It’s truly incredible to reflect on the fact that we’ve not only survived but thrived, celebrating the second anniversary of our journey aboard the Orange Rocket in July. Scaling a business is no small feat, and it requires a unique blend of courage, unwavering conviction, steely determination, and a crystal-clear vision.
Fortunately, Pat Lynes, the visionary leader behind S&S possesses these qualities in abundance. When I joined forces with him, Sullivan & Stanley was already in the midst of delivering its ambitious 2023 Vivid Vision, charting a course to redefine the future of work and disrupt the world of consulting. The prospect of being part of such a transformative mission excited me, and I was eager to contribute my efforts to help the business extend its reach across the UK.
Two years in felt like an apt time to reflect and to document some of the journey. I intend to share not just the highlights, but the intricate details of our journey thus far. These words aim to serve as a set of memoirs, capturing the challenges, the opportunities, the highs, and the lows of scale-up life, while also offering a glimpse into what lies ahead.
Setting sail back in 2011: The Big Break
It’s worthwhile taking you a little bit further back, to set the scene around why I accepted this challenge in the first place. The year 2011 marked a turning point in my professional life. Young, fearless, and brimming with self-belief, I embarked on a journey to establish a regional hub for Harvey Nash, a well-established professional services business. Over the course of the next decade, our efforts led to the creation of records as we became the fastest-growing startup in the history of the business, posting a handsome profit and revenue figures after as little as nine months in business. We defined our own purpose and core values for the region and established ourselves as the de facto high-quality partners for all things related to recruitment and outsourcing and we became a formidable force in the market. Over ten years, our diverse team, full of talent, would eventually give rise to numerous founders of their own businesses and leaders in their own right; developing talent was a cornerstone of our success and I am immensely proud of what they have all gone on to achieve. As the 10-years milestone approached, I couldn’t help but wonder: How do I top this?
A chance to prove it wasn’t a fluke
Fast forward to 2020, a year fraught with challenges, most notably the global pandemic. Whilst the regional business I had created continued to surpass all targets despite the pandemic’s adversities, I found myself feeling a little flat; I knew I needed a new challenge. Ketan Patel (a well respected and successful CIO and someone I rate highly), once told me, “JP, once you aren’t excited on a Sunday evening for Monday morning, it’s time to think about what comes next.” Those words resonated deeply with me.
Like many individuals in leadership roles, I was no stranger to the occasional bout of imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and anxiety. Did I succeed the first time around through sheer luck? Was I truly instrumental in the success of the business I had nurtured under the Harvey Nash umbrella? Could I replicate that success?
The need for a new challenge was undeniable, but what route should I take?. Should I establish my own recruitment firm? The thought didn’t excite me; the market was already saturated with such ventures. Should I take on a larger national role in a bigger recruitment firm? That was an option, but again, it just didn’t excite me.
Finding “The One”
It was during this period of introspection that Pat Lynes and I reconnected. Pat and I had known each other for several years through various connections and company affiliations. Unbeknownst to me, while I had been closely watching his journey with S&S from a distance, he had been doing the same with mine.
S&S was a source of great excitement for me. The company was disrupting not one but two historically rigid markets. They were innovating with cutting-edge thought leadership and forging a new path in consulting—a path that deeply resonated with me.
Over the years, I had built relationships with top board directors, had assembled and led teams to great success, but I had always yearned to be more directly involved in driving change. The interim revolution that gave birth to S&S seemed tailor-made for me—an assembly of incredible talent, impeccably orchestrated, and geared towards delivering results rapidly. It offered something more profound than recruitment and posed a formidable challenge to the established consulting giants— S&S was on an evolution and making increasingly significant strides towards becoming a real challenger brand.
Could I do it again? Time to find out. I committed to scaling another business, but this time, it was a scale-up with minimal market presence in Manchester and a focus on a field outside of recruitment—I was heading into the world of Consulting.
Getting started in July 2021: Let’s GO!
As any seasoned leader, market maker, investor, or salesperson will tell you, the key to success is unwavering belief in the product or service you’re taking to market. It requires a conviction to sell with authenticity, belief in the team’s integrity, empathy, and a customer-first mindset to achieve stellar results. During the interview process, in-depth research, and my initial weeks with S&S, I found all of these essential attributes to be true.
So, how do you breathe life into a business venture? A few critical factors were instrumental in ensuring a strong start:
Our ‘why’: Clarity around market proposition
We needed to be crystal clear about our market proposition—what we were offering to the world.
Client success stories: Demonstrating our value
We needed to articulate our proudest client success stories, highlighting how we had delivered results and what our clients had to say about their experiences.
Finding the “Glass Slipper Customer”
Identifying our ideal customer was paramount. We needed to determine which sectors and industries we had a proven track record in, and where our values aligned with those of potential clients.
With these fundamentals in place, the next step was to establish how we could take these stories to the market, laying the foundations and building a pipeline that would demonstrate tangible progress.
Early investments were crucial, and customer acquisition was the first oxygen boost our business needed to grow.
In a saturated market, where our brand was relatively unknown, but our strengths were glaringly apparent, what should be our next move? Fortunately, my 13-year career had connected me with change agents and C-suite executives. It had allowed me to deliver results for them and build a captive audience. Nevertheless, we still needed to find a compelling reason for them to engage with us, to learn more about S&S, and to test the strength of our brand.
In those crucial first 90 days, we crafted a strategic plan, curating communities and events to achieve the following:
- Building brand credibility and visibility: We organised a high-profile launch event for 100 C-suite executives and Change Leaders. The event featured Mark Gallagher, a renowned figure in Formula 1, who shared invaluable insights, drawing parallels between F1 and the realm of change, a philosophy that aligned with our approach to driving rapid change and would become the foundations of Adrian Stalhams book, The Future Business Formula.
- Creating communities of leaders: We initiated our CxO Dinner series, hosting 20 of the most accomplished CIOs in Manchester. These events allowed us to showcase what S&S stood for, while providing a platform for absorbing world-class thought leadership from our roster of distinguished speakers.
- Harnessing our network: We began tapping into our network of Change Agents through The Change Society—individuals we aspired to collaborate with on projects. Our objective was to build a community, an event schedule, and a referral system, all of which would pave the way for our first assignments ensuring we had the best independent practitioners ready to engage and be deployed.
We were intentional about documenting these events through videos, blogs, and photos. Shamelessly, we promoted them across LinkedIn and our monthly newsletter to enhance awareness and to build the brand.
Simultaneously, we shared S&S content and blogs on LinkedIn 3-4 times a week, offering insights into our approach, our thoughts, and our intent. This proactive approach generated excitement and ensured heightened engagement.
The results of our strategic approach were quickly apparent, as we secured partnerships with three £1 billion revenue businesses, embarking on transformative journeys. Whether defining their change roadmap, leading a failing programme, or establishing a transformation management office (TMO) for a £100 million transformation programme, we had made an explosive start. Personally, I sat back and thought, “Blimey, I’m onto something here.” My instincts were right.
The journey so far:
The night is darkest before the dawn
Explosive growth can pose unexpected challenges, much like a plot twist in a dramatic tale – a sentiment I’m reminded of, possibly from an exchange between Albert and a young Bruce Wayne in a certain story.
Explosive growth can be a problem, particularly when: a) the broader business was flourishing, b) the rapid growth was unanticipated, c) infrastructure couldn’t keep up with the pace, and d) a customer’s insolvency left us with a significant outstanding debt of £250k.
At the 180-day mark, we had successfully onboarded three key customers. I had personally enlisted trusted members of our Change Society, individuals I had known and respected for years, all driven by the vision I had sold them: independence, wrapped in a consulting framework. We committed to providing oversight, resources, and support while ensuring timely, budget-conscious, and high-value project execution.
Fortunately, we excelled in the latter aspect. Our exceptional team delivered outstanding results, leaving three exceedingly satisfied customers in their wake. Yet, despite this success, I remained concerned. We were overstretching our consultancy and delivery teams in London, and I found myself stepping in to provide oversight, which was not a role I had huge experience with, so it was very much a ‘fake it before you make it’ moment.
World-class service is something I’ve always prided teams I’ve built on, and it was evident that we were falling short of this standard given our teams were operating consistently above our bandwidth. We needed to bring our northern Delivery Director in quickly, but little did we know this would take us 12 months.
Fast forward to November 2022
A year later, our financially troubled client found a lifeline, and we breathed a sigh of relief — a close call in our first year. In just nine months, starting that April, we achieved seven figures in revenue, a remarkable feat and very much confirming our belief that we had an offering which was not only disrupting, but thriving.
We bolstered our community team to ensure continuous growth and access to top industry practitioners. During this time, we acquired four new customers, handling everything from digital strategy to complex change management.
However, a persistent challenge remained: we were still stretching our peers in London when it came to consulting oversight and delivery assurance. Despite a year-long search, we had yet to find the right fit for the position of UK North Delivery Director.
The pressure was taking its toll, but past experience had taught me the perils of filling a crucial role hastily with the wrong person. We remained steadfast in our commitment to finding the right candidate. To our credit, the entire team agreed this was the best course of action. Finally, in December 2023, we secured a vital foundational addition to our team; Codie James, our Delivery Director.
Maturing our approach and delighting our customers
In January, I began to enjoy better sleep, reassured by the knowledge that we had successfully appointed the right leader to guide our delivery teams towards success. Our team was expanding around her, and our community team was thriving with over 300 members. We now had a collective focus on driving growth, and things were starting to fall into place.
We marked the end of our first full year (our second year in reality) in business on a high note. Once again, we achieved a seven-figure revenue milestone, this time representing a substantial 20% of the company’s total revenue. It was an achievement to be proud of and was a culmination of all our efforts and discipline to remain focused with the same energy and rhythms and routines which had got us up and running.
As 2023 commenced, we secured another pivotal customer, assisting them in transitioning from a project-centric to a product-centric operating model. This marked a significant step forward in our business’s growth journey. Equally important, we successfully concluded our work with two other customers, aiding them in streamlining their portfolios and maturing their change functions, just as we had promised. We were delivering on our commitments and stepping aside, having set up our clients to thrive.
A defining moment for our Change Society came during our summer social event this year. We showcased tangible value created for our customers, proving that our disruptive approach yielded concrete results. We had bridged the ‘say-do gap’ that had been worrying me. What was even more exhilarating was the energy in the room. Everyone present recognised that they were among world-class independent practitioners, many of whom had crossed paths in their previous careers. Our community team had worked tirelessly to create a vibrant, active community, and the results spoke for themselves and everyone could feel it. Once again, we knew we were on to something and about to hit another stride of growth.
Throughout this year, we have remained self-critical, constantly evaluating our approach and seeking ways to improve, asking our clients for feedback. Our NPS scores have remained some of the best in the industry, but there is a lot we can improve.
I often borrow the term ‘productively paranoid’ from Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” because I firmly believe in continually searching for incremental improvements. It begins by keeping your antennae up, actively seeking feedback, ideas, and opportunities for enhancement. I’m proud to say that we are growing and evolving every day as a team and business and the best is yet to come.
The future is bright, the future is….
Start-up and scale-up life is a tumultuous journey, akin to a roller coaster ride. Maintaining balance and focus is paramount, emphasising the importance of regular exercise, consistent breaks, and cherished family time—an unwavering priority for me.
I firmly adhere to these disciplines, striving for composure and focus regardless of the current circumstances. The fluctuating nature of success, from highs to lows, is a reality, as I’m reminded by a thought-provoking podcast featuring the founder, Will Ahmed of Whoop on the Diary of a CEO podcast.
Navigating through 2023 has been challenging, demanding unwavering dedication and hard work. Despite the hurdles, we are taking another robust step forward, consistently pushing our own limits. What truly ignites my excitement is knowing that we’re driving positive change, empowering our customers to realise their aspirations and our teams are growing in maturing and confidence every day..
As I conclude this message, anticipation for the future thrills me. I take immense pride in the unwavering dedication and determination exhibited by our teams, particularly the UK North Hub and our counterparts in London. Their remarkable achievements deserve acknowledgment. Simultaneously, I extend my thanks to our customers who trust us to guide them through transformative journeys; we take the responsibility extremely seriously.
Our growth journey is ongoing, with plans to scale the business into broader UK geographies, bringing our tools, IP and approach to Leeds and Birmingham next. If you’re in consulting, delivery, or solutions sales and are sat there excited by what you have read and, like me two years ago, are thirsty for a new challenge, let’s connect. Your enthusiasm is what we’re seeking.
Next on our agenda is Lisbon, where the entire S&S team will collaboratively shape our 2026 Vivid Vision as a unified business. Our ambition and purpose remain steadfast: to inspire the future of work. The best is yet to come from S&S—we are on a mission.