Every parent teaches their children that they shouldn’t be afraid to ask a question. Polish entrepreneur Przemek Gacek was clearly listening intently when he received this standard parental advice. His willingness to take a chance and ask was the starting point of his fast-growing business.
In 1999 Gacek was in London working for PricewaterhouseCoopers after graduating in economics from Warsaw University. In his six months with the firm, he quickly discovered that working for a large organisation was not what he wanted to do with his life. So, he cast around for bright business ideas that he could put to work when he returned to his home in Warsaw. “The one thing that was quite clear for me was that I wanted to go back and I wanted to start something on my own, so the only question was what it should be,” says Gacek.
As he scanned the entrepreneurial horizons, Gacek came across a publication called Hotcourses. He thought this listing of courses and colleges could possibly work in Poland which, with a population of some 37 million, is one of Europe’s biggest national markets. He called the contact number and got through to the company’s founder, Jeremy Hunt, who was happy to meet to talk about the potential for the brand in Poland.
“We agreed that I would do some market research in Poland, which I did. I designed a questionnaire and sent it to friends and some universities. Basically what I found out was that people needed this kind of information. So I went back to Jeremy and basically asked him for some money. He said, “no, but we can train you.” so we made a deal that they would be a small shareholder in the company and I spent some time going with him to his clients and talking to him about business. He was my first business teacher. This is how we started, basically.”
For Gacek this was the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey. (It was also part of Hunt’s career journey: Hotcourses now employs over 200 people and has become the UK’s largest publisher of guides and websites to help people find the right course or college. Its founder is now Secretary of State for Health in the UK government.)
In Poland, the result of these initial discussions was the creation of Grupa Pracuj in 2000. Today, Grupa Pracuj is an expert in online recruitment, as well as a provider of software as a service (SaaS) supporting recruitment and other organisational Hr functions. It employs more than 400 people and generated 26 million euros in revenue last year. Its sites in Poland and Ukraine are visited by more than four million users every month and by over 20,000 firms every year seeking to attract and recruit the right candidates. In Poland it has over 90 per cent brand recognition among its core group.
Getting to plan D
All of this is remarkable for a company that began with a phone call and $1,000 of savings. The money was invested in the company’s first computer, which was installed at Gacek’s apartment where he lived with his mother and worked for the first months of the business’s life.
“I wouldn’t say it was difficult. I was brought up in Communist times in a 500- square-foot apartment, nothing fancy, like everyone else in Poland at that time,” Gacek reflects. “The important thing is that for the first three or four years I never once thought of closing the business. We said we’d give ourselves 18 months and either make this business work or go to work for a corporation.”
Later, in 2000, one of Gacek’s business partners invested €10,000. With this further investment, Gacek and his growing team began to contemplate what exactly their business model was. London Business School’s John Mullins points out that many successful start-ups don’t go with their initial idea or even its back up. Plan D or Plan E is as likely to reap dividends as the long nurtured plan A. A willingness to move on when the initial business model doesn’t work is often the mark of a true entrepreneur. “At first we focused on giving students and graduates information. Then we offered them jobs so they would stay with us,” Gacek explains. Grupa Pracuj was reinvented.
As an online recruitment service, the business began to take off. “We were able to learn very fast because we travelled a lot. We went to all the countries in Europe: to Totaljobs in the UK, Irishjobs in Ireland, StepStone in Belgium, many different places,” Gacek recalls. “The biggest differentiator between us and our competitors was that we were learning from them but they were not learning from us. Tis surprised us, but it was more a question of attitude. We really learned best practices and began trying to put all those things together here. Then we started growing.”
From 2000 until 2007, Grupa Pracuj grew frenetically at rates of 80 and 90 per cent every year. The website had to be rewritten every two years to keep up with demand as numbers visiting and using the site increased at similarly spectacular rates.
In 2006 the New York-based private equity firm Tiger Global invested in the company. Ownership of Grupa Pracuj remains with Przemek Gacek and the firm. In the same year Grupa Pracuj bought the Ukrainian website rabota.ua to develop its online recruitment business. It then expanded into Russia. The Ukrainian business has developed but the Russian experience proved salutary. Grupa Pracuj spent two years investing heavily in its business there before having to shut it down.
As the company grew, Gacek and his team developed their skills. “When we started, obviously we did everything, like going to the post, sending the invoices. I was selling. I was doing 70 or 80 per cent of everything for the first three or four years,” he recalls. “But I think then you go through the changes. First of all, you cannot do everything on your own. I had to learn how to delegate and how to work with a very diverse group of people. For me, the sign of a good growing company is when I go for vacation for two weeks and no one calls me. I didn’t want the company to depend on me so much.
“When the company was six of us, I tried to think about what would happen when we had 20 people. When we were 20 I was thinking about 50 people, what we would do organisationally, what the key responsibilities would be. Then about 100 and about 200. After 200 it’s so complicated! Now, I’m not really thinking what will happen when we have 1,000 people or more, I just try to make sure that lots of very small detailed things are working properly.”
The global recession slowed down the company’s headlong growth and provided new challenges. In 2008 Grupa Pracuj grew by 70 per cent; in 2009 the business shrank by 25 per cent. In a single year its thinking moved from growth to retrenchment. Some people left the company and the Russian adventure was cut short. At one point on a cold January day in Warsaw, the company was down to its final €100.
Concerned, but undeterred, Gacek and his team set about cutting costs and professionalising how the company was managed. He joined the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) and began attending its programmes around the world to acquire new management skills. For Gacek and his management team it was eye-opening. “For the first seven years, we were not a very professional organisation,” he admits. “In 2008, the management team was in the US and the topic was market segmentation. We were asked to segment our markets. We just sat there and thought, ‘We don’t have any segmentation’.” That was the moment when the second phase started, when we began learning and started putting lots of professional systems – segmentation, pricing, all these kind of things – into the organisation to tune its performance.” It is no coincidence that since 2010 Grupa Pracuj has been growing at annual rates of between 20 and 40 per cent.
Grupa Pracuj is soon to launch a new product called emplo, which will offer HR management software on a global basis. It marks another stage in the company’s evolution. In September 2013, managerial responsibility for the main business was handed over to a new team. This gives Gacek the opportunity to travel extensively seeing feedback and input into the new brand. “I’m trying to enjoy being CEO of a business with a bigger infrastructure without being operationally involved and being more entrepreneurial with the new venture. I want to avoid the trap of disengagement,” he says. “So I’m still there for the people from the main business. We talk, have meetings and look at KPIs, but I’m not really controlling them so much operationally. I am putting my heart and ideas into this more entrepreneurial venture.” For Przemek Gacek, the balance is the thing.
Przemek Gacek is founder and CEO of Grupa Pracuj, online recruitment expert and a leading provider of technological solutions for HR departments.