As freshmen in college at George Mason University in 2003, Brandon Labman and Tom Moore's mutual part-time employer asked them to refer other students to fill some empty jobs. They did, and received glowing praise from their employer for the recommendations. The duo put two and two together, and started a staffing company called ROCS (Responsible Outgoing College Students). The idea was simple: Match students or recent college grads with employers looking for entry-level jobs. Today, ROCS is a go-to staffing company in the Washington, D.C., metro area, and has seen an 800 percent jump in revenue growth over the past three years. But the founders discovered an unlikely key to success in a niche market: knowing when to turn down opportunities. Labman and Moore talk with Inc.com's Nicole Carter about starting-up in an unfamiliar industry, being student entrepreneurs, and how they learned to say "no."
So you guys started this company with no experience in the staffing industry?
B.L.: That's right. We were kinda scratching our heads at first. As students ourselves, we knew it was hard to find a job or get any kind of work that matched up—at least somewhat—with what our career goals were. And the same went for recent graduates looking for their first job. There was something missing there. So after that first experience, we started picking up the phone and cold-calling companies. We asked them if they would be interested in us finding them qualified employees for jobs in the zero-to-five years experience category, both full- and part-time.
But I think not knowing how the staffing industry worked helped us out. We just did things that made sense to us. Our pricing was and still is transparent (we charge a fee to employers and it is free to students).
T.M.: It started from scratch. We would come back from vacation, and write the names of companies down as we drove past their buildings as potential employers to call the next week. It was that basic.
Didn't running a company interfere with your own academics?
B.L.: Not really. We were fortunate to not have to financially rely on this company. We could take it slow. We tried to really build it. We took our time. But, sure, there were times that we missed the Thursday night happy hours to stay home and work.
B.L.: Once we graduated, we really started looking at this more seriously. We hit our stride and started to expand.
How do you build a strong candidate pool?
T.M.: We have formed really solid relationships with the colleges in our area, like Virginia Tech and American University. But we take it one step further and form relationships not just with the career services departments, but with individual professors at these colleges.
How do you compete with other recruiters on these campuses?
T.M.: We don't. Our goal is to not turn into one of these huge staffing companies that swoop in with a lot of promises of huge salaries, post fake jobs, and never actually deal face-to-face with both sides of the business. We meet students and employers in person. This is especially important when you are dealing with less-experienced candidate pool. We want both the employer and the job-seeker to match up perfectly. And, you know, sometimes we have to say "no."
What do you mean say, "No?"
T.M.: At first, we were willing to find anyone a job anywhere. But once we honed in on the entry-level world, our business grew. By just sticking to entry-level, it is easier for everyone within the company to understand and execute our mission—from marketing to client relationships. We now have five in-house employees, and every one of them knows our mission and can clearly tell you what it is. We stand for something. Once we focused in on that, employers started coming to us, which is the mark of success to me.
B.L.: We also say "no" sometimes in order to maintain quality control. A good example of this was when a big retail company asked us to help fill a large amount of commission-based jobs. It meant a lot of money for us, but as we started putting the package together, we realized this wasn't the best thing for the job-seeker. So we said no, and now we don't deal with commission-based jobs at all.
T.M.: As long as we stay true to our mission, the company has and will grow. That's that.