For Jessica Williams, aged 30, the catalyst for starting her business was disbelief at what she describes as an “often unbelievably antiquated” secretarial recruitment industry.
With agencies making money by placing highly skilled, yet frequently undervalued PAs who are often superficially assessed based on the way they look, dress and speak, the Sidekicks London Founder is challenging the status quo.
Please give us an introduction to yourself and your business:
My name is Jessica Williams. I was a PA for over a decade and I now run Sidekicks: a London-based company supplying exceptional support talent. We provide Assistants, Receptionists, Administrators and front of house talent – the crucial backbone of support to founders, entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes, across all sectors, all over the world.
We launched in January 2016 and are now a team of eight; we’ve rapidly established ourselves as a disruptive presence within the very traditional secretarial recruitment market.
What inspired you to start a business?
As a PA, I became frustrated by what I saw as the old-fashioned attitude towards administrative worker, and I wanted to do something positive to change that. I felt that our profession deserved a recruiter who genuinely understood and championed the role of support talent as critical to business, rather than seeing it as some sort of fallback career.
Describe your typical workday.
I don’t have one! At Sidekicks our internal culture is based around flexibility and trust – many of our team are working parents so everyone fits their business around their lives. If I’m going into the office first thing, I leave the house at 5am which means that I get to the office just before six. This gives me a head start on the day and means I can leave before the evening rush hour. Sometimes I leave later and work late. If I don’t have any meetings I try to work from home as I can just get my head down and I find I’m more productive when I don’t have the hassle of the commute!
What is the greatest challenge and the greatest reward in being your own boss?
The greatest challenge for me has been learning to maintain an extraordinarily high level of self-reliance. There’s no fallback – you can’t just do a nine-to-five and leave your work behind you when you go home. If you underperform there is nowhere to hide, no excuses, no backup. You do not just constantly have to steer your own ship, but also that of the wider business and the people who work within it, too. It’s a lot of pressure but it’s also in itself the greatest reward – being your own boss means that you have to rely on yourself and nobody else, and it can teach you a tremendous amount about your personal capacity for resilience. We’re often an awful lot stronger than we think we are.
What motivational tips can you give to our members about goal setting and managing both successes and failures:
The way I set my goals is a bit strange but it works for me. Four times a year, on the quarter day (or as close to it as possible) I buy a ticket to go to the top of the Shard. I stand up there for an hour or so and look at the view, and I ask myself what’s worrying me at that moment, what concerns do I have about the business, what challenges are we facing? Then, I imagine myself standing in the same place, looking at the same view, on the next quarter day, and ask myself how I want to feel then. I then have a clear idea of where I want to be, and all I need to do is extrapolate my goals from that to ensure I’m always travelling in the right direction. The sense of physical perspective that I gain being so high above London always resets my mental perspective and helps me see obstacles in a very different light. I’d recommend it.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a business owner?
Realising the number of other businesses that routinely do not pay their bills on time! Seriously – it shocked me. I believe it’s probably one of the single biggest factors that contribute to small businesses failing within the first year. I find it staggering that so many companies (and I’m not talking small businesses here – often it’s global organisations that are the worst) routinely agree to 30-day payments terms and then delay payment for months and months. If you can’t rely on adherence to payment terms it makes any sort of reliable financial forecasting very difficult, and cash-flow issues are often the number one reason for good small businesses having to shut up shop. It’s a huge problem – one which thankfully we’re no longer exposed to, but I know a lot of other small business owners who are.
How have you benefited from mentoring or coaching?
I used to have an amazing mentor called Katie Booth. She is one of the leading lights of our industry – we were introduced by a mutual friend on Twitter when I first founded Sidekicks, and she started mentoring me soon afterwards. Her advice and support, in the form of weekly phone calls, was absolutely invaluable to me during those first few crucial months of the business. I found the process so beneficial I hired her – Katie is now our Director of Operations, and she has brought enormous value to Sidekicks.
I am a huge fan of mentoring and I ask for help and advice from other people wherever possible. I’ve learned that it’s amazing what people are wiling to help you with if you just ask politely! Other mentors have included Nash Islam and Robin Doble from Vallie, the on-demand parking app – it’s been so inspirational to learn from really accomplished business people doing amazing things in the tech space. In turn, I now mentor women seeking to return to work after treatment for addiction and eating disorders as part of our Work to Recover scheme.
No matter who you are or what you do you can always learn something from someone else if you’re willing to listen.
What advice can you give about the benefits of networking?
Too often I think people are scared of networking – it’s probably the name! We ought to just call it ‘talking to people’. Networking is often seen as this big skill that needs to be learned. In reality, it’s so simple, it’s just about getting out there and engaging with your customers, your clients, your peers within your industry. It’s the best way to truly keep your fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in your market and it’s amazing what you can learn from other business owners if you work together and are wiling to talk to your competitors. Never turn down an invitation – you never know where it might lead!
What are your tips for scaling a business and how do you plan for and manage growth? What does the future hold for you?
We’ve experienced fantastic growth – we’ve gone from one to eight staff in the last ten months and we’ve just closed a round of funding which will see us bringing an incredible new product to market next year – this will obviously mean further growth. A critical concern for me at this stage is to ensure that our growth is truly sustainable, that it’s underpinned by our original ethos and that as we expand we continue to reflect the values and integrity which the brand was founded upon in the first place.
In terms of the future for Sidekicks – we’ve all got very ambitious plans for the business, but we try not to set our growth plans in concrete. Key to our long-term success is going to be ensuring that we retain a lean, responsive attitude and that we’re able to adapt quickly to changes within our market. It’s all very exciting but we have to keep our feet firmly on the ground and ensure that we’re still delivering the impeccable quality of service that we’ve become known for and that we concentrate on the basics: placing fantastic candidates with fantastic clients. That’s all that actually matters.
For further information see www.Sidekicks.london, @LondonSidekicks