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JobBoardGeek podcast: The pain and joy (?) of coding your own job board

JobBoardGeek PodcastIn this episode of JobBoardGeek, Jeff Dickey-Chasins and Steven Rothberg talk to Dom Jackman, of EscapeTheCity, an U.K.-based job board for folks who are trying to ‘escape the rat race’. Dom gets into how and why the site got started, and digs into some of the unusual offerings they provided for candidates (including holiday trips and many live events. He also talks about building the site’s code – line by line. Steven and Jeff puzzle over Snagajob’s recent $65 million dollar loan, and – much to Jeff’s surprise – Steven comes up with a reasonable explanation!

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Transcript:

[music]

0:00:00.2 Jeff Dickey-Chasins: Hi folks, and welcome to JobBoardGeek, it’s the podcast about the business of connecting employers and candidates. I’m Jeff Dickey-Chasins, the Job Board doctor, I’m one of your hosts, and the other host in another place on the planet is Steven Rothberg, a College Recruiter. Hey, Steven, how are you doing?

0:00:19.2 Steven Rothberg: I am great. I am spending the month of January in Tucson, Arizona, where the highs are generally in the low 70s, and there is nary a cloud to be seen.

0:00:32.1 JD: I hate you. I’m in Iowa and it’s zero degrees.

0:00:37.1 SR: Just line up. All you haters can just get into a big line, I really don’t care.

0:00:42.1 JD: Yeah, yeah. See, Steven and I are both from the Midwest, so we can talk about weather for the next 25 minutes if you want us to. But I don’t think you want us to. So, anyway, we have a great guest on today, Dom Jackman of Escape the City, got a really interesting story to tell, and I think they do some very cool things, so I’m looking forward to that. But first, I wanted to talk a little bit about something that I thought was rather odd that happened recently. Snagajob went out and got a $65 million loan, this is not too long after they sold off their ATS and their onboarding service to another company. The whole thing of a mature job board like Snagajob, which has been around for a long time, had been rumored to be planning to IPO a number of times, and that has basically been really embedded in the hourly job board business, that it would be going out for a loan at this point, just seemed kinda odd. It’s like they’re fumbling around on the couch and pulling out the pillows and seeing if they can find some extra change down there or something. I don’t know. What do you think, Steven?

0:01:50.6 SR: Well, like you say, they have long been one of the leaders in the hourly space, and they’ve pivoted a few times, I knew the founders, Shawn and Tennille Boyer, I think they sold the company roughly five years ago, something like that. And the new folks came in, I think it was about three years ago, they tried to kinda pivot to snag, but get rid of the whole “snag a job” moniker and have it be kind of an app for hourly hiring, almost like Uber, but for hourly hiring. From what I’ve heard, they just didn’t get any traction from that, pivoted back to their original model. So the good news is, if you’ve got banks or others willing to lend you $65 million, that’s a feather in your cap. They’re not gonna do that if your business is failing. Also, the debt versus equity, certainly for startups, getting equity is a usually more common path to raising money.

0:02:49.0 JD: Right.

0:02:49.1 SR: But the advantage of taking debt is that you don’t dilute your ownership, if a year from now or five years from now, or whatever, they exit, whether it’s an IPO or an acquisition or something, then the owners today won’t have lost a big chunk of their ownership. It is odd, and I feel like I’ve sort of seen this movie before with some other relatively large job boards taking on a big investment, and then a month or three months later, what you find out is that it wasn’t really new money, it was replacing old money, it was a refinancing of existing debt or equity.

0:03:28.1 JD: Right, right.

0:03:29.3 SR: It wouldn’t surprise me, if that’s where we end up here, maybe some of the owners had lent Snagajob a lot of money, and now they’ve replaced their own personal loans with loans from banks, or something along those lines.

0:03:44.4 JD: Well, that’s much more of an in-depth analysis than I was able to give it, so kudos to you, Steven.

[laughter]

0:03:53.3 SR: So, I earned my big paycheck here, ’cause us podcasters, we’re just rolling it, baby.

0:03:58.3 JD: Oh. It’s insane, 65 million, I wouldn’t even get up in the morning for that, so, anyway. So yes, our guest today is a fellow from England, from the UK, I should say, Dom Jackman, and his site is Escape the City. And Dom, welcome to JobBoardGeek.

0:04:19.5 Dom Jackman: Thanks very much, Jeff. Great to be here.

0:04:21.4 JD: Yeah, I’m glad that you are here. I was wondering if you could just sort of give us an origin story about Escape the City, because I know it’s definitely a different type of site from your average traditional job board, and maybe also tell us where you came up with the name.

0:04:38.5 DJ: Yeah, sure. So Escape the City, it mainly started something slightly different for people who are based in London, so Escape the City is capital T, capital C, the city is referring to the financial square mile of London where lots of organizations live and recruit lots of people. And so the idea is to help people out of that rat race, that corporate rat race that people go into after university and realize that actually there’s more to life than working for a huge company and wanna do something different, but when they get to that space, it’s often quite difficult to figure out what your options are. And so 12 years ago, me and my friend Rob, we were in that position ourselves and we wanted to scratch our own itch, and so we wanted to find out what interesting jobs or opportunities were available to us. And so as kinda young professionals, we were disillusioned with the rat race and wanted to go out and do something that mattered to us in the world. And then for us, it didn’t really feel like there was a community out there for us, so we tried to make it, and I’m still trying to make it 12 years later.

[chuckle]

0:05:47.5 JD: I think one of the things I always talk to my clients about, I know we’ve done a little work at one point, is the importance of branding. I think most job boards fail miserably at branding themselves, and I think this is one of the places where you guys are really superb at that. I mean, the name is unusual, it’s catchy and it also really describes what you’re all about, so I think that’s great.

0:06:09.0 DJ: Oh, thanks very much.

0:06:10.6 JD: Yeah, yeah, so the other thing that I’m curious about is one of the things that struck me when I first went and looked at the site was the many different ways you engage candidates. It’s not just job postings, you have courses, you have essentially blog postings, you’ve got stuff on events, you got all these different things. Did that happen over time, or was that something that you thought about right off the bat?

0:06:35.2 DJ: Well, it’s kind of been added to over the years, and actually now we’re kind of scaling back how many we’re doing and we try to keep our focus. And I think one of the hardest things that we’ve always struggled with is focus. And we had, like you said, we have events and programs, and short-form programs, long-form programs. We’ve done so many different things. At one point, we were doing adventure holidays to help people out the city and fun… We’ve had alternative careers, festivals and all sorts of weird and wonderful things, and that variety has really worked, but it’s also come at a cost and I think that cost was, is that we’ve kinda spread ourselves quite thinly over the years, and now we’re trying to get back on the focus, and we’re a small team and we raised a little bit of money 10 years ago, but really only enough to kinda get us out of the traps and get our website behind us. We’ve really bootstrapped it from day one, apart from that injection initially. So we’re not a big team. It’s difficult for us to compete with organizations who have got loads of funding, and so we’re a minnow in comparison to lots of others.

0:07:49.6 JD: Yeah. So you’re not Totaljobs, is what you’re saying?

0:07:53.2 DJ: [chuckle] No, we’re not even… Some of the people who I would describe as competitors, I don’t know if you have heard of them, a company called Otta in the UK, they’ve come out recently, got loads of funding and we can’t compete with their acquisition channels, and we’re basically kind of competing with similar user demographics. So yeah, just don’t have the cash for that, so we have to be creative.

0:08:15.9 SR: So robbing banks is always an alternative, I suppose, but that might not be the best path to raising money. It tends to get you into more trouble than it’s worth.

0:08:26.6 JD: That was not legal advice, by the way, Dom.

0:08:29.2 DJ: [chuckle] Okay, cool.

0:08:30.6 SR: The co-host of the JobBoardGeek podcast neither condone nor… Anyway, so Dom, one of the things that Jeff and I were talking prior to the recording is your B Corporation status, we had another guest on recently that had also gone through that process. For the listeners who aren’t familiar, and I’ll let you kind of explain more what it is, why you’ve gone down that path? It basically is like a certification or a good housekeeping seal of approval, like, “This organization not only tries to make the community better around it and treat its employees, its customers, its vendors, other stakeholders well, but it’s proving that. It doesn’t just say that it’s doing it, it’s actually proving it.” Talk with us if you can, about the decision to incur those costs, the time you have to spend, the money you have to spend to do that, whether the idea to do that bore out. Is it something that helps you with marketing to candidates, to marketing to employers, to both? I think it’s really fascinating that more and more organizations are starting to look at ways of not just saying, “Hey, we’re family-friendly,” but proving it.

0:09:45.2 DJ: Yeah, no, no, I’m more than happy to talk about it. The B Corp came to us in 2013 when they were about to launch in the UK, and actually said, “Well, do you wanna be one of our founding UK members?” And for us, really, it’s just important, we talk a lot about progressive organizations, and we’re trying to help connect people into those progressive organizations, so it’s important for us to walk the walk ourselves and say, “Well, we know what it means to be a progressive company, and we’re trying to do it ourselves.” And so really, it wasn’t really a business decision, it was more like, “These are our values and we wanna be a good company ourselves, and so let’s start.” And B Corp is probably my favorite framework for assessing what a good organization looks like in today’s world. And they’re probably… It’s not perfect, but they’ve got a pretty good, decent framework and a measure for it, and so I was really up for getting behind it, and there was no a business decision really, it was more like, “I really think that’s a good thing to be doing,” and then the cost of it was… It isn’t really relative… It’s a lot of time, and not too much money. But then subsequently, it’s kind of really caught on, and in the UK, it’s getting ever more popular every year. So yeah, just pleased that we’re still able to re-certify and still call ourselves a progressive company.

0:11:08.0 SR: So Dom, the decision to become a B Corp, Have you found that that’s helped you with marketing? Do you communicate that to the employers that are using your site, to candidates that are using your site? Or is this really just an internal… Let’s call it a compass, helping your team when you’re reaching a cross-road, should you do A or B? You can see what B Corp would advocate for, go down path A, and so then that’s the path that you’re gonna follow. So is it more of an external marketing tool or an internal guidance? Both?

0:11:41.4 DJ: I think actually looking at… So we’ve been a B Corp now for eight years, and I think the thing that’s got the most value out of it, it’s actually probably just internal. We are a really tiny team, it’s just six of us. I feel like people want to work for a company that is making those decisions, or those good decisions. And so from a recruitment perspective, I don’t have any data on this, but my hunch is that it’s been really helpful for that, ’cause people will say, “Oh, we never have any issues hiring anyone, and it’s really easy for us to hire,” and that’s something that’s nice. I think part of that is that we’re B Corp and people say, “Oh, you go work for them, they must be doing something well if that’s what they’re doing.” And then from a marketing perspective, that does play into it a little bit as well, from a B-to-B perspective. It is relatively easy to go ’cause there’s a good community in the UK now, 400, 500 organizations who are B Corps, and so we would be able to get in the door of those organizations, I imagine fairly, relatively easy, especially because we’ve been quite an established B Corp, we are not just one’s who’ve kinda come along in the last year, or we can say we were there at the start, part of the furniture in the UK for the B Corp community. So that’s quite nice.

0:13:01.6 DJ: And that means that people know us because of that. And then there were lots of other opportunities around it, some of the B Corps… That come up with being a B Corp or like branding, co-branding stuff that we would never be able to afford to do, just thinking on the fly about this. So like last year, a big bank in the UK, we’re Escape the City, but then now these banks are coming up as being B Corps. But it seems this one is a good bank. [chuckle] They’ve got this office in London, and they put all of their fellow B Corps on their window, and put it in a big advert in the paper. Now, obviously, these days, that didn’t make much difference to our numbers or anything, but it was nice. It was a bit of a branding, co-branding exercise that we would never have been able to afford otherwise. Yeah, a mix of internal and external, but mostly internal, really.

0:13:53.0 JD: I have a question for you, Dom, about challenges. And first of all, I know that you had been looking at different types of technical platforms for your job board for a long time. And then you ended up doing what some people do, which is, “Well, I’m just gonna build my own.” And my understanding is that you’re done with it now, pretty much, that it’s built and it’s running, and everything’s fine. Is that true?

0:14:21.1 DJ: Yeah, Jeff, this has been a journey. And I don’t know, we’ve been swapping emails over the years about this. It’s funny. When we started this idea of, Oh, we’ll just create a job board or that we’ll just create this community around trying to connect people with these opportunities. Job board, how difficult could it be?

0:14:41.1 JD: [chuckle] Famous last words.

0:14:43.4 JD: Oh my gosh, it has been the bane of my life. The technology part of what we’ve been trying to do, because we don’t have the native tech skills in the team, so then my co-founder and I were both non-tech, or like semi-technical, but not developers. It’s always been achilles’ heel. And so, the last 12 years, it’s just been that, we’ve never really been able to solve that, although I can talk at various different lengths of the story of it. But in a nutshell, we are now on our iteration number 6 or 7, and this one is a thing that I’ve built half of it myself. I’ve built the backend and then the frontend, I’ve got a developer, a couple of developers to help me out on. So it’s a bit of a hybrid of no-code software tools with some development around it. But yeah, it’s all custom-built and mostly to do with our own specifications, and we’ve played around with off-the-shelf solutions over the years, and custom solutions in the early days, and all had varying success rates with them. The technical one is a question that I’m sure you have talked to your people about a lot, but that was one that’s been the hardest thing for us.

0:16:00.7 SR: Yeah, I don’t think you’re alone on that. I would say the conversations that we had about platforms I’ve had with many, many clients, and my general advice to startups, the people that are starting up now is, use one of the off-the-shelf platforms, build your audience, do what you need to do, get used to running a job board, and then move into a custom platform if you need to. Some people never do, some people do. You guys do a lot of different stuff on your site, that it would be challenging for a lot of the off-the-shelf platforms to support, I’m glad that you’re at the end of the road right now for the foreseeable future, so that’s good news. How did the pandemic affect you guys? And if it did affect you, are you out of it now?

0:16:49.8 DJ: Yeah, it was terrible, it was really terrible. Because before the pandemic, we had two revenue streams and one was like the employers paying to post jobs, classic job board model. And then the other one was we ran programs, and those programs were in-person, offline programs to help people start businesses, basically quit their rat race and start businesses, and then also find career direction. And we’ve been doing that, and basically, the revenue was split 50-50. I’ll be totally honest with the revenue deal. So we were basically taking $500,000 in job board revenue, and $500,000 with the school. And both models were… One was more profitable than the other, but then we kind of got a little bit burnt out by running the programs, because there was just the sales cycles and everything else, and they were really exhausting to run out a really high quality the whole time, ’cause we were also delivering them ourselves, rather than just like white-labeling them and someone else was delivering them. So we were delivering all the content.

0:17:48.3 DJ: Yet, about 2,000 people go through them, and people who were working on it were burning out, it seems like we need to find a different model, so we’re trying to transition that model off to online. And then at the same time, the job board has always been a good revenue generator for us, and we made the decision in February of 2020 to stop doing the school. And then about two week later, the pandemic hit. And I was paused doing the school, and then we’d find a model. And so then the pandemic hit, and so we killed one business while I paused one business. And then the other business went down, I’m not joking, within a week, it went down 95%.

0:18:27.4 SR: Wow.

0:18:27.6 DJ: So we had a team of like 10 or 11 people at the time, and our revenue… That was really, really predictable every week, and it just went overnight. And then it didn’t really recover for, I would say, five or six months. And the nature of our business is that we work with small businesses, and so businesses under like 20 people, they just obviously all shut up shop, no one knew what was going on. And so they shut up shop, and we had lots of people looking for jobs, but no jobs on the job board. And so it was on life support, the business and the job board, and we were just down to a skeleton crew. And I was also migrating another website, and a big web migration going on. So COVID was pretty bad, but then obviously the market switched grounds, and lots of employers now posting jobs. I don’t think… We are probably back up to say 90%, 95% on the job board side, but our bigger issue now is the job seekers. There are too many jobs and not enough job seekers. And people’s aspirations have changed, and so people wanna work more remotely, and so companies are struggling to catch up with that. So we’re in a good position in the sense that our whole brand is about doing something different and working on your own terms, and so the post-pandemic should play into that nicely, but it’s gonna take a while.

0:19:52.3 DJ: As you know, it’s gonna take a while to kind of rebuild members and job seekers and candidates. And at least, our tech is not falling over all the time, which it was doing about two years ago, so there’s one less plate to spin there, but another plate to spin that I wasn’t envisaging was gonna be an issue. So, all in all, it’s been a pretty dire 24 months.

0:20:15.1 JD: It sounds like you guys are well-positioned. Like you said, your brand is exactly what a lot of people are going through right now. It’s like, “I’m tired of my old job. I wanna do something new. I wanna do something different.” You answer that need.

0:20:28.9 SR: And as travel starts to come back too, I think you’re well-positioned for that. I think that’s one of the things, when I looked at the kinds of jobs that you have on your site.

0:20:40.4 DJ: Yeah. Sure.

0:20:40.9 SR: A lot of them are very well suited for people who are, say, in New York, or in London, or in Hong Kong or whatever, and they want to go and work some place else.

0:20:50.3 DJ: Yeah, exactly.

0:20:51.1 SR: Like you’re doing right now, like I’m doing right now. I refer to as working remotely from working remotely. [chuckle] And it doesn’t have to be from an apartment or an Airbnb. It can be working for a company in Lisbon, and having that different experience, which I think that plays incredibly well to Gen Z, that they’re not looking to climb that corporate ladder and be there for the next 50 years. They want a life of experiences. Boy, I’m bullish on your business model.

[laughter]

0:21:23.1 DJ: Thanks, Steven.

0:21:24.3 JD: Steven, Lisbon is your go-to spot whenever you talk about working remotely somewhere, you always bring up Lisbon.

0:21:32.4 SR: I’ve never been there, but it is on a short list.

[laughter]

0:21:35.5 DJ: It is basically the go-to spot for remote workers in Europe, so I can see why you’d go to Lisbon.

0:21:42.1 JD: Well, listen, Dom, it’s been great to have you on. And our listeners can’t see this, but I can see that you’re all bundled up against the cold, ’cause Dom is in the French Alps right now, walking the walk, as it were, for his…

[chuckle]

0:21:56.0 DJ: Trying to.

0:21:56.9 JD: Right, right. But anyway, thanks for coming on. And if any of our listeners wanna get in touch with you and chat with you, how can they do that?

0:22:04.9 DJ: Yeah, sure, just shoot me an email, dom@escapethecity.org, or check us out on our app, EscapeTheCity.org.

0:22:13.4 JD: Great, great. Well, thanks again. Steven, if people wanna get in touch with you, how do they do that?

0:22:18.8 SR: They can email me, S-T-E-V-E-N@collegerecruiter.com. Dom, it has been a pleasure. And if you hear a knock on your door later today, that might just be me saying, “Hey, I could do with a little bit of a French Alps experience.”

0:22:36.1 DJ: Well, you’re welcome any time, Steven.

[laughter]

0:22:39.0 JD: I guess I’m just gonna stay in Iowa, ’cause that’s what I seem to do. But anyway, that’s it for today’s episode of JobBoardGeek, the podcast that focuses on the business of connecting employers and candidates. Please be sure to subscribe to us via our RSS feed, Apple, Spotify, Google, Pocket Casts, any of those things. Just click the Subscribe button on the JobBoardGeek website. This is Jeff Dickey-Chasins, and you’ve been listening to JobBoardGeek. That’s all for now, see you next time. Thanks. Bye.

[music]

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