Let’s start with your personal background. Was business leadership always on the cards, even at an early age?
“Even from a very young age, I have always been a bit different. This is largely due to my severe dyslexia, which means my brain works in quite a different way to most other people’s. And when I say severe, I mean that I was unable to read until the age of seven and attended the only – at the time – dyslexia school in the UK. So, in short, I was dyslexic way before it was cool.
“So, when I got my first job in an ice hockey shop, I found myself being fairly useless as an employee because I spent the whole time arguing that how the business was being run was stupid, which doesn’t tend to go down particularly well when you’re young and working for experienced shop owners!
“I soon realised that I was unlikely to be successful working for other people, so I decided whilst at university to set up my own property business, which I convinced myself would turn me into a multi-millionaire – it definitely didn’t. Although initially it did quite well, it eventually collapsed at the beginning of the recession, after which I found myself falling into recruitment. Unfortunately, I learned very quickly that the issue remained: if I wasn’t at the top of the tree, I wasn’t going to be particularly happy about how things were done. This is because I can be a firm believer that what I think is right and have been known not to be particularly tactful in how I get that across.
“So yes, both from a very early age and later in life, it was clear that I’d be better off leading a business rather than working for one. It’s certainly not that I don’t value what others around me think – I make a point of trying to work with people who are better than me in their respective areas – but I just need to be in a position where I am not at the behest of people who would say ‘this is the way we’ve always done it, and that’s that’.”
What drove you towards business leadership in the first instance? What were your motivations, role models, or animating forces?
“In truth, one of the reasons I was driven towards business leadership is because I have a strong belief in setting myself personal goals, both financially and from a professional perspective. I understood that achieving these goals would be very difficult in an environment where innovation wasn’t the main idea. Even when I was at secondary school, in many ways I struggled due to wanting to do things my own way – which I guess is doing things in ways which were, to me, much more logical and efficient. This made me realise that if I was forced to work in a different way, I would likely be very frustrated and not hugely fulfilled.
“In terms of motivations, I’ll admit these were partly familial – one day I’ll write an entire article about my grandfather, but for now let’s say he’s an inspiration and be done with that! – partly financial, and partly due to my personal philosophy of creating something bigger than myself and leaving the world a slightly better place than I found it. In addition to this – possibly because of it – I take great pride in what I do and feel very passionately about it. My actions are directed by a code of ethics that I don’t often see in other recruitment businesses, and it’s important that I can continue to instil these ethics in everything that I do.
“The main business role model I had when I was younger was Sir Richard Branson. I was fortunate enough to meet him on quite a few occasions, and we had some interesting conversations about being dyslexic in the business world. The success that he has achieved as a dyslexic person really motivated me as a teenager and made me realise that I could be successful in business as well.
Starting out is, in some respects, the hardest part – can you describe an early setback on your entrepreneurial journey?
“While at university, I started a property company which worked with individual buyers and large property development businesses to provide discounts on purchases.
“The business was performing very well until the property market crashed, and then a partner – who was considerably older than me – used this as an opportunity to feather his own nest. This meant that I then had to give back any money I had made so that people wouldn’t miss out on deposits, etc. The whole experience provided my first big lesson that not everything you do will be successful. It also taught me how to deal with certain situations, big negatives, and large organisations that didn’t respect me because of my age.
“Ultimately, the lessons learned from this business venture have proved to be invaluable, but it was certainly a huge setback at the time – especially because I thought it might make me a multi-millionaire, when in reality it turned out to be something I made barely anything out of at all.”
Moving on to your specific industry: what was the appeal of recruitment as an industry?
“Having felt quite miserable for a while after the demise of my previous venture, it was a a charity event hosted by a family friend which changed things. I was selling raffle tickets for the Samaritans and because I sold far more tickets than anyone else – roughly £20,000’s worth – the family friend in question invited me out for lunch a couple of days later. He said he recognised my talent for sales and asked me if I’d like to work for his recruitment company. Interestingly enough, this was with a view to taking over the business a few years later when he planned to retire.
“This is where I first cut my teeth in recruitment. I went to work for him and started from the bottom, steadily working my way up the ladder.
“There were many aspects of the business that were at odds with how I thought it should be run, but saying that, I enjoyed being at the sharp end of sales, learning the nuances involved in persuading clients and candidates alike, and reaping the rewards of my hard work. In essence, I saw this as a great opportunity – not only to hone my sales skills, but also because you can essentially place as many candidates as you have the time to do so; if you’re talented and lucky, there’s the potential to earn literally millions of pounds a year.
“I was excited by the opportunities that recruitment presented back then and continue to be to this day. Being older and wiser, I don’t enjoy it solely for the money; I enjoy helping to improve other people’s lives by securing them with jobs that will help them on their own journeys to achieving success.”
And, on the other side of that coin, what are some challenges faced by recruitment professionals that other industries don’t necessarily face?
“Certain areas of recruitment are hugely market dependent. It’s possible in some recruitment sectors to see your market almost completely disappear overnight. A good example of this was when the contracting market was changed overnight due to a shift in IR35. People who were billing hundreds of thousands of pounds ended up billing nothing. And so, the volatility of particular markets is something that we can be susceptible to, but as good recruiters we pride ourselves on the ability to adapt and move into other areas rather than giving up altogether – which is what some people tend to do.
“Another challenge we face in recruitment, which many other industries don’t, is being in the slightly unusual position whereby the ‘product’ you are selling – i.e., the candidate – has a brain. You’re therefore not only managing the expectations and requirements of the client, but equally those of the ‘product’ that you are trying to sell to them. This means dealing with often conflicting views or ideologies, meshing them together to ensure they fit well, and keeping both sides engaged in the recruitment process so that you can get the best outcome for all involved. There is a nuance in that that doesn’t really exist in other types of selling, which is why I believe that recruitment represents the very sharpest end of sales.”
Broadening out on the back of that last question: have you learned any lessons from the recruitment industry that would be transferable to business leaders in other industries?
“There are a lot of lessons you can learn from recruitment that can be applied to other sectors. Recruitment is primarily a sales environment, and sales as a concept is pretty much used in every business. This means that people in recruitment can typically go off and do lots of other sales roles.
“In terms of other things, account management is crucial in recruitment because you need to have a strong relationship with your clients in order to succeed, and without people skills you’re unlikely to do well. In recruitment, you can go from feast to famine very quickly, so budgeting is also key and a big transferrable skill.
“In many ways, recruitment can be seen as a microcosm of the larger business landscape because it packages up almost every aspect of what makes up a business, even though it seems very simple on the surface. If you’re good at recruitment, there really aren’t many jobs that you couldn’t go into off the back of it.
“Basically, I think that recruiters will take over the world eventually, although I doubt the majority of people hope that happens!”
Finally, coming back to a more personal level, how would you encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to develop the right mindset and resilience needed to succeed in business?
“You don’t need to be a dick to be successful; being the loudest and most forceful person in the room doesn’t make you many friends – in business or life.
“In my view, a big part of succeeding as an entrepreneur is having people around you who encourage you and want to see you thrive. You need to find people who are happy to help you on that journey, and who will support you on both a personal and professional level. Entrepreneurship can be especially lonely and stressful at times – especially in the early days – so having people to bounce ideas off and talk to can make such a difference.
“You also need to make sure that you have an outlet away from your business – otherwise it can become all consuming. I went six or seven years without having a day off due to my eagerness to succeed, and in hindsight that was a mistake; I missed out on so much by doing so.
“There’s nothing wrong with seeking help when you need it. If you’re stressed and dealing with lots all at once, it’s important to speak to people. If you have the right network around you – both personally and professionally – you can be a real success. Equally, if you don’t have a strong network to support you, it can be incredibly lonely, depressing and therefore much more difficult to achieve success. It is vital to have a resilient attitude because you’re bound to have setbacks – and having the mental fortitude to get through these can be the difference between success and failure.
“If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur and you’re committed to building your business, you must develop an inquisitive nature and take the time to truly learn your trade, because anyone who thinks they know everything is essentially a fool. Being determined, adaptable, and willing to take criticism – constructive or otherwise – will help transform you into a better-rounded and more impressive businessperson.”