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Interview: Steve Grace, Founder & CEO of The Nudge Group

Nudge Group founder & CEO, Steve Grace, had a chat with us recruiting for start-ups and scale-ups, building a global company culture, and how he avoids burn-out.

by hao-nguyen on October 11, 2021

Steve Grace is the founder & CEO of The Nudge Group, a recruitment agency he started in 2019 to help start-ups and scale-ups grow and expand globally.

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Great to have you as part of this interview series Steve! You spend most of your time interviewing start-up and scale-up founders for Give It A Nudge, now it’s time to flip the questions onto you. For those who don’t know about your story, can you give us a little background on The Nudge Group and your inspiration behind the idea?

Great question! Like most founders, I experienced something that bothered me, and I wanted to do something about it. I had started and exited two successful recruitment companies and I was at a stage where I did not want to do that again. I had lost faith in the industry and honestly did not want to have anything to do with it. However after 6 months of looking at other types of businesses I kept coming back to recruitment. 

You just couldn’t stay away!

I loved working in this industry for so long, well over 20 years, and it was really only the last 12 months when I started disliking it. Coming back to recruitment, I wanted to do something for this industry that had given me so much. 

How did you decide to focus on recruiting for start-ups and scale-ups?

I’ve always loved start-ups and scale-ups, especially since I started two myself (three if you count one massive failure), but I also knew that the recruitment industry did not love start-ups, and vice versa. To me, that was simply total madness – this was the one sector that needed outside help more than any other ones.

So you saw an opportunity there.

I sat around and listed all the things that I knew start-ups hated about recruiters. I also rang a few founders I knew and learned a fair few more things I wasn’t even aware of that they hated about us. I also wrote another list of all the reasons why recruiters did not enjoy working with start-ups, and there I had it – my business idea.

All I had to do then was work through those issues and come up with a solution to those problems, then look at what problems my solutions would create, and come up with solutions for those. I kept repeating that process until, hey presto, we had our first version of The Nudge Group.

It wasn’t long before you launched that you hired the first person on the team. With The Nudge Group being a start-up, and you working with so many founders, what do you think are the most important qualities you look for when hiring someone to join a start-up? 

Wow, I think I get asked this more than any other question. I think it is important to understand the difference between a start-up vs. a scale-up and everything in between because it makes a huge difference to this answer.

If you think about Nudge specifically, being under 10 people, and the fact that I hired Dayna within six months of starting, then the number one most important thing has to be culture fit. But even that is a loose answer because the first few people you hire will determine the culture.

At this stage of a business, you need to hire people who have multiple skills and who enjoy working in an ambiguous environment where projects and responsibilities change on a daily basis. I believe ethics and their belief in what we’re trying to achieve are so essential at this stage, far beyond skillset. These early hires will really have a huge impact on the type of business you become, so you need to think about what you want that to look like, and make sure you hire people who match your vision. 

It can be incredibly but also very stressful at this stage, so having a sense of humour is important. They also need to be self-motivated as we all have to work together to push through to the next stage of the business. If possible, hire someone you know, or have worked with before – this makes the early years much easier, as there will be fewer surprises. You get enough of those already. 

As the company grows and you get funding, or expand, then the type of people you hire will change massively, depending on what stage you’re at. But that’s a question for another day. 

You’ve spent most of your life launching and growing businesses. I know every business is unique in its own way, but what do you think are the most common traits for success?

Well, it’s no secret. Everyone knows the road to success, the reality is that very few people are willing to actually do it. To start off with, there needs to be a market or way of creating one. Then it really comes down to three main things:

  1. You have to believe. I cannot stress this enough. I am a strong advocate of this – whatever you’re trying to achieve, whether it’s launching a new business, a jump on your bike, a new PB on your run, writing a book, you first and foremost have to believe you will be able to get there. It might take longer than you think (in fact it definitely will take longer than you think), but you have to believe without question you can do it. This is probably the hardest out of three things.
  2. The second thing, which no-one likes to do, is doing the work, pure and simple. You need to work harder than you thought, you need to work when you don’t want to, and you need to do it for far longer than you thought. It is tough, but if you have the belief, it makes everything a lot easier. Most success stories look back with fondness on this. 
  3. Lastly, you need to have the right people around you. The ones who are honest with you when you’re being a dick (every business owner is at times), and the ones who can do the things that you’re bad at. It is so important to figure out early on what you’re not great at, and get someone else to do it as soon as you can afford to.

There are plenty of other things that contribute to a business’ success, but without these three, you are doomed in my opinion. 

Like you said, when you’re building up a business you need to put in a lot of hours. So what are some of the things you do to avoid burning out and make sure you’re able to operate at a high level for the long-term? 

This isn’t one of my strong points, but I have got far better at this. There are times when you simply have to push yourself to the limit, and that’s ok as long as it’s not for a sustained amount of time. You need to have the ability to go to this level, but it shouldn’t be the norm. 

The main thing for me is exercise. This can be swimming, running, training at the gym, mountain biking, kayaking, I’m learning how to kiteboard (slowley). Generally I like to do things with others as I am a very social person but there are plenty of times when I really just need to exercise on my own. Other times, a kayak with the kids around the harbour, or a walk with my wife, that is what I need to lift me up, especially when I need to feel grateful.

I love food, just love it, so eating for me is important. I try to eat clean for most of the week and then I spend a few days (usually the weekend) just eating what I love with good wine and hanging out with friends. Like I said, I’m very social so having this is important to me.  

Lastly, and this is my biggest weakness, is sleep. I have been educated on the importance of sleep – my personal trainer and books like Why We Sleep have taught me a lot and I am getting better at it. I use a WHOOP band which measures all my stats – heart rate, calories, sleep, skin temperature, etc.

My personal trainer can also see these stats, and this helps me stay aware of what I’m doing. It’s an amazing device and it has changed my life, along with my trainer Lachy Rowston and the team from LOCKEROOM. They have probably been the biggest influencer of change in my life since I started The Nudge Group.

As The Nudge Group has grown from just you, to two people, to now almost 10 people on the team, how has your role as the CEO evolved? 

Great question. The answer is: not as much as it should have. We’re at a very tricky stage of the business at the moment, where I’m still working in the business. At the same time, my role has become so much bigger, we have outsourced accounting, we have an Operations Manager starting in a month or so, we have launched in four countries, and we have lots more staff onboard.  

Right now, I’m still recruiting, which I’m trying to get away from. We’re looking to hire more people, so that my time can be spent on launching new initiatives like Nudge Remote. We also have four other initiatives we want to launch as part of Nudge over the next 24 months, which I won’t get into now. 

I’ve also been doing a lot of talks to different start-up and scale-up groups. I’ve become involved with incubators and very happy to say I’ve joined the Antler Group as an Antler Angel. I also spend a lot of time with our Head of Content, Hao, on several different projects and ideas around content marketing and PR. We’ve just launched a new website, recently ramped up the production and promotion of our podcast, Give It A Nudge, and discussing how we grow our recently acquired work-life balance digital publication, Balance the Grind.  

With our international expansion, I’ve also been spending a lot of time learning new laws and regulations, setting up entities and meeting new partners in different countries. We are now heading into a real period of strategic planning, something we’re working on with KPMG High Growth Ventures, which is very exciting. We have workshops planned together to create a clear roadmap so everyone at Nudge has a clear understanding of where we’re headed.  

Lastly, I still speak to every Nudge employee every day. It’s just something I love to do, having a chat and staying connected with our team on a regular basis. We also have a function on our website where anyone in the world can book some time in my diary to talk about anything. We’ve had a great response from this, so I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to lots of different people about a variety of topics.

Speaking of staying connected with your team, with remote working on the rise, what sort of things do you do to create a company culture when you’re working with people from all over the globe?

I’m still trying to figure this out. I think first and foremost, I make myself available for everyone who is remote, and as much as possible, at a time that suits them. I will make sure we speak as often as possible, or whatever works for them. Some people like to talk multiple times a day, others a few times a week. 

We have a couple of planned team meetings throughout the week where everyone has an opportunity to get online and catch-up with each other. We don’t have to talk about work, it’s just a way to stay connected with each other in a relaxed environment. The team uses Slack a lot throughout their day, which is an easy, relaxed channel, and the group chats ensure people from different time zones don’t miss anything. Recently we all did a trivia night with everyone on the team, through one of our clients, Remote Social, which was fun during these lockdown months. 

Our Director, Carlie, also hosted her own trivia night for the team, which was awesome!

Definitely. Then there are things we do to create a sense of tribe, like making sure we have the same computers in Australia, as we do in the UK and Singapore, making sure the website photos all have the same background and style to them. These might be small things but I believe they’re important in creating a company culture and feeling like a team. 

It’s a work in progress though, and we’re all still learning, especially since we’re so small and distributed across the globe. If anyone who is reading this has some ideas, I would love to hear from you. I don’t think we’re where I want us to be yet, in terms of our company culture, but the simple fact that we’re trying is probably one of the most important things. 

So moving onto the start-up and scale-up industry, what are some of the most exciting trends that you’re seeing in the space right now?

Wow, what a big question! We are extremely lucky, I get to meet new founders every week, and they all have ideas and companies that do something I’ve never heard of before. It’s very inspiring and exciting – this is exactly why I love my job and why we do what we do. 

Let’s start with scale-ups. What I’m really seeing here is that there are an increasing number of scale-ups who are taking on the world and launching into Europe, Asia and the US. This has been amazing, particularly because we’ve been able to help these scale-ups go global, and in return expand globally ourselves. There has been more funding coming in from VCs, which has given Australian start-ups a platform to move into scale-up phase and expand worldwide. This is happening more and more often, which is awesome.

From a start-up perspective, I think we’re seeing less of a concentration on business-focused companies like FinTechs, RegTechs, PropTechs, MedTechs, and a lot more founders wanting to have a positive impact through AI. I think COVID changed the way a lot of people view their lives, and they’re now driven to do things they might not have otherwise done, which is an amazing side effect of this pandemic. 

We’re also seeing an increasing number of people who are wanting to work for a start-up, as it can offer them an opportunity to have a huge impact on a business that a corporation simply cannot offer. The biggest issue here is making sure these people transition into a start-up or scale-up at the right point of the business cycle that suits their personality and skill set. But that’s a whole other topic. I am always happy to talk about this as I feel quite strongly about making sure people are joining businesses at the right stage to suit their personality. 

Now before we let you get back to work, let’s turn the spotlight on Nudge. What are some projects that you’re really excited about? 

We’ve already touched on the international expansion, which we’ll continue to do. We are going to continue growing Give It A Nudge and Balance the Grind, and promoting them to a wider audience. We’ve also launched Nudge Remote to help companies build teams in locations like Vietnam, Malaysian and the Philippines. 

I’ve also got a few projects in their early stages – Nudge Me, which will be our education platform; Nudge Early, which will address a huge problem around employee stock ownership plans (ESOP); and Nudge Grad, which will link graduates with start-ups. We have lots of exciting things happening right now, so watch out for all these projects launching in the near future!

Thanks for the epic interview Steve, that was great! We’ll let you get back to all those exciting projects you mentioned.

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