Conor Nicholson is the founder and CEO of NSS RPO, as featured in Inc. 5000 two years running. He is a lifelong recruiter who’s passionate about getting the right people on the bus. Follow him @NSSRPO.
Who is your hero? (In business, life, or both.)
What’s the single best piece of business advice (unorthodox tips welcome!) that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today, and why?
“Don’t work with companies you could not personally work for.”
This is part of the foundation of our culture. If I could not see myself supporting a particular client, how could we, in good conscience, have one of our employees work there? I realized early on that our culture is paramount to everything else. We choose the firms we work with, not the other way around. We’ve passed on plenty of business opportunities and will continue to do so if they don’t align with our values.
What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your business, and what did you learn from it that others can learn from too?
My biggest mistake by far was not setting the terms of the deal ahead of time. A few months after we started placing contract recruiters, someone I knew proposed a business opportunity. He wanted to refer a recruiter for an open position with our largest client. In essence, he was making an introduction and wanted a portion of the profit. We would manage and pay the consultant as well as bill the client.
As I was new to this world, I didn’t dictate terms prior to making an agreement. Nothing was put in writing. In my head, I assumed it would be a 50/50 split. After the recruiter interviewed and got the job, it was time to discuss the split. He wanted 75 percent of the profit. I was floored but didn’t push back. After hearing an earful from my CFO, I unsuccessfully attempted to revisit the terms. I agreed to not go back on my word and also swore to myself that I’d never do a deal without knowing the exact terms ahead of time. My company lost tens of thousands of dollars from this transaction but the lesson learned was priceless.
What do you do during the first hour of your business day and why?
When I get to my desk in the morning, I don’t immediately turn on my computer and jump right in. When I sit down, the first thing I do is take a few big breaths and look out my office window. I focus on the trees, my connection with nature, and our world as a whole. I like to think big. Think expansively. I need a clear, relaxed mind if I’m going to do my best work.
I’ve been using a Franklin Covey planner since 1998, and I plan out my day every morning. I make goals annually, monthly and weekly. I write down tasks that align with my goals every day. I think about those items that may have carried over from the previous day as well as new initiatives or projects.
I love using a pen and paper as I have a hard time focusing when looking at my desktop. There is so much noise these days, from co-workers’ IMs to phone calls and Outlook reminders. I look at my time commitments on the right column and decide what important tasks to focus on in my downtime. If I don’t manage my day, my day will manage me.
What’s your best financial/cash-flow related tip for entrepreneurs just getting started?
Keep operating costs as low as possible for as long as possible in every area except client entertainment. If you’re taking a customer to lunch, splurge. The difference between a marginal lunch and dining at a nice spot might be $50. Trust me, it’s worth it.
You might be eating peanut butter and jelly at home but if you’re meeting up with someone, make it a first class experience. Folks appreciate it. They’ll see you value both the relationship and their time. They will appreciate your generosity. That will go a long way in terms of solidifying that relationship and cultivating a network based on referrals.
Quick: What’s ONE thing you recommend ALL aspiring or current entrepreneurs do right now to take their biz to the next level?
Read “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. Have your team read it too. Think long and hard about what your firm is passionate about, what you can be best in the world at and how you make money. Find the sweet spot where these three concepts overlap. This is your differentiator.
What’s your definition of success? How will you know when you’ve finally “succeeded” in your business?
Success is a funny concept because it’s constantly evolving. Once you hit one perceived level, you automatically strive for the next one. I’m never truly satisfied. Deep in my heart, I know that I can always do better. I know our team can do better.
You’d think you would view yourself as successful after making the Inc. 5000 two years in a row. But I don’t view it that way. In my mind, we haven’t scratched the surface in terms of what the company is truly capable of. Recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) is a rapidly growing and evolving market. My goal is for NSS RPO to become a leader in that space.
This might be 15 years away but I guess my view of success would be if I were to completely step away from my company for 6-12 months, it would have the same passion and culture when I returned. The more we grow, the harder it will be but I know we can do it. Now I need to figure out how.