How free social media beat the recruitment consultants to death

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This is a guest post by Tom Allason, founder & CEO of stealth startup Shutl. In 2003, Tom founded – the online courier company with the purple vans and served as eCourier’s CEO from 2004 until 2008, overseeing the company’s growth to £7.5m turnover and 250+ staff (including couriers) and raising £8m in equity funding from angels and a VC. With a professional management team in place, Tom left eCourier in 2008 to found Shutl. Tom serves on the advisory boards of YumShare and BookingBug. Outside of business, Tom is a founding trustee of FoundationStone, a charitable trust that invests in start-up charities.

For my first startup (founded in 2004), getting top senior talent was a long & painful process punctuated by expensive ads and extortionate recruitment consultants. Hiring a CFO cost us around £25k. Hiring a CEO (when I was moving on) cost at least twice that. And even after making the investment, results were far from assured.

For the CFO vacancy, a quirky ad in the FT got us a ton of great candidates… however when push came to shove our short-list saw us as too risky a proposition, especially when compared with what the market was offering in risk-free salary. I enlised my co-founder & CTO and we wined, dined and begged our top 3 CFO candidates… all without success. One seduced by the real-estate boom went to Colliers CRE, another consulted his father who told him it was too risky (he ended up joining 3i!) and the last one said we needed more £ and joined Multimap, which was swiftly bought by Microsoft (he was right on the £ btw). We ended up hiring a recommendation from within our network.

To fill the CEO position (when I was leaving) our board hired a headhunter on a retained search (on insistence of the VC) in order to ensure a hire. From the 5 candidates shortlisted, only 1 wanted the job. Unsurprisingly he got it… on his terms.

We had a relatively high profile business (slew of awards & press), sales in the millions (had been growing at 20-30% per month for first 3 years) AND £2m+ VC investment in the bank… and yet recruiting senior managers was still a challenge. Was it us, or were things even harder for those that were not in as fortunate a position?

Fast forward 2 years… Given my previous experience I was a little apprehensive when Shutl needed a full-time CTO. On paper we were undoubtedly a riskier concern: tiny team, no (finished) product, no clients, no investors, etc… we also did not have the means to pursue either of the former recruitment strategies. This proved to be a blessing in disguise.

We hired a CTO in July and it took 3 months. The process was painful but only because we had to choose from a number of fantastically over-qualified candidates, all of whom wanted the job. Our only expenditure was a £20 TechCrunch Europe CrunchBoard ad.

So what had changed?

Admittedly this was a different (and more exciting) business (well, I would say that). However, this was also a very different market… and there were new tools available to access the market without use of an intermediary.

I wrote the spec, posted the CrunchBoard ad, sent out a link to ads on facebook, linkedin, plaxo & twitter. TechFluff videoblogger Hermione Way and a couple of others possessing 2.0 fan-clubs reposted. I also joined just about every relevant LinkedIn group (and a dozen not so relevant) and posted the job there, as well as emailing out to a couple of entrepreneur lists. Within 2 weeks we had 260 applications. Obviously there was a fair amount of chaff, but not nearly as much as had anticipated.

Not unexpectedly I was also bombarded by recruitment consultants. I treated them all equally and told them: if they had someone that fitted the profile, send me a CV and we would consider, but only subject to my (not their) terms- a copy of which I provided them. I told them that they could not advertise the role themselves and I was not prepared to speak to any of them let alone meet them. Not one dared to propose a retained search.

We filtered CVs and interviewed around 50 NDA’d applicants. This was time-consuming but gave me a great feel for the market- what was out there and what it cost. This also helped me to refine the requirement. It also narrowed the field to 12 who received a disclosure pack (business plan, SDD, code, model etc). After a week to digest, we then sent out an RFP. The responses required some real time & effort and separated out the really serious candidates.

Once reduced down to the final 5 we needed to narrow the field further and asked them where they would come out on tension between salary & options. 2 of our top 3 came out at less than 50% of the salary we had originally been considering (with higher equity packages). At this point we could almost have gone with a reverse auction.

After dilligencing references provided & found (thank you LinkedIn!) and not insignificant umming and erring, we made a very tough decision. Our final few candidates had been CTOs respectively of a well known mobile phone operator, local directory site & top 3 ratings agency. All of them were in their jobs. It was a tough decision because ordinarily I would have been ecstatic with any one of them.

And the candidate that got the job… well, he was someone I had been at university with 8+ years ago (and hadn’t spoken to since). He is based in the US, and saw the posting on LinkedIn. He certainly wouldn’t have come up from any ad/recruiter. His proposal was far and away the best and to avoid nepotism had our Chairman (Simon Murdoch) & tech advisors (Jay Bregman & Glenn Shoosmith) heavily involved in the process. We made the appointment last month and could not be happier.

I admit that a CTO is a different hire from CEO & CFO, however in a tech business no less important. Had I been in the market for either of them I am confident that the same investment and process would have yielded very similar results.

What I take from this experience is:

1. The recruitment industry (in its current form) has been dealt a deathblow blow by social media. Provided content is good and you make a bit of an effort, your audience will find you without a recruiter or expensive ad. To add value a recruiter or ad must be cheap enough & targeted enough to save you the time involved with making good content & effort.

2. There cannot be a better time than now to startup. Repeating what I told Oli Barret yesterday.

“Talent, the most critical factor to a start-up’s success, is the cheapest and most abundant it has ever been.”

3. I probably could have improved my ROI exponentially by not forking out £20 for a CB ad – but at least that created the link which could be passed around by social media.

  • Peter Gillingwater

    Tom – an excellent dose of reality for the recruitment market and something close to my current thinking about where recruitment is heading – after 20+ years in search! As you have proven, it’s not rocket science – the tools exist. What’s different is that we (12 in Nexec team) do this day in and day out and strive to always know the best – now. We also dig into companies where people are not looking and extract them nicely. Great talent is still(always?) rare enough for most Companies to use headhunters but we must move with the times and innovate.

  • Jules Morgan

    Good article. Enjoyed reading.

  • Gary Reeman

    Super article – it seems that you used a very thorough and insightful process!

    Recruitment, like many other services, is a process which, if you have the time and expertise, you might undertake in-house. And social media certainly increases the number of potential candidates an in-house process could reach.

    However, often recruitment processes are time critical and many hiring managers, busy running their business/department/team, would find it difficult to put the time aside, in the manner you did, to personally screen tens or hundreds of candidates – often conducting interviews in the evenings or at weekends.

    Moreover, even in this day and age, not all candidates are actively using social networks or responding to online postings. So the better recruiters use social media as just one of their tools – supplementing this with tenacious efforts to find their clients qualified and motivated candidates. And, as Peter points out in his comment, the better recruiters are also innovating – finding new ways to delight clients and find & attract candidates. So no need to turn on the life support system just yet – innovative and focused recruitment consultants like AlpinaSearch are very much alive and well!

  • Emmanuel Marchal

    Great post. Thanks for writing it as it also gives me a few good ideas.

    Having dealt with the other end of the spectrum (agencies), the main issue I had with them is that they basically didn’t deliver the most basic thing what I was expecting of them. They typically didn’t do a great job at screening candidates.

    Yes they have the reach into a good number of candidates. And one would think it’s relatively easy to screen candidates.

    But in my experience, not matter how much care I took in writing the job spec or spent time with them explaining the role and experience I was looking for, the result wasn’t disappointing. But I shouldn’t be since they simply didn’t know my business, market space or company ethos as good as I did (…duh).

    Of course doing it direct requires that you already have well established networks. A good reason to invest in them while you are not searching for something specific!

  • Marcus Greenwood

    Great article. IMHO recruitment agents are going the way of the estate agent – an unnecessary and expensive 3rd party in between buyer (employer) and seller (job seeker). Particularly in the internet industry, being very aware of the market and what opportunities are available without having to go through a recruiter probably goes a long way to qualifying the person for the job.

    Of course this does not apply across the board – we have worked with a couple of agents that have been very helpful – particularly in the more senior hires, but most have just performed the function of sending CVs that they’ve downloaded from job sites.

  • Edward Sanchez

    I have 4 people in my team
    1 I found on (the junior who is now a senior – I got lucky there)
    1 on a forum specific to the programming language I was looking for
    2 on twitter

    I couldn’t be happier with my team – they are extremely talented people and I didn’t pay a penny to hire them!

    Agents can go to hell, I hate them!

  • Chris

    Couldn’t agree more, I haven’t used any recruitment agencies for the last 3 years for 8 recruitments in tech and I have been very happy with the process, time and the candidates hired.

    I think the only recruitment agencies that will last are the real head hunters.

  • CorDell Larkin

    Congratulations Tom! You have learned a good lesson and thank you for sharing it with everyone.

    I’ve been in the talent acquisition and development business for over a decade, and I figured out early that identifying talent is simply a process. A process (enhanced by various tools like LinkedIn) that when tracked and measured can be continuously improved (i.e. shortened and made more accurate).

    In my opinion, there are only one questions you should ask yourself next time you have a senior level hiring need, or any need that might require outside assistance. Can the service provider do it cheaper, faster, or better (in this case find a higher quality candidate). If after considering a service provider you can’t answer yes to at least one of these questions you are most certainly better of doing it yourself.

    For the rest of you who are considering doing this on your own check out my blog on “Low Budget Candidate Sourcing Advice” at I’ve been working with entrepreneurial companies to help them build management teams for over a decade and know a number of them can’t afford to retain a consultant like myself to do their searches. This is the advice I offer them.

    Happy hunting,


  • Nicholas Brooke

    This is a great experience and I agree with the conclusions. However, for Corporate Recruiters and for positions not necessarily at the Senior level, there are many issues to crack to make it real on the day to day and in terms of volume.

    I face many recruiters in my job and I think they are getting there in terms of social media. However, when it comes to make it a common practice or a routine, they all face the time input issue. There is no structured way to deal with social media, nor any mean to aggregate the information and keep for further recruitment tasks in the future.

    This is still an area that will move significantly in the coming years.

  • Colin Minto

    Now for a different take. Tom, what you describe is a process that any corporate employer can follow and could have followed since the dawn of time, albeit using alternative media. The point is not that you have done this, it’s that you could be bothered to do it.

    Recruitment is a process and any employer could easily do it themselves, it’s just many choose not to. HR prefer to focus on strategy rather than function in terms of recruitment, which is why so much is subbed out to recruiters and the recruitment industry is worth £26 billion a year.

    To defend their position recruiters will claim speed and management time and cost savings. Let’s be honest how much do you and your senior managers cost your business per day you spend recruiting, what impact does your absence from other functions have and how much value would a hire bring if a month was taken off the time to recruit.

    I prefer not to claim web 2.0 is the end of recruiters. HR recognising they can do their own recruitment and doing it would be.

    But again, let’s get real. Supermarkets could do their own distribution but they don’t. Why, because third party’s on average can do it 40% more effectively and cheaper!

  • Tom Allason

    Thanks for the feedback all, flattered to have any comments!

    Without a doubt there is an opportunity cost to doing recruitment yourself. In my case, that cost was outweighed by the value associated with getting the right person for this very critical role- I felt confident that I could get better results than any recruiter. Further, it is hard for an early stage start-up to justify a recruitment fee- especially when you have 24 hours in the day.

    I certainly would not have bothered with a junior hire. Indeed there are some relatively senior hires we have coming up where I expect we will make the hire via a recruiter although we will still run the same route as before in parallel (although CrunchBoard probably not the right medium).

    I think what the recruitment industry should take away from this is that prospective clients really can beat them at their own game, if they want to make the effort. The recruitment industry needs to recognise this and innovate… find ways of adding value… and justify/rationalise their proposition.

  • Colin Minto

    Hear hear

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  • Diana

    I found the above website ( in my search to find alternative ways to promote what I can do/offer to a company. I thought about trying to promote myself on facebook and youtube etc. but neither seemed appropriate (and as for twitter, i just dont get that). Facebook seems innapropriate (to me personally) for something as serious as job hunting; for me its a medium for socialising, and don’t think the silly antics of some of my friends and relatives will impress potential employers…
    Youtube is just for videos so again wasn’t meeting my needs. Anyway, zoomspec is more appropriate for me with my professional head on, it’s free, and I can do a fair bit on there to promote my skills. I am just in the process of creating a video pitch for the particular sector I am targeting (having this done professionally) and will use zoomspec to promote myself using the video etc. The video will hopefully showcase my communication skills, but wil also focus on some of my more significant projects where I have taken a problem through to solution.

    I like this site, the concept is good, and the fact its free is a massive bonus. A company can post jobs, ask the candidates to submit video pitches/ complete specially prepared tests/ questionnaires, post examples of their work (if appropriate) and can effectively have a live virtual interview in one of the interview chat rooms. This must surely benefit/speed up the candidate screening process, and eliminate the need for agents…

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  • Ivan | Jobs Blog

    Your article should be published in the Handbook For Entrepreneurs/Founders/Directors of 21st Century.

    Great, just great!

  • Rowan

    Brilliant article, and it seems you have put together a great recruitment process yourself, more thorough than many large organisations.

    I definitely agree that the old style recruiter who posted a few ads, collected the CVs and presented the best candidates is well and truly on the way out.

    LinkedIn and social networking tools are now encroaching on the ‘well networked’ individuals territory.

    So, the truth is for recruiters to survive they need to add more value than simply aggregating candidates. They need to ensure they are selecting the right candidates to present to shortlist. CIPD has shown the CV based interview that most recruiters use to assess candidates is at best 25% accurate at predicting future performance. Recruiters need to become adept at the new ways of assessing candidates using psychometric tools or behavioural interviews which can raise hiring accuracy above 75% (CIPD). Quite a seachange for most recruiters!!


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