Lee Biggins is a born entrepreneur. Not content with the traditional schoolboy paper round, he saved his lunch money for a rainy day, ran a mini car washing empire and sold cold drinks on hot days to fishermen on the Basingstoke Canal. Fast forward two decades and at 36 he is sole owner of CV-Library, billed as the UK’s leading independent job board, and has a string of awards to his name. The business boasts an impressive database of over seven million CVs, big brand clients and is on course for a record £11.5 million turnover by this summer. As he prepares to embark on the launch of a major global venture this autumn, he found time to talk to Alison Dewar
Born and brought up in Fleet, Biggins’s first foray into the commercial world was at the feet of his father, who ran his own very successful carpet retail and fitting business. He describes himself as a “cheeky chappy” who found it hard to concentrate on his schoolwork and recalls telling his teachers that he didn’t need any qualifications because he was going to have his own business. He duly spent time in his father’s company before deciding to spread his wings further afield and it was while he was looking for a job that he came up with the idea of CV-Library. The business was launched in 2000 from his bedroom. Today it employs 75 people and his awards include Entrepreneur of the Year at the Inspire Business Awards 2013, SME of the Year in the Thames Valley Business Magazine Awards 2013 and seeing CV-Library ranked in the Deloitte UK Technology Fast 50 Awards 2012 for the second year running.
It doesn’t seem like a natural jump from carpets to recruitment. How did that happen?
I never dreamt I would end up working in an office, but through a friend I was originally offered a job in the Caribbean. When that fell through, I had to start looking for another job. I bought a book on how to write a CV and once I’d done that I started to think there must be a better way to get it out there rather than visiting all the recruitment agencies. I was 21, it was when Martha Lane-Fox and LastMinute.com was taking off and I came up with the idea of a website where everyone could put their CV on it and employers could come to find the staff they needed.
How did you make the move from good idea to working website?
I bought myself a computer, went to night school to learn computer literacy skills and took on a business partner to build the website. At the same time, I was working as a temp doing telesales in a recruitment agency to learn the ropes. I went to local business classes through Business Link and although many banks turned me down, secured a £9,000 loan from NatWest to start the business. After I’d had the idea I also discovered there were other job boards out there like Monster who we were competing against, so we had to work hard. I’m a natural salesperson; we used search engines and identified lots of partners to generate the CVs and traffic to the site that we needed. It took a long time and was a lot more difficult than I had thought it would be.
How did you grow the business?
I was still temping and doing very well, then Dad asked me to go back into the carpet business and help him. We moved CV-Library into one empty building next to his business and for three years I ran both. Gradually CV-Library expanded until it took over almost the whole complex and I had to run it on a full-time basis. Dad could see how well the business was going and he was very pleased and proud for me.
Who was your first big client?
The BBC phoned us up one day, they had found us on the Internet and wanted some CVs. They gave us a cheque for £117.50, we never did bank it, we kept it as a souvenir of our first deal with them. Now we work for top companies including Accenture, Mitie, Xerox and Game Retail and have around 14 million monthly job searches.
Recruitment was hit hard in the recession, how did you survive?
The recession was a big turning point for us. Large corporates realised how much they were paying recruitment agencies and they cut back, which meant they came to us directly as effectively in-house recruiters. We swept up market share at a time when others were struggling. We were the only job board to recruit more people and make a profit at that time so we came out in first place. Plus, my co-founder and I had modest lifestyles. I still lived with my Mum and we invested back into the business. There were no smart cars or big houses to pay for.
What’s the secret of your success?
I worked for my Dad after school from the age of 14, he taught me really strong work ethics and I understood the value of money and hard work from a very young age. He was very successful and the roots of CV-Library come from recognising how important your reputation is, being seen as a trusted organisation and looking after your customers. That, together with keeping a strong and motivated team is what makes us successful.
How important is giving back to the local community?
I like to give back and to inspire those around me. Fleet is a great place to have a business. 90% of my staff are local, I went to school here and still go back to mentor pupils and help with things like CVs and mock interviews. When I first returned to school there were some teachers who remembered me, so that was interesting. I also work closely with a couple of local businesses to help them grow. One is Gandys Flip Flops launched by Rob and Paul Forkan, who lost their parents in the Boxing Day tsunami. Rob was my first ever employee and it’s good to be able to help them become more successful. They’ve had some great PR and now they give me tips on getting media coverage.
Where does the business go next?
I bought out my former partner in 2013, so I now own 100% of the business. We’ve expanded our IT division, taken on a new financial director and we’re going from strength to strength. Turnover by June 2014 will be £11.5m compared with £8.8m in June 2013. We moved into a new building three years ago as part of our 10-year plan and we only have room for four desks left, so we’re looking for additional space already. I want to be bigger and better than all our competitors. Our next move is into the international market, we’re building a global platform at the moment which has a very unique element to it. By the autumn we expect to be in the US which is very exciting.
Your website profile says you hate mess
For me, a tidy ship is a happy ship. Some might say I have OCD, but I just care about my things and like a nice tidy place to work. Also, if you look after things properly, it keeps costs down.
You have quite strict rules for staff
I run a very structured operation, our days are 9 – 5.30, no private mobiles allowed in work hours, no smoking breaks, no private Internet usage. It’s very productive and our staff are very motivated. We have lots of incentives and events for staff, plus training and reward schemes and we have very good staff retention. A couple of years ago we employed 35, now we have 75 and we’re looking to expand.
Who do you admire in business?
I read a lot of autobiographies, people like Lord Sugar. They are mainly about business people, I’ll often choose a book about someone who I don’t like on face value and see if reading their life story changes my opinion about them.
What do you do to have fun?
I’m single, so I have lots of energy to focus on the business and it’s only rarely that I’m not thinking about work. I work really hard and take the view I can play later in life. Ideas often come to me when I’m away from the office though, either in the gym or on my boat, which I keep in Majorca. I don’t watch or play a lot of sport, but I have a big old cottage and I enjoy wandering around antique shops finding interesting things for it.
I love travelling and exploring other cultures. I can’t lie on a beach, I want to know everything about a country, its economy and how it works. I visited India and loved it because everyone has a story to tell, everyone wants to be an entrepreneur.
What are your personal ambitions?
As a true entrepreneur, I’m never really satisfied and that probably makes me difficult to live with. I don’t have any investors or a board of directors to report to, I like to learn my own lessons and rely on gut feeling – my dream is to turn CV-Library into a global business where I can travel the world and keep an eye on the business at the same time. And I’d also like to start a “Good News” TV channel – telling everyone about all the good things that are happening.
Details: CV Library website