How to scale a recruitment business from startup to over 100 recruiters

Tiger Partners
Tiger Partners
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In our entrepreneurship publication, we have explored whether now is a good time to start your own agency, how to start your own business and what potentially could attract top billers to your brand new startup.

You now have an agency licence, a home or serviced office, a CRM and a website – it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s everything you need to build the foundations of what could be the next big brand in your recruitment market.

It’s going well: you’re two months in with interviews scheduled, your first few clients and you’ve projected your first placement by the end of month three. You’ve now closed it with a sigh of relief whilst you wait 30 days to be paid.

It’s at this point where your mentality starts to shift. Your client hasn’t paid within 30 days and you are getting slightly nervous about your cash flow as you enter day 40. The client pays on day 50 and you’re already experiencing some of the first planning challenges of being an entrepreneur. It’s an exciting evolution and you are starting to talk to recruiters about joining you on your journey.

How do you take your expansion from the stage of a 3-man band to over a hundred people over the next decade? Find Recruiter reports that 94% of agencies in Singapore employ less than 10 people. Of course, there are a number of lifestyle businesses but why is it that some businesses never grow beyond this point and why do some grow extremely quickly?

I will draw very heavily from my personal experience. I have built a recruitment business from one person, to over 150 recruiters across 5 offices in 4 countries. I have no problem admitting that I got a great deal wrong and hopefully my lessons learnt can help you in your journey.

Here are 4 important ways you can scale your business:

Cash is king and balancing risk with reward

Having cash to scale is a prerequisite to building a recruitment business. You may start with close to nothing in the bank, or you may start with a small investment from a private individual or PE fund. Either way, you will need to build a model where you are able to generate enough cash in order to hire the best people in the market.

I started Robertson Smart (known as Charterhouse today) with a relatively small level of investment, and it’s fair to say the prevailing months were a rollercoaster. I had two choices: take the safe route of hiring a few recruiters and wait until they became profitable, or take a risk and scale faster. I did the latter. I won back the initial investment within 9 months and we were well on our way, scaling far quicker than many of our competitors.

Have a crystal clear vision

Looking back, I never imagined that having a clear vision would be one of the most important ways you can scale a business. I’m not sure if I had a vision on day 1. Rather more of a desperation to focus on the things in front of me, making my first placement so I could pay my rent in Dubai and taking things one step at a time.

Over time, I began to grasp how important having a vision was. It became very apparent to me that a business needs a strategic plan and people need to buy into what you’re looking to achieve together. You will look back in ten years and recognise the seeds of your business were sown on day one. What you do in year one will impact you in the future. Most of my war stories come from the very early days of setting up from scratch and some of the decisions I made then stuck with me until my last day at the firm.

I’m suggesting that in your first year, you look into the future. What do you want the business to look like in three years, five years and even ten years? Focus on where you want to be on a personal and commercial level, and work backwards from there. You don’t necessarily need this on day one, but as you begin to expand and attempt to attract the best or right people in the market, it’s crucial.

What are your ambitions? Do you want to build a business with over 100 recruiters and 5 offices? Do you see yourself as a fee earner forever, or do you want to hire people better than you to replace yourself as you progress?

There are, of course, no wrong or right answers here, but having a clear vision will help you make decisions today. These are the decisions that will realise your ambitions and stick with you as you grow.

Training & leading from the front

Training begins at induction, no matter how experienced a recruiter may be. In the early Robertson Smart days, it was common for us to hire industry professionals, such as lawyers or bankers, who had zero recruiting experience. It was vital then that we adopted a ‘big company’ approach even if we were just 6 recruiters.

At Robertson Smart, we developed a personal induction and training program. I’m sure there are a few recruiters out there who remember the RS-TIM! The training and induction manual was given to every new starter and accompanied them throughout the first three months of induction. As we began to open additional international offices, we shot a series of training and induction videos that could be accessed by a company PC. It sounds normal now, but back then any access to internet and video content was very limited. I don’t mind saying that I think our training materials were quite exceptional at the time, and one of the important factors behind helping people develop into great recruiters eventually leading to scale.

Naturally, a founder is the ground zero of a business, a mentor that should lead from the front. All of that is vitally important as the business expands. However, once you get to a certain size in an office, or you open up an international office, then you begin to get spread very thin. Training then disseminates the message of the founder across the growing business which assists in maintaining cultural consistency. It’s a great economy of scale.

Motivation, people & culture

I had motivation, people & culture top of mind. It was extremely clear to recruiters why they would join Robertson Smart or Charterhouse over other firms. By having a consistent and clearly communicated culture, an agency will begin to attract a team who are equally similar in motivation, attitude and outlook. This will most certainly assist greatly in being able to scale. If your cultural values are inconsistent and all over the place, then don’t be surprised that your business is too.

Hiring the right people with motivation and commitment is a vital component of any recruitment business. If the recruitment leaders are hugely passionate, constantly positive and the business appears to be on the up, then this is the fuel in the engine. At this point, you are beginning to grow. You have hired fifteen recruiters in Dubai, the same number in Singapore, so it’s time to tackle Hong Kong. Tell me that is not an exciting story to share with your current and potential team members.

I think we very effectively used motivation to scale the business. Monthly, quarterly and annual incentives and trips made it a fun place to work. We weren’t shy in spending money but it was always connected to achievement. To celebrate achieving SGD 1 million from the launch of Singapore, we took the whole team and partners to an island resort in Bintan for the weekend – all expenses paid. People began to hear that we were a fun place to work and that we paid very competitive commissions.

How far I scaled

We managed to scale from just me to 150 people in Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney & Melbourne. We were driven by a clear strategic vision coupled with the development of a positive and healthy culture backed up by huge levels of enthusiasm, ambition and motivation.

This perhaps makes it sound far easier than it actually was. We hit many road bumps along the way. We had recessions, as well as booms. We had the 1997 Asia financial crisis, the tragedy of 9/11 in 2001 and, of course, the SARS epidemic in 2003. All of these events hit us very hard but the 4 factors above remained consistent throughout.

I hope this has been useful to any recruitment entrepreneurs considering expanding their businesses and I’m very interested to hear about any comments with regard to the factors above. Please let me have your thoughts on LinkedIn and I’m looking forward to an interesting discussion.

If you’re exploring recruitment opportunities in Asia, please do not hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn for some advice and career opportunities.

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Tiger Partners
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