Tim Bashall and Darren Mills met less than a year before spotting the opportunity to bring something better to the world of IT recruitment.
Both were experienced acting consultants, but they quickly realised that to achieve an instant advantage they needed to focus on the markets where businesses were struggling to find people and become experts in those markets.
Already operating in the ERP and healthcare systems sectors, they narrowed their focus on lesser known and new cutting-edge systems rather than established systems (such as SAP and Oracle). The aim was to build a level of expertise and in-depth knowledge of who was who and develop a honed database of candidates and client contacts. In 2004, IT Works was born.
Today, IT Works employs over 40 people which stands out when you consider that 85% of recruitment companies employ under three people. In 2020, they were recognised as one of The Sunday Times 100 best small companies to work for, one of the 75 best companies to work for in the Northwest.
From an entrepreneurial partnership, Tim and Darren built out their business in the UK and in the US, along with Gary Dytor and most recently they were successful in disposing of the US arm of IT Works in a multi-million-pound disposal to The Planet Group, an IT and pharmaceutical recruitment giant headquartered in Chicago.
Below, Tim and Darren share some insights from the journey – from working in a partnership to the importance of structure from the start and the highs and lows of selling a business.
Please describe some of the challenges you have faced in setting up IT Works
Darren: “Key challenges in the beginning were finding the right candidates and defining the marketplace. A lot of recruitment relies strongly on networking and in our particular case we were creating a market from scratch. However, it became apparent that in order to grow, putting in process and structure was just as important.
To stay ahead of the game, we needed to create a model that allowed our employees to replicate our methods by developing an infrastructure that supported their own careers with relevant training. This was critical to managing personalities and keeping people on track with our ethos. We wanted our people to do things the ‘IT Works way’.
Additionally, the value for us - and any future investor - was in building a credible data driven business which meant gathering and retaining accurate, high-quality data on every aspect of the markets we worked which in turn would drive the efficiency of our marketing efforts.
We had to make this an inherent business process which again relied on solid infrastructure. It was important for us to embed a culture.
Today, we have a whole suite of ERP, HRIS and health systems offerings each led by an expert representative consultant in that field.”
How do you manage working as a partnership?
Tim: “The simple truth is that our skill sets complement each other. Darren has the flair and is the natural entrepreneur. My skills lie in embedding structure, knitting teams together and keeping plans on track.
Over and above getting on, we also have a fundamental respect for each other and a level of trust which means we are free to focus on the areas of business we individually enjoy. It would never work if one or either of us was a control freak.”
What transactions have you undertaken?
Darren: “We have undertaken a few transactions – not all of them have made us money but each of them has taught us something. However, our most financially rewarding transaction was the sale of IT Works in the USA.
Around 10 years after setting up the UK business, we started looking at the US. Initially, the operation was run from the UK but over time we decided to move one of the key members of our team to Atlanta. After seven years of building the business, The Planet Group made an offer to buy our US operation.
However, the transaction was abruptly halted by the COVID pandemic. With almost all industries worldwide suffering some sort of setback – unsurprisingly the offer was rescinded.
We sat tight and over the following months things settled and that Summer another offer was put forward. However, as we started to get things underway, contractor numbers (the most valuable workstream in the world of recruitment) fell off a cliff and once again the deal was in doubt.
But as it became obvious that hybrid working was here to stay, companies have recognised that they needed to invest in their IT infrastructure, and we were able to harness this. Suddenly, there was demand for IT talent across industry.
The deal was back on.
After all the preceding ups and downs, completing the transaction was fairly straightforward, the buyers were more motivated to buy than before, so they drove the timetable hard. A lot of detailed paperwork was required by the US legal teams – much more than the UK equivalent – which meant that we needed good advisors (financial and legal) to help us.”
Describe some of the highs and lows
Tim: “The emotional roller coaster was challenging. Staying on track and keeping people - including ourselves - motivated throughout the process was critical. Having a good business partner was particularly helpful at this time. They can pull you up, share the strain and motivate you.
Another challenging part was conducting the process online and over the phone as US travel was not an option – like the rest of the world we became Zoom experts. This didn’t so much affect our ability to get the deal done but once things had completed it was surprisingly underwhelming to not be able to say goodbye properly to our team in the US and more importantly say thank you to everyone for their efforts. It took a few months to come to terms with this and finally enjoy the achievement.”
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
- A good idea is not enough
- But - you don’t always need to have a new idea, just do it better
- Go niche
- Try to provide a service that others are doing badly or not at all
- Prepare for it to take over your life – “it’s not a job”
- Be prepared to fail and bounce back
- Be careful to choose your advisers wisely and be prepared to listen
- Know your own weaknesses and fill the gaps with people who have strengths to match your weaknesses
- Above all build a good team around you and look after them!