Twenty years ago, Cassandra Sanford and a couple of colleagues sketched out a business plan on a napkin. Incredibly optimistic about their idea, they left their corporate positions at Boeing and leaped whole-heartedly into entrepreneurship.

They founded KellyMitchell, a technical staffing firm that connects IT professionals with Fortune 500 companies searching for high-tech talent. Today, their firm has grown to include offices in 17 cities and 2,000 IT consultants providing technical expertise to numerous businesses.

Here, Sanford shares four key factors that helped drive KellyMitchell’s evolution from startup to success story — tips that could help drive your idea to fruition, too.

  1. KNOW YOUR NICHE

    When we first came up with the idea for this business, I was working in the IT division at Boeing in St. Louis, where we were struggling to find talented technical people to hire. My colleagues in the engineering department were having the same challenges. So, we were confident that there was a market opportunity for a company with expertise in finding and placing IT folks within big corporations. From the start, we intentionally sought Fortune 500 companies. We were familiar with their needs because we experienced them firsthand at Boeing. As a small business, we knew we could be flexible when large corporations couldn't. And we knew we could count on big companies to pay their bills!

  2. RECRUIT TRAITS, NOT TITLES

    No matter which industry you work in, there are certain traits that every firm is looking for – drive, intelligence, intuitiveness and strong work ethic. For a service-based business like ours, there are additional, very specific traits that we want in the people we hire. At KellyMitchell, we look for motivated individuals that possess a high level of accountability and an even higher level of customer service. In the beginning, we leveraged our networks to say, "These are the types of people that we're looking for. Who do you know that would be a fit, regardless of their background or their industry?" Relying on our credible human link worked well. Later, we began to tap online communities looking for people who were already in the technology field and were lifelong learners looking to further develop their skill sets.

  3. MITIGATE RISK

    People often perceive entrepreneurs as significant risk takers, but I'm quite the opposite. In fact, I believe I'm a successful entrepreneur because I know how to mitigate risk — maybe because I’m an attorney by trade, living and working in this innovative tech world. Even though we've had our share of fast, exponential growth, our primary focus is on consistent, sustainable, low-risk growth, and we build our operations keeping that top of mind.

  4. HAVE EMPATHY

    Life [outside of work] happens — we get it! If an employee in one of our offices gets a call from school because their child is sick, they have options. Whatever they need to do, it can likely be arranged. Work/life integration is important to us, and in situations such as this, it’s helpful that most of the work we do can be completed remotely. From another perspective, if one of our technical consultants is looking for a six-month job with the summer off to be with his or her kids or bike across the country [or check off whatever may be on their bucket list] — fine. Such employment gaps won't negatively impact their eligibility or consideration for the next assignment. Bottom line – we understand that flexibility is essential to most employees these days and we’ve built a work-hard/play-hard culture that embraces that reality.

THE RESULT

While we didn’t consciously set out to heavy-handedly hire women, I believe our approach — particularly our focus on hiring traits rather than titles and our reliance on the human link concept — naturally developed this way over time. Presently, 75 percent of our operational staff is female, 70 percent of our leaders are women, and 53 percent of our 2000 consultants — data scientists, developers and project managers — are women.

There's so much growth opportunity at our fingertips, and we've set ourselves up to take full advantage. We know our employees and our customers. We hire the right talent. We don't pursue unnecessary risks, and we strive to be flexible and empathetic. Collectively, that’s our recipe for success.

Cassandra Sanford is a client of Northwestern Mutual. She works with Wealth Management Advisor Christopher Koon.

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