by Kurt Wilkin
As a business leader in the consultative professional services industry, my bread and butter is in providing strategic counsel to others. It’s where I have excelled in previous roles and it’s a significant differentiator for HireBetter. Using our unique combination of experience and insight, we are able to leverage talent to unlock your business potential.
But what about my own story? How did I come to understand the problems inherent in the traditional recruiting industry? Partly through business experience, and partly by living through a real-life case study. My own journey with HireBetter highlights some of the challenges of entrepreneurship. I hope the lessons I’ve learned along the way can help you along yours!
When I bought HireBetter in 2011, I was relatively new to the recruiting world, but I was confident that I could succeed. I knew people, I know business, and I knew the typical recruiting model was broken.
To be honest, I thought that growing the business would be easy. I had just come off a tremendous journey with The Controller Group, the finance and accounting consulting practice I had founded and subsequently sold. I was anxious to slay another dragon. Perhaps I got a little overconfident. I figured that people would come flocking, and that our only challenge would be managing growth.
What started out as an investment and an advisory role quickly became a full-time endeavor with all of the challenges and late nights one would expect to find in a startup environment. But we had a solid base of talent and methodology, and over the next two years we grew tremendously. However, I determined we weren’t growing fast enough. We needed to make investments in order to “scale” the company.
Unfortunately, my investments were fairly expensive and often resulted in “throwing bodies” at problems. And when your organization doesn’t have operational discipline, you tend to do just that, hoping that the next hire will be the silver bullet. We didn’t have the experience to build systems and processes to scale, and we were still very much an entrepreneurial company. We focused on the tyranny of the urgent, whatever fire was burning that day.
Four years in and things looked great from the outside. We averaged 47% annual growth, we had built a solid brand, and we were Platinum sponsors of the YPO Global Leadership Conference. But we were losing money, had accountability issues, and relied on the heroic efforts of a few. I rationalized to myself that we weren’t profitable because we were building for future scaling. However, while we were doing good work and building a solid brand, we weren’t ready for the next level. We were struggling.
It’s no wonder that my stress-level was through the roof. How did things get to this point? What could I have done differently? In hindsight, I was focused too much on growth, figuring we could “sell our way” to profitability. I was constantly shifting priorities – almost daily, and things never seemed to get done. I also let my legacy team make too many decisions about who and when we should hire.
I suspect that some members of my team liked the lack of accountability the status quo provided. This may have been why they fought me for years on adding a true Chief Operating Officer. They didn’t want an outsider telling them what to do! In fact, these are very common themes among high-growth companies: a team with an affinity for the status quo; legacy team members not up to the job; and a legacy team feeling threatened by the prospects of a new leader.
I realized that things were broken but, because it is hard to see your own blind spots, I called in the cavalry.
I asked Mike, a good friend and operational guru, to come in, assess the business, and help me find a way out. But I had to be willing to give him access to everything. He needed to uncover all of my warts and dirty laundry. Talk about a humbling experience.
After just a few days, Mike made his assessment. He said “Kurt, you’ve got a solid foundation of individual contributors, you’ve got a brand that people trust, and people like and respect you. But your operating model is broken. You’re overstaffed, there is no organizational structure, and no accountability within the team. You have built a lifestyle business for everyone except yourself.”
Looking into that mirror was very tough for me to do. But I listened to Mike’s counsel and spoke to a few other mentors, and I eventually decided that I had to make some tough decisions. Failure was not an option. I love what I do and love what we’re building. On the one hand, I didn’t know if I could afford to make the changes he recommended but on the other hand, I didn’t think I could afford not to.
I decided to go all in. I’m a big fan of the “burn your boats” analogy from Alexander the Great. On the shores of Persia where he was completely outnumbered, he told his troops to burn their boats. Win…or die! I doubled down.
In The HireBetter Journey – Part 2, I’ll tell the story of the actions we took to turn everything around.