Simon Swan rode motorbikes for a living before setting up an award-winning tech company. He recently caught up with BLM to talk about imposter syndrome, disrupting the recruitment agency, and the growing pains of building a business.
What was your background before becoming an entrepreneur?
I wasn’t great at school. The careers advisor said I “should get a trade” and recommended plumbing, saying “you’ll never be out of work with a trade…” I knew unblocking toilets wasn’t for me so I got an electronics engineering apprenticeship instead. I loved it. It fed my curiosity – I’ve always liked to break things down and rebuild them to see how they’re made. Despite enjoying it, I left to follow my real passion: motorcycling. I spent the majority of my twenties as a journalist and editor, riding bikes and writing about them for magazines. I’d always wanted to start my own business though, and at 28 I set up a marketing consultancy business, which proved a soft-landing into self-employment. A few years later I met my co-founder, Sara, and we began playing with the idea of Hiring Hub – a recruitment agency marketplace.
How does your background influence your work in business?
The engineer in me always looks at the process first, analyses it and seeks to improve it, rather than blaming people. Continuous improvement was drilled into us as apprentices, so we were continually trying to optimise and were encouraged to seek better ways of doing things. That mindset has served me well. Ditto the journalism – I understand and value the power of storytelling and can write; being able to articulate and communicate ideas is really important in business. As for the motorcycling, well, people think racing a motorcycle is crazy, and risky. And sure it carries a degree of risk, but it’s very calculated and thoughtful. You learn to remain calm, to compose yourself and your feelings. I’d never stopped to consider it really, but thinking about it, there’s a lot that riding bikes really fast has taught me, not least when to commit and when to hold fire.
What is the vision for Hiring Hub?
Finding good, specialist recruiters is hard. As is judging their quality. We want to organise the UK’s 16,000 small, independent, specialist recruitment agencies and help employers find and work with the right ones in the right moment so they can fill jobs faster, at a fair cost. Ultimately, we want to improve the customer experience in what, let’s face it, is a maligned industry and make people feel good about recruitment agencies.
How has that vision evolved since the company’s early years?
It hasn’t shifted significantly. From day one we felt we could use technology to help employers and recruiters work better together, to facilitate better relationships. A marketplace model lends itself to this, as inherently they tend to foster trust and transparency while streamlining and centralising relationships and processes.
Who is Hiring Hub looking to disrupt?
We seek to enable employers and small, specialist recruiters. I suppose the only companies that may find it challenging when Hiring Hub is at scale is the big, corporate recruiters like Michael Page and Hays, who we believe deliver a slow, expensive, commoditised service. We aim to take market share from them, and redistribute those vacancies to independent recruitment agencies that we think care more about their candidates and clients and their own brand, and therefore deliver a better service. The big PLCs would struggle to compete with an agile marketplace of 1000s of employers and 1000s of specialist recruiters, where tech did much of the heavy-lifting. However, we’ve some way to go yet before the big brands will start worrying…
What are some of the main challenges you’ve faced in starting and scaling a business?
Solving the marketplace chicken and egg problem was tough. In the early days we couldn’t get employers to post jobs, even though it was free, because we didn’t have enough recruitment agencies to fill them, and we couldn’t get recruitment agencies to sign-up because we didn’t have enough jobs for them to work on! Pure perseverance finally put a dent in that, but it took three years to get any significant traction and, to be honest, the only way we survived back then was by not taking any money out of the business and working 24/7 on it. Looking back, I’m not sure how we did it. Nor that I could do it again. Naivety was a blessing – we just had no idea how hard it would be!
What advice do you wish you could give to yourself in 2011?
Pace yourself. Most overnight successes you read about are ten or more years in the making. Building a company is definitely a marathon not a sprint, and to ensure you’re there at the finish it’s just as important to manage your health and wellbeing as your P&L and Balance Sheet. We ran so hard for the first few years that we nearly hit a wall. It’s only in the last 18 months that I’ve really considered what we invested in the company in those early years and how much it took out of us. I don’t regret anything though. I’d just manage my cadence a bit better if I did it again. Try and laugh more and stop to enjoy the milestones, too.
You’ve won a lot of accolades for your work with Hiring Hub. Did you feel more pressure as a result? Did the extra attention influence your activities?
I think, in the early days we felt like frauds! We were winning awards like Best Startup, Most Innovative Company, Software Entrepreneur of the Year et al… and yet the business was tiny. Sara and I did a good job at the time of making it look bigger than it was – to solve the chicken and egg problem – but in reality we were small and we had no money. I remember going to award dinners and feeling the weight of imposter syndrome, and just feeling like we didn’t deserve to be there. But we did. We were doing something completely different. We were trying to reimagine the way an entire industry was working. It was… it is… a colossal task. So I’m comfortable we earned the right to sit at those tables. It just didn’t feel like it at the time when you look around and think everyone there is so successful, and you’re flipping 0% credit cards to stay afloat. Still, the PR and connections from those awards served us well. We won customers and investors from them.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities that come from working in tech?
The opportunity is huge. I think I’ll sit in my favourite armchair – I don’t have one yet but when I do! – when I’m 90 and look back at this era and acknowledge how lucky we are/were. We’re living through an age of such significant change, there are almost endless possibilities. It really is an exciting time to be an entrepreneur, even though I hate that word!
What are your priorities for the next few years?
Finish what we started! We launched Hiring Hub to fix what we felt was a broken industry: recruitment. We haven’t done that yet, and there’s so much still to do so I want to complete the puzzle. Finish the lego set. I have a goal that, if and when we hit it, I might relax a bit. At least that’s what I tell myself. But we’re not in a place where we can relax yet. We have a product roadmap to build out, and thousands of customers to educate and onboard. So my priority, outside of family, is to navigate the ship so Hiring Hub can achieve its potential.