L-R Sam Wason and Gordon Kaye
L-R Sam Wason and Gordon Kaye

Founders Interview: Gordon Kaye and Sam Wason, Co-founders and Directors at Cathcart Associates

When did you launch the company?

We launched Cathcart Associates in 2009 after we had accumulated a combined 18 years’ experience of working in the IT recruitment industry.

What does your company do?

Cathcart Associates offers a bespoke IT recruitment service, placing top quality IT professionals in a wide range of exciting, fast-paced roles in the technology industry.

What is your target market –  Who is buying your product / service?

We are a dedicated IT recruitment firm finding roles for high calibre individuals. Our consultants spend time getting to know our candidates throughout every stage of the recruitment process. Doing this ensures they have an in-depth knowledge of a candidate’s skills, capabilities and the type of role they are looking for.

Digital is at the heart of business today and only growing in importance. We offer expert guidance to businesses of all sizes and sectors, from banks to digital agencies.

Why did you launch the company?

We had worked at the same IT recruitment firm for a number of years and had been talking about starting out ourselves for a while. Eventually, we reached the ‘now or never’ stage. We were both attracted to the idea of creating our own business, our own work environment and having the freedom to make our own decisions. We had accrued what we felt was enough experience to be able to know what we did and didn’t want to do with our business, so we decided it was time to put this into practice.

Our philosophy is that a good recruitment consultancy should offer a service that is simple, professional and effective. We recognised the exponential growth of the IT and technology industry back in 2009, and decided to be part of the solution to the significant digital skills shortage facing the industry.

What is your background?

We both cut our teeth in recruitment, working with a globally renowned IT recruiter.

Gordon: I started out with a degree in Information Management from Queen Margaret University and, against a backdrop of recruitment, built up experience in permanent, contract and business development, and developed a customer-focused recruitment style which has helped me build successful relationships with countless organisations over the years.

Sam: Although I am originally from Manchester, I completed my Masters in Edinburgh and then spent over five years in recruitment before joining forces with Gordon.

What startup process did you go through?

When we made the decision to leave our jobs we got a really rough outline of what we needed to achieve together. We pulled this into a formal business plan because we wanted to make sure we could get an overdraft approved from the bank (which we never actually needed!)

Then it was just a question of renting a room in serviced offices, buying some PCs and phones and setting off. The barriers to entry for starting a recruitment company are very low – so that was that.

What process have you gone through to get to where you are now since startup?

As the company’s grown, all of our business processes have to evolve too. The first thing we realised we would have to put in place was a training programme once we started hiring. We’re proud of how we take fresh graduates with no experience and train them how to do recruitment properly.

We are also proud of how our Back Office team have grown and adapted, creating the processes and systems which the company runs on from scratch. We’ve gone from sending the odd invoice and paying the bills to running a multi-million pound, multi-sector, multi-currency international business, supplying contract and permanent recruitment to over 100 companies a year.

What are your plans from now to grow the business?

We have just kicked off a major recruitment drive for our Scotland and Manchester teams, as we feel there is still growth to be had in these areas.

What are your goals for your business?

Our immediate goal is to become the most successful independent IT recruitment company in Scotland, the North of England and Thailand. Two years ago we became the first UK-based dedicated IT recruiter to open an office in Bangkok and in the same year we opened an office in Manchester, identifying the growth and subsequent opportunities in the IT and technology industry in both the Thai capital and the north west of England.

Looking a few years down the line, we want to expand our IT and renewable energy recruitment offering across the rest of the UK, mainland Europe and South East Asia.

We are currently one of only a handful of dedicated IT recruiters in all of Thailand and the recruitment market out there is still very much in its infancy, so we think that we will be able to make significant waves there in the next five years.

Did you get any start up support?

Basically, we begged and borrowed from friends and family, and also used our combined life savings.

Are you getting any growth support?

From the beginning, we were both certain that we wanted to be a true “independent” recruitment business that didn’t rely on external investors. This was very important to us. It has restricted our growth potential as we could only expand through organic growth, but we believe that this organic growth has allowed us to develop an incredibly strong culture.

Have you ever entered any competitions?

We have! But we’ve never won! We’ve been nominated as one of the Best Small Recruitment Consultancies in Scotland by S1 Jobs, one of the Best Small Recruitment Consultancies in the UK at the Global Recruiter Awards, and several times as one of the Best Companies to Work for by REC. We were highly commended there last time, so maybe we’re getting closer.

Have you raised funds to develop your business? What and how?

We’ve only ever used our own savings, and money generated by the business to fund its growth, and that’s certainly the way we’d like to keep it.

What kind of research did you do into the market?

Because we met while running the Scottish division of a global IT recruitment firm, we already knew much of what we needed to in order to run our own recruitment business. We felt like we had reached a point where we had enough experience and had gained the breadth and depth of knowledge required to set out on our own.

What are the three main challenges you’ve faced so far?

Operationally, hiring the right people can be challenging, even for a professional recruiter. We don’t hire experienced recruitment consultants – we recruit graduates and train all of our staff from scratch. We are very proud of the office environment that we have created and the strength of our team. We recruit for attitude and it pays to be picky.

Our worst decision was when we committed to an invoice financing facility. It became a large administrative burden that we didn’t even use.

We have made mistakes but all you can do is learn from them and that’s what’s important. Like every business owner, we’ve hit bumps in the road but it’s about staying positive and tackling all challenges, no matter how big or small, head on.

Finally, running a business and juggling work commitments alongside having a young family has been challenging, and any other business founder with children would probably agree!

Have you ever had to pivot or change direction?

When we started the Energy business in 2013, we were originally targeting the Oil and Gas market, but it soon became clear this was a bad time to enter the sector.

We realised this quite quickly though, and luckily our Principal consultant had a background in Renewable Energy – so we decided to pivot into that sector, and never looked back.

Have you ever approached a mentor or business leader for advice?

We’ve spoken to lots of old colleagues over the years for general advice, and friends and family, but nothing formal.

Who inspires you?

A great leader is someone who can inspire people. We have never felt that it’s a good idea to lead with an iron stick. Instead, we have always been more inspired by those who are open and approachable in their leadership style.

It’s so important that a leader establishes a good relationship and rapport with clients and staff, and good leaders challenge staff in their roles and provide the right level of support and guidance when needed.

What startup lessons would you like to pass on?

Make sure you do everything for the right reasons and be sure to pick the best person to go into business with. When we decided to set up ourselves, we knew we had complete trust in each other and were in it together.

Starting a business is a massive commitment so you have to ensure that you choose a partner that you can rely on and who you know will have your back at all times, especially when the going gets tough.

It’s also incredibly important to understand what back office support you’ll need and get that right from day one too. It’s not enough just to be good at your job, you have to make sure the business support is there too.

How can the scottish startup/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?

As members of ScotlandIS, Scotland’s digital technologies’ trade body, we are very aware of Scotland’s digital skills crisis and the campaign to tackle it for the future.

There is an abundance of exciting opportunities available within the technology industry here in Scotland and it is vital that while we celebrate the thriving industry, we continue to support it and play our part in finding a solution to the skills shortage.

It is also important for the education system in our country to recognise and address the lack of digital subjects available on the primary and secondary curriculum and to encourage young people to get involved in all things digital.