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JobBoardGeek podcast: Meeting the candidate where they are – the FlexJobs story

FlexJobsIn this episode of JobBoardGeek, we talk to Sara Sutton of FlexJobs about how she founded not one, but two job boards and met with success on both. Jeff Dickey-Chasins of JobBoardDoctor and Steven Rothberg of College Recruiter ask Sara why she focused on remote and flexible jobs when almost no one else was – and why her revenue model revolves around charging the candidate. Jeff also questions the wisdom of a recent announcement from Stepstone, and Steven agrees that he is wise.

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0:00:01.4 Jeff Dickey-Chasins: Hello everyone, and welcome to JobBoardGeek. It’s the podcast about the business of connecting candidates and employers. My name is Jeff Dickey-Chasins, I’m the Job Board Doctor and your host. And with me is the co-host, the sometimes frenetic, Steven Rothberg of College Recruiter. Hey, Steven.

0:00:20.0 Steven Rothberg: I am fully espresso-ed up and ready to go.

0:00:23.2 JD: I said frenetic, I really meant frantic, but I guess I’ll have to save that for another show. Anyway, today we have a wonderful guest, someone I’ve known for a while, Sara Sutton of FlexJobs. She’s gonna tell us how she does what she does and why they do it. But first, Steven, I wanted to chat with you about some news. It’s not particularly new news, I think it came out about three or four weeks ago, but I thought it was kind of interesting for a couple of reasons. StepStone, which if you don’t know, is the large job board conglomerate out of Germany and operates in a number of different countries throughout Europe and in the US, announced that they are offering employer branding and recruiting services. And I thought this was kind of funny for two reasons. One, is that it’s not really the case that employer branding is particularly new, even though they were sort of pitching this as something that was kind of amazing. And then second one, I actually got in and read about it, what it actually involves is a bunch of services from four of their different companies, and the big innovation is that instead of working with four different people, you just work with one person.


0:01:28.5 JD: I thought, man, this kinda reminds me of some of the stuff CareerBuilder used to pull. But anyway, I guess Steven, my question for you is two-fold. One, did you see something in the StepStone announcement that I didn’t that made it more complex and important? And two, what’s your feeling about employer branding? Because I personally think employer branding service is a very important service for a job board to offer, but a lot of job boards don’t do that.

0:01:54.7 SR: Yeah, I read it the same way as you did, Jeff. I have a sneaking suspicion that StepStone has an unlimited press release package and that they just wanted to get their money’s worth from it. I have a ton of respect for StepStone and I hear a lot of great things for what they do, both on the branding side and on what the press release talked about in terms of recruitment advertising. Where those lines… Where that line ends and the other one starts is always a little bit blurry, but yeah, I think the big innovation was exactly what you nailed rather than having to talk to at least two different sales people to buy both the recruitment advertising postings, resume searching, that kinda stuff, and the branding, which for StepStone, a lot of that is display advertising, podcast advertising, that kinda stuff. Basically, the stuff you can’t track.

0:02:45.5 JD: Right.

0:02:46.6 SR: That you can now miraculously talk to one sales person and get one invoice for so…

0:02:54.1 JD: Miraculous, yes.

0:02:54.7 SR: I don’t know, maybe that’s innovative in Germany and in some of their other markets, but I have a feeling that today’s guest would not classify that as being innovative.

0:03:04.5 JD: Right, that’s absolutely true and actually, thank you for that great lead in there, because I do think today’s guest is someone who is far ahead of her time and has been for a long time, someone that I’ve known for a while. Welcome to JobBoardGeek, Sara.

0:03:19.4 Sara Sutton: Thank you so much for having me Jeff, and it’s great to be here.

0:03:22.2 JD: Yeah, thanks for coming on. Now, you founded FlexJobs a number of years ago, and that’s one way I think that you were ahead of your time. You also founded six years ago, long before the pandemic. So I was just wondering if you could kinda give us a little background about how you got into the job board business, I know, I believe you had founded a job board before FlexJobs, and what caused you to think about FlexJobs and getting it off the ground.

0:03:49.9 SS: Yeah, I’d be happy to tell you a little bit. My journey has been probably somewhat unique. I hadn’t intended, when I was in college, to go into the job board market. [chuckle] That was, at the time, I was a major in international relations and [chuckle] but I will tell a little bit about that because it does set the tone for FlexJobs. I had, my junior year at university in Berkeley, I had kind of learned this word entrepreneur. Somebody had mentioned it… A friend’s father had mentioned it to me and my friend when we were talking about what we were gonna do after college. And at the time, this was in the mid ’90s, it was… It really… The early ’90s, it was really… Entrepreneurship was not something that was specifically normal and for me we started thinking about it and actually we did end up coming up with an idea to make the first online entry-level job board helping college students back in the day when it was still folders of fax, dozens of fax and all those things, to actually put those online in a database and allow people to search.

0:04:53.4 SS: So we created… That was a company called Job Direct and that was in ’95. We…

0:04:56.9 JD: Wow.

0:04:57.2 SS: Launched that, we both dropped out of college, very exciting time in the Internet in general, and also just a ton of change in the job market at that time with the processes and how things were happening. And then we had candidates who were getting in front of employers and it was just such a dynamic learning environment. We grew that company and sold it to Korn Ferry in 2001, and then after that I kinda went into some other paths and another interests in my life. But that experience in helping people find jobs and internships and having what that was, and also just the magic in making it work well, having the databases that can be really sophisticated and really help people find opportunities that better fit their lives.

0:05:40.9 SS: So fast forward to when I was pregnant with my first son, and I was looking at my own career path and what I wanted to do, and I knew that I wanted to work. I wanted and needed to work, and I wanted something that would be more flexible, something that would allow me either to be at home more, that… And I looked into consulting and part-time work and freelance work and remote, because I’d had several jobs, roles that had integrated remote throughout my career, including at my first company where I… I did go back to school and finally graduate, but I worked from West Coast to East Coast hours and such, so I got into FlexJobs and it is… I started because I looked at my own situation as a working mother, but I really did not want it to be about mothers, and I did not want it to be just about one role, it was really, when I looked at the landscape, everyone can benefit from work flexibility of some sort at different stages in their lives.

0:06:30.2 SS: So, yeah, you need time to start a company when you’re pregnant, but what’s right and with flexibility in general, remote has always been the top kind of Holy Grail, so to speak, in flexibility, and then flexible schedules, and then other variants is on flexible work. But it was really something that stemmed from my own experience and wanting to solve a problem that I knew existed. And the work from home market that time was so scam-ridden and really low-level jobs for the most part, not a whole lot of legitimacy or professionalism to it, so it was really about elevating that. And we’ve had the chance to grow it significantly over the last 15 years.

0:07:05.7 JD: Yeah. And I… And actually, I’ll tell you something that I haven’t told any of our other guests, because it hasn’t been true, is that I actually used FlexJobs for about a year in the mid-2000s when I was thinking about moving out of one job and I signed up as a member. And I thought it was quite good, quite interesting. But that brings up sort of a key question I have for you, ’cause you are… You represent a type of job board that is not common in the industry, and you’re the first one to come on JobBoardGeek with this particular model where you actually charge candidates rather than… The typical model is to charge the employers and give the candidates everything free. Can you talk a little bit about that and why you think candidates are willing to pay for FlexJob services?

0:07:49.8 SS: Sure. With the backdrop of my first company, I will also say that was definitely a free model for job seekers, enterprise sales for employers, other 5-6 digit annual contracts, a very different sales model. And then we also had sponsorships and such that helped diversify revenue on that side. When I launched… And actually, in that market, with entry-level market, there’s a pool to swim in. There are conferences around that, there are budgets, large corporations have budgets for entry-level recruiting, etcetera, there’s kind of like an audience for that. When we started FlexJobs, we did start it in a free model, actually. We started it initially as a pay-to-post model, employer free for job seekers. What we were doing in that process, though, is we had a team… We had a team I said, now we have a team and back then it was like one or two of us who were going out and looking for the job postings and then adding them to our site, so that the job seekers would have something to see. And we were also doing the reach… Outreach to the sales people in the different companies who were posting these jobs.

0:08:45.7 SS: What we quickly learned was that the role… The types of people hiring for those jobs had like 120 different titles. There’s no one employer person that was hiring for work from home. And a lot of the work from home or remote jobs at that point, again, they kind of were… And employers viewed it in… Up until the pandemic really viewed a lot of the remote work as warm and fuzzy benefits for the worker, not anything that’s really that beneficial for the employer, and they weren’t really willing to pay. So, quite honestly, we got to a point in the company where like, this isn’t really working. We’re having a great job getting… It’s working getting the job seekers to our site, and the interest is definitely there, but the model to get the employers to pay and value these jobs and the kind of candidates we have was not working. So quite honestly, we looked at what our options were, and leaned in to what was working, which is the job seekers.

0:09:34.5 SS: And the other part of this I’ll say is that I’ve always had a struggle with my first company and with the original model in selling to HR departments and similar departments, but it’s really hard. And I’m not a sales person. I don’t really enjoy sales. I really enjoy making the job search experience better and easier for job seekers. So ultimately, the people who pay you are the people you prioritize in a company.

0:09:56.1 SS: And so by flipping the model, when we looked at that concept, we looked at it as, listen, we’re gonna offer something. We’re gonna offer something to job seekers that’s a premium experience, making it faster, easier, better, safer to find these jobs, but at the time, especially, we’re a needle in the haystacks. About 60 scams for one real job at that point. And we will vet them, we will make sure they’re legitimate, professional, high-quality, and see if people will pay. And then in the flip side, we don’t have to sell to the employers. We can instead just research the jobs and aggregate them into our database and let’s see how that goes. And from the moment we flipped that switch, it was a whole different story. It works so much better, it feels so much better. We’re serving the audience we truly wanna serve, which… The job seekers, to make it a better, safer, faster experience for them.

0:10:40.5 SS: Again, job-seeking is always stressful. Job searching… Or certainly can be. And our opportunity to make that better really allowed us to kinda focus on the people who were kind of buttering your bread, so to speak, I guess.

0:10:51.7 SR: Yeah. One thing that… To date myself. So I definitely remember Job Direct. College Recruiter was a competitor of it, way back when electricity wasn’t… It wasn’t invented yet. My recollection is you had a fleet of RVs. And it might have been three, it might have been 10 or whatever. I’m not talking like thousands of R… But basically, some job boards today will talk about getting the posting in front of the candidate, and what they’re talking about is like programmatic and job distribution, but you had RVs getting the computers in front of the candidates. And that was quite a different era than it is now.

0:11:31.0 SR: There are so many things that I love about FlexJobs, but one of them is that we both… Both of our organizations use a writer, Matt Krumrie, who is just one of the most wonderful, gifted writers and great people in the world. So if you happen to be saying… Or seeing him or whatever, say hello. He’s just fantastic. The question I had for you was about search engine optimization. I think that there are a lot of things that you do well, but to me, when I think of FlexJobs, I think of just a job board that just absolutely kills it in a good way with SEO. When I’m searching for job posting information or whatever, and invariably, you’re gonna be on that first page. So tell us all your secrets. How do you do that? [chuckle]

0:12:21.6 SS: You’re so funny, bringing back, yeah…

0:12:23.4 SR: And without a licensing fee, by the way, and no consulting fee either. Go for it.

0:12:28.3 SS: Yeah, no, it’s funny. I mean, the fact that you bring up… Yeah, the RVs that we had at our first company, which we called the job drive, and we did. They were… It was an entrepreneurial marketing. And at the time, that was… At the time, it was the first time anyone had ever done that. We were not aware of anybody, and we, in fact, won at the time Inc. Magazine had some big marketing master’s awards and we actually won an award for those, for entrepreneurial marketing. And it was a really exciting, interesting time. And so much of it is about bringing jobs to meeting people where they are. And a leap forward to SEO is a very logical step in meeting people where they are. If they’re searching for something, being able to try to be right there. For college campuses at the time, it’s ’cause they didn’t have email. They didn’t have email yet, so we needed to bring…

0:13:12.3 SR: Yeah.

0:13:12.7 SS: Addresses which were networked with laptop computers which signed them up for email, and then got them in our database. This time it’s more, SEO has been really important from a strategic standpoint. It’s very cost-effective as well, especially as a start-up. And so, in both of my organizations, we’ve been able to leverage a couple of things: SEO, and also marketing and press. So I don’t actually, although I enjoy being here talking with you, I actually don’t enjoy doing press so much. I don’t love being in front of cameras or anything like that at all, generally. But I, it’s a really wonderful way to get the story out and to meet people where they are and let them hear the stories from the consumer’s side. And so SEO is something we have leveraged pretty intentionally from the very beginning. We did a lot of company pages. So we had writers on our staff who would do unique descriptions for every single company that we added to the site, and so it was… And it was really written for the job seeker.

0:14:03.1 SS: So our company descriptions aren’t just copied and pasted from the companies like marketing information. It’s really, why, if you were a job seeker looking for flexible work, would you be interested in this company, and what do they do? What do you need to know? So we went to great lengths actually from very early, yeah, early in the company, to create these very high-value SEO company pages, so that any time somebody would look up company name and the remote jobs, we generally would be up there. And that was something strategically early on we did. We had a number of other strategies along those lines, and we did work with a SEO consultant very early on. So I think that that was something that we were able to leverage. And we still look at it with a lot of very creative approaches, and it integrates very well with the press and media strategy, especially as it relates to back-linking and incoming links from high-quality sites. So there’s a lot there, and we have a great team, a wonderful team, that works really collaboratively and creatively together.

0:14:55.8 SR: I love the company page not just being about the company, but about why the candidate who’s on your site should be interested in that company. So if you’ve got a niche job board about engineers or in Latin America, it’s like what does that company have to do with engineering jobs or jobs in Latin America? And that is definitely very unusual. Thanks.

0:15:16.2 SS: Yeah. Writing… I mean, again having our revenue model be driven primarily, and for a long time, not… Although we do work with paid employers as well. We do have that side of the business, also. But originally and primarily working with job seekers allowed us to really focus on their experience. So everything on our site was really written with them… The intention of them having a good experience first and foremost, not advertising the company in the way that they wanted to be advertised, no offenses. But it really wasn’t just about that at all. [chuckle]

0:15:46.5 JD: Well, and I will admit that actually, your press strategy is one that I point clients to when I say this is an example of a job board that has a really good press strategy and is effective at using it and it really does pay off. Most job boards really don’t. They don’t understand it or they don’t feel like they have the resources to pursue it. But, I think that’s great.

0:16:07.7 SS: Yeah, well, and if you know what I’m saying just on the press strategy, it’s… We do it very differently than anyone else. We did it very differently in my first company, also. It isn’t about hiring… We don’t have a press agency. We don’t do… We don’t budget part of it. I did our press strategy internally when we started, and I remember one of our first lands with FlexJobs, one of the biggest ones, was we got on CNN. And that was just a level up. But that was through sheer networking, reaching out, relationship building, being friendly. Reaching out to a writer who you’ve read an article, and an author or a writer like Matt Krumrie or anybody, and saying, “Hey, I liked your article.” “Hey, I cover… I work in this area. If there’s anything I can ever do or here’s some information… ” Just common sense, friendly relationship building. That’s very much more how we view it, than we do what most companies’ press strategy is.

0:16:58.1 JD: Well, I think it’s funny that you said that you don’t really like or feel that you’re a salesperson, but, actually, I think people that are good at press are actually very good salespeople. It’s just a different type of persuasion.

0:17:09.6 SS: It is. And I’m passionate about what we do for sure. So much so. But yeah, you couldn’t… Yeah, I’m not a salesperson.

0:17:17.5 JD: It’s funny. When I was first starting out in my career, I went and did a career assessment. I was an English major. And it kept coming back saying, “You should really be in sales and marketing.” I’m like, “No, I can’t do that, I can’t do that.” “Yes, you should really be in sales and marketing.” And, in fact, I’ve found great satisfaction being in sales and marketing, even though I am an English major, so. Well, Sara, I have another question for you, which is I feel like both of your sites, FlexJobs and, really anticipated where we are right now in terms of the change that’s been in the workforce. So, I’m just curious, almost all the other job boards that we’ve talked to said, “Oh man, from February until August of 2020, our business just went in the hole.” I was wondering if you have a different story. Did your business go up because you already had… You were already servicing remote workers?

0:18:08.5 SS: The short answer is yes. And this has been our market for a very long time. It’s certainly internally dealing with, adjusting with what happened with the pandemic. We’re already a remote company. We’ve been a remote company forever. So, although it was by far, in a way, the hardest couple of years remote working, as most of us didn’t have spouses or partners who worked from home, or children, and especially the younger children, it was really… It’s been a very hard couple of years even for purely remote companies, because we aren’t meant to work remotely the way that was happening, so much with the stress and anxiety and all the other things happening in the world. So, in terms of being able to be a resource for a lot of people and a lot of organizations as they were trying to figure this out, yes, we found ourselves very much in, I’ll say, in a good spot. It’s not how I would have wished it by any stretch.

0:18:56.1 SS: The silver lining in the pandemic for me though is the companies who, many companies who had for a very long time kept their head in the sand or actively denied the efficacy and the effectiveness and opportunity available with the technology associated with remote work, they had to adopt it, and I’ll say a lot of the large tech companies were some of the leading companies saying, before the pandemic being very anti. And it’s ironic because they’re also the companies that build the technology for most of what enables remote work.

0:19:26.0 SS: I was reviewing something on Slack and what their moving forward strategy is with remote work yesterday, and they had written a funny article on point saying Slack, the company that enables remote working for other companies has finally realized that we should do it ourselves. But this was mainly with the pandemic. [laughter] Or so it was tongue and cheek and I appreciate their humor, but that was actually the essence of a lot of what was happening in the market. So I think that the evolution and how we were working and how we define how we’re working and where and when and how needed to change desperately, actually. I don’t think it was working for most people.

0:20:01.6 SS: People made it work ’cause they had to, but the level of is a workplace healthy and sustainable in this day and age for all of the different work and family structures we have nowadays with single parents and long commutes and all these other elements. I think that moving forward, there’s some real benefits to the fact that remote and hybrid, which is where I believe it’s gonna settle primarily, I think we’ll have a lot more remote only companies like ours, and I think that we’ll have some companies who dig their heels in and then say, “We’re gonna stay only on-site,” but the mass majority are gonna end up in some hybrid form and that’s a welcome change overall.

0:20:37.1 JD: I would say, I always focus on the candidate side, both when I’m advising job boards, but also when I look at the labor market, and I think right now, one of the great things that’s come out of the pandemic is there’s a labor shortage, which means that it’s very hard for bad employers to be successful because they won’t have any employee, which just sounds a little vindictive, but I feel like that’s the way it should be. If they’re not good employers, if they’re not willing to make their employees feel respect from them, then they don’t deserve employees. So I hope it stays that way. But who knows. We’ll see what happens in the future.

0:21:13.6 SS: Well and remote work has also always been an insurance policy, and that’s something that most companies also didn’t have to really embrace in a deep systemic way until the pandemic, but prior to that, even when there were hurricanes in the East Coast or bad weather or all kinds of different reasons when people needed the flexibility of having people work from home, it would pop up, but the pandemic just surged it globally. Moving forward, we know that this kind of thing can happen and then also, quite honestly, if it’s okay to mention, we’re going through those refugee crises with Ukraine and all over, and not just Ukraine. There’s many other refugee crises as well, and that’s also an area where remote work is something we’re working with a number of different organizations to try to help support refugees finding jobs that can either move with them and or accommodate their location challenges, I guess, as you might say. So there’s a lot of different reasons why remote work is important to have a healthy, sustainable, and effective workforce moving forward.

0:22:13.8 JD: Yeah, I totally agree, and in fact, I have some acquaintances that are Ukrainian that are continuing to work remotely, even as they’re caught up in the midst of a war. So, well, listen Sara, it’s been wonderful having you on the show, and I appreciate you coming on. If people wanna get a hold of you, what’s the best way that they can get in touch?

0:22:32.1 SS: Probably LinkedIn, Sara Sutton FlexJobs, but that’s probably the easiest, honestly, and then also my email is sara S-A-R-A So I try to keep up on that pretty well but… [laughter]

0:22:43.1 JD: Well, thanks for coming on. I appreciate it.

0:22:45.1 SS: No, my pleasure. It’s great talking with you both. Thanks Steven and thanks Jeff.

0:22:48.1 JD: And Steven, if people wanna get in touch with you, how do they do that?

0:22:52.1 SR: First, they need to wait momentarily because Sara’s such a good predictor of the future that she and I first have to have a conversation about what Powerball numbers I should be playing.


0:23:03.6 SR: And then after that, and only after that, they can email me steven S-T-E-V-E-N Thank you so much, Sara.

0:23:12.1 SS: My pleasure. It’s nice talking with you and thank you both.

0:23:15.0 JD: And I guess that’s it for today’s episode of JobBoardGeek. Please be sure to subscribe via Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, whatever you want. Feel free to give us a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I prefer a thumbs up, and this is Jeff Dickey-Chasins the Job Board Doctor. You’ve been listening to the only podcast that covers the business of connecting candidates and employers. That’s all for now. We’ll see you again next time.

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