‘Leap of faith’ pays off for Keynote’s Ottawa founders

Keynote
James and Donna Baker are the owners of Keynote Group. (Photo by Caroline Phillips)

The story of how Keynote Group founders Donna Baker and James Baker came together to create the fastest-growing Ottawa-based recruitment agency can be traced back to a freak snowstorm in their homeland of England.

They were working for the same company but in different offices when bad weather struck during a leadership meeting they were both attending. The group did the only sensible thing it could do: wait it out by hitting the nearest pub. In doing so, Donna met James, who was also in his 20s, and their budding romance began.

Call it a sign or call it a coincidence: There’d be more snow in their future.

The recruitment specialist firm they worked for in Britain was opening a new office in the Great White North and was looking for employees to hop over the pond.

“So, in my slightly impulsive way, I just said, ‘Sure, why not?’” recalls James, who convinced his then-girlfriend Donna to also apply.

Looking back, she admits, “I didn’t think it would happen.”

They landed in the nation’s capital on July 14, 2006. It would be nine more years until they gained the experience, knowledge and connections to create Keynote Group, a company that specializes in executive search, outsourced recruitment and HR consulting services.

Keynote now has more than 100 clients, mostly from tech, venture capital-backed firms and the real estate and construction industries. It’s won a whack of awards. It’s expanded to a team of 18. It’s also seen its office go from a kitchen table to a beautiful red-brick heritage building at 66 Lisgar St., near the Rideau Canal.

“I think we’re far larger than we ever dreamed we would be,” says Donna.

When Donna and James first came to Canada, they were working for Hays Recruiting. They settled in nicely, adopted a healthier lifestyle, bought a house and got married.

Four years after their arrival, James was headhunted by national recruiting firm David Aplin Group (DAG). While he was with the company, the couple’s first son, Jack, was born. This led to Donna resigning from her job to set up her own recruitment consultancy in order to have more flexibility as a new mother.

The couple welcomed their second child, Tom, three years later.

James enjoyed being with DAG but, by 2015, he needed a change.

“They were a great company to work for. They were a family business with good values, but there was a ceiling there. There was no way I was ever going to be owning that business or leading it. There was always going to be a family connection.”

“What could we lose? Everything, but we’d still have each other and the kids and our health.”

Through a series of conversations with like-minded business people, James came to realize there was a better and more modern way of finding the best and most qualified talent for businesses. By now, he’d been helping to build recruitment companies for more than a decade, while Donna, he would argue, was the best headhunter in the country. The couple decided to start their own firm.

“We talked about the risks and went through the worst-case scenario,” says Donna. “What could we lose? Everything, but we’d still have each other and the kids and our health.”

Neither was scared of combining business with marriage. They’d already learned how to navigate their professional and personal lives during their years of working for the same employer.

Sticking to their vision

“Launching a company together is a bit different,” Donna acknowledges. “Suddenly, there were points where there was more pressure on us, but building something with your other half is fun and exciting.”

In September 2015, the Bakers founded Keynote with two other people. The partnership with the other pair didn’t last after it became apparent they had different aspirations.

“I’ll always be thankful to them for giving us the courage to make that leap of faith together,” says James. “While it didn’t work out, they’ve both gone on to become successful with other ventures.”

In the beginning, entrepreneurship was so challenging that the Bakers wondered if they’d made a career mistake. They relied on their financial savings and didn’t even think of paying themselves as they stuck to their vision.

“We just stayed focused on what we were doing,” says James. “We were lucky. We had a lot of clients who believed in us and gave us a shot, and they referred us to other people.”

Two big things have happened to Keynote in the past year that have helped it grow even further. It partnered with Heidi Hauver, who now runs the company’s HR practice. She’s also an entrepreneur-in-residence and growth coach with Invest Ottawa. Its other major development was finding office space through Inside Edge Properties.

Keynote now occupies the ground floor of an old home, called the Snowdon House, built in the late 1890s.

“I always used to say to the team that the one thing we’re missing is a home, a place we can all come together,” says James, the chief executive.

Keynote’s goal is to become a national company within five years.

“We’ve got big dreams and ambitions and, who knows, it may not happen, but I’ll tell you what – it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun giving it a shot,” says James.

Five things to know about Donna and James Baker

  1. Donna, 38, who took up running early last year, plans to complete her first marathon during the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend in May. Meanwhile, James, 36, is an avid snowboarder. 
  2. The Bakers like adventure: They got engaged during a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon and spent their honeymoon in Africa.
  3. Donna is a 2018 recipient for Ottawa Businesswoman of the Year in the emerging entrepreneur category. James received a Forty Under 40 award when he was barely 30. Other awards include New Business of the Year, Business of the Year, Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Best New Business, Best Ottawa Business and Family Enterprise of the Year. You get the drift.
  4. The Bakers could soon be swearing their oath of allegiance to the Queen. They’re applying to become Canadian citizens.
  5. There are several reasons why they love living in the rural east-end village of Navan, including not having to squint into the sun while driving to and from work.