December 11, 2020
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What I’ve Learned Launching and Failing at Job Boards

Ever since I interviewed Aging Media’s John Yedinak on the podcast, I’ve been thinking a lot about job boards. When I released the episode, another listener seemed almost relieved that he wasn’t the only one that had struggled to make a job board work for their business. It made me think about the two times that I had attempted to build job boards.

The first time was at my first company, ThomasNet. We set out to create a niche job board that would be for jobs in manufacturing and procurement. It made sense in our minds because ThomasNet was all about bringing manufacturing back to America and it’s a tool used by many procurement professionals.

It was set up like a joint venture where one group handled sales, the other group provided the software and then we would be responsible for the audience development. Since my job at the time was in SEO, this made perfect sense to me.

Fast forward six months and the job board failed and was shut down.

At CoinDesk, I was convinced I had learned the mistakes of running a job board. When the idea of launching one came up, I immediately raised my hand and said I’d do it. I remember writing a complete business plan on a trip back from Japan. The lights were out, but I was aggressively typing.

We built it. I found launch partners—who happened to be some of our biggest advertisers—and we attempted to make something of it. A few months later, it was floundering, priorities had shifted and what we thought could have been a great opportunity was not.

Now that’s a quick, abridged history of my failings at job boards. But from it, I’ve come to appreciate a few critical things about running them. By understanding this, you might have a better chance of succeeding with a niche job board; or, more likely, you’ll recognize it’s just not worth the effort.

Let’s jump in…

Classic chicken or the egg problem

Job boards operate through three main business models.

The first is the candidate pays for access. I don’t love this model and I’ve never played around with it. It requires a specific type of job and seems like setting you up to fail more often than not.

The second and third are tied to gaining exposure to applicants. One way is through paid job listings. The other is through acquiring access to a database of resumes that a recruiter can then scan and identify potential candidates.

If you’re looking at the above paragraph and recognize the problem, you’re smarter than I was the two times I tried to launch a job board.

Job boards are marketplaces. They require two constituencies to show up at the exact same time looking to do the exact same thing. Companies need to show up looking to find new employees and people need to show up looking to find new jobs.

That simultaneous dynamic is the most important factor that goes into running a job board and it is also one of the hardest.

What came first? The job listing or the job applicant? You might say the job listing, but here’s a question. Why post a job listing if there are no job applicants?

It’s a chicken and egg problem. Prospective employees are not going to come to a job board that doesn’t have great jobs; however, employers aren’t going to waste their time posting on a site that has no audience. You don’t have the flywheel we’re used to in media with content –> audience –> money and repeat. With job boards, you need content and audience at the same time or you struggle.

There are proposed solutions to this.

First, you can pay for applicants. It becomes a simple arbitrage game whereby you charge $300 for a job listing and then spend $100-$150 on applications. I’ve seen that work for other job boards and it’s remarkably simple.

Second, you can backfill jobs. There are large aggregator job boards that will funnel jobs to your site for free. Suddenly, your job board goes from no content to a ton of content.

Both of these result in the same negative outcome: the user has no idea your brand exists.

By purchasing applicants, your jobs show on larger boards. You get credit for the applicant, but the person doesn’t know your brand exists. So, you’re not building a relationship with the applicant at all.

By backfilling jobs, the HR departments don’t know you exist because the applicants that might come from your job are actually routed through the aggregator. In applicant tracking systems (ATS), the source of the candidate is included in the application. With aggregated jobs, the source is still the aggregator. You don’t benefit.

There’s a reason many of these massive marketplaces—Uber, DoorDash, Airbnb, etc.—are all going public for tens of billions of dollars. Solving marketplace dynamics is incredibly hard; if you can do it, your brand becomes a moat in and of itself.

Passive vs. active job seekers

There are two categories of applicant: passive and active. The passive person is someone who doesn’t look for jobs, but could be incentivized to look at an opportunity. These tend to be the people that are recruited. The active person is someone who is looking for a job. They seek out job boards.

As job board operators, we want active job seekers. No one makes an account on a job board if they’re not looking for something; that’s what LinkedIn is for. Therefore, we need to find people that will create accounts on the job board, upload their resumes and seek out jobs.

Here’s where you’d think running niche job boards might be easier. ThomasNet is a directory for procurement professionals looking for companies that supply specific things (I’ve described it as anything from gears to pizza boxes) or manufacturing services. Therefore, launching a job board that helped people in procurement and manufacturing find jobs was a no-brainer to a 24-year-old me. We had the audience already. If we just placed the jobs in smart places, these millions of users would find us and start applying for jobs.

Here’s what I didn’t account for…

People that were coming to ThomasNet were coming to do their job. It was a destination for a very specific task. Therefore, at 2pm on a Wednesday when someone showed up, they were at the office, in the middle of trying to find a supplier for something. They were not looking for a job.

My mistake was thinking, “if I have a targeted audience and I introduce a new offering for that group, they’ll benefit from it.” The ThomasNet job board was incredibly helpful for people in procurement and manufacturing that were looking for jobs. Unfortunately, everyone that was visiting ThomasNet had a job and the vast majority likely were not looking for a new one.

This is, unfortunately, a problem I’ve seen many people make in b2b media. They assume that they have the target audience for a job board in the same niche as their news, so it’s a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the reason people read our publications is that they need the information to be better at their jobs. They’re not actively looking for a new job.

Everyone’s passive until they’re active. But you can’t build a business on hoping that your audience one day goes active. It’s too unpredictable.

To bring the right type of job seeker to your board requires a career-forcused content strategy. You need to be producing a solid amount of career-related content to target active seekers. Context matters.

It’s a grind for low-cost product

Part of the reason a subscription business is a great model is that the revenue is recurring. I have people that have paid monthly for AMO going on almost a year. That recurring, auto-charged payment is really nice when you’re building a company.

Job boards don’t really have that. The model is closer to selling one-off products. Someone in recruiting has to come to your job board, purchase a job listing and then upload the job. It doesn’t get more transactional than that.

It’s also a very passive way to run your job board, waiting for clients to come to you.

The way around that is to actively try to sell bundles. Rather than HR coming and purchasing a one-off, sell them 10 listings and then invoice them. That way, they don’t need to pull out the credit card. It reduces friction.

The problem with that is you’re selling a product that doesn’t cost a lot. Even if you’re running a job board that has listings for $500 a pop, after a 20% discount for bulk purchase, you’re selling 10 listings for $4,000. Are you really going to hire someone to hunt down deals like that?

Obviously, there are much larger whales out there that might purchase hundreds or thousands of jobs, but be careful… These are far and few in between and your marketplace starts to look more like a branded job board than a place with diverse opportunities.

To make a niche job board really work, you need someone who can do sales and someone who can create great content to help you grow audience. At least two jobs. Perhaps you can backfill content with your other writers, but the job board really needs high-quality, career focused content that helps people in that niche.

Is it worth it at $500 a job listing?

Jobs are local… sort of.

I want to finish on an interesting thing I’ve been thinking about.

Job searching is regionally specific. There’s a reason many newspapers have job boards. If I live in New York, I’m going to seek out a job that is in New York. Newspapers typically have a large, local audience and many active job seekers use them to find jobs.

At least, this was always the case when I was running job boards because I operated pre-Covid.

It’s going to be interesting to see how job boards evolve with the very stark divide between work that can be done remotely and work that has to be done in person.

When evaluating a job board opportunity, this is something you, the operator, have to be very clear about. Is your industry driven by local demand or can work be done anywhere? If I am launching a manufacturing job board, that seems like something very local, which means I need a local SEO strategy. However, if I am launching a job board for software engineers, the focus can be national or even global.

Part of running job boards today is attempting to understand how work is going to evolve. I remember the first time I heard about the gig economy… it was 2013. Not because of Uber. It was because job board operators were talking about how gigs would change their business. Operators are asking the same questions now that they were asking then: what does remote do to my business? Does local still matter?

Let me sum up…

Job boards are incredibly difficult to run because of a multitude of reasons (many that I didn’t even include here). But these three reasons are major ones.

The first reason is the chicken or egg problem. How do you get an audience without job listings? How do you get companies to post jobs with an audience? Solve that problem and things become easier.

The second reason is the active vs. passive seeker. Running a niche publication and then adding a job board doesn’t mean your audience translates. You need a content strategy centered around careers.

The third reason is because this work requires active selling. Is it worth hiring someone to sell $500 job listings? Probably not.

I’ve always been enamored with job boards, but have failed twice in building them. It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, but when you’re thinking through your business, be very intentional with this decision. It might seem like a slam dunk, but let me tell you, job boards are hard.

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