Today is a big day for Debut – it’s our second birthday, and what a milestone birthday it is. Within just 24 short months we’ve grown to a team of over 20, sent over 1,000,000 Talent Spots to tens of thousands of bright young minds and made headlines with our Fight for Feedback campaign.
We’re naturally very proud of how far we’ve come and everything we’ve achieved, but none of it would have been possible without CEO and founder of Debut, Charlie Taylor. And behind every great Founder is an even greater Co-Founder (so we’ve been told…) – the one and only Michele Trusolino, COO of the company.
So today, on Debut’s second birthday (and what a birthday it is) we took some time out to speak with Charlie and Michele to discuss their experience of entering the start-up space and Debut’s journey.
So first things first, where did the idea for Debut stem from?
Charlie Taylor (CT): The idea stemmed from my experience at university. It was in the middle of the recession when I started frantically applying for graduate programmes, and I thought to myself this is very strange – I would open my phone and I was able to tap away at apps to order pizza, hail taxis, check my banking, date… Everything was accessible from our phones.
So when I started to apply for positions I thought it was really weird how multiple opportunities were accessible from our pockets, but when it came to careers they weren’t. That is where the spark of the idea came from.
How did this then develop from that initial idea into a tangible concept?
CT: When I finished university and went to work at EY, I met the head of recruitment and after having worked there for a couple of years I asked him, “How are you reaching the most mobile generation in the world, students, through their phones?” and he said simply, “We’re not.”
That’s when I thought back to when I was applying for those roles and my idea. I thought about the entry-level workforce being left to search job boards or attend careers fairs and events, and I saw it as an area that was ripe for disruption.
Michele, how did things start for you at Debut?
Michele Trusolino (MT): My background is in finance and in the beginning of 2014 I decided I wanted to go into start-ups and the world of entrepreneurs. I started looking with friends and attending start-up events to see if there was anything that would interest me from an ideas standpoint. One day someone in my network calls me and says he knows this young guy who has a great idea, but he’s on his own and he could do with some help…
So I met Charlie for lunch and he told me about Debut. I got really invested when Charlie was talking to me early on about how the graduate recruitment industry didn’t work. I asked how big companies go about attracting students and young talent today, and he said they put jobs on job boards, or go to uni and do a presentation, or do career fairs. And I thought those are exactly the same things they were doing 12-15 years ago when I graduated – how is it possible that nothing has changed?
Between when I graduated and now, on the technology side there has been a quite literal revolution – and yet on the student recruitment side nothing has changed. For me that is when I thought we need to do this, and we need to do it now.
What was the initial process of starting Debut like?
CT: The head of recruitment at EY started to mentor me; I thought it would be quite cool if we put together a website, but worked out I needed about £10,000 to do so. I was really against borrowing money from family or friends, so I started to formalise my idea and one evening I went to meet some investors and pitch my idea. Debut then was nothing like it is today and I had no experience of pitching an idea, and I didn’t really get any traction.
I looked online for the head of the Federation of Small Businesses and I phoned him constantly for weeks and weeks, and he kept turning me down. Eventually he said maybe you should come and meet my wife, she’s an entrepreneur. So I went to meet her at Kings Cross train station. I put together a business plan and she said “I’m going to invest in you.”
My stomach dropped and then my life significantly changed, and I felt for the first time ever that someone believed in me and in my idea. That was the first round of investment, which then allowed us to launch.
Where did the name Debut come from?
CT: Interestingly it wasn’t the original name – the original name started off as Prep4S, when the product was actually positioned as something to help young people ‘prepare for selection.’
But then I thought about the whole premise of Debut, which is disrupting the market. I felt the name needed to reflect that we want to push boundaries; it needs to sound fresh and brand new.
I came up with Debut because it reflects how the product works: the employer comes to you. It’s like if you were in a stadium, and you go through the turnstiles and you hear the noise of the crowd – and that’s the world of employment. Then you move into the field and everyone is looking at you; you’ve just graduated, you’ve got your degree and you’re quite literally making your Debut… And that was it.
How does your working day at the beginning of Debut compare to your working day now?
CT: Initially it was quite scary and quite lonely – for the first time in four years I was at home by myself, all my flatmates had gone to work and I hadn’t got any traction yet. I was sat there thinking, “I’ve just resigned from a great job, where I just qualified all my exams, and I’m launching an app, which I’ve never done before.”
So at the beginning, 100% of my time was on product – building the idea, constantly changing it, meeting respective and existing clients and taking on all of their feedback. It was constantly evolving and also included doing a lot of the nitty-gritty stuff, like the tax, insurance, legal and data protection work that comes with starting a business.
Fast-forward two years and now I would say my time is broken into attracting and hiring the best talent to come and work here, raising more investment and looking for new opportunities for the business to expand in.
MT: It’s changed completely because it went from three people to 21. I’ve always been a bit of a problem fixer, so I tend to work a lot behind the scenes and make sure that everything else works.
More specifically I look after a lot more things to do with legal, finance and operations now – and I do a lot less product work. I remember it was me who picked the colour orange for the app, because it’s a very trustworthy colour.
Two years’ on is very different and I hope I’m seen as a culture carrier of the business and help create and maintain that. I talk about strategy a lot and I try to make sure we stay true to what we want to do and our vision.
Why has the process of getting the right personnel been so important to you?
CT: When I started the business I quite naively felt that a team would just happen, and it wasn’t a major thing – and I couldn’t be further from the truth.
Very early on you have to pick the right team and you have to hire people who are very different from you. The more support you can get in the areas you’re not good at, the stronger you become, which means you get better customers and a better service experience. With that you get better results, which means you get better investment, which means the business grows faster so you can increase your market share. It all comes down to the team.
MT: It’s the most important thing ever. Our main aim to to help the students and recent graduates, but without the team there is nothing. It doesn’t matter how many Debutants we have if there is no one behind the vision.
What are the key traits you look for in people to join the Debut team?
MT: I always like to hire someone that I can go for a beer with, because that means that person is more aligned with you and how you feel and think.
For Debut we value honesty and not taking ourselves too seriously. There’s a lot of banter (maybe too much!), but it’s about making jokes and being able to laugh at ourselves. I think that’s important.
Also as we are a small company we want people to be committed and at the same time to care about what we’re doing and the bigger vision of the company.
Did you think you’d get this far within such a short amount of time?
CT: No, never. Ignoring the stats for a moment, more important than the numbers of hires, Talent Spots sent etc. is who works at Debut. The quality of those people, the number of customers we have and how happy they are is testament to how far we’ve come.
Also for me the biggest thing is the app – in two years we’ve built an Apple iOS app, we’ve built an Android app, we’ve built an entire platform for employers, we’ve built mobile games, a live streaming service and we’re about to launch psychometric assessments.
And the customers we have speak for themselves. We went against the grain and we’ve now got 50 multinational paying clients, and I never ever expected that.
MT: No I didn’t think we would get this far, but to be honest I didn’t have any alternative in mind. When I look around, sometimes I force myself to take a step back and look at everything we have achieved, and I think “Wow, this is impressive” – but I would never have expected to get this big this quick.
A lot has changed for Debut within the last 24 months – could you tell us about your proudest moment during this time?
CT: I don’t have just one proud moment; some of my proudest moments include raising that first round of investment, and (don’t tell him this) finding and hiring Michele. And I would say closing the biggest deal with our top paying client. That would be up there.
I would also say breaking away from my career and taking a step into the unknown; whether that was being a bit of an idiot or being brave, I don’t know.
MT: I’m proud of everything we’ve done here. Certainly a big milestone has been the fundraising, that was a very big external confirmation of what we’re doing.
What I’m proud of everyday is that we have a lot of students and recent graduates using our app – this week we hit a peak for the most ever unique daily users and we’ve just broken 1,000,000 Talent Spots. Also the team; walking in in the morning and seeing everyone sitting down and working, that’s something I’m proud of. I think we’ve created a great culture.
Was there ever a moment at the beginning when you nearly gave up?
CT: I’ve never nearly given up. I find it very difficult to give up because of the emotional attachment. And personality-wise I never want to let myself down, so no, I’ve not come close.
What I have had to give up is other things in my life, and those sacrifices really are tough. Relationships, health, socialising, friends, family, financial commitments – loads of things that are part of your life that are really essential. When those things come together you kind of look internally and think “Why?” – that makes a lot of people say “I’m not doing this.”
There is also an element of responsibility. It’s my first business and I was quite reckless in my life before in that I really wanted to live life to its full before I got serious; that suddenly changes when you receive a significant cheque for investment and you’ve got 21 people in the office who have mortgages and families. It becomes an enormous pressure on your shoulders and it’s a challenge.
MT: No. If I have to be honest, I think we’ve always had good luck. We have ups and downs, as being an entrepreneur and trying to create something that doesn’t exist is scary.
It’s a personal journey, not just professional; in my life there is no separation between my personal life and Debut. It is everything that I am. There have certainly been moments that have been a bit tougher, but at the end of the day it’s never been too bad.
Very often you have moments – regardless of what your job is – when you just don’t want to get up and go to work. But with Debut, it’s never happened – I’ve never had a morning where I say, “I don’t want to go to work today”, it doesn’t even cross my mind.
Debut has a number of unique features on the app that can’t be found anywhere else. How did you feel launching these features?
CT: Launching those features really went against every rulebook of building a business, and I knew that. I’m very instinctive, so everything we’ve been doing to date really has been because I felt something was a problem, and I wanted to build something to fix it.
Now the business is more mature we make decisions that are much more data led. Just in the last five days we’ve improved conversion on the Android app store significantly by making a change that we can track.
I actually also want to bring out a mentoring feature (spoiler alert!) which allows students to come onto the app and get connected with people who already work at a company. Again these new ideas are still instinctive, and the rest of the team bash my head and say “No, here is the data, let’s follow the data!”
MT: You’re always scared. The reality of a start-up is that things change from one day to another and everything is unknown. Going in for the first time with something that doesn’t exist is daunting.
Out of the unique features Debut does have, what would you say is the app’s strongest offering to users?
MT: Debut aims to be a career companion to students and recent graduates. Our vision is to create something that will take students from age 16 and help guide them through whatever academic and career-related choices they are making. That’s the big vision.
Today the strongest feature is the ability for users to showcase their profile to the multinational employers we have on the app without having to do much more than creating a profile.
What has been the biggest surprise for you since launching Debut?
CT: I’ve definitely been surprised by the way investors make decisions and behave. They are completely and absolutely necessary and we wouldn’t be here without them, though. They’ve given us support and love and connections, and they’re building a great business with us.
Other surprises include hiring developers and software engineers, and generally building and coding technology. Building a technology team that’s efficient, that’s aligned to other teams within the business and sustaining their motivation is a challenge, but we’ve managed to build a fantastic team so far.
MT: How quickly we’ve grown, definitely. It’s incredible.
What is it about Debut’s ethos that you think is so important?
CT: First of all we have a very diverse team. When hiring you have to be very open-minded early on; you have to remove emotion and any cultural bias from the process. And it’s really important you have an ethos that amplifies and sets a fertile ground for that to grow.
One thing that I really want to put into the business is this idea that people move around the company into other people’s job roles. One day someone from Marketing will go and spend the day with the Tech team, with no coding experience. The next day they will be CEO – and I’ll swap too! It helps progression and when a team member speaks to users, investors and clients they will be able to talk about the other parts of the business very fluently.
MT: That we are student-centric and everything we have ever done, and everything we will ever do, is with students and recent graduates at heart. Debut is built around them to give a better experience.
Other platforms care about traffic and clicks. We really do try to do everything so that more students get hired, and that’s very different I think.
Where do you hope Debut will be on its third birthday?
CT: More spoilers, but I would like Debut to have expanded to non-multinationals, so servicing start-ups, mid-market clients and smaller businesses who hire just a few grads. I would also like us to enter the space of school leavers and apprenticeships, plus launch a number of different features on the app.
I would also like the business to have made the first big milestone in giving back as well. Over the last few months I’ve been spending time looking at areas where we can support other people – recently I’ve been working with an organisation helping young vulnerable adults with mental health issues, and I would like that to transcend into the business.
We’ve already created a campaign called Fight For Feedback and we’re doing one now on the lack of careers advice in schools – a personal one for me now would be to shift the focus onto something in the mental health space. It’s an untouched area of distress for students and those in their early careers. I’d like for us to materialise that into a milestone for our third birthday.
MT: My dream story about Debut is that in a year’s time we’ll have a much bigger team and have our own very nice office somewhere that’s twice as big.
We’ll also have loads more students and recent graduates using the app, we will have facilitated so many more hires and I’m hoping we’ll feature both big and small companies, so a 360-degree offering for university students and recent graduates. That would make me happy.