Go to Menu So, You Want to Be A Headhunter?
By Nick Corcodilos

Everyone seems to think they can get rich quick in the headhunting business. One woman wrote me to say she and her brother were going to buy some hardware and software, get on the Net, charge people to post their resumes, and charge companies to access them. She wanted to know how long it would take before this "headhunting business" became profitable. Uh, right.

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There's a reason why you won't find any good books about how to become a headhunter. It's an apprenticeship business. You learn how to do it by working with seasoned headhunters. The trouble is, there are more fly-by-night headhunters than there are stable, successful ones who really know the business. To get started, you need to find a good firm where you can learn the business by doing it under the tutelage of an experienced headhunter.

The Find-A-Job Agency
Most headhunting firms are like multi-level marketing schemes. These are the guys who give the business a bad name. The owners likely jumped in without any experience and think they can succeed by chewing up and spitting out as many recruiters as it takes to "get the business rolling".

Their idea of finding clients is to read the want ads and submit unsolicited resumes to companies that are hiring. Their idea of recruiting candidates is to buy mailing lists and run ads to solicit resumes from anyone who's desperate enough to want their services. Or, they create a boiler room where recruiters call hundreds of "potential candidates" in an essentially random effort to scarf up any resumes they can, so they can ship these wholesale to their "clients".

These firms soon realize that headhunting isn't a boiler-room kind of business. It isn't "dialing for dollars". Such companies quickly burn through any funding they've got, and they operate by the skin of their teeth. Consequently, you'll find that many of them bring on new recruiters by bending the IRS's independent contractor rules. That is, they don't hire you. They retain you and pay you when you close a deal. These firms won't give you benefits. In fact, they probably won't be in business next year because the owners will move on -- to the coin-op laundromat business.

The Scrappy Small Firm
The next class of search firms: they're relatively young, marginally successful, and will actually put you on their payroll. Benefits will be skimpy and your pay will be a draw against commission, but the commission plan will be aggressive. The owner views you more as a partner than an employee, and the expectation is that if you perform well enough to keep your job, you will earn more than enough to pay for your own benefits.

Typically, a young headhunting firm is the result of a pretty good headhunter leaving a bigger firm and striking out on his own. By starting his own business he expects he'll keep more of the profit, and maybe bring on a few people to handle more clients. He quickly learns it's very difficult to hire good headhunters or to train green ones. If he's a good manager, he'll do okay, but the business will likely face cash flow problems most of the time.

If you're a new hire in such a firm, the owner's risks become yours. However, if you can get enough of the owner's time, you can learn the business and maybe spin off your own business in a couple of years. If the owner is smart, he'll make you a partner and you'll stick around.

The Search Firm That's Run Like A Business
The better firms, which have been around longer and have weathered difficult times, will offer more complete benefits, better training, a good commission plan and job security. This is a sign that they know what they're doing, and that they'll probably be around for a while. These firms may be small or they may be big. In either case, they're run by seasoned headhunters who are also good businesspeople. The best ones can offer more than one kind of job. You may be hired as a headhunter, as a researcher, or in any of several support roles from which you can rise to become a headhunter. What all these firms have in common is that they select new hires carefully and they diligently train the people they hire by assigning them to partner with successful members of the team.

Making A Choice
You can find out which firms are worth working for by talking to the owner, the employees, the clients and the people the firm has placed. A complete reference check is essential before you jump in. If anything seems "off", there's probably a problem. The most common problem is poor cash flow.

(One insider tip: Beware of firms that claim they've been in business for many years. Often, the business has been sold again and again, and what's really ten years old is the name, not the expertise of the owner.)

You will find the best firms by talking to companies in the industry you want to hunt in. The names of good search firms will be on the lips of good managers who work in good companies. These search firms will be ones that specialize and get repeat business. These are the firms you should approach.

When you're applying for a position, be careful about emphasizing your concerns about benefits too soon. Even firms that offer good benefits are looking for people who are willing to take risks and who are more hungry for success than security. The best benefit in a search firm is a mentor who will teach you the business -- that's how you'll grow your earnings.

One caution: I really do believe that while you can teach someone how to be a headhunter, the best, most successful headhunters have a knack for the business. You'll learn pretty quickly whether it's the business for you. But that's another discussion. Suffice it to say that headhunting can pay well, but it's a lot of hard work.

People think they can make a lot of money as headhunters. That's true. But, like any legitimate job where you can make lots of money, there's no easy path. It takes time, perseverance, study, practice, enthusiasm, the guidance of other good headhunters (this really is an apprenticeship business), and a very hard head. Most people never earn much, and quickly get out of the business.

The best compensation plans, which in my opinion produce the best headhunters, are heavily commission-based. While this may seem questionable as you're starting out, the best incentive to learing this business is a getting a huge check right after you close a deal. If you've got to pay back a "draw" (a small, refundable "salary" to keep you afloat while you get started), you'll never enjoy the incredible high of that incredible reward. It's that high that keeps you going and turns you into a good headhunter. A draw can be a kind of indentured servitude: you owe so much that you can't get out of the hole. That kills your motivation and the likelihood that you'll learn the business.

Remember that headhunting is a specialized kind of sales: you will hear "no" much more often than "yes". Most people who fail at headhunting can't stand hearing "no", and they can't believe what hard work this business is.

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