An interview with Quarsh Directors, Lucy and Jason on their RPO business
Jason Collings and Lucy James founded their company in 2010. Quarsh specialises in the design, implementation and operation of best practice recruitment for clients. Setting up the business and solving companies’ problems is what Quarsh loves to do - discovering the best recruitment processes for individual clients to achieve effective, worthwhile recruitment.
But how did the RPO duo get to this point?
Jason and Lucy answer questions on what it took to turn their ‘ideas into reality’, working as a partnership and where they see their success taking them in the years to come.
What made you choose the name ‘Quarsh’ for your business?
Jason: I came up with the idea.
Lucy: The name Quarsh doesn’t mean anything, Jason made it up to secure a six letter URL. I wasn’t convinced! So Jason thought for a minute and said “it means Qualitas, Ars, Humanitas” (or Quality, Excellence, People). So if it’s important, that’s what Quarsh means!
Why did you find Bletchley Park the perfect fit for your offices?
Lucy: We were in serviced offices in central MK, which were fine but a bit bland. A couple of members of the team excitedly showed me the website and we went to have a look; it’s a great location. It’s quirky, plenty of greenery and flexible… it suits us, completely.
Jason: Bletchley Park is the coolest location for an office I have ever seen, how could you not choose it if the option is there? The directions to get to our office are ‘turn left at the submarine’. That’s just brilliant.
Going into business with someone is a huge responsibility, what was it about each other that made you feel it was a great business decision?
Jason: We had worked together, so it wasn’t a completely cold decision.
Lucy: Jason had been my CEO for a short period. He had this great idea and a brilliant track record in RPO. He needed somebody that could execute it with him; I had a good network of contacts and wanted to do more than “just” exec search. We had both done start-ups before and knew the reality.
Jason: Lucy had two aspects that I found compelling – she is an excellent commercial sales person and understands the sales dynamic, there are an awful lot of people in the industry that don’t. But she balanced this with a desire to do the best for her client. She approaches things with a ‘what more can I do attitude’. It spoke to me.
Lucy: Six years on, I’ve no doubt that it’s the best business decision I’ve ever made.
What was the most testing experience when starting the business?
Lucy: The most difficult bit was not losing heart when we were trying to win new business and we were working from home. We spent a lot of time writing compelling sales collateral and talking over Skype. I was also three months’ pregnant with my first baby which was a bit distracting!
Jason: It’s always testing meeting an organisation and convincing them to work with you, when you have zero track record, reference or background and having nothing but your word. That was our biggest hurdle. We were being told to get a partner that would just throw money at us but we believed in ourselves instead of buying success. We felt we could do it on the strength of our own ability – it seems to have worked.
Lucy: Later on, after we’d started to break the back of things, we had ‘Black Wednesday’. It was 18 months into starting Quarsh and we didn’t have enough business and were a few days from having to close the business. The uncertainty was difficult. But in retrospect it was a major turning point and we know now that we can deal with pretty much anything.
How did you both define your roles in the company?
Jason: To begin with you do whatever needs to be done regardless of what it is or how mundane.
Lucy: At first, we divided management and client responsibilities according to location. As time has gone on and business has grown, our strengths and what we love doing have become pretty clear.
Jason: I deal with operations delivery whilst Lucy deals with sales and commercial and that’s simply down to our fortes. Lucy is great at getting to the heart of what our clients need. I am great at building a solution and making sure it is carried out – we play to our strengths.
Lucy: We’re always trying to do more, though, so our roles shift. I'm by nature restless and easily distracted, so I'm never going to be happy! There are always things we can do better.
How did you get the background and skills necessary to run this type of business?
Jason: I’ve been in this business for a very long time – over 20 years. Prior to Quarsh I was a Managing Director in the Korn/Ferry business and also the Chief Executive to the recruitment group BNB Group PLC. I’ve been lucky enough to have gained this experience and have it all come together.
Lucy: I’ve been in recruitment for 20 years and have done pretty much every job going, most significantly Exec Search. Being a headhunter is a great way of learning about business. We talk to the very best people, the top 2%, about how they've been successful. It helps that I love recruitment and get a massive kick out of executing a search well. My previous venture taught me that choosing your business partner wisely is essential; you have to share the same vision, energy and drive, and be prepared to have difficult conversations.
Some businesses do not agree with RPO, do you find it difficult to make people realise Quarsh isn’t your average RPO?
Jason: That can sometimes be a challenge. They hear RPO and they think we’ll treat them as one size fits all. We have to get beyond that point and make them see we’re more detailed, more robust and more tailored to their needs.
Lucy: Once we start talking about their recruitment environments and getting an understanding of how we might be able to help, the conversation begins to shift. There are a lot of preconceived ideas about RPO. Not many people expect an RPO to be flexible and based on partnership. That’s a conversation that takes time to unfold. We’re not afraid to recommend other solutions which helps!
What would you say to these people?
Jason: When people talk to us they’re always so surprised at what we can bring and how effective and useful we can be for them. We reduce their cost, hiring times and management spends. You need to have the conversation with us to understand the benefits. Until that conversation people tend to not believe it because they have only seen the standard solution that we do not agree with.
Lucy: We totally understand that it all looks too good to be true. The best bit of our job is the first quarterly review with a new client and their recruitment functions are doing so much better, the look on our clients' faces is just brilliant - it wasn't all too good to be true and we've done exactly what we said we would!
Why do your customers select you over your competitors?
Lucy: We are exactly who we appear to be. There's no smoke and mirrors, no smooth sales person promising the earth, no rapacious additional charges. We do so much more than "just" recruitment and we'll bend over backwards to make things better.
Jason: Exactly, our solution is tailored to them. Fundamentally they’re buying the solution because it sorts the issues they need solving. It can be as fancy as you like but if it doesn’t do the job it’s useless. Ours are excellent recruitment solutions that have great results. Not all our competitors can say that.
Was there a significant moment that you realised the company was becoming successful?
Jason: It’s been a gradual process, but we have continued to grow and it’s great.
Lucy: We've had a few - our first "proper" RPO; the first time a client took us with them when they started with a new company; turning a single search into a three year delivery contract.
Jason and I have a "state of the nation" discussion every quarter and, for the last three years, each time we say the same thing - "We're in a better place now than we've ever been!" It feels truer every time.
How has Quarsh grown in the 6 years since it began?
Jason: We have gone from having two people in a hotel lobby coming up with a business plan to 15 full-time people.
Lucy: We've had a few moments when things have looked a bit shaky, as with all start-ups, and we've given ourselves a metaphorical kick, refocused and got on with things. We're entirely self-funded and have always been debt-free. We're in control of our own destiny. I'm very pleased with that.
Jason: We have clients in half a dozen different sectors with a fantastic track record working with companies in different industries that have given great references. The team we have put together has such strength. We have great knowledge and expertise in the team.
Lucy: We're pretty proud of Quarsh people. Everyone is pointing in the same direction. We've hired self-starters who take responsibility and aren't afraid to have a go, whether that's trying out new tech or taking on a completely different role. So we've got a company of innovators who get along with each other. Fantastic for our culture and our clients.
Where do you see Quarsh in 5 years?
Lucy: In 5 years, I'd like to be at around 3 times the size we are now, still debt-free and probably looking at acquiring other businesses.
Jason: We’re looking at growth but we don’t want to be the largest RPO, we want to be the best RPO. I want to be is genuinely acknowledged to be the best RPO in the UK and possibly Europe.
If you could choose to have any company as your client, who would it be?
Lucy: John Lewis. I love their ethos. Possibly PADI so I could have an excuse to go on lots of diving holidays. Failing that, a company with a growth mindset and the confidence to make tough decisions with the courage to trust in its partners.
Jason: There are many great brands out there. I would want to be working with a number of differing organisations so we can increase our spectrum of understanding of what can be done. I want to work with different companies in different ways that bring new and exciting things to the table. It could be anybody as long as they share our values.