CEO, Paul McGuire, on growing an international business

Meet Recruitment hit its 9th birthday last week. Considering only a small percentage of start-ups survive their first 2 years that’s a massive achievement by itself. Additionally, Meet has become a market leading, global business that has grown by 150% in the last two years. We asked the CEO, Paul McGuire, just how that’s done.

What were the first steps in growing the business back in 2009?

“The key to growing a recruitment business is obviously making placements, that’s how you make money and from day one we had confidence in our ability to do that. For us, the real key to our growth, and the biggest challenge, was persuading talented people to join a start-up business in a very competitive industry.”

For Meet’s founders, that involved creating a vision and story that was compelling and different.

“Pre-launch we spent a long time creating a credible vision and a compelling story, the business needed to look and feel different to clients and candidates, but critically also to recruiters who we wanted to hire.  It was time well spent, our ability to sell our vision was evident even then when it was just three of us in a tiny room, working on one desk.”

“We were driven and determined, however there was also an element of blind faith that we would grow the business. We made the decision from the beginning to be ambitious with our growth. Our strategy was to grow head count quickly based on the potential we could see in the market, and not let performance hold us back.”

“Meet has always been a self-funded company, we didn’t and still don’t have external investors. So, we had to support the rapid growth financially. Obviously, there was a natural caution, as with any start-up, of growing within our means. But, once you get a bit of momentum everything changes. The fear of failure soon disappears.”

By the end of the first year Meet had a head count of 7. Did Paul know back then that the business would look like it does today? We asked about his early ambitions…

“Genuinely, the ambition was always to grow a global recruitment business. Initially, we planned on opening an office in Germany first. But, the best-laid plans often go awry and over time our focus shifted to the US.”

“That was based on a number of factors: firstly, we could see other recruitment companies having success in the US; secondly, the demand from our clients; thirdly, we realised if we could make this work, and with the cash to only launch in one country, it would be a much bigger prize.”

“Essentially, we always wanted to build a fast growing, market leading, international business. But our strategy has been guided by what we’ve experienced along the way. When you're opening a new office you have to consider various internal and external factors, such as the global economy, the industry, client demand and the people; their ambitions and what they want to do.”

Did you find that America was a more attractive prospect to Meet’s people?

“Definitely, everyone loves New York! The opportunity to launch a business in New York is incredibly exciting. To attract the right kind of people, who fit our ethos and mentality, we felt we had to be in Manhattan. The motivation of the individuals and the locations have to align. Ambitious people tend to like really exciting cities.”

How did you start exploring taking the business internationally?

“We’ve got a global outlook, so our growth has been guided by what we’ve seen in the market. But an important aspect has been adapting the brand locally. It’s fair to say that launching San Francisco was a very different experience than New York, as you’d expect it takes time to adjust to a new culture, and that’s about finding the right local people.

“We’ve always put a huge emphasis on the launch team. Making sure we’ve got a nucleus of people that have the DNA of the business (we call it purple blood), a track record and knowledge of the industry, but also personalities that other people are going to want to work with. It’s an area we’ve not always got right but it is mission critical.”

What other challenges have you had to overcome? 

“Once you’ve got over the assumption that each launch will be the same (it really isn’t), adjusted culturally and embedded into a new exciting city, there are still a number of pitfalls along the way.”

“Something we had to look at was financially supporting the growth. It’s amazing how quickly you can burn money by having people based overseas, even small teams burn money very quickly.”

“We’ve also had to develop an infrastructure and processes, that’s included building a finance team, operations, marketing, training and development. These departments have evolved at a similar pace to our growth.”

“Nevertheless, the success of each business is on a case by case basis, we don’t have a generic model. There’s no doubt, if I re-lived the last 2-3 years there are things I would do differently. One of the key factors we’ve learnt along the way, is the business proposition has to be well thought through and tested; the client base has got to be incredibly well-developed pre-launch; and the leadership has got to be right in terms of experience as well as confidence in their own ability.”

“Any business going through rapid growth will experience similar challenges. There is no doubt that over the last couple of years we’ve really stretched ourselves, but we’ve had the ambition to do that and we’ve got the competency. I’ve had confidence in all of the people involved in these projects, I knew they would make them a success.”

Meet has grown through various phases over the years. Paul explains the different stages…

“I would say we’re now in phase 3 of our growth. Phase 1 was before we launched the first US office in New York. We built a start-up business and took it to the point where we were ready to support the global growth; that’s a huge leap for any start-up.”

“The last 3 years were phase 2. We established the American side of the business, but we were also re-establishing London because by sending key people to America we had gaps in our London business that we needed to refill.”

“Now, with the growth curve we’re on, we are entering a new phase. With offices in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and a Berlin launch imminent, we’ve got a great platform for growth. In the last 2 years, we’ve grown by over 150%; it’s great that we’ve been able to build this platform but at the same time there’s still so much potential in the market. It feels like a very different prospect now.”

Looking back, what do you think has been the key to such explosive growth over the last 9 years and particularly the last 2?

“Our talent. From Hannah, Alastair and I, to the people who have launched Meet’s various offices, right through to the people we’ve hired in each location. Without the right people in the right environment it’s impossible to grow. Fostering an ambitious and entrepreneurial environment is something we’ve worked really hard to do - you need that to attract great people.”

“Once you’ve got those people, then you need to nurture and develop them. A lot of our senior leaders joined the business as straight graduates and have gone on to play crucial roles in Meet’s growth.”

Considering your success, what advice do you have for start-up businesses looking to achieve similar growth?

“In our experience, growing a business internationally is about getting the right people on the ground, building a local culture and supporting them financially.”

 “You have to trust implicitly in the people heading up these offices, that’s mission critical. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve got people who are 100% committed. I know Hannah, Laith and Mike, who have spearheaded the growth, will run through fire to make the business a success.”

“The second thing is, if you’re going to launch with any real impact, you’ve got to plan for it not to be profitable for quite a long time. Particularly if you’re going to grow rapidly.”

“Your choice is either to grow at a slow rate, which is safer and will be more controlled or you make the decision to go for it. Like we’ve done in San Francisco, reaching a head count of 15 just two years after launching the business there. The consequence of this strategy is you’ll burn a lot of money, the upside is you can make it back really quickly.”

“Finally, it’s about adapting to the local situation. We’ve built a brand that works globally, but every office is unique, they’ve developed individual cultures and the different people working in each space will connect to the brand in their own way.”

“If you get it wrong, you’ll get it wrong spectacularly. But, if you get it right, it can also be spectacular.”

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