Charlie started out in IT recruitment in 2005 and he specialises in supplying people with SAP, CRM and ERP systems. At first he worked in Bristol and during that period performed well. The company was successful and he was soon managing staff. However, during this time and from speaking to various candidates he realised that there was a lot of potential for growth particularly with markets like the NHS.
'The company I was working for at the time ended up being on the Fast Track 100 for two years in succession, I think they were the 43rd fastest growing company in the UK. As a result of doing well with that company I actually managed to get myself to a level where I was earning a good salary but I was getting increasing management responsibility.
'I was being treated very well, but I saw the potential from speaking to a range of candidates who had a broader range of skills, such as embedded firmware and C++ and systems analysis, that actually if I was to leave I could do more.
'I knew this was a risk but I chose to use some capital I had built up and could see that there was a lot of potential for growth, particularly with markets like the NHS.
'This has changed now, but when I was starting out, around 2007/08, the NHS, with its National Programme for IT, was spending a significant amount. I felt that if I managed to build up relationships with enough good candidates then it was very much a candidate driven market around that time, so rates were very high and if you got a good person you could get them three or four interviews at any one time.'
He left that company in February 2008 and set up Vivid Resourcing a month later, initially in Bristol, but has now moved it to London.
He describes starting out on his own as 'not being a barrel of laughs! I worked very long days to build up networks of contacts and candidates over that period, I managed to get the company to profitable levels in four months and then I moved it over to London and since then we’ve grown it progressively.'
Instead of starting his own company, Charlie, like a lot of people in his situation, could well have simply moved to a larger company. He, however, chose not to do this. There are two main reasons he opted to do his own thing.
'The company I was working for before was very well respected, but I think recruitment consultants and recruitment as an industry has a very bad reputation. I think with a lot of contractors, recruiters are seen as a necessary evil.
'I don’t think that’s ever going to change, but I think the reason this is the case is because around 2000 the market was so immature for service provision in IT, even in the UK, with people chucking loads of money at getting IT systems put in, websites and all sorts, without having any real understanding of what they needed and what they were doing.
'They were spending ludicrous amounts of money and I think, as a result of that, it attracted a lot of your estate agency types getting involved with recruitment, specifically with IT recruitment, and so as a result of that a lot of the best practices went and people were getting into to it to make a fast buck rather than as a long term career. I think this has caused a bit of an issue now.
'So one of the things I was thinking was that if I took a significantly different approach with candidate liaison and client retention, then I would be quite keen to put my own stamp on it and deal with people in my own way. I think this is why I outperformed a lot of people that I worked with because I wasn't doing things in the typical way really.
'The other thing, to be quite frank, was that I was aware of the potential that was out there. It was financial as well. I wanted strategic control over what I was doing because I think I’m not just money motivated, I enjoy developing people and managing them and I think you get a bit more pride out of developing your own thing and making your own brand and also knowing that if you grow it to a large size then, as a director, you get dividends that you just wouldn’t get as an employee.'
Would you describe yourself as an entrepreneur, how do you feel about the term?
'Strictly speaking I guess I am as I actually do have fingers in a few other pies in terms of investing in different bits and pieces with a couple of online businesses. The core thing is Vivid Resourcing.
It sounds very prestigious, entrepreneur and I feel a bit uncomfortable with that title, but I guess that I am. In the sense that it was a big risk for me at the time and I had a good salary and career in front of me and 2008 was possibly the worse time to set a business up.
Do you think that entrepreneurship is something that can be nurtured or even taught or are you born with it?
I think a lot of it is inherent within people. I think to be a decent entrepreneur you have to have a relatively casual attitude to risk. By that I don’t mean that you need to be reckless.
If you take a look at a lot of companies you will see that the people running them took relatively risky decisions when they set up or with expansion plans taking on extra responsibility; I think you have to have that kind of mindset to be a successful entrepreneur and that a lot of regular staff working for a company don’t have that.
I think you can develop the ability to communicate more effectively, but I would say that it is fairly inherent or a personality trait of successful entrepreneurs that people aren’t shy of going out there and networking and introducing their circumstances effectively.
The other main characteristic to be successful is that you have to be resilient. This, I think, you develop through your life time, but to a degree you have either got that or you haven’t.
Unless you are very lucky you will have some pretty severe knockbacks and a lot of detractors. I’ve had a lot of people throughout the years asking me why I was doing it and why was I taking on a big new office and you sort of have to go with it if you have periods of downtime.
Do you find that you need a support network of family and friends as well as business support?
Yes. In the first few months of setting up a business it can be quite lonely. My partner and my friends really helped during that period with a bit of moral support. I think I would have struggled without that, especially in 2008 when there were some very difficult times.
The thing I found with setting up your own business is that there is a big difference between being a good manager and being a good leader. It is one thing to manage a team of people in an already established organisation that’s got a brand image, whereas it is quite different to create that from scratch.
It can be hard to motivate fresh graduates and tell them that it is possible to do a lot of business when they are coming to work reading that this is the worst financial crisis in 80 years. It is around those times that you need the support I think.
Are there things that the government can do to make it easier for people to start their own businesses?
Since we have moved into this new office space we’re in the same building as someone called Howard Graham and he owns a company called Made Simple Group they are the main provider of limited company setups in the UK. I think they set up thousands of limited companies every month.
So a lot of IT guys who have limited companies will have done so through his company. He was fairly closely linked with the previous government and used to attend meetings around the idea of removing barriers to setting up limited companies. He has found that recently a lot of lip service has been paid by the current government to promoting entrepreneurialism.
He has been frustrated that there hasn’t been enough proactively there to help people set up on their own. I think with the present climate things like corporation tax and the such like. Could that be restructured slightly for start-ups? Has that been done effectively? It hasn’t. It’s perhaps not been looked at as well as it might have been.
What is the biggest problem that you have had to overcome in starting up on your own?
Probably establishing a brand image. This would be the same for others starting up on their own as a software supplier or whatever. When you are in a market that is relatively saturated it is tough to differentiate what you do and get that loyalty from clients and get them to understand what you do.
In the first year what you are relying on is a client buying into you as an individual; you haven't got that fall back of them understanding who you are and what you do. We actively marketed the brand in print, online and with web-based marketing as well. But that really takes 6-12 months to get recognition in many cases. I think that's the main thing, getting people to listen, to buy into what you're saying when they don't already know the product or the company.
Do you think that with the social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and so on, do you think it is easier to start up a company when you have these free tools at your disposal?
I actually do think that. I think in terms of IT professionals I would say that LinkedIn is a more useful social networking tool. We spend a lot of money on IT, so we get pitched all the time for different bits of software that we use.
I think one way of getting around in the marketplace is through recommendation, through attending events or reading press releases, and with LinkedIn.
If you can build a big enough network on there, it just offers you huge potential of hundreds, if not thousands of people to market your company at. So, yes, I do think that social media has made it much easier for people to start up on their own.
What are your top tips for someone starting on their own?
Don't get carried away with your costs at the beginning, so make sure that you plan things financially. I think a lot of people who start businesses get caught up with the romanticism that it is great to be self-employed and spend too much money on websites with functionality they don't need, on very nice office space that they don't need and that's why companies go bust by spending £20,000 on furniture so that they have a nice reception when they don't even have any clients coming in yet.
Don't be too flash has to be one of my top tips. Our first website was functional but not that great to look at. We've changed it now but it didn't affect our business too much. The office space was pretty awful really, but it was what we needed at the time.
The other thing would be, don't take on staff too soon. So unless you really need to don't recruit people on permanent salaries until you are sure that you have got enough revenue coming in. For us, in order to expand we needed to have people on board. But for people running IT consultancies, for example, there is easy provision to take people on as consultants. This might mean that the profits are slightly lower but are more sustainable.
Taking marketing seriously. There is so much and so many low-cost opportunities to market your company using email marketing tools that loads of people don't use and I don't know why. Get that side sorted because it is not that labour intensive and it really works.
What has been your biggest success so far?
I think the last financial figures that were published. We've analysed the compound growth rate of the company and it's just over 75 per cent. If we compare that with the statistics that are used in the Recruiter magazine, which highlights which companies are making what profits that they publish annually, that actually makes us the fastest growing IT recruitment company in the UK. So, for me, to do that in our first three years is something I am quite proud of.
Another thing is that I've had people join me as fresh graduates, back in 2008, and a lot of those people are still with the company and some of those people have been very successful and it's been nice developing them into managers and being able to delegate as well. And rather than it just being a small company where people make a bit of money, now I can see it turning into a proper business and I can see it growing over the next few years.
How have you found the delegating?
I found it quite difficult. I'm a bit of a perfectionist / control freak and, I think, when you've got your way of doing things and in most cases you know that it works, letting go is quite difficult. So I've had to re-educate myself over the last year just to appreciate that some times you do have to let people make significant mistakes for them to get better rather than you stressing yourself out all the time trying to do everything for them. I found that very, very difficult to be honest.