John Lynes shares his story of setting up the Ashdown Group.
The Ashdown Group are a specialist recruitment agency, operating across IT, HR, marketing and accountancy professions.
My first real job from university was working within a major tech firm, working closely with my manager (with whom I am still friends 30 years later), we developed a small business within the wider enterprise selling computer parts for mainframes systems. This grew to become the largest division of the business and was a thoroughly enjoyable start to my career. I went on to do the same within a city-based leading tech firm.
Working 15-hour days as a Sales Manager in the city I was getting burnt out and was unhappy in my role. My brother Diccon, who had been working for a very high-pressured IT recruitment agency, wanted some help in starting his own recruitment company. Before long we agreed it would be great if we could build the business together. Diccon had been in a successful sales career and had a thorough understanding of the recruitment industry. We felt we had the perfect balance of skills to start and build a challenger business in the recruitment industry space.
In the late 90s, many recruitment firms were hardnosed sales organisations with hit and run sales techniques, huge fees and unreasonable commercial terms. Many treated their employees badly with a hire and fire mentality. This approach had left my brother anxious and stressed, prior to leaving his past firm and we were determined our team would not suffer in the same way. We had decided our business was going to be built on integrity, doing an honest job well and being respectful to our customers, candidates and employees alike.
We spoke with our contacts in business to fully understand what they really wanted from a recruitment agency and set about meeting those fundamental needs.
We formulated a plan, addressing marketing, financial, IT and people strategies. Together we wrote the business plan for Ashdown after identifying there was clearly a space in the market for our approach.
In 1999 we launched Ashdown. Bear in mind when we started, we were posting and faxing CVs and interview confirmations. We decided our branding should reflect that of a major accountancy practice or law firm. We looked at the marketing material they were using to attract clients and emulated them, with high quality design and presentation.
For the first few months we tried to build relationships by calling contacts at companies and introducing our services as had been the traditional method of building a customer base at the time. This had limited success, but the business was at least now up and running.
We wanted to grow more quickly, thus purchased a list of addresses of key decision makers at companies across the UK. We set about producing marketing material to send them, firstly folding all the letters and brochures by hand. Sharing our vision for recruitment with business leaders and how our approach was different, we received an astronomically positive response. We had so much custom we ended up buying an envelope stuffing machine and were sending out thousands of marketing packs a week. (I promise we will replant those trees!) We took on our first employees and moved to bigger premises.
Quickly we learned that to be efficient and therefore profitable, we needed to invest in new technology. Taking on the leading recruitment software system at the time and partnering with a startup tech firm from Edinburgh University in 2003, who developed a system that would read CVs and add the details into our core business system for shortlisting.
The technology used advanced natural language processing (NLP) the earliest form of machine learning and artificial intelligence. We were their 5th customer, and the technology transformed our business, as we were able to identify good candidates quickly and work with high volumes of job applications efficiently.
This gave us the ability to scale at speed. We grew rapidly from 2 people to 38 over the space of 5 years.
We developed the business together over 20 years. However, just before the pandemic Diccon decided to leave the business to pursue his passion - Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, developing a very successful local organisation.
What would you say were three of the most challenging aspects of setting up the business?
When starting out in business, cashflow is a killer! The Ashdown Group, or Ashdown IT as it was known in the beginning, started on a shoestring. My brother and I had saved enough to live on £500 per month for the first 2 years and did not take a wage whilst the business became established.
As we grew, cashflow and late customer payments presented two of the largest challenges. I remember a time we were owed £250,000 by a leading engineering firm, where we had a number of senior IT contractors on site. It was a really big recruitment campaign for us, but the customer was going through an exceedingly difficult time and not paying our invoices. We committed to paying all our contractors regardless of the non-payment by the FTSE listed firm. As I was the only house owner, I had to take a loan out against my home, borrowed money from our parents and put all our reserves into keeping our contractors paid. The engineering firm had an unexplained black hole in their accounts and their share price plunged from £6.50 to 50p. One of the scariest times of our 23 years of being in business! We rode the storm, the company paid, and we learnt a very valuable lesson.
Economic cycles of feast and famine can have a profound effect on business, especially within the recruitment industry as during a period of recession, whilst companies suffer losses, they do not typically go on a hiring spree!
We have been through the tech bubble of 2001, the financial crash of 2008/9 and most recently the pandemic. During Covid our business levels fell from nearly 200 open vacancies to just 4 in a two-week period, we were losing £3,000 per day. This period had an obvious fiscal impact but also was very mentally draining, trying to plan for the future and manage finances with no certainty as to when the horror story was going to end still haunts me. Equally the Ashdown team were concerned for the company, their futures and having to deal with the isolation from the lock down precautions we all took. Fortunately, the team at Ashdown are very resilient. I introduced a leadership team, responsible for managing and reporting on financial performance, marketing and sales activity along with internal communication and sharing our people plans. We regularly communicated progress with the team, were completely transparent and tried to support people so they did not feel in the dark or isolated. There were big tech challenges to overcome, taking all our systems to cloud computing and we had to move offices into a smaller space as everyone was now working from home. And that is how we arrived in the borough of Richmond. In truth, we were saved by the furlough scheme but having sufficient cash reserves to deal with recessions and periods of uncertainty has been drilled into me since the earliest days of struggling in business.
Another challenge we faced, has been to build the right team, one that feels as passionately as we do about our purpose, values and service. I am pleased to say we do have an incredible team, with a handful that have been with us since the start. Our average employee tenure is 9.6 years.
The smartest career decision - most difficult lesson learnt - best career advice received
The best career decision I ever made was to ensure from day one we were a company of high integrity with strong values and a people first culture. This has led to a loyal team of employees, ex-employees, customers and friends in business.
The most difficult lesson I learned in business (and it took years) is that being a boss is a very lonely place. Although you may have the support of your team, they will never see you as an equal and therefore will be less inclined to form the strength of friendship bonds that are possible as employees. It is therefore important to have strong friendships outside of work (sometimes hard to maintain when your business becomes your life!)
My late father encouraged me to continue my education at university when I was about to start a sandwich delivery business aged 18. This gave me the foundational knowledge to build a company our employees and I am proud to be part of.
If you had the opportunity to do it all again, what would you do differently?
We would have spent more time understanding external finance at an earlier stage to accelerate our growth plans. We would also have joined the Investors in People program from the start, ensuring we had a solid training and development program for our team.
What three tips would you offer to aspiring entrepreneurs?
- Just do it! The hardest part of getting into business is to actually take the plunge
- Before you kick things off, write a solid business plan, test your market, speak to potential customers, ensure there is a real demand for your products or services
- Focus on what makes you unique and do it brilliantly
How can people find you?
You can find us on the Ashdown Group website where you will find hundreds of specialist jobs, career advice and guidance to help you land your next dream job.
Also, you can visit us at RHP Building, 8 Waldegrave Road, Teddington, TW11 8GT.