By Thomas Heath / The Washington Post
Diversification is a basic tenet of investing. Brent Sullivan has smartly applied it to his livelihood.
The 36-year-old entrepreneur owns a headhunting business serving Capitol Hill that grosses nearly $500,000 a year.
He delivers firewood to a dozen restaurants and more than 150 residents around Washington that brings $150,000 in revenue a year. That’s about as diversified as you can get.
Sullivan even has a long-term real estate play. He owns several residential properties on the Hill that break even after debt and expenses, but should represent a valuable asset when he is in retirement mode a few decades from now.
The scrappy University of Richmond graduate said he earns more than $350,000 in income from his various endeavors. He represents a breed of jaunty entrepreneurs who don’t pretend to be the smartest person in the room but grind out a path to success.
I am not raking in 350K, but I see myself in some of Sullivan’s traits: not great at anything, but pretty good at enough stuff. Not brilliant (he was a B student), but smart enough to get by.
And we both share a certain scrappiness:
“When you see opportunities, you’ve got to make the most of it,” said Sullivan, who swears he had 74 job interviews over coffee before he snagged a low-level staffing job in Congress. (How many of you would have stuck around that long?)
“You’ve got to be a bulldog,” he said.
Sullivan grew up in Lebanon, Pennsylvaniaa., east of Harrisburg. His father ran a prison, and his mother was a kindergarten teacher.
“Both my parents have a high work ethic,” he said. “When I was a little kid, I didn’t like getting dirty. A gentleman up the street asked me to mow his lawn one day. I did. He gave me $10 — and I have been working ever since.”
Like many of us, Sullivan loves getting a paycheck. But he is his own boss.
“The ability to go out and get a tangible job and be well compensated for that is something I have always loved,” he said. “If I see an opportunity, and I can provide value, you execute the plan and get paid. That’s my kind of model: build and deliver.”
He graduated from Richmond in 2004 with zero debt, thanks to some scholarship money, savings from a landscape business and AmeriCorps, which cuts a check to the college in exchange for a student’s community service.
Sullivan then jumped into a series of jobs that went from running a congressional campaign to working at the Multiple Sclerosis Society in New York, and then the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Manhattan.
He was earning $40,000 a year from 2005 to 2007, but he was a young professional living in New York. He met a cross-section of successful people who ran marathons and races to help raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“Try living on $40,000 a year in New York City,” he said. “Try dating smart and beautiful women on $40,000 a year.”
He moved to Houston in 2007 and worked for a large health firm for the next four-plus years, earning good money, traveling across the country and glad-handing at medical centers. He left after the company was acquired by a larger firm.
Sullivan headed back to Washington because he wanted to work in politics, which is the “only place that tackles big issues.”
That’s when he went through the 74 coffees, which culminated in a meeting with two senior policy staffers in the office of the speaker of the House. They shredded his résumé.
“They obliterated me,” Sullivan said.
His résumé was too long.
The print was tiny.
His education history should come last.
“They said, ‘We have been on the Hill for 10 years, and we have one-page résumés.You have no Hill experience and a lousy, two-page résumé.’ “
That’s when a business was born. Sullivan followed their suggestions and, four weeks later, he was working for a congressman.
But he also saw a business opportunity helping staff applicants find jobs on Capitol Hill. He named it Time On the Hill and founded it in October 2012, while he was still working in a congressional office.
“I wanted to help job candidates who wanted to get on the Hill as badly as I did,” he said.
His ready-made customer base would be the tens of thousands of election campaign volunteers who wanted to parlay that experience into a job at the Capitol.
It’s a rich Hill to mine. There are 8,500 or so staff jobs paying anywhere from $32,000 to $171,000. And the beauty of the business model is the election cycle that provides a built-in job rotation every two years.
Time On the Hill started slowly. Sullivan learned how to build his own website. The consummate networker stayed in touch with the senior staffers he met on his congressional job search.
Time On the Hill has more than 500 members on its website, whose monthly payments represent the single biggest source of Sullivan’s income. He hopes to have several times that number of subscribers with the coming Congressional elections.
“I had these connections everywhere,” he said. “I started helping interested candidates case-by-case. Staffers would say, ‘Hey Brent. We need a staff assistant.’ Or they said, ‘Hey Brent, I’m leaving and need a job.’ “
He started releasing congressional and Senate staff openings on his LinkedIn page. People started calling.
The payment model has evolved over time into a more lucrative recurring revenue model based on subscriptions. Membership to the website starts at $15 a month. There’s a whole menu of services running from $25 for a mini-strategy session to $95 for résumé writing or for video-taped practice interviews.
“We set up an iPad on a tripod and interview a candidate and then the candidate has to watch themselves in the video,” Sullivan said.
The biggest mistakes are filler words like “ums” and “likes.” Job interview hint: Keep your answers short and to the point.
“The little things matter,” Sullivan said. That includes how you deliver your résumé, which elected official you apply to and how you approach them.
Time On the Hill has helped more than 1,000 staffers land jobs on Capitol Hill.
At least 40 new members will be elected to the House and Senate in the fall, which means 750 job changes. If he can boost Time On the Hill’s monthly subscriber base to 2,000 paying members, that would pay him $30,000 a month in recurring revenue.
“Recurring revenue is king,” he said.
In 2014, he closed the loop on the Capitol Hill job industry when he started Hill Talent, which serves congressional and senate offices searching for the right candidate.
“If you are looking for someone who understands energy from your home state of Louisiana, you don’t have a lot of those candidates,” Sullivan said. “We want to deliver value to chiefs of staff looking for the right candidate.”
Hill Talent charges Congressional offices a $500 a month retainer to help them fill jobs. Sullivan said he plans to sign a sweeping agreement with the House of Representatives by next year that will make Hill Talent the sole provider for job candidates.
If Time On the Hill should fall apart. Or if a competitor should come in and overwhelm him, Sullivan has his Plan B: It’s firewood.
This year, he will deliver and stack more than 1.2 million pounds of firewood to 12 restaurants and 150 private homes in the Washington area. He is on track for $150,000 in sales, of which about half is profit. Rising fuel prices could trim a couple of percentage points off his net.
“I get the wood from all over,” Sullivan said. “Mostly from Maryland and Virginia. Oak, cherry, birch, hickory. I use all the hardwoods.”
He requires that the wood be seasoned for at least one year so that it is dry and burns hot.
“We deliver four nights a week from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., year round,” he said. “I’m in the best shape of my life.”
He said the physical nature of the firewood business is the perfect balance to the stress of running his Capitol Hill staffing business.
It’s kind of a funny marriage, running two businesses like headhunting and firewood delivery, which are so different.
But Sullivan says the firewood work keeps him sane in Washington’s merry-go-round.
“I love the simplicity of the firewood business,” he said. “All day long in the headhunting business, you are working with people. That can be tough. Working with firewood is easy. You pick it up, you put it down. You go get more. It’s mentally therapeutic. I would rather be physically drained than mentally drained.”
That’s something else he and I have in common.