Mike Hughes meets Lee Biggins, the man behind the UK’s biggest jobs website, and finds out the vital information that helped him launch his own career – and the difference a Caribbean holiday made to his plans.
It always starts with a CV. Think back to when you began your own working life, and it is quite possible it was in something very different to what occupies your nine-to-five slot today, but at the time you were targeting your dream job, so the CV was polished with the good stuff highlighted and the less successful times tucked away in the “Also…” paragraphs at the end.
Depending how far back you have to go to recall that moment, it was probably just a letter sent to the human resources department after half of your mates swooped on the same advert. But now the game is very different, and Lee Biggins is one of the reasons it has changed.
Having bought out his former partner in 2013, he now owns 100% of CV-Library, which hosts millions of CVs from hopeful job-seekers around the world and is on course for revenues of £36m. For Lee, the DNA was well established and there was always going to be another entrepreneur in the family.
“It’s in the blood – I never met my grandfather, but he used to run a mobile shop and my 70-year-old dad has just closed the doors on his carpet company after 40-plus years,” he tells me. “I saw how well he had done and that grew my entrepreneurial spirit, but nothing was given to me on a plate. It has been hard work and if I wanted something I had to earn it by running round the house thinking of chores I could do.
“When I was a little bit older I was doing car-washing and even selling cold drinks to fishermen on Basingstoke Canal. Anything I could find to get a few quid together.”
All this time there was a career waiting for him at his dad Clive’s Surefit carpet business and for a while he put his heart and soul into it, coming home from school and heading straight for the warehouse where he would also sort out estimates for customers. The experience was invaluable, but it led the young Biggins to think he didn’t need school – or college – which he left after a few months because he had already found a career on his own. Not advice he would pass on now, but this was a young man with urgency and confidence in equal measures.
“Dad and I worked together for quite some time, and even later we had converted barns next door to each other that we used as offices, so I could always go and lend a hand,” he says. “But I was always having ideas about how I could create my own success and one of the things that sealed it for me was going to Nevis in the Caribbean with my girlfriend’s family when I was 21. I had always known that I wanted to be well-off, but seeing that place her dad had got from working in an office really gave me a push.
“I didn’t know where to start looking, so bought a book of advice on writing CVs but rather than sending mine off to recruitment agencies or applying for jobs from the back of a newspaper, I wondered why there wasn’t a website where you could leave your CV and everyone comes there to find you.”
In true entrepreneurial fashion, he gathered a few quid to buy a computer and asked around at his local pub to find someone who “did” websites. His mate Brian Wakem had recently completed a motors website and thought he could turn his hand to CVs as well and a partnership began.
“Being a young lad of 21, I wasn’t particularly well travelled apart from some family holidays, so I had started thinking about some travel and a little bit of culture, and I knew that with that computer I could work from anywhere in the world,” he says. "So, for the first few years we did business purely on the web, no customer service teams to talk to or anything like that. I never thought we would have the scale for very many staff and certainly no bricks and mortar offices – that was how things were done back then.”
But, while Biggins’ skills on the keyboard were helping build a formidable new force in the recruitment industry, it was when the business started to grow and he needed staff that his acumen was really proved. He became a manager of people and loved it from the first appointment, and as he started gathering a team around him CV-Library took shape because of the staff who were forming it.
“By the time we were four years in, I said to my business partner ‘if we don’t take on a sales team, a renewals team and a marketing team, we might as well give up now’,” he remembers. “For me, the magic number has always been 15 because managing five to 15 people was the hardest time I can remember because we were bringing in in young people and training them ourselves, so you don’t immediately have managers. But once you get past 15, you start to find people who can manage for you and life starts to become just that little bit easier.
“Now with 200 people, we have a really good team of directors who are my sounding board. I learn from them as much as they learn from me and they have allowed me to be in a position where I own 100% of the business and can incentivise them with perks in their pockets rather than shares.”
The business now has an impressive momentum and regards giants like LinkedIn as one of its competitors. There is a thriving operation in America called Resume Library and work in Poland and India to establish the brand there and give Biggins and his directors a global platform to develop. Here, the London office has taken on more than 40 people in the past few months and in Manchester and Birmingham the story is the same and will be repeated soon in Bristol, Ireland and in Scotland with more offices in the pipeline.
“After working very well with recruitment agencies, a lot of our opportunity for growth now is working with corporates and small and medium-sized enterprises that are cash-savvy and realise they can recruit people very cost-effectively themselves using platforms like ours,” he says.
Growth brings profile and Biggins is keen to pass on his experiences – good and bad – to young people who could be on the BQ Live website themselves in a few years. His early exit from the education system gives him the ideal starting point for talks at local schools and colleges, telling students who seek the same sense of freedom that if they pause, weigh up their options and still think it is the right thing to do, then at least have a plan in place.
“Where are you going to get the experience to be able to walk through the doors of your next place and how do you go about getting your CV into the right place to start getting interviews?” he asks them. “I’ll explain to them what they can achieve, as I have done without going to uni, but with my own personal angle on it because there is a lot of advice out there and some of them might have a troubled background and might not have access to the usual opportunities others have.
“I know there are lessons to be learned and I wish I had finished some of my experiences properly, so I challenge them by saying it is not about not having just any education, but finding the education that matches the route you want to take, perhaps involving an online course or training scheme. At the end of the day, you have to work very hard to be in this position, and be ready to face that hard work every day.
“I could pack it all up and go and live the life of Riley, but that is just not me. I am a born and bred grafter who wants to be able to say he has earned everything he has, to the point that we could have been more globally successful now if I had diluted the business and taken on some investment, but I wanted the growth to be organic and true to the way I do things.
“My dad ran his business purely on word of mouth because of his good principles and I echo that with the way I structure CV-Library and look after our customers whether they have a major account with us or are worth just a few hundred pounds. I have terrible OCD about making sure things are done properly – which is probably why I am 40 and single.
“With the America launch, I am now the same entrepreneur I was when I started out and am up to 10pm many nights sorting something out because it is so personal to me and while the dream is to be out there and have the perfect business globally, it has to be done right.”