Snagajob’s new initiatives seek to boost hiring nationally

By John Reid Blackwell | Richmond Times-Dispatch

A little more than a year into his tenure as the top executive with Henrico County-based Snagajob, Peter Harrison has set a high goal for the Richmond-area’s homegrown, online job-search company.

“We want to be responsible for more hires than any other company in the U.S.,” said Harrison, who became Snagajob’s chief executive officer in April 2013, when the company’s founder and longtime CEO Shawn Boyer stepped away from day-to-day management.

Snagajob has the largest online job-search site focused specifically on hourly or part-time work, with more than 20,000 employers posting about 350,000 job openings at any one time.

This year, the 14-year-old company hit another milestone when it reached 50 million people using its job-search website Snagajob.com.

Harrison is a nearly 30-year veteran of the tech industry, having helped build several ventures into multi-million dollar companies. Yet Harrison said he has never worked for a company that has quite the impact on average consumers that Snagajob does.

“I love it,” said Harrison, a native of London who has lived in the United States since the mid-1980s but has retained his English accent.

“This is the first time I have worked with a technology that touched the consumer so directly,” he said.

With more and more consumers using smartphones for everything from email to shopping to job hunting, Harrison said he has spent much of his time so far at Snagajob pushing for the company to develop improved tools that will make it easier for people to find jobs using the technology in their pockets.

“When I got here, I felt like we were moving in a number of different directions as a company, perhaps too many for a company our size,” he said. “What we needed to do was really focus our energies on being world-class in one thing.”

That one thing is providing a kind of “matchmaking” technology platform that helps job seekers who are looking for lightly skilled, hourly or part-time work find job openings, while also helping employers find the right workers for their needs.

At the start of 2013, about 20 percent of the company’s customer traffic was on mobile platforms. By the end of that year, it was around 50 percent, and Harrison said he wants to see that number continue to increase.

Snagajob recently introduced two revised smartphone apps, designed to help job seekers and employers connect “in a matter of seconds,” Harrison said.

The apps feature some enhanced tools compared with previous versions. For instance, job seekers can use their smartphone to record short video segments of themselves answering a question such as “what do you think good customer service is?” or “what makes you a strong job candidate?”

Potential employers can view those videos using the second app, which is designed for businesses. It also enables employers to review basic job-candidate qualifications, contact those job seekers, and schedule face-to-face interviews.

Harrison said the app is designed to simplify the process and eliminate wasted time and energy for both job seekers and employers.

In a promotional video for the new apps, Harrison said the video tools allow job seekers to apply for jobs “in a way that is fundamentally more personal and allows their true self to shine through.”

“The current job search paradigm is broken,” Harrison said.

“I think it is largely broken because the economics of the typical job board today are all about maximizing the flow of (job) applications, regardless of the quality of those applications,” Harrison said.

“It is not uncommon for a job seeker to submit 20, 30 or 50 applications,” he said, and they don’t get many responses.

“Today, people are just filling out these paper applications that don’t really provide a way for them to stand out. This affords them an opportunity to do that.”

Employers, on the other hand, may be overwhelmed with paper or online applications and may not have time to review them all.

“We are really trying to drive that personal connection between the employer and the seeker,” he said. “We have put our focus on maximizing hires, not maximizing applications. That may hurt us in the short-term, because it may not be something you can monetize immediately. But in the long term it will help us, because it is what employers and job seekers really want.”

Snagajob has the right strategy in offering its users new and improved mobile tools, said Tom Mattson, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business who teaches information systems management.

“I think in the next five to 10 years, we are going to be interacting with these apps much more than we interact with our desktops,” he said.

The concept should work particularly well in the arena where Snagajob is focused — on the types of hourly and part-time work that teenagers, college students and twenty-somethings often seek, Mattson said. That demographic is most well-adapted to using smartphones for all kinds of activities, including job searches.

Harrison stepped into the role of CEO last year to replace Boyer, who said he was stepping away from day-to-day management of the company but would remain its chairman.

Boyer started the company in his hometown of Williamsburg in 2000 and moved it to Henrico County in 2001. Boyer and his family remain major shareholders in the company, but Snagajob has picked up several private equity and institutional investors over the years. Those private equity investors are going to want a payout eventually, which may come through selling stock to the public.

The company has hinted at the possibility of an initial public offering of stock several times, and that remains “a natural outcome,” Harrison said.

“But that is not the goal,” he said. “It is a byproduct of our goal.”

“The company is in a very good position financially today,” he said. “We are profitable in our own right and able to fund our own growth.”

Harrison was hired after a lengthy career that included working as a manager and executive for several tech companies that grew rapidly and then became publicly traded.

Harrison doesn’t present himself as a buttoned-down, executive type, instead preferring a more casual dress style and persona, and a democratic approach to business management.

He describes himself as “an adventure freak” outside of his work life.

“I love to travel, and especially adventure travel,” he said. “I have done silly things like drive across the Sahara and hike from North America to South America.”

Another favorite pastime is kiteboarding, the practice of surfing or skiing using a kite as wind power.

Harrison said it is difficult to describe his management philosophy.

“I am very focused on trying to find the right balance between the flat and the hierarchical,” he said.

“It would be wonderful to think that you could have a completely flat organization,” or one without a hierarchical management structure, he said, but that’s easier in theory than in reality.

Still, he said, “I think that the days of the hierarchy are going out the way of the dodo,” he said. “I am quite passionate about democracy and trying to bring more democratic principles into a work environment.”

So Harrison said he is an advocate of “using technology to flatten out management structures and make people accessible.”

“We do a lot of decision-making where we get a lot of people to contribute, either online, through blogs or spreadsheets,” he said. “I don’t sit in an office. I sit out in the open and encourage everybody to do the same. Also, I move around the office a lot.”

Harrison grew up in London with a brother and two sisters, including a twin sister, Anna, who is now a life coach in France.

“I always hasten to point out, she is not an identical twin,” he joked.

“I fell in love with computers when I was 13, programming an old Timex Sinclair,” he said, speaking of an early version of the home computer introduced in the 1980s.

“I am mildly dyslexic, and so I guess I just related better to numbers than letters,” he said. “I just always loved computers.”

Harrison knew he wanted to go into a career in technology, so he majored in software engineering at the Birmingham University in the U.K. At the time, in the early and mid-1980s, “it was somewhat rare,” to do that, he said.

“When I graduated in ’85, there was still a substantial difference between the U.S. and the U.K. in technology. The U.S. was 10 years ahead, and I knew I had to come to the U.S. because I wanted to be on the cutting edge,” he said.

After a short stint working in the Netherlands for a company that developed software for automated teller machines, Harrison landed a job in 1986 in the United States working in New York for First Boston Corp., an investment bank that was later acquired by Credit Suisse. He worked in information technology for the firm, developing trading systems.

He and several other employees of First Boston eventually persuaded the company to spin off that part of the business as a new venture to develop and sell software trading systems for other banks.

They grew the spin-off business to about $120 million in revenue in five years, and the company went public in 1995.

In 1996, Harrison went to work for Versata, a startup technology firm in San Francisco whose business is difficult to explain, he said.

It was a software infrastructure company that helped other companies “build larger, more scalable Internet websites,” Harrison said. “About half of our clients were dot-coms and the other half were brick-and-mortar companies trying to catch up with the dot-coms.”

“We got the company from $1 million (in revenue) to $64 million in four years and then we took it public,” he said. The company went public at the peak of the dot-com bubble and was valued at about $4 billion, he said.

In 2001, Harrison left Versata and took some time off. “My kids were young, and so I spent some time with them,” he said. “I had the good fortune to be able to do that.”

He and his wife, Christine, also moved the family from California to Northern Virginia, where she had attended high school and college.

In early 2002, Harrison took a job as CEO of McLean-based GlobalLogic, a software research and development services company.

During his 10-year tenure there, the privately held company grew from 20 people to more than 6,000 workers with an international presence.

“We built a great company there, and Peter did an excellent job while he was CEO taking it from a small company to a multi-national company,” said Mike Daniels, who was an investor and chairman of GlobalLogic during Harrison’s tenure.

A 40-year veteran of the tech industry and one of the co-founders of the technology and engineering company SAIC, Daniels described Harrison as a “straightforward, no-nonsense businessman” who also is personable.

Harrison not only has a lot of experience and knowledge in software, he also has the ability to recruit and hire “top talent.” Daniels said.

“He is one of the most likable people I have had the pleasure to work with,” Daniels said. “He has a human touch that a lot of CEOs I have experience with did not have,” he said. “They are so focused on the business side, but the human side is just as important when you are building a company.”

Harrison was hired by Snagajob after a seven-month search process.

He still lives in Northern Virginia and commutes to the Snagajob offices in the Innsbrook Corporate Center in Henrico several days a week.

“That has been surprisingly easy,” he said. “I was a little apprehensive coming in, but the drive itself in this direction is very easy.”

Snagajob has about 230 employees, most of them in the Henrico headquarters. Harrison said about 50 of them are working in mobile technology.

The company will likely hire 15 to 20 more people this year, he said.

Harrison said the company may develop a more significant office in Northern Virginia over time, but the Richmond area will remain its home base “for the foreseeable future.”

“Over time, we will be more of a Virginia company than just a Richmond company,” he said. “There is no question that for the next couple of years, the lion’s share of growth will be here.”

“There is so much institutional knowledge and critical mass here,” he said. “We have a great culture here. I am biased, but I believe we are one of the best companies to work for in this area.”

“Our ability to attract top talent in this area and then to be able to hold onto that talent, is a huge value to us,” he said.

 

Copyright Times-Dispatch. Used by permission.