Between you and me, it doesn’t matter how many coffees you have before an 8am interview, if you get yourself in a pickle two minutes before you’re due to sit down and chat, all hopes of a graceful first impression go flying out the window.
It’s Thursday 1st February and after navigating my way to their office in Finsbury Circus, I find myself stuck between two locked doors in an almost cupboard like room between the main hall and reception of C&C Search.
Conscious of the time (it was one minute to eight and I don’t like arriving late) and very aware that I couldn’t get out unless someone walked past the window and saw me; when Lucy Chamberlain found me at approximately 8.02am, I was slightly flustered, a touch bewildered and against my best intentions, a tad sweaty on the brow..!
Not my finest look admittedly but she wins me over instantly by offering me another coffee and letting me out!
Aged thirty-seven at the time of launching with a six year old daughter at home – who, I must add, she had sole responsibility for at the time – C&C Search was established in 2014. Specialising in recruiting support staff and HR professionals into small, medium and large businesses across London; I sat down with Lucy for what becomes a candid insight into the reality behind the scenes of her success story so far…
Lucy Chamberlain. I’d been in this area of recruitment since I graduated twenty years ago so this is all I know basically! I’d spent thirteen years as a Partner for another agency and I really felt like my values and the values of the business weren’t aligned anymore and the call to start-up was getting stronger and stronger.
I wanted to set up a business that I would be proud of but also, a business that my daughter would want to work for!
Somewhere where people were valued with what they contributed rather than their length of service or who they were friends with; somewhere where they could realise their ambitions, be stretched and grow; somewhere where I could grow personally and test myself – which has been the case – but also somewhere where I could grow a business that was socially conscious and that allowed me to make ethically led decisions… Every business we work with is female founded for example!
She can. She did. Really! And that was a conscious decision to make that so?
LC. Yes, because I think women supporting other women is critical for society. All of the profits from the events that we run go back to London’s homeless too and we’ve given over £17,000 of our profits to help disadvantaged teens get into work. It’s a business where I wanted to leave a legacy beyond the privilege of placing people into jobs…
SC.SD. Given that you were a partner in your previous firm – which I’m guessing came with a whole host of benefits and a pretty substantial paycheque – was it a hard decision to make when you opted to walk away?
LC. It took me a long time to come to that decision; especially as I didn’t have financial support from my ex-husband, so I had sole financial responsibility for our daughter and a mortgage to pay. It was a difficult decision. I was responsible for thirty-seven staff at the time, some of my best friends were part of my team and I had a very, very good salary. I still don’t earn anywhere close to what I used to earn. It has been a big adjustment! I have the support of a partner (now husband) at home though, who is my biggest cheerleader and incredibly supportive, so I haven’t been entirely on my own.
SC.SD. What made you finally realise you were ready to leave then?
LC. It was a gradual process to be honest. I’ve always worked exceptionally hard and I noticed that I didn’t recognise myself in the last year or so at my previous company. I didn’t want to go to work, I had that Sunday night dread, I didn’t feel motivated to add extra value whereas I’d always been the sort of person to seek out opportunities and take on extra work wherever I could… I think if anyone feels like that now, it’s time to move on. It wasn’t good for the company either and they deserved better.
SC.SD. And I imagine it wasn’t good for your general wellbeing too?
LC. Definitely! I wasn’t myself at all, so I knew I had to leave but it did take me a long time because I was so wedded to that company. I’d grown up there, I was twenty-four when I joined and I’m someone that prefers continuity, so it took ages!
It wasn’t until Lucy’s younger brother and now business partner, Ed, gave her an ultimatum that Lucy finally made the decision to leave.
LC. He got fed up of waiting and ended up phoning me when I was with clients and just said “I don’t care what you decide but you need to make the decision by Friday!”
SC.SD. Wow! So you needed that kick up the bum then?!
LC. I would have never done it without it! I’d still be there now procrastinating!
SC.SD. So you hand your notice in… what steps did you take to turn that idea in your head into a fully functioning company?
LC. A lot of planning! I spoke to all sorts of women who ran their own businesses, watched all sorts of TED talks, read, read, read – I read about a hundred books a year – got to work on a business plan, we made sure the website was in place listing our core values… We spent about £4500 on the set up and then every penny of the profits was reinvested in the business!
On the 14th April 2014, Lucy launched C+C Search at a spare desk in her brother’s office.
SC.SD. What was that first day like?
LC. Do you want the honest truth!?
LC. I don’t think I’d really fully prepared myself for what it meant. I left my old company on the Friday, I moved house on the Saturday and then on the Monday I started the business.
SC.SD. Bloody hell!
LC. In hindsight, I wouldn’t do it that way! I remember waking up the next morning like I couldn’t breathe. It felt like the house was sitting on my chest and it suddenly dawned on me the enormity of what I’d taken on. I also wanted to honour my previous contract which meant I couldn’t speak to any former clients for a year, so I had this gargantuan business task. I remember phoning my husband who was in Glasgow at the time saying, “I can’t breathe! What have I done?”
SC.SD. For a lot of people, that realisation tends to hit them about two-three weeks down the line so the fact that came on day two…
LC. I think it was a good thing!
SC.SD. Just get it out the way quickly!?
LC. Exactly! I think I’d just become institutionalised at my old company and lived in my comfort zone for far too long. It was like putting on your cosiest tracksuit bottoms on every day and I hadn’t had to push myself for a long time. I think you feel very fragile when you start a business. I felt exposed, it’s very public, everyone’s watching – ex colleagues, businesses, people that have worked for you etc… – and that fear of failure is something I struggled with.
SC.SD I can really relate that. I’ve always put a huge amount of pressure on myself to achieve…
LC. Exactly. It’s a bit like being a toddler again when you launch a business. You find out who you are again, and you must learn to embrace the shadow side of you too; the bits that aren’t as good as you want them to be. I’d been top of the class in school, top biller in every company I’ve ever worked for…
SC.SD. And that’s a lot of pressure and expectation to carry on your shoulders…
LC. It makes for quite a challenging relationship with yourself because you spend so much time beating yourself up for not being good enough but when you let go of that, it benefits the business, yourself and everyone around you an awful lot more.
SC.SD. So that feeling hits you on day two… How long did it take before things started to pick up?
LC. We were profitable within our first month!
SC.SD. That must have helped to clear some of the fog?
LC. It did, and it didn’t. I don’t think I came up for air for about eighteen months. I’d work until 1am; I’d sleep for three to four hours a night; I’d go on about eighteen client meetings a week; I took two days off in my first eighteen months and hardly saw my daughter and my husband… It’s difficult because I look back and think was that the right thing to do because it probably wasn’t great for my mental state, but we’d never be where we are now had I not done it…
SC.SD. It’s a catch twenty-two isn’t it?
LC. Definitely. A lot of the clients that we work with now came from those first eighteen months. I was sat a client meeting and actually saw blood dripping off my shoe because I’d been running to all of these client meetings, I’d be texting at the same time answering emails so I got RSI too and it was probably at that point where I thought, ‘I don’t think I can carry on working at this pace’ so I then spent about a year trying to figure out where the balance is.
SC.SD. So you weren’t allowed to contact any former clients for a year… For anyone reading this that will also face similar contractual obligations if and when they resign, talk me through how you went about getting new clients on board?
LC. I asked for help from everybody! I’d explain what my mission was, and I was happy to do that. I think a lot of people get worried about asking for help, but I always tried to give back more to the people that helped me than they had given me if I could; and I think because of that the business has been well supported since the beginning. It’s a bit like cooking – if you put lots of love into it you can feel it and I think if you set up a business and the heart isn’t there, you can feel that too! We’ve made decisions that are always heart-led as opposed to business-led and I don’t regret that. I’d rather run a business like that as opposed to a business where ruthless profitability is the sole goal.
SC.SD. And I suppose that’s what sets you apart from much of the competition?
LC. Yes, the heart isn’t there in a lot of recruitment businesses. You should leave everybody better than you find them so even when we can’t help candidates directly, I still want them to feel like they were looked after, that we listened, that we pointed them in the right direction regardless and that makes them want to support you.
SC.SD. So you’re profitable within the first month… How quickly did the business grow?
LC. I was so nervous about taking on my first team member because it’s so expensive and I’d have the responsibility of paying someone else, but we took on our second member of staff who’s still with us in the September, the third in November fourth in January and then grew steadily from there…
Lucy now manages a team of sixteen and the business has a turnover of three million.
SC.SD. You mentioned that there was a reluctance to hire so what made you realise it was time to expand?
LC. I couldn’t carry on working the way I was working so we needed to but we also had plenty of business so it was organic growth from demand really.
SC.SD. And were they all full-time straight away with proper contracts?
LC. Well that’s another thing that’s been heart-over-head…! Ed and I were adamant that people should work in nice office spaces, so we’ve spent lots of money on the office whereas a lot of start-ups don’t, and I also feel like people should be paid fairly so no one took a pay cut to join us and we’ve delivered great benefits and incentives too.
Running a business is totally different to owning a business and there will always be a disconnect between the person that pays the wages and the person that earns the wage. It’s a bit like being a parent. The responsibility level is incomprehensible until you do it yourself! I’ve always wanted people to be looked after and paid properly and there are times where I feel like that hasn’t been recognised enough but of course it’s not their responsibility to.
SC.SD. Absolutely! Let’s move on to the competition given there’s so much out there…. What’s your approach to it?
LC. I admire businesses that are successful in our industry sector. I think the best business people are those that learn lessons from other successful businesses. Having said that, for me our industry sector has been so set in its ways so when we started the business we started with a rebellious attitude and didn’t waste time spending hours looking at the competition. I’m much more interested in being an aspirational business that looks at others and sees what we can do better in terms of business strategy itself as opposed to recruitment.
SC.SD. And does that attitude work both ways if they look to you for ideas?!
LC. I think people copy us a lot, but do you know what? It’s flattering! If they’re imitating us it means we’re doing exactly what we set out to achieve which was to set a benchmark. I can’t say it doesn’t irritate me too though!
A competitor decided to use the same gifts as us, so I messaged them saying, ‘imitation is the best form of flattery! Thank you so much for giving me that boost of confidence this morning!’ and they stopped doing it after that. Sometimes I think if you let them know you’ve noticed they stop.
SC.SD. Let’s get the lows out the way…
LC. The hardest thing about running a business is that you can never switch off. I wake up at 2am – there’s the business, I go on holiday – there’s the business. Just before my 40th birthday, someone resigned, and I remember thinking, ‘that could have waited until after my birthday!’ But the pros outweigh the cons three to one and this has been the hardest but most rewarding of journeys.
You can spend so much time worrying that you need to surrender and just concentrate on the good bits I think. Last year I had to fall back in love with the business because it can feel like your boss at times. I thought I would have more freedom, but it doesn’t always work that way if you are as passionate as Ed and I are about the business succeeding.
SC.SD. If it helps, everyone I’ve interviewed has said that!
LC. Absolutely! Part of that is self-inflicted because ultimately, I could go on holiday and swan in and out when I want to but ultimately, I don’t want to operate that way because it would change the whole culture of the company. If I’m not committed, how the hell can I expect everyone else to be?!
I think you go through huge ups and downs as a business owner, but I feel so passionate about our mission as a business and we receive so much incredible feedback. We have focus and drive and a team that’s completely aligned, that’s not ego driven and yes people will come and go – that’s life – but I know that we are creating something special.
SC.SD. What made you re-fall back in love with it?
LC. I think I spent so long worrying about everything that could go wrong that I just couldn’t trust in myself or recognise all our incredible achievements.
I think we have such a special team here – It’s like a family! Now I focus daily on the small and big wins. I am so full of gratitude for the opportunity to fulfil my ambitions, to watch our exceptional team grown and develop, for the impact we have for our clients and candidates and for the wider projects that I am heavily involved in.
SC.SD. What about the highs? What makes all of that worry worth it?
LC. We’ve had loads of amazing moments so it would take hours to go through them all but a few off the top of my head… Ed and I have attended events at number 10 and 11 Downing street and The House of Lords where we handed over a huge cheque to support the work of Tomorrow’s People! The events we host have been unbelievable and when we’ve won awards has felt amazing! We’ve won incredible accounts including destination companies like Google. When I was asked to host the new ‘Women in Business’ show on TV and when I’m asked to speak at events. When you hit a million turnover, then two and then three – boy those moments are incredible!
I have moments where I walk in to the office from seeing a candidate – I have these moments a lot – and the office is just alive, and it makes my heart swell! Or when someone achieves something or when we moved into these offices last October… Having a receptionist was massive too!
SC.SD. Was that the biggest, ‘I’ve made it’ moment!?
LC. It was huge! But in general, I have those moments all the time. You wouldn’t put yourself in a position where you risk so much personal stuff if that wasn’t the case.
SC.SD. Has anything taken you by surprise since launching C&C Search – either for the better or worse?
LC. I was so surprised at just how much support there is available when you put yourself out there and join networking groups. I have an incredible group of female founders that are part of my tribe and we collaborate and support each other constantly – that has been such a wonderful surprise.
I’ve been surprised at things like tax though. I had no clue that not only would you pay VAT, but you’d then pay corporation tax and now you must pay forward corporation tax so the infrastructure in this country has shocked me. What makes me sad is that there’s very limited support for businesses like ours that are paying our tax, doing all the right things, employing people…
SC.SD. But you’re being penalised for it?
LC. You get the same penalties that the big, big businesses have to cough up for and that’s really sad.
SC.SD. Let’s move on to relationships … Have any of your relationships evolved for the better or worse since launching this?
LC. I think many have improved, especially in terms of the relationship I have with Ed – we are closer and care about each other even more than when we first started out. We respect each other more now too. My husband too – he has been so influential and supportive as well as my biggest fan – we are even closer than when we started. Plus, all the wonderful women that I have got to know because of my networking – I would never have had the chance to meet and develop a relationship with them if I hadn’t co-Founded C&C.
I hardly see my friends though. My business has become my life and by the time I get home in the evening, the energy and time I do have I give to my daughter and husband. I’ve made a conscious decision to recalibrate the time I lost with her though so on Monday’s I leave early and on Friday’s I leave at 4.30pm so it’s more balanced now.
My friendships have really suffered and that’s what I’ve struggled with most. I’ve always been social, and I’ve become very anti-social since launching this and I think that’s because you protect yourself and your energy levels. That’s not poor me – it’s a choice I’ve made – but I feel as though I’ve had to prioritise the business on a lot of occasions for it to become successful. We could have stayed small, but I didn’t want that as we want to serve as many clients and candidates as possible – we have so much value to add!
SC.SD. So where’s your biggest support network when you’re in your low moments? Who do you turn to pick you up?
LC. I talk to Ed and my husband (my best friend) as my first port of call… then if it’s business related I reach out to the network of other female Founders that I have created. I certainly never feel alone!
SC.SD. Let’s move on to working with Ed. I’m so close to my sister but could I work with her? I don’t think so! Were there any reservations about going into business with family and what’s your experience been like working with him?
LC. Lots of reservations! We were great friends and my biggest reservation was what happens if it goes wrong? We’re both ‘A-type’ personalities so I questioned how that would work in a professional environment. I need my freedom to get on with things and I was nervous about how much freedom he’d feel comfortable with me having. But it has worked incredibly well because we’re closer than ever! We have different strengths and weaknesses and we pick each other up and congratulate each other when it’s called for too.
Naturally I’m a high line thinker. I see the bigger picture so I don’t like detail; my boredom threshold is really low. Luckily Ed is a detail guy, so it works brilliantly.
I love working with him though and I am exceptionally lucky to have the best business partner in the world (in my opinion!) We’re very conscious of spending too much time together and of course we irritate each other occasionally but ultimately, I think he’s amazing and he makes me laugh ever day! Do we spend time together outside of work though? Not as much as we used to. We can’t help ourselves but talk about work when we’re together!
SC.SD. You’ve mentioned that you read a lot … Are there any books or TED talks that you can recommend?
LC. Amy Cuddy, Brene Brown, Simon Sinek are great starting points for TED. For books my top five recommendations are The Art of being Brilliant by Andy Whittaker, Think Bigger by Michael Sonnenfeldt, Attack of the Fifty Foot Women by Catherine Mayer, Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and You are a Badass by Jen Sincero.
SC.SD. Not many then..! How would you describe yourself as a business woman?
LC. Hmm… Determined, resillient… full of ideas!
LC. Vivacious, passionate, impatient, direct… that’s something I’m working on!
SC.SD. What about as a manager?
LC. I’d like to think I was motivational! Inspiring but I do know I can be hard to please – I’ve got grand expectations! Committed – When someone joins the team, I genuinely commit to them.
Sophie Wood- Lucy’s Head of PR and Events – opts to chip in at this moment too!
SW. You’re not going to say this but you’re very caring as well!
LC. Ah thanks Sophie! I do care, and I know that a lot of people disagree with this, but I think you should view the people that work for you like your children. I feel as though I have a duty to them and it’s a bit like being a parent in that you don’t always say or do the right thing, but I think if you know that you’ve got their best interests at heart, it’s a good place to lead from.
SC.SD. What do you look for in your team then?
LC. See it’s changed. Initially I would’ve said hardworking, determined and feisty but now I like people with integrity that really care. They’re still bright and passionate and high achievers but they’re team orientated and are people that put the team first. You can end up accommodating those big personalities because they’re big billers, but it changes the whole dynamic of your business and you find yourself letting things slide that aren’t ok but I’m better at setting boundaries now. For a while I think we were a bit nervous of those characters, but you live, and you learn.
SC.SD. Let’s talk about switching off… do you now and if so how?
LC. I switch off better when I plan to! They say, ‘a goal without a plan is just a wish’ so when I plan, I do go to yoga, I do leave on time and I’m good. It is my responsibility to manage my time better. I now get up at 5am so I have the chance for some me time! Yin, hot yoga and spinning keeps me sane. My husband treated me to my membership at The Ned for my 40th so I’m extremely fortunate to be able to exercise in gorgeous surroundings!
SC.SD. Oh my gosh, that’s the dream! You said in your first year you took two days holiday… I trust that you take more now?
LC. I haven’t had the full twenty-five yet but I’m a much better boss and business partner when I take a break. Initially I think I saw working around the clock as a badge of honour but now I know working 150-hour weeks doesn’t make you successful. Giving everything, you’ve got to the moments that need it – absolutely – but having things in balance where you do have days where you go home on time and take breaks is massively important. I have a weeks holiday coming up in May and a week in August and I don’t feel guilty for that anymore. Do I worry when I’m away? Yes, but I also know that there’s an exceptional team here that’s very capable. I worry a lot less now.
SC.SD. Do you have a favourite quote?
LC. “One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes… and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
SC.SD. Where do you want to be in a decade’s time?
LC. I’ll be 52… bloody hell! Ok well I’d like the team to grow to fifty people by then and by that stage, I want the business to run like John Lewis where everyone has a share in the business. I’d like us to have created much more impact social responsibility wise; I’d love to have a programme where we’re able to run an academy for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to come and work for the business; and by that point I’d like my mortgage to be paid off and for all the work we’ve put in to financially benefit us. I’ve got professional financial goals and personal financial goals.
SC.SD. And when do you see yourself on that island sipping cocktails?!
LC. Do you know what? I think I’d get bored on that island!
SC.SD. I’m so glad you said that because I would be bored out of my mind!
LC. Exactly! I’d like to holiday a lot, but would I want to retire? Right now, I feel we have so much more to achieve and the next few years are going to be so exciting!
SC.SD. Very last question then… what does success look like to you?
LC. I think success is knowing yourself! Running a business is a journey to get to know your true self and you really do get to know every single bit of you… so yes… that! But John Jantsch’s definition also summarises it well so I’ll steal that too! “Success is the freedom to live your life as the great big fat adventure it is – and the wisdom to understand that all you have to do is to choose to do so!”
Lucy Chamberlain is undoubtedly one of the most hardworking women I’ve met and what she has created in C&C Search is testament to that. Yet her story also reveals just how gruelling the early days can be and the relentless pressure that presents itself when you’re in charge.
Especially when you’re aware that all eyes are on you and you’re carrying the burden of expectation rooted in your history of high achievements.
From the intensity of the hours she put in throughout the first eighteen months; the unexpected panic on day one when she realised the magnitude of what she’d embarked upon; to the toll it took on her family life, social life and mental state at times too; Lucy’s success hasn’t come easily by any means and has challenged her original perception of what owning a business would be like beyond belief.
But as she said so clearly, “you live and you learn.”
After finding comfort in surrendering to the fact that something could always go wrong (and therefore there is no point worrying about that every day on end); allocating set time – when she remembers – to put herself first; reminding herself of why she started four years ago and re-falling in love with the company as a result; her passion and pride for the business she’s created and her genuine affection for the team that she leads is clear.
Opting to lead from her heart instead of her head, C&C Search has provided Lucy with so much more than a business. It’s been a journey of self-discovery too.
For more information on C&C Search, visit the website here or find them on Instagram: @ccsearch