by Helen Porter & Stacey McCarthy, Co-founders & Managing Partners. July 2022
As we celebrate MODE SEARCH's 5th anniversary, we ask co-founders Helen Porter and Stacey McCarthy to share their journey so far in building an agency that strives to deliver a unique and modern recruitment proposition.
Stacey and Helen launched MODE SEARCH to create an agency driven by values that are unreservedly client centric. Relationships are still at the forefront of every key decision made and the company seeks to be seen as a leader in its field and ‘worth knowing’, not just ‘well known’.
Can you tell us about your first year of launching MODE SEARCH?
Stacey: We started the business in the Summer of 2017, initially based out of a small box room at my home. It was a time of great excitement and anticipation for us, wondering how the business would evolve and if anyone would want to hire us. I am a terrible tea/coffee maker so Helen was keen to get out of my home office ASAP and back into London, near a coffee shop. When starting your own business there can be lots of sleepless nights, wondering if you will be able to provide yourself with an income. We both had young families and lots of bills, so it had to work. I honestly think that because we were of that mindset, it just did. In our early days, it was a constant battle of working long hours and trying to maintain some sort of home-life balance with our young families. This is one of the main reasons we started MODE SEARCH.
Helen: The first year was very daunting, and I remember feeling so nervous and anxious (Stacey was the super cool one) but so excited for what was to come. I had always dreamt of starting my own agency, so it felt great to finally have made that step! My first child was also only 15 months old when we launched so surviving on minimal sleep whilst setting up a new business was certainly an experience!
I read many articles on how to launch a successful business and we also had great advice from other agency owners. But once we had successfully placed our first hire - a Head of Retail Europe for a luxury brand, it felt like things took off quickly from there. We did not hire anyone to join our team for the first year and I think that was a good decision, to help us first establish ourselves in the market instead of rushing to grow our team.
For all the working parents out there, what is it like running your own business with a young family?
Stacey: It is a constant battle of time management and juggling childcare, don’t even get me started on the summer holidays! I think we have tried to create an environment for us and our team that allows more flexible hours that suit our busy lifestyles, but at the same time does not compromise the service the client receives. Having a slightly shorter day means I will then pick things up in the evening once the children are in bed. I find I get some of my best work done later in the evening. I often wonder if clients/candidates will think I am crazy sending them emails at 11 pm, but then I get a reply back!
Helen: I highly recommend becoming a business owner when you have a young family. It obviously has it's challenges and is a big risk, but to be able to build something for yourself is incredibly rewarding, while also teaching your children that you can have a career and be a present parent.
I also really enjoy the freedom and autonomy of running my own business and being able to set my own schedule depending on the projects I am working on.
I have just had my second child recently, baby Summer, who is now 12 weeks old, and being able to take time out to be with her but also to begin to work flexibly from home a few hours a week, managing a few key senior hires for my clients has been perfect for me. It has been great to still be able to keep in touch with my clients and remain up to date on industry moves and changes.
Tell us about a funny anecdote from your early days when starting mode search?
Stacey: Having previously worked for much larger businesses where I was very reliant on IT support, setting up everything from scratch was a challenge for me. I remember one-day spending about an hour trying to get something to print, completely flustered and close to chucking my laptop out the window, I finally asked Helen to take a look. I’d forgotten to plug the printer in.
Helen: We were together 4 days out of 5 each week and made many teas and coffees for each other as quickly as possible so we could get back to our laptops. My funniest memory of this was when Stacey ran into our office room rushing around and brought my cup back, but it tasted awful – she had made me a cup of tea mixed with coffee.
In your opinion why do so many recruitment businesses fail in their first 5 years?
Stacey: This is a tough question. Firstly, I think it is important as a business to have a vision in order to give your company a clear focus and ensure you are heading in the right direction. However, that vision still needs to be adaptable in an ever-changing market. We are quite flexible in our approach, and I think a lot of recruitment businesses can be very tunnel vision and quite rigid. We are continuously asking for feedback from our clients and looking for new ways to improve our service proposition.
Secondly, the vision should be underpinned by core values, values lay the foundation for what the company cares about most. If you don’t know what you care about as a business, how can you hire the right staff and grow?
Helen: I think sometimes recruitment business owners can rush to grow a large team too quickly, being more concerned about headcount/profit per head than longevity and building a strong team with expertise.
In my opinion clients also prefer the niche boutique agencies like us as they feel the service is much more personal and tailored and in return builds long-term successful and loyal relationships.
In your opinion why do so many recruitment businesses fail in their first 5 years?
Stacey: Hiring people for your team is hard to get right. I think I have learned over the years that skills can be taught, but attitude cannot. You need to hire people with core values that are aligned with your business and somebody that is willing to continue to learn and grow.
Helen: I think hiring internally in the recruitment industry is definitely one of the more difficult and challenging parts of owning an agency. One of the reasons is that many recruiters fall into recruitment but do not necessarily have a real love or passion for it. To succeed in recruitment you need to be driven, self-motivated, inquisitive, tenacious, a good communicator, etc, so we look for these qualities when we hire.
What inspired you to start your own business?
Stacey: I was initially inspired when listening to customer feedback. Whilst working for another recruitment agency, I shared a number of frustrations with clients, and I thought there was a better way to do things. Helen was somebody who I had worked with for several years and had admired. We were very different in many ways but had shared values and a similar vision of how we thought a modern recruitment agency could be run. I could not have made that leap alone. We both had a real passion for recruitment and were both very driven individuals, so it was an instant fit. If you surround yourself with talented people, you will inspire each other.
Helen: It had always been on my mind, having worked for other agencies for 12 years before starting Mode Search. Ultimately, in the end, I felt I could not learn and grow anymore working in the same role and structure of business. I also felt that clients would benefit more from an agency where they had one point of contact instead of 3 or 4, which is often the case in bigger agencies.
I had built really solid relationships globally with a number of clients and contacts in the industry at the CEO / MD level and this gave me confidence that these clients would want to work with me again in the future if I had my own agency.
Starting an agency would not have been something I would have done alone, so a chance conversation with Stacey was how it all began. She was someone who was brilliant at the things I was not very good at and we brought very different skills to the table. We were both very ambitious, driven and shared a similar work ethic. She was the perfect person for me to start a business with.
What is the hardest challenge as a business that you have had to overcome in the last 5 years?
Stacey: Without a shadow of a doubt, the hardest challenge was the Pandemic. I think for any business owner, those first few months were tough. Everybody was thrown into a period of real uncertainty. It was important for us not to make any knee-jerk decisions, to protect our employees’ jobs, and to steer the business through a challenging time. That was a huge responsibility that weighed on my mind. We knew that clients would still need top talent to navigate their organisations through this uncertain time and that we would be able to identify the right people to help them do this. We also believed there would eventually be an upturn in the market following a pause in recruitment. Thankfully we came out the other side, having made no redundancies and, in fact, having a larger team than we did before entering the pandemic. And this was all happening whilst home-schooling a 5 year old and looking after a newborn baby, fun times.
Helen: I agree with Stacey on this, Covid-19 had a huge impact on the retail industry and created so much uncertainty. We saw a number of our competitor agencies close down or make redundancies and we were extremely conscious of making the right decisions for our team during this time. We adapted quickly to the changing market; supporting our clients with key projects such as expanding their digital teams. Also while homeschooling a 5 year old boy made it even more interesting!
Being a boutique, agile business really enabled us to ride the wave and come out the other side stronger, expanding our research team and promoting a number of our team members to heads of and directors.
What would you say are some of your best achievements or highlights and what are some of mode search’s long-term goals?
Stacey: One thing we hold dear is our reputation as a consultancy. Something that stands out for me as a huge achievement is the first time we were recommended to a new client as an agency of choice. Up until that point, we had directly approached businesses and offered our support. This gave reassurance to a new business in its infancy.
One of my long-term goals would be to continue to be chosen as a recruitment agency of choice and support these businesses with their growth ambitions globally as a partner. Whilst also becoming an employer of choice in our industry, with a team of people that are proud to be on this journey with us.
Helen: For me, it’s the long-term relationships we have with our clients. Most of our clients have worked with us for the 5 years we have been trading and I am really proud of that. Hearing positive feedback from both candidates and clients is highlight as well as the new clients that have approached us due to being recommended by others in the industry.
Also being able to work with the brilliant team of people we have at Mode, I really look forward to seeing them all on the days we are together in the office and I feel that they are all truly excited to be contributing to the growth and success of our business.
Future goals are to continue to grow our reach globally, supporting clients to expand their leadership teams.
What would your advice be to anyone looking to start their own business? And how can they achieve a work-life balance?
Stacey: This is a great question. When starting your own business, you need to be prepared to be the busiest you have ever been. It requires long hours, dedication, and a huge amount of resilience to make things work. Work-life balance is hard to achieve - especially in your early days - as there’s so much to get done. Don’t underestimate the workload. I think the key is to build a talented team around you and a supportive working environment. Alongside running Mode, myself and Helen both have two young children, so it can be challenging at times, but it is all part of the fun!
Helen: My advice would be to get up early!!! No honestly, I think it's safe to say you have to be prepared to make sacrifices in the first few years, investing all of your time into establishing your business, you really have to live and breathe it. Also setting yourself personal tangible goals/milestones to reach, like buying a new home for example, really helps to keep you motivated. I also think the fact Stacey and I had both been in the industry for 10-12 years before starting our business made a huge difference. Gaining as much experience and knowledge in your field before becoming a business owner is invaluable.
My own personal way of achieving a work-life balance is making sure I take time out to exercise, use my Peloton bike, plus yoga and pilates classes. It definitely helps to clear my mind.
Looking back over the last 5 years, is there anything you would have done differently?
Stacey: I wish we started Mode sooner!
Helen: Maybe been less of a worrier in the first few weeks of launching!
How does it feel achieving a 5-year milestone?
Stacey: I feel incredibly proud that we have reached this huge milestone together. Honestly, I could not and would not have done it without Helen. We also have been very fortunate to have found a team of talented individuals who we genuinely enjoy working with.
Helen: So so proud! Of us and our team.
I still say to Stacey every few months that I am so glad we made the leap together and did this, it really has been life-changing and I cannot wait to see what we achieve in the next 5 years.