I don’t think there’s a recruiter alive who’s not thought about going into business themselves.
Ever sat with a colleague, knocking back a warm, flat IPA and thought things would be better if you did it your way?
You’d cut out all the crap and focus on what you knew worked.
You’d get to keep 100% of your fees.
You’d only work with the clients you want to. And you’d absolutely dominate your niche.
Talking about running a business and actually doing it are two very different things. And if you were to make the leap, you’d want a pal jumping with you.
I went to meet Craig Davies at Orbis Consultants in their WeWork office in Aldgate. Craig co-founded a digital, tech, data and FS agency alongside his friend, Wayne Hilditch.
Everyone at Hunted talks Orbis up for their retention and the autonomy they give their people. I went looking to find out what it’s like taking that plunge and building a recruitment business with your best mate.
Wayne and I both grew up in the same area of Essex. We went to different schools but first got to know each other whilst playing football, when we were about 13.
Wayne got into recruitment first locally, I got into it a bit after him in London, at a small FinTech recruitment company of about 25 people. Wayne ended up joining me and between the two of us, we hired most of the team from graduate level and trained them up. It was around this time we decided we were going to do it ourselves one day.
It was always going to happen – it was just a case of when.
I had an itch I wanted to scratch first, which was to live overseas for a bit. I went to Hong Kong for around 2 years and grew someone else’s business across HK, Singapore and Shanghai.
Wayne was going to join that company and collectively we were going to grow the business out. Then we thought, “why wait, let’s just do it ourselves now”.
We decided London was the best place to set up, so I moved back.
I had a couple of mates – inside and outside recruitment – who set up businesses in Hong Kong and got stuck there, because they’d built out a great local client base.
We decided on London, as we always wanted that to be the HQ and the plan was to use that as our platform to build from. We’ve done that with the New York office and it’s working really well for us.
I often get asked, “why not Hong Kong”. The reality is that it wouldn’t be too difficult, but the market isn’t as big and the decision to open up in the US has been vindicated, now that we’re almost 2 years in.
It wasn’t just me and Wayne sitting in one of our living rooms or a coffee shop, just playing golf or going to the gym, it was very much pressure from the offset. We had to make money straight away.
It was the stereotypical situation when we first setup: we were in the back of our friend’s office. It sounds a bit cliché, but it’s the reality.
You know the screens you used to have at school, the dividers? There was just us in the corner of this big office, and a couple of those to separate us.
On day one, we had three other people. Almost six years in, two of those three are still here and the other is one of our clients.
A lot of people do it the other way around, it would just be two people and they hire in. Whereas we had the people ready to go.
We’d managed to negotiate with our friend that we weren’t going to pay rent for a bit. That had a big impact, because obviously London office space is so expensive!
It enabled us work together everyday. Which I think was really important, particularly at that point.
The three other guys working for us actually started before I got back from Hong Kong, only for a couple of weeks, but by the time I’d come back they’d done their first deal, which was good. You use that as a platform to build some momentum.
In Hong Kong, we’d built a decent business and a great reputation, so everything was going quite well. People are always going to warn you: “Why are you going back to London? Do you really want to take the risk?” “You’ve spent all this effort building something”
You get a lot of people saying “have you thought of this, have you thought of that, how are you going to pay contractors?”
The thing is, there’s a solution for a lot of that, even if you don’t know it.
There was obviously a lot of consideration and planning that went into it and I’d learnt so much over the 2 years in Asia, that I could take that knowledge with me and that proved invaluable.
Although during the first year – a bit clichéd again – there were plenty of times we looked at each other like, “what the [devil] are we doing?! I’m just going to go back and get a job with someone else and I quite enjoyed that before!”
Yeah, but I always knew I’d have my own business at some point. So maybe I didn’t express concerns when I was talking to people. I felt confident and Wayne’s pretty pragmatic as well.
I wouldn’t say we go wild and take loads of risks, but early doors when it’s new, it’s quite tough to attract people you don’t know.
One of the big mistakes we made was to keep hold of people for too long that weren’t right. It was just because we were picking up loads of business and trying to grow.
That’s something I would definitely advise: don’t settle.
We hired quite a lot off the back of referrals from people who were already here, it’s always when they’ve just started, because they’ve had a good start themselves.
I worked out about 70% of our staff have come from some form of referral. It’s only really Hunted and a few grads that make up the other 30%.
When people join, they’re quite amazed by how different it is here.
I think everyone gets told “Come and join us! It’s a really hot desk!” by others and when they get there, there’s one candidate and no jobs.
But here when you join – consultants are given roles to work from day dot.
We’ve got a portfolio of great clients and have access to a wide variety of well qualified roles, enabling us to prep ahead of someone new starting, ensuring they don’t come onto a cold desk. That’s something we’ve always done.
It’s tough, isn’t it? Joining a new recruitment business. It’s really tough.
In the beginning, you’ve got to learn all the new systems, new people. Then you’ve got restrictive covenants, no candidates and you’ve got to go out and find all of this stuff yourself.
I think that’s why we’ve been able to retain people, because we’ve helped them with it. I think it’s good to get people started like that, it just alleviates that kind of pressure.
One of the things we wanted to do with Orbis was to make sure people are given the support they need, as much as autonomy.
There’s a distinct difference between giving someone autonomy and not giving them support.
Or not forcing them to do two hours of BD every day, versus making sure they don’t just sit there working inbound roles all the time.
It’s not easy to balance, especially because people don’t always put their hand up for help.
We don’t really have a one size fits all approach, Wayne and I do quite different roles within the business.
We have similar experience under our belts. I think we’re similar in more ways than people might think.
We’re both still very hands on with clients and delivery, although we perform slightly different roles. To define them, I basically look after business operations and strategy, whereas Wayne spends more time directing sales. All our key decisions are split.
‘Conflict’ could be perceived in different ways. We challenge each other, then we seek a productive outcome. No one ever leaves the room without being heard.
We outwardly ensure we do some things differently. Across the entire business we champion different opinions and the challenges that arise from that. We want everyone to feel empowered to fulfil their roles, there’s no dictatorship.
I wouldn’t recommend doing it on your own, or worse, picking the wrong person to partner with. If you’re going to do it, pick the right people and don’t be afraid to make tough decisions when you know it’s in the best interest of your business.
Be prepared to graft, but don’t make the same mistakes other recruitment companies do.
Be bold. Take the wins where you can. If you want a secret to making it work: invest in your people.
Consultants are a recruitment business’ greatest revenue generating asset, and when they’re treated that way, they’ll repay you in loyalty, effort and all the numbers on the board that come with it.
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