"Recruitment will be majorly disrupted, I'm talking creative destruction" James Uffindell
Asa Bennett talks to the man revolutionising how students get into uni, and then find jobs
Every firm wants to be like the British army.
It can be organisationally, tactically or even just in living up to the motto – “Be the best”.
Of course, to be the best, you have to make sure you get the best staff. The 33-year-old James Uffindell has been busy shaking up the recruitment sector with his offer of the Bright Network.
He has been a prolific entrepreneur in higher education, setting up a company in his last year at university offering consultations and training to help people get into the top universities. At 25, he founded the social enterprise Pure Potential to help poorer school pupils get into the best universities. Lately he has been taking his new firm - Bright Network - to new heights.
Billed as the place where “the brightest get noticed”, the Bright Network helps university students and young graduates find jobs at top flight firms. So far Uffindell has snapped up 30,000 clever clogs onto his network. Uffindell’s client list now includes companies like Goldman Sachs, Innocent Drinks and the Big Four accountancy firms.
I met up with him at the company’s New Bond Street base to find out what was the story behind “the Bright revolution”.
How did Bright Network get started?
At first, I didn’t really understand how corporate recruitment worked. But when I was 20, I started asking how my friends got into university.
The problem is it’s a ridiculously competitive process. There are lots of things you can’t manage to mitigate, like if the tutor has had a coffee and all these sorts of unknowns.
However, there are things you can do to improve your success. So I started Oxbridge Applications in 1999, in my last year at uni, and launched it into the market in late 2000.
I just got in my car and started driving around doing talks at schools. It was a very popular idea, people really wanted help and wanted support and the business has grown every year. We now have 20% of all people who apply to Oxford and Cambridge.
I then started a social enterprise called Pure Potential, all about helping those on lower-incomes get into university. I got the firm sponsored by 50 big recruiters who wanted to access bright people from state school background who were going off to university, and I ended up helping 50,000 to 55,000 people.
So we had this database of really intelligent people, and if they don’t go to Oxbridge, they go to other great universities
I looked at how they linked up with careers and there seemed to be a big void. They were saying to me, along with firms, that it’s really impersonal. So I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to start a personalised service?
Did you face any challenges in getting Bright Network going?
It was an exercise in entrepreneurship as I started at worst possible time.
I had the idea when economy was booming in Summer 2007. I went on to launch it in March 2008 and effectively launched in the middle of an economic storm!
It made for an interesting learning curve. Things only got going in late 2009.
It was an entrepreneurial challenge…I had invested loads and it was an expensive launch. I had to let people go, it was very stressful as well as you make these commitments to people.
But that is the reason now that we have doubled our turnover in the last year. Bright Network has 10 people working on it full time.
The reason we’re able to be in this position now is from making tough choices.
How long have you been based in New Bond Street? The rates must be huge!
We got a great value on the rent!
When I started originally, it was from back home in Stratford-upon-Avon. I thought - this was the Midlands - the epicentre of the world! But then I’d spend all my time coming down to London.
So I got it up and going in the provinces in Stratford but decided to move it all down to London. The rent we pay is about 1/30th of the rent they pay on the ground floor. This is a premium shopping street but the opportunity we get is a very central, fun and cool address.
The address is important for credibility, we’ve been here for 8 years.
How do you make money?
Firms pay to access our members. On a commission basis, an individual headhunting approach, but really it depends on the model.
Conventionally firms will pay a headhunting fee to access the candidates. On that model we work with everybody from media firms, hedge funds, online businesses. SMEs particuarly want to find somebody, through to big graduate recruiters.
They pay to come to our events, like our Bright Festival. That had 1,500 people in the Grand Connaught rooms. They’d be paying to communicate with audience, on the website they pay to list graduate schemes and that kind of stuff.
How did you attract your clients?
It’s all about being competitive. If you’re running any business, the logic of capitalism is that people would use you because you’re better than the next best opposition
We’ve got a few competittors but we’ve built our model so we’re more cost efficient. We do things in a different way, like with events.
A lot of people just do the paid-for headhunting bit, the typical 25% of salary, which can be very expensive.
If you’re a volume graduate recruiter, you’re happy to do it all in house but you want a platform to get your messages out there
What sets you apart as a recruiter?
Early access. We get to these people before anyone else.
Secondly, quality. We are able to guarantee a certain quality of candidates.
In a very crowded market place with 500,000 graduates per year, certain recruiters only want to be targeting the top 10% or 20%.
We have segmented the market, taking the very top guys and have linked them up. There are screening costs. It’s not just about generating more applications.
You can easily get thousands of people applying for your graduate scheme, but really you want the best people in the room and to give them jobs.
There is a shortage of bright employable good candidates
Do you have to prepare the graduates much to get them into jobs?
We put on a whole lot of skills workshops at our events. We find those with potential, they’re bright, motivated, ambitious and hungry
If you’ve grown up in a family where you’d be listening to the Today programme and you have dinner table conversations every night, you may have those natural communications skills. But you have to offer the help and support.
The aim with Bright Network is to be a really great careers service for top graduates.
You get recruitment exhibitions but it’s not just a go there and get given a brochure. It’s a personal interaction with the firms, which the firms and students love. Our events aren’t just some cattle market that you walk around.
I spend a lot of my time with my clients, getting to understand them and getting to know them. It’s about trust.
A lot of mistakes people make with sales is being too-short term. They phone them up and want something straight away.
We are looking for best and brightest and have our criteria for what it is. It’s a meritocratic network, all about looking for potential.
Have you had to have any investment?
18 months ago we did an angel round of investment, bringing on board Zach Miles, the ex-CEO of the world’s biggest recruitment company, Vedior, and the ex-chair of tech business SAGE, Michael Jackson.
What is the future for Bright Network?
We want to scale our network, we want to expand to Europe. We want to be getting more members in the UK, there’s nothing like it in the US.
Hopefully then we’re an innovative British business, a good export earner!
The model was to get it working in the UK, to conquer London and then further. There’s no reason why every country can’t have a Bright Network.
A lot of our big clients have asked us to expand over to Europe, particularly the banks with languages.
There’s a big shortage of technical skills in the UK, we don’t have enough engineers and computer scientists which there are in the UK. We’re just working out how to go about doing it.
I want to disrupt recruitment. I want to make it more meritocratic, more network-based. There’s so much scale overseas.
We do events with schools as well, we’ve done some with Allen & Overy, HSBC. We introduce students to firms and these careers while in sixth form.
There are lots of areas for growth, particuarly as the economy recovers.
How do you deal with other companies that help students get jobs, like Monster.co.uk?
The thing with them is there is no quality control. You put a job up there, anyone can go on it. As a recruiter, you’re inundated with CVs.
We’re going to have niche social networks, bright intelligent people like hanging out with bright intelligent people. Firms like recruiting these people. Why don’t we put all of them in one place and have that marketplace for bright people?
We know them, we know what they’re interested in. we know they like diversity. we know what they want help with.
Because each one of those candidates and our members is going to be highly employable, you can then you can offer a more personalised service - which other firms wouldn’t do.
You’re on Bright Network because if you’re don’t have a profile, you’ll miss out. you might not get that email, that headhunting call. It’s like insurance.
We’re not just about undergraduate recruitment, it’s about young professionals and where they go.
Could Bright Network be scaled for beyond graduate employment?
Absolutely, it’s a question of how we stretch the brand. Our database is getting more valuable every day.
We’re there for them before university and after university. We’re doing work with guys who would have been out of university and may have gone into consulting and may be thinking of their latest career step
We keep our competitive advantage in terms of early access. We have a quality of candidates and that is quite exciting, the role of putting them into start up businesses and hedge funds.
How do you see the future of the recruitment sector?
You think about retail, Ebay and Amazon - it’s all about getting rid of the middle man. Recruitment is a classic middle man business
A small percentage of recruitment consultants add value, 20% of them are brilliant, they get to know the firm, the candidate and the culture. 80% of them just fire CVs over, not doing anything other than just being a middle man
Recruitment is one of the last big industries to be disrupted, to be properly disrupted. Recruitment is going to be disrupted, pretty majorly. It’s quite exciting really. You know Schumpeter? I’m talking creative destruction.
Businesses are there to grow and be disrupted The good busineses will survive, the guys who are brilliant headhunters who take their time
In the industry, there is the practise of spray and pray. That is what people can become guilty of due to the incentives of it. Recruitment is moving from farming to hunting. It’s not about putting up loads of adverts everywhere, it’s about identifying bright people early on.
If I have 5 candidates, ill just chuck them all over the place in the hope that one firm will like one of them. A lot of them don’t add value. There are good ones but there are ones that just have market power.
We add value by being more of a network, by making it more personal, by making it more educational, and we’re doing something different.
Great, thanks for your time James!
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