Charlie Walker shares lessons from the sale of his first successful business to scale his second.
Charlie Walker set up his first recruitment business at 24, scaling it to £30 million in sales with an EBIT of £2.5million in 7 years and making fifth place on The Sunday Times International Track. Since exiting the business he founded Harmonic Finance in January 2017. It has since grown to 10 people, based from Camden Market and Barcelona, and specializes in supplying Finance & Accounting hires into entrepreneur-led businesses.
A member of The Supper Club since 2012, Charlie took time out to talk about the lessons he is applying from his first business to scale his second.
What time does your alarm go off and how do you prepare yourself for the day?
6:45. I wish I had some kind of cross-fit / iron man training routine to talk about here. But the honest answer is that – following parenting duties – it’s straight into some very strong coffee and loud music on the stereo. My days are generally prepared the night before: I don’t go to sleep without having a clear plan of the following day’s objectives. I typically write these down on my phone using Wunderlist.
How do you get the most out of your day and be more productive?
Tech certainly helps a great deal: Microsoft Planner, although ugly, has been a god-send.
What have you done to maintain your company culture as you have scaled?
We are still early doors here at Harmonic Finance but linking everything to our three company values - be that service approach, external communications or remuneration - has made a huge impact upon building a productive and positive work environment.
What technology tools have helped your business to grow?
Without doubt, the development of LinkedIn has been most useful. It’s completely democratised data for employee talent and has been a huge leveller for new market entrants. Traditional exec search firms must really hate it.
What piece of technology couldn’t you personally live without, and why?
My iPhone. I can access our CRM, research platforms and use Linkedin on the move: disgustingly unhealthy for work life balance. But certainly useful!
How have you built your team to drive growth?
I’ve hired people who are motivated by success and ‘winning’ first, with money in all cases second (and in some cases third) on their list of drivers. And from the outset each of my team have also been given a clear, demarcated plan for their career development and what’s expected of them in terms of performance. That raw drive coupled with clarity of next steps always drives growth from my experience.
A lot of it starts at the beginning: you have to make sure you’re recruiting people who are motivated by the right things. It’s more about finding the right people rather than trying to get the best out of people that don’t fit.
What have you learned about creating and maintaining a good work culture, and what would you do differently in hindsight?
Firstly, you can’t sacrifice the culture for any one person. There’s a behavior endemic in a lot of sales-driven businesses: hiring characters that might be a bit unsavoury just because they can bring in sales. In the short term, you’ll have a bump in the numbers but if it upsets team, that starts impacting on broader performance and almost always leads to people leaving.
Culture fails when companies decide on a mission statement on an away day and never actually link it into the business strategy—it’s almost just marketing.
At Harmonic, all our values have been formulated through discussion with colleagues on what we think is important to the customers and I think it’s making sure that they mean something.
How would you describe your management style, and what has made you a better leader?
I massively buy into the ‘Leaders Eat Last’ school: be humble, have a positive and inclusive vision and make sure colleagues feel trusted enough to gain significant control and independence where possible.
In terms of what has made me a better leader; undoubtedly, it’s through seeking out and working with some excellent mentors over the years. Check out Ian Waddelow—the man is a genius.
And as a final point: I’ve never surrounded myself with sycophants. Good leaders have colleagues confident enough to respectfully challenge them. It's a recurring theme in my businesses, even if it has led to the occasional flashpoint!
What skill or ability do you think has most helped you to scale?
In spite of numerous faults, I’d like to think that there are few better leaders than myself at identifying and training talent. This has enabled me to build engaged teams who ‘own’ their culture, and also to succession plan to mitigate the effects of any unexpected resignations.
Which book has had the biggest impact on you, and what could other entrepreneurs learn from it?
Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything in which she outlines – supported by thousands of scientific sources – how (unregulated) consumer capitalism will need to be altered to avert climate change. I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks after reading it! Keep in mind that I have gone from running a company which supplied drilling engineers to Halliburton in Africa and driving a car with a V8 engine, to now hugely rethinking what I consume and how I travel.
How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?
I don’t sadly, I’m hyperactive, bore easily and I love what I do. It’s more a case of: ‘do as I say, not as I do’ with colleagues as we do provide Pilates, yoga, and extended breaks for the gym.
What is your greatest fear, and what are you doing about it? At risk of sounding like some kind of tech bro, I’ve always feared mediocrity. It was drummed into me from a young age to put everything into any task and to self-develop.
What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned in business, or the biggest challenge you have overcome?
Following a failed attempt at a private equity deal, I chose to exit my first business—a decision not especially well-received by my initial investors. Cue extended legal wrangling and the emotional wrench of leaving a team and organisation which I’d led since I was 24. Walking away from some fairly hefty sums to then start again was a big call. But I’m ultimately proud of myself for doing it—it’s made me a much better (and happier) businessperson.
If you could go back ten years and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t scrimp on legal advice when signing investment deals!
Looking ahead ten years, what is the biggest opportunity or threat to your business that you’re preparing for?
A.I. is certainly going to be interesting. There are a few innovations recently like RoboRecruiter which automate some of the more labour-intensive processes in terms of candidate registration and filtering. The danger is that, as it develops, it will be much easier for companies to self-recruit candidates and identify available talent—diminishing the value of a lot of the recruiter networks out there.
On the flip side, it will enable us to be a lot more responsive and focus more attention on customer service and relationship building. It frees us from spending a lot of money on the mop and bucket work—the transactional stuff. On balance I think it’s a bad thing for the industry as a whole but that there are certain aspects of it that will help us – at the higher end of the market – to be more productive.
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