The Road Less Travelled
Reflections on 10 years of Running a
Canberra Recruitment Business
April 2008: On the cusp of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Simon Cox took his first step on a road rife with uncertainty, competition and challenges, and founded HorizonOne.
The Vision: Change the conversation in recruitment from ‘selling’ to real consulting. Build a business that partners with clients and candidates through meaningful relationships. And add value beyond the reactive world of, “Help! I need someone ASAP!”
As the HorizonOne team prepares to celebrate its 10 year anniversary, I sat down with Simon to chat about his journey, and what it means to take the road less travelled.
Q. So Simon, how does it feel to reach a decade? Did you ever anticipate having this conversation when you started H1R in 2008?
By late 2008 there were some doubts, that’s for sure! Global markets were in freefall, there were redundancy rounds going on all over the place. We were busy trying to build mature processes and systems to support a high quality consulting firm…..while crickets were chirping in the recruitment market.
But we stuck by our vision; we really believed the market was crying out for the HorizonOne approach to recruitment. Where we are now at the 10 year mark was built on the foundations of this determination.
Q. What motivated you to start the business?
If I was going to stay in recruitment, I needed to feel proud of the work my company was doing, and of the industry. I wanted to be part of a company that was giving the industry a real ‘shake-up’.
At 32 I thought it was now or never. I wasn’t really known by friends as someone who was super driven. Slightly commitment phobic if anything (laughs). But I knew I always worked super hard and took ownership of the results of the company I worked for.
I felt under-prepared professionally, but had the support of an experienced business partner who had been down this path before. I knew that I always perform at my best when I paint myself into a corner. I was also passionate about recruitment, and saw it as a young, evolving industry ripe for innovation.
Q. And why is it the road less travelled? What do you mean by that?
I guess it’s about the journey we have chosen, which is reflected in our values. ‘Challenge the usual’ and ‘Don’t stop at good enough’ are about not accepting the way recruitment has always been done and finding new ways to do things better.
There are literally hundreds of recruitment agencies opening in Australia every year. But most take the same ‘sales team’ style approach to pushing their wares onto the market. You know – the kind of approach where they are constantly calling you to “catch up over coffee” and you feel like you are always being sold something.
In the tight knit, corporate sector market in Canberra there was this opportunity to be something different. And different is harder.
To do recruitment well, you often have to have lots of hard conversations. It means regularly not taking the path of least resistance.
Why are you failing to attract the right people? Why has your career stalled? Your recruitment process is dysfunctional.
If there’s an elephant in the room, we’ll talk about it. And that’s not always easy, but that’s part of our values.
So yes, a lot of the time it has felt like we are running against the tide. But winning Australia’s best start-up recruitment agency in our fourth year demonstrated we had chosen the right path.
Q. Did you have a map? How did you know where you were going?
Absolutely. We had a clear vision, we developed values that supported that vision, and we have always been big on governance and planning. But values ALWAYS come first. Everything we do – from the way we hire new team members, to the way we talk with clients and even our marketing, is centred on our core values.
One of our founding values was to make a positive impact in our community, which is represented in our value “share success, maximise impact”. Since our first placement, clients have had the opportunity to donate a portion of their invoice to a chosen charity.
We have recently evolved our approach with a new Corporate and Social Responsibility policy. I am very proud to announce a 10% of net profit ‘giving back’ target for HorizonOne from the new financial year.
Q. What’s been the hardest part of the road so far?
Aside from the first year which was a roller coaster, the hardest time was probably around late 2013. The Abbott Government increased cutbacks to the Commonwealth public service and put a 2 year halt on permanent recruitment. This completely stalled the Canberra job market and economy, which was already struggling under Labor’s efficiency dividends.
We had to slow down growth in the business, get back on the tools and work really hard to continue growing market share while remaining profitable. We did it, but it felt like we were going backwards for a while there.
Q. What about personally?
Honestly, the hardest thing has probably been learning to deal with what seems to be the never-ending demands on your time.
Having recently become a dad, I’ve discovered that running a growing business is almost like having a newborn – every year!
The demands on your energy can be unrelenting, and not great for your mental or physical health. You need to find better ways to deal with your stress each year, and ways to stay healthy.
You develop a pretty tough hide for when things don’t go according to plan.
Q. What personal quality has served you well, and what hasn’t?
They are sort of one and the same I think. I am really determined when I commit to something, but this can be to a fault. And I hate to fail.
I am getting much better at experimenting, trying new things and being prepared to fail.
Q. Is it harder to connect with others while travelling your own road?
Absolutely! Holding down a healthy relationship in the first five years was nearly impossible.
Without drawing out the violins, the road less travelled can be pretty lonely at times. There were plenty of moments where I wondered what the hell I was doing and why.
One awesome piece of advice came from the previous MD of McKinseys Australia at a leadership function. He said the best thing he ever did was to pick a group of like-minded people going through the same trials and tribulations of running a business, and meet with them regularly. So I organised a group of business owners and executives I knew. We meet six times a year over dinner, to share our experiences and what we have learned in that period. While sometimes we are like agony aunts who have drunk too much wine, the support, advice, networking and camaraderie has made the journey so much better.
Q. What big bumps have you hit on the way?
The only really hairy ‘go, no go’ moments we experienced very early on, which was in the early years when our investors got nervous during the GFC. Nothing really catastrophic since then.
I definitely think you learn more from when things go wrong than you do when they go right. Once we bought out the investors and refocused on our vision, we have been going from strength to strength.
Q. What’s the best turn you’ve made on the road?
Finding David, who was returning to Australia from London and became a Director in HorizonOne early on.
Working with Dave, I’ve learned the value of a partnership where you share a similar vision, but have complementary strengths and weaknesses. David is great at some of the things I am not good at, and I enjoy a lot of the things he doesn’t. Where we have creative tension is a really positive thing for the company as well.
I think if we were both the same, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
It has been great to see his fishing skills improve since arriving from London too 😉
Q. Any tips for those navigating their own road?
Have a really clear vision for your business and target your niche with precision. Keep a very close eye on the market, particularly disruptive technology and competitors and be ready to adapt or pivot.
Be really cautious about who you hire. Focus on talented people with a great attitude, and make sure they align with your values. People that have high self-awareness and emotional intelligence are the Holy Grail. If you surround yourself with people like that, you’ll succeed.
Q. And where is the road taking you now?
We are pretty excited about where we are at and the road ahead. The business has experienced year on year growth for the past 5 years and we are looking for at least 5 new hires before the end of the year.
After 5 years of heavy lifting and investment, we have popped our head up and have been entering awards for the first time since 2013. Recently we were one of 4 finalists in the Recruitment International Awards (Australia, 2018), Recruitment Brand of the Year category. We have also thrown our hat in the ring for the Telstra Business Awards and would be thrilled to be recognised as a finalist again.
Q. Parting Comments?
Running a small business requires a special kind of madness.
Often you are super stressed and exhausted. Sometimes you feel you are an imposter. Sometimes you are so stretched from pillar to post you can forget why you are doing it. However, overall the opportunity for creativity, achievement and personal growth is life changing.
So just like the calm birth class I attended last year before the birth of my son taught me, I just need to take the mindset of “it is not pain, it’s just pressure”.