As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing James Baker.
James Baker is an executive search and recruitment leader with over 15 years of experience in the industry. He was the recipient of the 2018 Immigrant Entrepreneur of the Year Award presented by the City of Ottawa and a Forty Under 40 recipient in 2012.
Originally from England, James and his wife Donna relocated to Canada in 2006 as part of a team to launch a global recruitment business in Ottawa. After spending more than a decade in the industry, James and his wife decided to found Keynote Search in September 2015, as a solution to what they saw as a broken recruitment industry.
Since the company’s creation, Keynote Search has been highly awarded and recognized for its innovative approach to executive search and headhunting under James’ leadership. Among other accolades, Keynote Search was named Best New Business in 2016 from the Ottawa Board of Trade and was recently recognized as Ottawa’s Fastest Growing Company by the Ottawa Business Journal.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up? What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I had a non-typical start to my career, despite being academically gifted, school and I didn’t see eye to eye. I decided to leave school and home at a young age, and I found myself waiting tables at a destination hotel in south-west England. I fell in love with the hospitality sector and in particular the constant human interaction and customer service aspect of the industry. Working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week being on my feet in a high-speed environment with constant social interactions gave me a confidence that has served me well to this day. I started as a server and moved up the ranks at an early age to the point where I was 19, running the pub while also living above it — what could be better?!
I was fortunate that my ‘shot’ came from two entrepreneurs who were regulars in my pub. One day, their young business needed to hire their first employee and they asked me if I had ever thought about getting into sales. I said no but they promised me that if I kept my values intact, worked hard and kept my focus on the customer relationship like I did at the pub, they’d teach me the rest. They kept their word and I’ll forever be grateful that they saw something in me and gave me the confidence that eventually led to starting my own business, 2 countries, 3 employers and 14 years later!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Does calling your boss a F*&*%’ing A*#@% count? I was really frustrated one day and decided to use the internal messaging system to vent with a colleague. My error was that I sent that personal message directly to my boss and not my colleague. That was the last time I ever reacted to a situation with an instant reply. I still get frustrated, but now I have a draft folder full of rants and complaints that will never get sent or see the light of day. It is important to avoid emotional response and be objective. Consider the intent of the actions and assume they were not malicious. That doesn’t mean you avoid critical conversations, you just approach them with curiosity, grace and objectivity.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve benefitted from 4 mentors and a number of advisors and colleagues that have helped me through the years. From the two people who gave me my shot to my last boss who taught me how to truly manage people by giving space to fail — I’ve been lucky. I have always and will always focus on who I am working with, not who the company is. I value the relationship, the partnership and if we are aligned, we can accomplish anything we want to.
One memory that I will always remember was a conversation that changed the way I looked at my industry. The Chair of a leading global accounting firm and I had the chance to share a beer. His first words to me were ‘James, I dislike your industry.’ That conversation made me look at what it is our customers truly want from us, and what we offer as a service. There was a massive misalignment and I’ve spent the last five years trying to correct that.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We made a choice when we started Keynote Search that we wouldn’t pay ourselves for two years and to invest in the business. We didn’t want it to be about money, we wanted it to be about building the right company on the right foundation. My partners at the time, didn’t share those values. When you risk everything to start a business and you learn quickly that the values of your partners and you don’t align, you create a challenge. I will never begrudge them for that misalignment because their commitment to starting gave me the confidence to go down that road. They are no longer associated with the business, but I do have partners and every day we pull in the same direction without any hesitation to challenge each other and our process to ensure we maximize the success.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Customer feedback and the fact that I could see the impact we were having on our community. Ever since we launched, we made it a key facet of our existence that we would support the cities in which we operate. We have always given our time, a share of profits and our expertise to make our cities better places to live. When I was refinancing our home, looking down at $200k of personally guaranteed debt and seeking $100k to make the next payroll, I didn’t stop believing. I know what we do brings value to businesses, and I know our business brings value to our community. I had made mistakes, looked at avenues that didn’t prove fruitful, but we were still liked, respected and well branded. If our clients and our community ever stop believing in us, then I know we have failed and that would be the one thing that would impact my drive.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I’m proud to say we have gone from non-existence to one of the top two firms in our city (Ottawa, ON, Canada), and a new office growing daily in Toronto, ON, Canada. We have directly impacted the success of over 300 private companies, helped 100+ non-profit organizations both directly and through financial support and our team serves on 6 boards that make our city a better place to live. We have been recognized as one of Ottawa’s fastest growing businesses, secured national recognition as one of Canada’s leading search firms and every day we have fun and return a profit which is funding our growth and expansion.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are proud to be different and we have the courage to be ourselves in an industry that relies on outdated process and self-identified prestige. We have the courage to innovate and adapt process to the modern demands of business coupled with best-in-class executive search marketing, executive coaching and onboarding. Our team is a wonderfully diverse group of people who come together as a collective with the sole purpose of helping organizations succeed because of people. We place our value in the success of the people we place, not in the action of making a placement.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t try to be everything to everyone. You started the business to do something you love and the more you spend your time focused on other things, the easier it is to burn out. Have the humility to hire people who are better at things than you are and focus your attention on what drives you, excites and maximizes your value to your organization.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Community has been and will always be a key value to our business and our people. We continue to contribute time and money to causes that are important to our team and our clients. From business advocacy to diversity and inclusion, to youth empowerment, we support a wide plethora of causes. We have been directly involved with annual fundraising and financial contributions in excess of 5% of our gross revenues.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Pick your business partners carefully. Focus on their values not the prestige they bring the company — I’ve spent more money on exiting partnerships than any other non-payroll related cost in five years.
- Hire a business coach and meet with them regularly. Being a business owner can be lonely and very challenging. Your friends won’t understand, your employees shouldn’t have to understand, and you need help. Accept it and make the investment of time and money because you and your business will be stronger because of it.
- Hire a good accountant early and invest in planning and reporting. Knowledge is power and it is easy to get carried away with perceived success. Just because you book a ‘deal’ doesn’t mean you got paid for it. Cashflow kills businesses and mental health. I’ve been close to the edge financially, too close, it nearly broke us. With the right advice and guidance, we could have avoided that and be further ahead.
- Celebrate the successes, always! It is easy to feel relieved when things go well. I spent 3 years having fun and taking on the next challenge and focused on where we were going. Stopping to appreciate and savour the victories has made the last two years so fulfilling. I wish I could go back and look at the first invoice again, remember raising a toast to the first cheque or big account. This is your child and the memories of them growing up will be so important because time goes so quickly and then all you have is the memories.
- Pay attention to your brand and your marketing. From the outset I wanted us to look bigger than we were. Our brand should never have to play catch up to our business. From the early days we had our logo on cars, tee shorts, cupcakes and even temporary tattoos. When the business was small the team had a shared connection to KG (Keynote Group). A common desire to ‘Rock the KG’. Our people created our culture, but they did so around a common focus on the brand and the name. Invest in marketing, invest in a brand and a logo you are proud of and want to share with everyone.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Hiring smart people to do the things I wasn’t very good at has allowed us to thrive. In year 6 now, we are 90% up on last year in our main revenue stream, we are entering our second market and are self-financing the third next year. I am proud of our accomplishments and now consider it a privilege to own a business and my obligation to support the families and people who choose to work for our company. What took singular focus and relentless personal effect to build, is now all about the sum of our parts. I look at the business like a living breathing organism and it is my job to keep it safe, healthy and pushing its limits to achieve its potential.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something; you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
Knowing what I know now, I would change who I did it with, how I financed it and where I would focus my time. However, launching a company and having the confidence to do something so terrifying and potentially an abject failure has been the most fun I have ever had. I’ll never have my first company ever again; Keynote Search is what it is because of what we went through. I wish I had more ‘friends in business’ earlier. People I could talk to in order to deal with the difficult days — that is one thing that would have made this journey more enjoyable.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I live in a very specific box of knowledge and expertise. I believe that the one thing I could do that would change the world around me for better is to help more people build businesses built on values and expertise rather than shareholder greed. So many corporations have lost sight of people and the actions of so many in the last year to protect their own profits, at the expense of so many households have demonstrated that multi-nationals and conglomerates need to be held to a higher standard. That comes from more competition and boutiques. I would like other boutique business owners like myself to come together and mentor, guide and invest in talented people who can start their own businesses and diversify corporate wealth. This will lead to better employment for many and force large corporations to re-evaluate their HR practices in order to retain leading talent and customers.
How can our readers further follow your work online?