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When Competing With a Faceless Corporate Machine, It Pays to Build Your Business Around Empathy

Daniel Ball of The Early Careers Company modeled his business after his mom’s advice: “Making the most of what the world has to offer doesn’t mean you can’t try to improve it.” 

Lessons like that were common in the Ball household as Dan grew up. When he started his first job at 18 years old, he believed others would embody that compassionate philosophy too. But six years in the recruitment industry showed Dan that many businesses prioritize the bottom line over helping customers. Even when it cost these companies valuable, high-paying clients. 

Feeling disillusioned, Dan left his employer to start a business and a registered charity. At The Early Careers Foundation, Dan works with businesses like Salesforce and British Airways to mentor low-income young people about the commercial world. The charity also issues grants to help pay for university fees. 

At The Early Careers Company, Dan helps businesses audit their early career infrastructure. He ensures they’re equipped to attract, hire, and retain diverse young people from lower-income backgrounds. Dan’s team creates new programs, designs assessment processes, and runs hiring campaigns to recruit the best candidates. 

Emphasizing quality over quantity gave Dan an advantage over his competitors. Customers returned to his white glove experience with bigger contracts. Over time, his clients spread the word to larger, Fortune 100 companies who soon signed six-figure deals.  

“We would do a tiny bit of work and they would go, ‘Wow, this is amazing. Here’s more,’” Dan says. “Because they’re used to dealing with sales-oriented businesses that don’t care about the quality of service they provide. They might only have one consultant, and they’ll bring in candidates who don’t know what they’re talking about. 

“We offer shared Slack channels, great client integration, and so on. We’re so much more than recruitment. Much of our growth came from client retention rather than new client acquisition.”

After just two years in business, Dan expects to make over $4 million in revenue by the end of 2022. Read on to see how redefining customer experiences led to this incredible growth. 

From Industry Expert to Founder

In another life, Dan accepted an offer to study neuroscience at one of the top universities in the UK. Becoming a psychologist like his mother seemed like the right thing to do. But in this life, Dan accepted the university’s offer only to turn it down before starting his first semester. It no longer felt like the right fit, so he took a gap year to decide what to do next. 

In September 2014, at the start of his gap year, Dan interned at a new startup that helped businesses with employer branding and early career recruitment. As an intern and eventually a director, Dan focused primarily on recruitment. He was one of six original employees, but in six years, he’d help the firm grow to a hundred people.  

Along the way, 18-year-old Dan learned valuable lessons about working in a professional setting. 

“I learned everything from how to behave in an office to running a profit and loss statement to managing teams of twenty to thirty people,” Dan says. “I’d worked in a pub pouring pints of beer, but I’d never had any strong professional experience. Then I was working directly with the founders of the company.”  

The founders showed Dan how to run a business and grow it in the early stages. When the pandemic struck, he left the firm to pursue his own vision for the early career recruitment field. 

“I saw the opportunity to build a business that focuses on value and creating high-quality infrastructure versus short-term results.”

Dan moved back in with his parents in North London, leaving his downtown flat empty. At 24 years old, he’d worked exclusively for one company since graduating high school. Now, he’d apply the skills he’d acquired in recruitment to his first startup.  

“I saw the opportunity to build a business that focuses on value and creating high-quality infrastructure versus short-term results,” Dan says.

Don’t Hesitate to Build

Due to his contract with his former employer, Dan couldn’t start building in a competitive space until six months after his exit. He decided that was plenty of time to build and launch a brand new startup. 

After six months, Dan had prepared everything from pricing structures to commercial models. “We had a website, brand, marketing materials, slogan, company values, progression structures, salary, and a business plan. All of that was ready the day we started,” Dan says. 

Dan’s $1,000 in savings afforded just a two-week runway. Now he would see if those four months of building would turn a profit or if he’d dumped that money – and his career – down the drain. 

On the day of the launch, one of Dan’s former clients asked about The Early Careers Company’s services. By the end of the day, the client had signed a contract, and by the end of the week, deposited a check in Dan’s bank account. By the end of the quarter, Dan sat on $120,000 in revenue. 

Put Values First and Revenue Will Follow 

To help deliver recruitment services to his new clients, Dan hired a former employee named Zoe. She started working with Dan from his London apartment with a laptop he’d bought for her on a credit card. Having Zoe on hand allowed Dan to focus on marketing, customer relationships, new service lines, and building the business. 

Dan’s previous connections helped draw in more clients, elicit introductions, and build his network on LinkedIn. 

“I already had six years in the space. But I did a post on LinkedIn saying, ‘Today, I’m launching a company,’ and I got 500 likes and 60 comments,” Dan says. “I had people writing to me on day one saying, ‘Your business looks cool, can we work together?’ That was very exciting.”

From the start, Dan’s emphasis on service differentiated him from the competition.

“The way the companies work is all about making money. You don’t get companies with a strong social purpose focusing on client value.”

“Recruitment companies are mostly sales-focused. It’s all about job deals, fees, commissions, and all that. They’re about as far away from purpose and value-driven companies as you can get. They’re like boiler room sales in some cases,” Dan says. “It’s not that they’re bad people, but the way the companies work is all about making money. You don’t get companies with a strong social purpose focusing on client value.”

He adds, “A big part of our purpose is to change the lives of millions of young people around the world.”

By sticking to that purpose, Dan managed to both satisfy clients and help young professionals find work. Within the first month alone, The Early Careers Company made $70,000. Income multiplied as former clients returned to strike bigger deals. 

At the end of year one, Dan earned over $1.5 million in revenue and launched an independent social mobility charity, funded by the business. Then he earned another million in Q2 of his second year. A chain reaction set off as contracts poured in and The Early Careers Company struggled to keep up with them all.

What Do You Do With Explosive Growth?

Dan quickly hired more people at the start of 2022 to handle sales, marketing, and recruitment services, opening offices in both London and Mumbai. He didn’t turn down any contracts or offers, deciding he’d find a way to fulfill demand no matter what.

“When you’re an 18-month-old business and someone says, ‘Can you deliver this? It’s going to be $300,000,’ your answer, whether you can deliver or not, is yes,” Dan says. 

Although the team worked tirelessly to deliver the promised high standard, Dan wishes they could’ve found a way to avoid exhausting late nights in the office.

“Our average day was eleven or twelve hours. We had people working until eleven o’clock every night. And we are not a hybrid company – we work one hundred percent of the time from the office, five days a week,” Dan says. “We grew too quickly and accepted work up to our breaking point, but I’ll never forget that commitment to our mission.”

Most of the employees Dan hired during that period provided recruitment services that helped businesses hire more young people. But when the rush of contracts slowed over the summer, Dan realized he’d made another mistake in not hiring more salespeople too. 

The Early Careers Company had the infrastructure for its service but not customer acquisition. It had relied on returning customers so much in the previous 18 months that the team had neglected to set up processes that would help them attract new clients.

This came back to bite Dan in August, September, and October (2022) when revenue dropped from the Q2 high point. If revenue had continued growing, he should’ve been on track to earn nearly five million dollars this year. Instead, he’ll earn just over four million.

Profits are rising once again, though, and Dan has established new processes to avoid this mistake in the future. 

“When you’re growing, don’t just deliver the work – focus on building the commercial capabilities and infrastructure so that you can continue to win new work,” Dan says. 

Acquisition on the Horizon

With new customers setting Dan up for a successful rest of the year, he can start thinking more long-term about The Early Careers Company’s future. And one of his distant goals is scaling the business to sell. 

“I love my job, but I work eighty hours a week at times. I’m twenty-seven now, but I don’t want to be doing this when I’m thirty-five. It already takes a lot out of me,” Dan says. “I’m also passionate about the purpose and charity work, and I’d love more time to focus on that. So, long term, I want to exit. But it would have to be to the right organization and the right people. Someone looking to buy for our vision and purpose as much as for our commercial potential.”

So far, Dan’s stayed true to the mantra his mom taught him: Making the most of what the world has to offer and still trying to improve it. Where other recruitment companies focus solely on the dollars, Dan and The Early Career Company see greater value in making empathetic, human connections – and using the money they make to give back. 

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Leanne Stahulak
Leanne Stahulak
Leanne’s love of books inspired her to become an author at a young age. Though she began as a creative writer, Leanne also built up her skills and experience in journalism at Miami University. After graduating with three degrees, she now tells founder stories at Bootstrappers and writes about growth and entrepreneurship for MicroAcquire.

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