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Nick Boulton: Three mistakes and three lessons from running a recruitment businessPosted almost 3 years ago by Nick Boulton

If you could hit the reset button and do it all again, what would you do?

There’s a shit-load I would do differently – an absolute shit-load .

With more than 14 years of hindsight in the bank, I’ve got plenty to reflect on. But in the basement of missteps, miscues, and mistakes, I’ve found three valuable lessons about business that have left me in good stead.

  • Mistake 1: We should have started a contract desk earlier

At Client Server, we spent the first 10 years of business focused purely on permanent recruitment. ‘Quality’ has always been at the forefront of our model, and we thought contractors were some kind of substandard species. Big mistake.

That attitude stunted our early growth, closed off a big section of the market, and stopped us securing some big clients who were massive contact buyers. It meant we had very little forward book or future visibility on what our revenues might look like and we missed out on some excellent people in the market.

  • Lesson 1: There is quality everywhere – be prepared to look hard for it

In the last ten years, we have doubled-down on our Contracts team, investing in getting the right people and carving out niche in the market. In 2018, every member of that desk was more than 100% above their annual target, and have since been short-listed for Best Contract Recruitment Agency – IT at the 2019 Contractors Awards.

We have a growing book of runners and an excellent reputation in the market place, but we had to look hard for it, but it has paid dividends.

  • Mistake 2: We should have opened an office in London sooner

This is a tough one. Hell, it even hurts a little to think about.

In our early days, we were a small business focused on quality, but we had a ‘lifestyle business’ mentality. That’s what attracted me to Client Server to begin with. Offices in the leafy suburbs of Surbiton, no need to battle the morning commuters and going to work in shorts and flip-flops. Ideal for a boy just off the boat from South Africa.

But it wasn’t long before we realised the ‘burbs would only get you so far. To attract the best staff and service the best clients, we needed a base in London.

  • Lesson 2: Ambition needs space to grow

We could have stayed a lifestyle business, but I’m nothing if not ambitious. As comfortable as we were, I knew Client Server needed space to grow.

In 2011, we made the decision someone had to open our London office, so I took the plunge and opened our doors in the concrete jungle of Bank, 23 Austin Friars. It was the start of something beautiful.

We have since moved for the third time into much spacious offices on Cheapside to house our ever-growing population of consultants. Long may that continue.

  • Mistake 3: Losing our identity

Don’t get me wrong - we are in a great space at the moment. We have an amazing culture, environment and workforce. We are all (mostly) on the same page and striving to achieve the same goals.

But in 2010/11, I feel like we lost our way and subsequently lost ground on our competition which has taken us time to recover from.

What did we do? We tried to become something we certainly are not: suit-wearing corporate salesmen.

We had the misguided idea that following the masses into the banking world meant we needed to change our approach to succeed. We transformed ourselves into slick, suit wearing people pushers and it didn’t work. You can’t fake sincerity, and we all felt like we were wearing suits that didn’t quite fit – literally. We left money on the table as a consequence.

  • Lesson 3: Don't pretend to be something you're not

The recruitment consultancy that grew up in leafy Surbiton didn’t need to fake it to make it. We came to our senses and returned to our roots: whip-smart consultants advising clients and candidates about technology, careers, and market trends. We might not wear flip-flops around the office anymore, but we have a real sense of self and purpose.

Does this mean we’re never going to make mistakes again? God, no. But there is a difference between making mistakes and having regrets. You learn from mistakes; you grieve your regrets – and nobody ever grows a business in mourning.