LBS logo London experience. World impact.

Care with the personal touch HomeTouch

10 Jul 2015

As a medical practitioner armed with an MBA, Dr Jamie Wilson has been battling in the entrepreneurial trenches for three years with HomeTouch, he explains why often Plan B is better than Plan A  


When Dr Jamie Wilson MBA2011 left the medical profession to study for a MBA at London Business School (LBS) in 2009, he’d already caught a bug of his own: the entrepreneurial bug. After working as an NHS psychiatrist, he knew in 2007 that he wanted to have a greater impact on healthcare. Dr Wilson left the profession and forfeited a steady wage to start HomeTouch, which back then was a tablet-based solution to care, but is now a marketplace for finding a carer. The care is personalised, patients are ‘clients’ and the business is “much like a care concierge service,” says Dr Wilson.

Everyone has heard of ‘fail fast’ but if there’s one thing Dr Wilson’s learnt, it’s that you’ve got to fail first. His idea, HomeTouch, which launched in 2012, was a tablet-based software platform – a dashboard to check your family member is receiving the right care. But because tablets weren’t widely used at the time, and Wi-Fi penetration in the demographic (the elderly and the informal carers, aged between 40 and 60) was low, the product wasn’t ready to be widely used. At this point, Dr Wilson changed the business model, re-launching HomeTouch in December 2014 as a marketplace that connects self-employed carers to people looking for home care. The platform allows care-seekers to search for help by postcode, allowing them to browse carer profiles, send messages directly to them and book the person they want.

Right market, wrong model

The market opportunity for elderly care is significant. According to AgeUK, the number of people aged 85 and over has increased by 30 per cent between 2005 and 2014. The changing demographic is a hot topic: Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice, LBS, is in the midst of extensive research into the 100-year life. But rather than focus on the three-stage career which means people will work for up to 80 years, Dr Wilson’s venture addresses the immediate dilemma: with more elderly people than ever before, how do governments, families and loved ones help those most in need?  

Dr Wilson spent years in the NHS and saw first-hand the result of badly managed bed-blocking (when hospital beds are occupied for long periods due to a shortage of suitable care elsewhere) and hospitals with inadequate business structures. Pressure to get the ill – and often elderly – home from hospital is intense and if patients own a property they almost certainly have to pay for care themselves. “At hospital you’re given a list of care agencies to contact and these agencies are of a very mixed quality. They tend to be expensive, charging around £15 to £20 per hour. But the carers are paid very little, so there’s a high turnover of staff, they’re demotivated and patients have bad experiences,” says Dr Wilson. 

HomeTouch puts the power back into the hands of the carers, who are profiled on the site. Carers set their own rates and promote their skills and experiences to potential clients. Patients select their carer personally and HomeTouch takes a commission. The benefits of this operating model are extensive. While arranging care through an agency could take up to a week, HomeTouch care can be arranged within minutes. Choice offers the client a sense of empowerment at a time when they’re feeling vulnerable. And there’s a guarantee of quality, which, in an industry that typically pays a carer less than a cleaner, goes some way towards professionalising the job.
Dr Wilson’s confident he now has the right model, but only after spending “a few years in the trenches”. He adds: “You’re lucky if you get the idea right first time. It’s almost as if you need to spend two or three years failing before you have the right skills and experience to launch the right concept.”

Empowering the vulnerable

Malik from Tel Aviv is an early-adopter of HomeTouch. Suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, he is unable to walk and needs assistance getting in and out of bed. When visiting London in 2015 for two weeks, he needed urgent care. With the help of HomeTouch he chose a carer called Sanhori based on his experience, skill-set and personality. Sanhori helped Malik at the hotel he was staying at and for the duration of his time in London. It’s this level of personalised and flexible care that empowers people who need help at the most stressful time of their lives. 

The UK has seen some horrendous bouts of mistreatment in care; a BBC Panorama investigation in 2014 exposed care homes where residents were being abused. Dr Wilson is all too aware that when the vulnerable need care, transparency and trust is absolute, which is why the guarantee of quality is a key differentiator for his business. 

The ethical dilemma test

How does the HomeTouch team test if a potential carer is honest and trustworthy? Patients who generally need routine in their lives are often forced to rely on a complete stranger at first. With this in mind, Dr Wilson and his team of six vigorously vet the carers. “If we start with 100 people in the funnel, we get down to about eight at the end, and at every stage we screen people out,” he says.

The team starts by looking at the carers’ experience and whether they have worked in the sector before. They then carry out Criminal Records Bureau, driver’s license and other official checks. A telephone interview follows, with a final face-to-face interview to determine the carer’s character and softer skills. The team bases its decisions on whether or not to hire on five traits:
1. Compassion 
2. Punctuality and reliability 
3. Communication
4. Common sense
5. Honesty

“In interviews we ask people how they would behave in certain scenarios, for example, if they have an existing contract and they’re offered another contract that conflicts with any other work – how would they handle the situation? We only want people who are trustworthy. We want people to be good for our clients and ambassadors for our brand,” says Dr Wilson.
He says that the structure of the care industry in the UK is on a par with the US, where carers also get paid very little. Dr Wilson adds: “In Scandinavia and mainland Europe, carers tend to be better paid; they are almost professionalised and so they are more respected, nearly like nurses. I think that here, we don’t have a respected or professionalised care workforce. That has an impact on pay, reputation and how the job’s perceived.” HomeTouch provides what Dr Wilson describes as a living wage for carers who may previously have felt disillusioned.

Times are changing and Dr Wilson has his eye on Silicon Valley where Honor, a new start-up called based on the same premise as HomeTouch, has launched. The online service connects in-home care providers with the elderly and their families and has raised US$20 million to date. Dr Wilson keeps his lofty aspirations to a minimum when fundraising for his business, but if Honor’s success in the US is anything to go by; this time he’s got the “right market and right model”.

Author: Anna Johnston