Our fifth anniversary

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I started this blog not long after founding MyWorkSearch in 2009. We started product development in February 2009 and provided our online service to our first customers in September 2009. In what seems like a blink of the eye, our portal is now five years old. We have a reasonably large team, numerous customers and are about to expand overseas. Whilst I still consider MyWorkSearch to be in startup mode I often hear others refer to us as an established business and the benchmark in our sector.

Fifth anniversaryThe five-year milestone has resulted in my thinking back to our original plans and how they have evolved over the years. The technology world often refers to business ‘pivoting’. This is a fancy way of describing when a company discovers that its anticipated business model has not worked out and survival necessitates a change of strategy. MyWorkSearch has certainly done its fair share of pivoting and it has only been in the last year or two that we have had a clear sense as to who our target customers are and the value we bring that will result in them paying for our services.

Our original rationale was that most people find job search a challenge. They approach the task in a chaotic and haphazard fashion and this reduces their effectiveness. Having paid consultants/advisors provide job search assistance is in most cases simply too expensive. We believed that technology would provide an effective and affordable alternative and this led to MyWorkSearch. We decided to create a portal that would provide all the resources a jobseeker would find useful as well as the tools to stay organised. We knew that this would increase job search effectiveness and real-life experience has demonstrated this to be the case.

Which brings me back to our business model. We have identified five types of customer. However, our ‘compelling value’ proposition only works well with four of them:

  • Motivated jobseekers see immediate relevance in MyWorkSearch. They access the resources they find useful and recognise the value they have received from their MyWorkSearch account.
  • Providers delivering a programme for the unemployed also appreciate MyWorkSearch. Our portal provides the structure and reporting that both enable effective job search and demonstrate that it is happening. MyWorkSearch ensures that systematic job search takes place and the provider can require that those they are assisting use it. We are a low cost, scalable and efficient way of delivering business performance and we can readily communicate this to our prospects.
  • Employability is important for colleges and vocational training providers and they can see how MyWorkSearch helps them systematically achieve progression. MyWorkSearch is part of how the students’ courses are delivered and they just get on and use it. Study Programmes, Traineeships and employability courses all generate customers for us.
  • Some organisations, such as libraries and job clubs, want to have a range of useful resources available to their users. MyWorkSearch is a readily accessible portal that service users will appreciate and a sector for whom we have a clear proposition.

Our challenge is the fifth type of customer. This is the unemployed individual who lacks job search motivation and is not on a programme where MyWorkSearch usage is mandatory. We know that MyWorkSearch can help this person, however, we also know that there is a high chance that the individual will either fail to open a MyWorkSearch account or quickly give up. As matters stand we don’t have a compelling proposition for these customers as our service cannot benefit them if they won’t use it.

As we look to the future my hope is that we find some solutions for this fifth customer group. How can technology engage with and motivate individuals who have got into the habit of giving up and who are not on mandatory programmes? If we can solve this our next five years will be even more successful.

Just ask Apple

Over the past nine months I have visited numerous further education colleges and met with a wide range of staff and learners. I have also attended several conferences and listened to politicians and representatives of funding bodies.

Further Education colleges are vitally important. They are responsible for educating millions of young people each year and in many cases they will be the last step before entering the world of work. How they prepare their students directly affects the learners’ lives and also the prosperity of our society.

Unfortunately the sector is experiencing real challenges. Funding is getting cut, targets harder and meanwhile many operating overheads are difficult to reduce. Often properties were designed many years ago and are both expensive to maintain and inflexible. The students they are helping are facing a harsh jobs market where work is scarce and tenure uncertain.

All of these are problems that would tax even the best of managers. But to make matters worse colleges have another major challenge.

Two well known business maxims are “Deliver what the customer wants” and “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. For colleges the customer can be the learner or the employers that hire the college’s students. Meanwhile the paymaster is a bureaucratic government department operating under national policies set by the government of the day.

So college leaders are pushed and pulled between competing interests. In some colleges this is very apparent and their future does not look good. Death by a thousand cuts until a forced merger puts them out of their misery. Other colleges are coping better. Sometimes this is fortunate geography creating opportunity and sometimes it is just a question of better leadership.

I have a simple perspective. The product that really counts is talented students. Produce confident, capable and highly employable students and the college has a viable future. It will have a sought after ‘product’ and when there is strong demand the money normally follows. Just ask Apple.

Year 3

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We are just signing off our second full year of accounts and this brings home to me that MyWorkSearch is not quite the startup I consider it to be.  Indeed to be totally accurate the company is now 27 months old.  The business has gone from an idly discussed idea to fully formed business with a wholly functional technology product, numerous awards, management structure and processes, employees, customers and multi-million sales.  I still have my original business plan and whilst our core proposition remains the same it is amusing how wrong I was about so many aspects of who we would sell to, how and at what price.  On the one hand I can take pride in our ability to adapt to the market and opportunities, however I also have to recognise that a considerable sum of money was speculated on a venture that turned out very differently from the forecasts that underpinned the investment decision.  I don’t think that this is inherently bad, however it is important to recall this lest hubris sets in.

We now face our next set of challenges.  When we started we were pioneers in suggesting that the labour intensive process of (re-)employment transition assistance could instead be delivered using technology.  The prevailing wisdom was that our type of service could at most be a support resource to the assistance provided by a consultant.  We were not calling into question the value that a consultant could bring.  We just observed that in many cases there simply was not the funding to provide help in this way and that an effective alternative was necessary.  We thought it could be done through smart technology and decided to invest our time and money in making this happen.  Now that we have proven it is possible and become successful we have competition.  In many ways this is a good thing.  With very few exceptions, the absence of competition indicates the absence of a market.  Also, having competitors keeps us on our toes and ensures we do not assume our current market leadership is an entitlement.

So where to next?  We have made good progress with our employer proposition. Each week new organisations subscribe to our services and we are winning repeat business, demonstrating customer satisfaction.  We are partnering with an expanding number of organisations and it is clear that so long as we don’t do anything daft we will continue to develop our market presence.  Our government work is also progressing well.  This summer, in the UK, the Department for Work & Pensions starts the Work Programme.  Many hundreds of thousands of people per year will be assisted first into employment and then helped remain in work.  Delivery is sub-contracted via regional ‘Prime Contractors’ and with funding tight and the numbers requiring assistance high, technology solutions are one of the few methods of making the Work Programme viable.  This presents us with a huge opportunity and this week we launched our Work Programme mini-site at www.myworksearch.co.uk/wp.

Working with those whose employment challenges are more severe has allowed us the opportunity to once again embark upon intensive product development and stretch ourselves as we consider how to meet the needs of this client group.  We started work last year on our Nudge Engine® – functionality throughout our site to examine a person’s progress with MyWorkSearch and make personalised, useful suggestions – and have significantly expanded this for the Work Programme.  Our head of research, an occupational psychologist, has created a number of transferable skills questionnaires that can elicit what a person has the potential to do and then MyWorkSearch takes this data and helps both author a CV that presents the client’s capability in the best way and also finds relevant vacancies.  Other innovations include sophisticated activity management with jobseeker performance reporting provided to the Work Programme advisor helping the client, integrated chat to provide jobseekers with help when they need it and user journeys that can be customised and locked-down.  We created a table of MyWorkSearch features and were pleasantly surprised when we reviewed just how much we had developed.  At the very least we expect to positively impact upon the lives of many thousands of people who are struggling with the difficulties of extended unemployment.  However if our approach proves successful with those whose employment problems are more severe it is quite possible that we will have a transformative effect upon the welfare to work sector.

So we may no longer be a baby startup – but it certainly doesn’t feel like we are coasting or can rest on our laurels!

Thrilled!

I have had a simply superb fortnight.  My colleagues and I work very hard to make MyWorkSearch a success.  We have to get very many things right, from product development to customer service to back office efficiency to revenue generation.  Drop the ball and a relatively new business such as ours can founder.

We submit for industry awards from time to time as it is a good external validation that we are getting things right.  A very important aspect of our service is the way we communicate knowledge to MyWorkSearch users.  It was therefore especially pleasing that we have been shortlisted in ‘The most innovative new product or tool in e-learning’ category in the 2010 e-learning awards.  We will discover in November whether we have won.

We are members of Microsoft BizSpark.  This is a superb programme run by Microsoft to assist technology companies in their first few years through providing a wide range of assistance.  Each year the UK BizSpark team organise a Summit and, as part of this, invite members to submit their business to a Dragon’s Den of experts who pick the best company.  This year 77 companies were entered and 6 were selected to present.  MyWorkSearch was not only one of the six.  We won!

The judges used the G/Score methodology to evaluate the businesses.  This provides a comprehensive framework to assess a business and results in a thorough appraisal of an organisation’s strategy, structure, commercial offering and achievements.

Earlier this year we were selected as the Best Business Startup in the European LinkedIn Business Awards.  It is great to see we are still on track.

Transition

I should be depressed; however I am not.  In addition to it looking like I will lose my bet, my company is soon likely to have to contend with a more challenging environment.  All the indicators are that the economy has turned and we are now on the road to recovery.  We may not be on the motorway, indeed it feels more like a windy country lane, however the economy is gradually becoming more benign with fewer bad news stories and reasonably frequent positive ones.

This makes it harder for MyWorkSearch which has clearly benefited from high levels of unemployment; with recovery there will inevitably be fewer potential users of our service.  However the reason for my optimism is that I am quite certain that even in a more buoyant environment there will still be employment change.  Some organisations will prosper and recruit, others will do less well and shrink.  Companies will merge and operations will move.  All of this will mean a reasonable level of ongoing demand for outplacement and career transition assistance.

The reason for my optimism is I am convinced that our hypothesis just over a year ago, that online outplacement would be useful, has proven correct.  As overall demand for outplacement shrinks the requirements that remain will gravitate to MyWorkSearch‘s online model.  So many thousands of people have now experienced the benefit of 24/7 unlimited assistance that it is hard to see many preferring the alternative of a handful of consultant delivered hours that the same budget offers.  As with so many other sectors, technology is changing the way this one operates.  Whilst my colleagues and I may need to work harder to secure new business, at least we will be doing so in the satisfaction that our country is suffering less hardship and meanwhile our business model is aligned to what the customer wants.

Over the next few weeks we will be upping our game in order to ensure we remain at the forefront of our sector.  We will be launching our new website and embarking on a major marketing campaign.  Hours of additional e-learning content will be added to MyWorkSearch and we will be rolling out a new design combined with usability improvements.  The benefits of feedback from thousands of users combined with six figure investment will see us capitalise upon our existing lead and ensure we are the obvious choice for outplacement purchasers.

None of this helps with my bet.  But if there is one gamble I have to lose, I guess that this is the one it should be!