Self Employed and Unemployable?


There is a continually repeating “circle of life” in the UK recruitment industry, where its own progeny leave established firms to set up in competition. I know, as I’ve been part of it. The incidence of this is most evident amongst the small and medium recruitment firms up and down the land.

As an industry, all the ingredients exist in the Petri dish; including recruiters who sell and deliver their services, take a direct cut from the fees they generate, become the focal point of clients, and most of all, are given a master class in going it alone by their current bosses – who did the same thing a few years before. However, in doing so, by changing from employee to employer, everyone knows that they may effectively be making themselves unemployable.

I was the first of a whole group of peers to leave Search Consultancy in 1993, and set up a new business. That class of ’93 spawned a whole raft of recruitment companies, who are now considered “old establishment” in Scotland. In my exit interview, when asked by my boss Colin Blair “Why are you leaving”, I replied that I was jealous of him, and wanted to do the same myself. Aside from offering me a share in Search, all he could do was wish me luck, and escort me off the premises. (I had already cleared what I wanted from my desk through the previous week). It was a big leap, as my second son had just been born, and here was me taking a huge drop in earnings from a very secure job, to go in with a partner, operating out of a scruffy office in the local red-light district. The biggest reassurance was confidence in my own ability (combined with promises from clients to stay with me).

I read last week that the top startup tip from Paypal founder Max Levchin, was to find yourself a partner you can trust. I had certainly found this in Bruce FitzGerald, and we worked well together; slowly for the first 2 years, and accelerating rapidly thereafter. In 6 years we went from zero to £12.5m turnover, and had 2,000 temps assembling PC’s for IBM. It was crazy, exciting, and profitable.

Nowadays the step to the other side of the employment curtain, to be your own boss, isn’t nearly such a big one. It’s much more commonplace to freelance and consult, and to run your own business, even if you are on your own. Changing practices in the recruitment industry, as a result of the Internet, mean that anyone can launch a venture, arrange funding from Cash Simply (other finance companies are available), and get in the game. Websites can be bought off the shelf, and job boards will be eager for your business. All you then need are clients and recruiting ability.

So is it as true now, that by becoming your own boss, you consequently make yourself unemployable in future? Far from it, I’d say. The motivating factors that made you want to be in business for yourself, are even more sought after now by firms who demand a higher level of commercial acuity from their recruiters and managers. More than ever, it’s now possible not only to go it alone, but to return to “employed status” later if it doesn’t agree with you.

Stephen O'Donnell is a lifelong recruiter, internet enthusiast, fadgadget and peripatetic writer.

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