This Founder Story was written and recorded in February 2020.
What got you started on your journey?
Marius Jeuck (MJ): We had the urge to build a business that would touch the lives of millions of people, something meaningful. Finding a job for most people is a fundamental aspect of life and the segment of skilled workers is an area that has often been overlooked by other players in the recruitment market. We felt this was an area that deserved attention.
Marius Luther (ML): Above and beyond the product, being an entrepreneur gives you the opportunity to touch many people’s lives, whether that be your internal team or the many more lives you can touch with your product. That’s what really got me started on the entrepreneurial journey and then more specifically on the HeyJobs journey.
What was your vision back when you started and how has this now changed?
ML: When we first started out, the initial idea came from being able to do everything in day-to-day life on your phone, like a remote control for your life. So, you can order pizza, travel with Uber, date, book your next holiday etc. The one notable exception was being able to find or apply for a job. We thought, how could you create a CV on your phone and apply for a job on your phone? We thought this was a big blank spot and also an area where we could potentially create an impact for millions of people, so our vision back then was essentially to build a mobile app that had jobs that were easy to find and readily available to apply to. We had a chat bot and many other components there.
MJ: Over time, we learned a lot of things about the market we were in. We learned that, just in terms of the economics, having a web-based platform, rather than purely a mobile app, made a lot of sense in terms of growing the platform efficiently and getting ever more talent on to it. So, we built a web-based product as well. Similarly, on the customer side, we’ve gone upmarket and started working with larger employers, because we learned it’s actually not just the small retailers and restaurants that need support in this area, but also the larger employers also needed support in finding these talents at scale.
What inflection points / turning points have impacted you the most?
ML: On the business side, what was really amazing for me was that – 7 months in – we changed our concept completely. We went to pitch to a client with a powerpoint deck of what we thought was a much better concept and that client immediately committed to a €70K deal, which was 20x bigger than any deal we’d done before and was validation for the new concept. However, we didn’t actually have any of that concept built as a product at that time, but it gave us a lot of confidence to build that new product and go hard at it, making that the new strategy of the company.
This new product was not just the HeyJobs app but a way for us to surface the very best quality applicants for our customers, find them and attract them wherever they are, and deliver them to the customers’ doorstep. The HeyJobs platform is just one part of that, but we would go to plenty of other platforms to attract people, such as instagram, facebook and many others. This really resonated with customers, as they suddenly had one partner doing what they wanted them to do, which is to deliver quality candidates, from wherever they may be.
What has been your experience of hiring exceptional people?
MJ: The transition from being a two person founder management team to a larger management team has been an interesting one. And for that team, it really is important to hire exceptional people, but that fits the profile and is on the next level. Typically, the best hires have much more experience in the area that they will be leading than any of us. I think it’s fair to say that finding exceptional people is exceptionally hard, so it does take up a significant amount of time to build out the management team. In general, people that are focused on one particular area are always only exceptional in the right role – so this is also a journey that we went through over time, as the team grew and the topics grew, and to sustain people in large enough roles.
ML: My observation is that, to get exceptional people, it’s possible at the beginning of a startup because you’re essentially recruiting co-founders and there’s a lot of equity for people to have when you’re starting out. Therefore, at the beginning you can get exceptional people because they have exceptional responsibility and exceptional equity. Then when you get to the point of having around 50 people, it becomes much harder. This is because you don’t have large teams yet that those exceptional people are used to running, but at the same time you can’t give them x% of the equity anymore because the company has gone through some funding rounds. This is the point where the founding team really has to pull through and once you get past a good Series A and 100 people, then once again you’re in a position to start hiring exceptional people, who are used to running larger teams and you’re also able to compensate them better.
And what is your experience of hiring exceptional talent in Berlin?
ML: It’s not easy at all, as there’s still a talent gap in Europe, in comparison to places like Silicon Valley, where people have been on multiple rounds of building unicorns over the last 20 years. we’ve maybe only had 20 or so unicorns so far, where people would be able to build out those capabilities that are needed to scale these teams. That being said, Berlin is a very attractive place for people to work and live, so that makes it somewhat easier, but there are still fewer exceptional people than there are companies that want them.
MJ: Enterprise sales, in particular, are pretty difficult to hire for in Europe.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
ML: What we’re trying to achieve is something unique and that is to be in the top 0.1% of companies globally, in terms of growth rate. Very few companies in the world double or triple their revenues every year. And to achieve this scale of growth, you need to double or triple your team every year as well. That means having to hire and grow new leaders which is still the biggest challenge for most companies in Europe, because there’s a real shortage of that particular talent. And then of course you have a gazillion other, smaller challenges on a day to day basis.
MJ: That sort of growth is not natural in any way and it puts constant pressure on the team, whilst we’re scaling from a founder managed team to team leads and now to a full management team. There are now multiple layers of the team that are always evolving and it creates a lot of work.
How do you both cope with the stress that comes with being a founder?
MJ: Experience helps. If you’ve been riding the founder rollercoaster for a while, the ups and downs are softened. It also helps to have a long-term perspective, to remind yourself that ‘we’re in this for the long run’, ‘we have backing from our investors’ and that ‘we’re building something that will be very valuable.’ This allows us to sustain ourselves over the years, rather than trying to push and push over shorter periods of time.
ML: It’s also important to talk to people who can relate to your experience. This can sometimes be investors, but most of all it’s other entrepreneurs, other founders, perhaps that we already know or have studied with. When you see that there are plenty of other people, who’ve been through the same challenges, it really puts your mind at ease and reminds you that what you’re going through is normal. I think the other thing is having a co-founder, as then you’re not alone on the journey, which would be incredibly hard.
So how important are the people on the journey with you?
ML: The people really are everything in a tech company, because the product is built by the people and sold by the people; the people are the company’s core. When we met, we were both employed, and realised that at the companies we were employed by, there wasn’t enough emphasis on people, and that led to more of a short-term culture, which severely constrained growth. So, from the very beginning of HeyJobs, we’ve put people front and centre. We include the employee happiness in the board deck, if we set three goals for the year then one of them is always to do with the people within the organisation and how we want to grow them. The most important thing to realise is that people are your key ingredient to success.
MJ: On the personal level, we spend most of our waking hours at work. So if you have a shit culture and work with people you don’t like, then what’s the point? So having the right team is important but also having a stable team. The longer you work together, the better you know each other, so the more fun and productive that is.
What’s surprised you the most about your journey?
MJ: What’s surprised me most is how much the job changes over time. At the start, you’re in all of the details. You have a small team, so everybody knows what everyone else is doing in your organisation. The more we grew, the less the information was shared with everyone in the company. So, you need to re architect the communications within the organisation and that takes more of your personal time. Being able to let go of the detail and focus on setting the right goals and communicating those and empower the teams to all run in the same direction is a very different challenge.
If you could go back to when you were first starting out, what would you say to younger selves?
MJ: Coming from a product and tech background, I enjoy just solving problems. In order to build a large enterprise business, you can’t just always solve small tactical problems, but you really need to focus on the bigger picture. With the coaching of some of our investors, Chris Tottman in particular, we have learned to think bigger. Had we tried to sharpen our thinking around this earlier on, the business could already be much better.
ML: In hindsight, we’ve always had a very strong culture, but I would be more consistent on culture, hiring bars and on who to hire. Most great cultures thrive from consistency and are not built on exceptions.
And what advice would you give an entrepreneur considering taking VC funding?
ML: Don’t do it unless you have a venture case. Think hard about who you take the money from, because the average founder / VC relationship is longer than the average marriage!
Obviously, we give a lot of thought to who we marry, so you need to think also about who you really want to work with. In the end, the money is all the same, whoever you take it from. But, if you find someone who can really help you on your journey, then that’s a huge positive. In that, I would look less for operational help (as I believe this is the role of the company itself) but rather you should find a sparring partner, that can be more of a thought partner to you, that has perhaps gone through the same emotional founder journey before and can pick you up and can brainstorm with you around thinking bigger. To me, that’s the most powerful.