bench seats and a column shift; under the tuition of my Godfather, learnt how to do my first burnout. I loved that project - loved learning new skills. Because I grew up in remote north-west Queensland, if I wanted something, I built it. More often than not, building it was the best part.

Also, growing up on a cattle station, we worked hard and Dad always talked about producing value. He knew that a happy, healthy, stress-free cow gained more weight and produced higher quality beef, at a lower cost to the producer. From him, I learned that a good business generates value.

What advice would you have for anyone looking to take the plunge?

Start selling from Day 1, and never stop. Sales validates your product, and informs its development. Doing this ensures that your product is in-line with what your customers and users want. Don’t wait for the product to be perfect: get the product in your customers hands, and let them tell you what they do and don’t like.

What is your golden rule that you try to live and work by?

Love what you do and do what you love.

Are you a healthcare worker, or know someone who is? Introduce them to uPaged!