“Recruitment is a rollercoaster job – what we call Champagne and Razorblades”
I own a recruitment company Watson Collard with my business partner Craig Watson, specializing in recruiting for other recruitment agencies: Rec-to-Rec.
I think if you ask most recruiters how they got into it, the common answer is ‘I fell into it’. That’s been the case with me, too.
I did a science degree in uni, but never pursued it. Then I spent a year backpacking in Australia, falling in love with the country. Coming back to UK, I figured I’d better get a real job, so I went to a recruitment agency with no idea what I wanted.
They suggested I try recruiting, and that’s how I got started!
It was with a big multinational company called Kelly Services. I worked for them for three years, trying various roles – permanent and temporary recruitment, working onsite for major clients.
I can’t say I loved the job as such, but I enjoyed having a profession, wearing a suit and driving a nice car to work – that lifestyle appealed to me.
I worked hard and became pretty good at it. So when an opportunity came to relocate to the Melbourne office, I put my hand up, remembering the great time I had in Australia.
In Melbourne, I did permanent recruiting. We didn’t specialize in industries, so I did everything – PAs, sales, executives; whatever came along really.
Back then it was OK, but these days, I think to be a successful recruiter you need to specialize in an industry: you have to be ‘an inch wide and a mile deep’ – to really know your market.
After a couple of years at Kelly Services in Melbourne, I left recruitment to go and work for a HR Consultancy company that specialized in moving executives around the world. That was one of the worst career moves I’ve ever made.
I think becoming successful so early on in my career, I may have become a bit arrogant and started thinking I was better than I actually was – something young people often do.
On the surface, it was fantastic: I had a great job title, salary increase, a fancy car: it looked and felt like I made it.
However the company itself was all smoke and mirrors. They spent millions on looking the part, on marketing and events, but were internally unsound with no solid service offering and poor management structure.
I left after two years of frustration and stress. My first impulse was to go home to UK, but I came back quickly, realizing Australia was where I wanted to be. Coming back this time was harder: I tried several jobs at various agencies that didn’t work out for me.
It was a low period in my life.
I’ve had this early success, and thought I’d made it; only to realize that I didn’t, and having to start from what felt like scratch. It was a knock to my confidence.
It felt like I was making error after error in terms of career choices, though in hindsight, I learnt some good lessons in understanding what bad agencies look like, and how to not do recruitment.
I kept ending up in places that were too sales driven, all about targets and money. I’m not saying money wasn’t important, but not at the cost of quality of service.
Finally, I was hired by my former manager at Kelly Services, who was now working for a company called Hallis. It was a great company with lots of integrity and a great team, and the two years I spent working there really re-ignited my passion for recruitment.
Then I had to go back to UK for family reasons for two years, which stretched out into five.
Whilst I worked there, to be honest, I was treading water professionally – I knew I’d be coming back to Australia, so didn’t put in as much effort as I perhaps should’ve.
I had worked with Craig Watson at Hallis, and on arriving back in Australia he offered me a job in his company doing Rec-to-Rec, which means recruitment for other recruitment companies.
He was working for Scott Recruitment, a national Rec-to-Rec company that operated as a franchisor. Craig owned the Melbourne franchise and was doing really well with them.
I started working for him, learning the specifics of this new field. At the heart of it, Rec-to-Rec is the same as any other recruitment – there are still candidates, clients, the search process.
But at the same time it’s very different: what makes it fantastic also makes it very frustrating.
After ten years in the industry, I am confident that I have the knowledge and experience to have credibility in our marketplace, and without being arrogant, I consider myself a bit of an expert in recruitment.
So that’s something I really enjoy – really understanding the industry, being able to have intelligent conversations with peers, as opposed, for example, to when I was hiring accountants and didn’t really know what I was talking about!
The flip side, of course, is that you’re dealing with other recruiters, who also consider themselves experts! So that can create some difficult situations.
When I started working for Scott’s, I found I really enjoyed this combination. I liked the challenge of being kept on my toes, proving my credibility to my peers. For me, it felt like the end of a ten year pathway to become an expert in my field.
After about a year, there was an opportunity for Craig to buy the Perth, Sydney and Brisbane offices. He offered me a partnership, which I accepted. Whilst I didn’t have to invest, I went from the security of having a good salary to relying on our profits.
We were doing well in Melbourne, and so naively thought: if we take on three more offices, we will do three times as well!
The reality was quite different and the next two years were rough.
We took a loan and spent a lot of money and time setting up the three offices – leasing space, buying equipment and hiring staff. We tried to be everywhere at once, which took us away from our Melbourne office and affected its performance in turn.
Basically, we spread ourselves far too thin and struggled to make it work.
None of the new offices were profitable and we lost a lot of money. Finally we had to make the decision to pull out of the three offices and go back to Melbourne.
Our franchise license with Scott Recruitment required us to stay with them for another 18 months, but for a year, it was touch and go – we knuckled down trying to repay our loans and rebuild the business. The goal was just to survive, to stay in business, which we did by drastically cutting costs and working very hard.
At the same time, we were looking forward and planning – if we made it through, we wanted to have a good business, and grow it properly.
We didn’t want to spend the rest of lives with our backs to the wall fighting for daily survival.
We re-examined the Rec-to-Rec market, trying to approach it with fresh eyes and identify any gaps or untapped opportunities. What we saw was that Rec-to-Rec’s were poorly thought of: people didn’t seem to see the value in them, they viewed us as a necessary evil almost.
We started looking for ways to transcend that. This is when we first started looking at having a retained partnership model.
To give you some background, the majority of recruitment agents work on a contingency model: that is, you get paid once you make a placement. So you do the work on spec, essentially: and if for reasons beyond your control there is no result – the client or the candidate change their minds, the role becomes obsolete – you don’t get paid.
With a retained model, you are asking the client for part of your fee upfront, to guarantee your time and effort in finding them the perfect candidate.
We felt it had benefits to both us and our clients: we got guaranteed payment, while the client was guaranteed quality service and result.
But when the industry standard is contingency, asking for money upfront is not an easy sell.
Aside from us saying ‘we’re pretty good’, like everybody else says, what did we have to offer that would set us apart and give clients the confidence to pay us upfront?
So we started by embracing social media. We developed our blog, The Written Reference, which provided a lot of industry insights and information (while building our brand at the same time).
We grew a large Twitter following, got busy on LinkedIn. It was all very DIY, learn as you go – but we obviously hit some right notes, as our following grew across platforms and the brand strengthened.
We ended up with this very solid social media platform, which we could show to clients with and say ‘Well, you can tap into our audience of 5000 recruiters, and that’s where your next employee might be coming from’.
And that has become one of our bedrocks, a real point of difference.
Alongside that, we wanted to be more than just recruiters, so we started to package up some consulting and training services for our clients, helping them with staff training, industry knowledge and social media.
We were working on all these strategies while still running the Scott’s franchise, however we knew that as soon as the license expired we’d start Watson Collard.
We did the blog, the social media, did a lot of pre-planning. And once the period was up, it was basically taking one sign down and putting a new one up, a smooth transition.
As soon as Watson Collard was born, we launched all our new strategies and packages. And that’s how we went from an agency that was probably quite undistinguished, to being in this unique position where we could offer a retained solution that offered real value to our clients.
Clients were skeptical initially, however based on what we showed them we could do, plus the track record we had with them in the past, they eventually warmed up.
Now we’re about 65% retained. Some of our older clients still work on contingency, however any new work we take is always on a retainer.
There isn’t much competition in the marketplace for this model, probably for two reasons: either the other agencies don’t have anything that supports the retainer model, like the social media, the extra services.
Or they simply don’t want to: they don’t want the pressure of commitment. Because obviously, once you’ve taken the fee from the client, you must deliver!
Some of these retainers, you think, ‘oh wow, how am I going to fill this one?’ – but you just have to keep going, get it done.
A lot of our competitors don’t want to have that noose hanging around their neck.
The majority of my time is still spent with recruiting tasks. I am always looking for people – via social media, networking, headhunting. I spend a lot of time on the phone, always.
When I get a new assignment, my first step is to map the market. I identify where all the potentially suitable candidates are operating, who they are working for. Recruiters don’t generally respond to adverts, they almost always expect to be headhunted.
Once I identify these people, I will try to contact them. I will pick up the phone, introduce myself and suggest a coffee with a view to sell them this opportunity.
Funnily enough, most recruiters aren’t that receptive to headhunting calls.
Which, look, I understand – in a candidate-short market, the good ones can sometimes be approached 5-6 times a day! They get a bit sick of it. And a lot of approaches aren’t so professional, so again, you need to make sure you are completely professional and know what you’re talking about.
Recruitment is a very emotional, rollercoaster-type job – what we call Champagne and Razorblades, highs and lows.
I love the thrill of the chase, the buzz from the pressure you get from a retained assignment – you must fill it no matter what.
That’s one aspect. On the other hand, I still genuinely get a kick from helping people, changing lives for the better.
Also, I love running my own business. And it’s not just the ego thing of name above the door, or the money, though of course that’s a factor. But more importantly to me, it’s the freedom and flexibility to run it how I think it should run, after years of working for agencies with policies that I was uncomfortable with.
On the other hand, recruitment is one of these jobs where the product you’re selling can change its mind!
The frustrations come not so much from the change in situations, more in the way people can treat you. If you work with someone for a year, and then they turn down a job you got them with a brusque email, without a thanks or even picking up the phone – that’s a disappointing lack of respect.
Recruitment unfortunately has a poor reputation, though I think often it’s deserved. There is a low barrier to entry: anyone with a phone can be a recruiter.
People come in to make a quick buck, throw some resumes around hoping one will stick somewhere.
Those operators don’t last, but unfortunately they tarnish the whole industry. I feel we, as an industry, need to do more to self-regulate.
Whilst I think everything happens for a reason, and Craig and I are better business people because of those early mistakes we made – that being said, if I could wind the clock back and not go through those experiences, I certainly would!
In my experience, the best businesses out there grow slowly and organically, and that’s the goal for us now. I want to continue developing what we offer to clients, try new ideas for services and technologies.
While I may have made some poor career choices over the years, had I not worked for these badly run agencies, I may not have formed the opinions and ethics that I have today, that serve me so well.