In early 2000, Caroline Plumb and Charlie Osmond, both Oxford students nearing graduation in engineering and management studies, decided to turn convention on its head (not for the last time). They walked away from potential careers as management consultants, and decided instead to launch their own consultancy.
When they started FreshMinds Osmond and Plumb had almost no experience of working life and a limited set of contacts beyond their Oxford peer group. But they had confidence in their idea – to set up an unrivalled network of ‘Minds’, the brightest executives, MBAs and graduates in Europe, and match them to corporate clients with appropriate research or recruitment needs. Caroline Plumb recalls: ‘The idea for FreshMinds was based on the premise that we knew an awful lot of very talented young people in the first few years of their career who we didn’t think businesses were making the most effective use of.’
By using their pool of creative and intelligent young analysts for project work on a flexible basis, Plumb and Osmond believed they could win all ways – keeping the Minds themselves engaged and interested by avoiding the hum-drum of long-term employment, meeting client needs better by ensuring every client got a bespoke service, and reducing fixed costs and overheads so that their pricing could be competitive.
Their fellow graduates thought that they were taking an enormous risk setting up in business so early in their careers, Charlie Osmond recalls. ‘But actually it was the least risky time to set up our own business – we had no responsibilities, no partners, no mortgage and no debts – apart from student loans, which actually we didn’t have to pay off as we weren’t earning enough money.’
Plumb and Osmond’s relative naivety meant they could be quite fearless. Plumb explains: ‘We went into the business saying what we wanted it to be was either a spectacular success or a spectacular failure – the worst thing that could happen would have been for it to be just OK.’
In December 2000, just seven months after launch, they revised their plan to grow the business organically and accepted one-off funding in return for a 20 per cent stake in the business, a deal that also provided welcome business advice and legal support from the three men behind the investment. ‘I guess people starting this kind of business wouldn’t normally start with funding that early. But on the other hand they would normally have a base of clients because of their previous experience,’ Plumb suggests. ‘When we left university we didn’t know anybody to advise us and support us. Bringing in some money enabled us to compete at a similar point.’
‘You have to believe that it’s all going to come right in the end, no matter how wrong things are going at the moment. It takes you back to the Henry Ford quote: “whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re probably right”.’
It is a simple message but focus and determination dominate the entrepreneurial ethos of the FreshMinds founders. There is a blithe enthusiasm about the entrepreneurial pair, underpinned by plenty of self-confidence. It is a combination that has helped produce year on year three-figure growth and supported the company in snapping up some big name clients, from consultancies and high street banks to, more recently, government departments.
Whether due to their lack of experience or their sheer determination, Plumb and Osmond have shrugged off the doubts and inhibitions that might have pre-occupied more sage entrepreneurs. For instance, they view discussing their own creative ideas with outsiders not as a threat, but as a powerful opportunity. ‘When people start a business they talk about going it alone, but it should be the antithesis of that,’ Plumb says. ‘It’s about creating networks around you and knowing you don’t have to do everything by yourself. The important thing to know is what you’re good at and you can then find somebody else to do the bits you’re not good at.’
Osmond agrees. ‘I always say if you have an idea for starting a new business, talk to people about it. People are often worried that their idea will get stolen, but if you go out and talk to people they’ll actually suggest ways of developing the idea. Secondly, when you ask for advice all sorts of things can happen. When we started off asking for advice we got clients from it, got Minds as a result and then we got investment into the business.’
FreshMinds now employs 50 full-time staff, in addition to an ever-shifting pool of up to 100 Minds either working in-house or on client sites delivering research and recruitment services.
Youth has been a crucial factor Plumb and Osmond recruit their Minds only from people in the first ten years of their careers. It provides a pool of recruits loaded with talent, enthusiasm and determination.
‘There is no doubt that experience counts for a lot but so does an eagerness to learn and develop new skills that is especially characteristic of individuals in the first five years of their careers,’ Osmond argues. ‘As our own example proves, however, you should never underestimate the importance of personal drive and determination. It is not only through paper qualifications but also through in-depth screening interviews that we decide on the perfect Mind to put forward for each particular role.’
Inadvertently, a high turnover among its nomadic Minds has also helped promote the company’s services. Only a small number stay with the company for longer than two years and many are snapped up by clients on a permanent basis. FreshMinds doesn’t object – recruitment is a core part of its business and many Minds assume posts elsewhere in which they themselves buy in FreshMinds services – but the regular loss of key workers does present a challenge.
Part of the company’s response to the problem is ‘Ones to Watch’. An innovative approach, it is based on researchers going into the top ten UK universities to canvass the views of 10 per cent of penultimate year students on who among their peers they think will be the highest achievers, specifically in the fields of business, finance and law. According to Plumb, ‘by tracking the 200 most mentioned names, we can offer them jobs even before they’ve gone back to university in September, so nobody else gets a look in.’
Osmond and Plumb are quick to dismiss the notion of selling up and retiring at 30. “My fiancé says I get bored over a weekend so I think retirement would be a bit of a disaster,” says Plumb – but the pair are at an advanced stage in moving the business to a new footing and freeing themselves to apply their energy to new challenges. Six years on, the former Oxford students are now experienced business people, still young and still energetic, but with the experience and enthusiasm – and financial resources – to pursue spin-off ventures.
‘We’ve been working for a while on building a great senior management team,’ says Osmond. ‘With the recent arrival of our head of recruitment, that team is now in place.’
‘The company is great at throwing out ideas for new and improved research and recruitment services. Now that we’ve freed up some time, we expect to turn some of these into a reality. Thus 2006 should be a year of new services and potential spin-off ideas for FreshMinds. So we expect to be involved in more products and businesses, but predominantly within the existing FreshMinds framework,’ Osmond continued.
‘That’s not to say that we’re not also dabbling in our spare time with other ideas. More and more of our friends are now looking to start up on their own, and we are doing what we can to support their ideas and start-ups. There’s nothing like being involved in new ideas to help keep the creative juices flowing.’