Recently, RNN had the opportunity to spend some time with one of the true veterans of the job board industry Steven Rothberg, President and founder of College Recruiter. From humble beginnings selling ad-powered (paper) campus maps in Minnesota, through the evolution of an industry, we get a little bit into history, and dive into the (surprisingly massive) job board industry and some of the plumbing that connects it behind the scenes. The transcript follows the video, if reading's your thing.
Since Steven and Martin can get into it, we are dividing the chat into two segments. This part's got more of the history, and a discussion about good bots versus bad bots. Also, how the job board industry has a parallel in a certain be-hatted TV villain.
Martin Burns 0:06
Hey everybody, Martin Burns here with recruiting News Network. Another great meeting with another thought leader in our industry. This week is Steven Rothberg, co founder of College Recruiter. Hi, Steven, how are you?
Steven Rothberg 0:16
Great, Martin, good to see you. You?
Martin Burns 0:18
I'm good, and good to see you too.
So we want to kind of jump into it. But just as a quick background, Steven is really a pioneer in the space of college recruiting and technology. He's done a lot in, and for, the space. He's got a great perspective on what's happening on campus. What's happening, especially now, in this current kind of strange environment we have with virtual recruiting and virtual career fairs and who's on campus who's, who's on first? All that kind of good stuff. And yeah, and I just want to kind of catch up with him and bring him to you so you can get some of his wisdom, his current experience, and learn more about his background. I think his experience in building a company, founding and building it over several decades is important to learn about too. So with that ado, Steven, if I could ask you to kind of tee things up a little bit. I hate the question of how did you get here, but what really was the genesis for why you want to solve this problem? And what are we trying to solve when you first started College Recruiter?
Steven Rothberg 1:15
Yeah, so what I was trying to solve really early on, wasn't at all in the recruiting space at all to start. The earliest origins of the business, go back to when I was a senior in college, and one of my best friends had this micro business where he published calendars and coupon books and sold them. I visited Arizona State University campus because at the time I was looking at going to law schools. When I was on the ASU campus, I picked up a campus map and it had advertising around the borders, I brought it back from my friend and basically said to him, "Hey, you should do this." He thought it was a terrible idea. And that's fair. And I basically said, "you know, hey, would you mind if I do it?" So in the summer between my senior in college and law school, I did that campus map for the University of Manitoba. And it was super fun, made a ton of money. It was a great experience. And the entrepreneurial bug in me was definitely there. My dad was an entrepreneur, his dad before him. And so it's either a good part of your DNA or a significant defect. I went to law school, and I was clerking for a judge. And most of my friends were working in big corporate offices, which I figured was where I would end up after clerking. And what one of them said to me was that he loves his work, but he hates what his work is doing to him. They were working 70, 80, 90 hours a week, making a lot of money (I think it was like 60 grand at the time, and this is like 1991). But hating their lives. As I said, you know, screw that, not for me, and I restarted the business. So I get a campus map for the University of Minnesota, sold advertising around the borders. I did one for St. Cloud State University. And then realize that the only way for the business to grow, was to do maps like that, and a whole bunch of campuses across the country. And there's only really one time of the year that people need maps. And when I was looking at who the maps they were serving, it was primarily the incoming freshmen. So it occurred to me that another market connected to campus would be the graduating seniors, and what do graduating seniors need more than anything else? So I created an employment magazine. The first Issue went out through the University of Minnesota's career service offices. And this is 1994.
By the third issue, it was being distributed to about 50 schools across Minnesota. The next one was about 200 schools regionally. And the next one after that we had four different regionalized versions. So this is like 1996. And then this thing called the internet came along. A career service office director said to me, "I don't know what the internet is, I've never been on it... My students are telling me that they're using the internet to go to company websites before they're interviewing on campus and figuring out what these companies do and learning about them. And you guys should really get an internet site." So we looked into it, we had a high school kid who was maintaining our network. And he and his dad built our first website for something like $3,000. And November 96. we were live. So we're now on the sixth version of our site and building out our seventh. And the business has changed, as you know, just a little bit in those 25 years.
Martin Burns 6:30
Let's talk a bit about that. So what has been sort of some of the milestone changes from your perspective?
Steven Rothberg 6:35
So, interesting... one milestone change was really early on, literally within the first two weeks. So we had these employment magazines - 30-48, pages, glossy sheets, color on the outside, everything inside is black and white. Articles on how to network, how to find a resume, how to write a resume, that that kind of thing. And then quarter, half, and full-page ads throughout for this role, this, this employer, that employer, etc, when we get a phone call about two weeks after the website went live. And this guy who for the life of me, I can't remember who he is, or who he worked for. I really wish we could figure it out. But he was calling from Texas, worked for a financial services company, and he had found us on Yahoo (Google was still two years away from launching). And he says "I’m interested in running an ad on your website to help me hire college students and recent grads to be entry-level salespeople. How do I do that?" And up until then all the ads that are on the website came from the magazine, we'd literally just taken the magazine, and use a paper cutter, scanned the ads, and then upload them to the website, just basic. So, you could search all the sales positions, or you could search all the positions in Massachusetts, but you couldn't search specifically for sales positions in Massachusetts. I mean, was like that low-tech, HTML links, you click the link, and then the ads would come up. So I explained to this guy, you know, here's how it works. We sell the ads in the magazine, the cheapest one is $485 for a quarter, if you'll pay us $485, we'll run your ad on our website for three months. And the guy says: here's my credit card. So, now, okay, maybe there's a business here. If you're familiar with Guy Kawasaki - I saw him speak one time, and he was talking about a company that he had been involved in that, that they made some kind of a knife and I think it was like, a steak knife or something. And they found out that their customers were actually using it for something else. And they like banging your head against a brick wall forever and ever and ever. It's like, no, this knife is for this purpose. And he's saying "if you've got a whole bunch of people over here who are trying to give you their money, you should try to find a way of making that feasible". And so that's what it kind of ended up happening on our website. We had this guy - and then others - who wanted to run ads online, and it didn't have to go through printing, and all the graphic design and ads could come up, they could come down if they wanted to change the text that could change the text, etc. And we realized this makes a heck of a lot more sense, especially for a student than a magazine that comes out once a quarter and is already out of date. So over the next few years, we migrated. We got rid of the print publications between 96 and 2000. By 2000, we were strictly online, hosted by Boxwood Technology. We outgrew Boxwood. And then another big milestone is that we were then hosted by what was then called Artemis and is now called Nexxt. And that also was hugely beneficial, because we could really focus on serving our customers rather than on the technology. After that, we ended up posting our own technology.
One thing about job boards is that the very smallest job boards are really easy to build your own technology. But they tend to be kind of crappy. They the search doesn't work well, there, they're slow, you can't have very many jobs on them. There's sort of all those technical challenges. And then, of course, the very largest players, the Indeeds, the LinkedIn, whatever, they all have their own technology. So in the job board world, it's like, you either have your own technology, if you're one of the largest or one of the smallest. And the guys in the middle, tend to outsource they tend to use other people's software.
We use AWS, we use Amazon Web Services, and which has repeatedly saved our bacon. Because one of the great things about using an AWS, where you're outsourcing that, where it's in the cloud our site is built to take advantage of that, it scales up and scales down automatically. If you have your own servers if you've got your boxes in a closet someplace. You either run into problems with a lot of traffic, and your servers can't keep up to it. And then your site runs really slowly. Or you're paying for a lot of excess capacity. So almost all of the job boards like we are - call it like second tier, not an Indeed, not at a LinkedIn, but also not like "Fred's job board for retail workers in rural Chattanooga", you know, or something like that. And there's nothing wrong with those sites, but they have a lot less traffic. So almost all of the sites of any decent size are using like an AWS or a Google or one of those for hosting.
Martin Burns 13:27
I'm kind of curious if you're talking about kind of job boards in general, how big is the job board market? Like how many competitors are competitive? I mean, give a sense, remember, they're out there right now, cuz I can't keep track of it. But yeah,
Steven Rothberg 13:43
You know, I was in a conversation like this a few months ago, in a group that you and I participated in a lot on Facebook. Talent Product Plays, which is a great group.
Martin Burns 13:54
I run that.
Steven Rothberg 13:55
Oh, is that are you the administrator?
Martin Burns 13:56
I founded it because I, well, I needed to get some questions answered and couldn't find a group that can answer my questions. So I made one, and it just kind of kept growing. So yeah, that's, me
Steven Rothberg 14:08
See, you probably have a little checkmark or something by your name on that group. Because like, I don't even know what I haven't even noticed.
Martin Burns 14:15
That's fine. That's all good. That's what I want. I want that level of anonymity. I like it, it's like a warm blanket.
Steven Rothberg 14:19
Yeah. Yeah. It's not at all like “come and use our services, and we're just going to pretend that we're like, sharing content”. It’s not self-serving. It's very, it's very open. And it's one of the few groups that I think is well self-policed. Like, you don't have too many people out there aggressively pitching.
Martin Burns 14:37
Yeah, I made it clear early on because I was sick of being pitched to as a practitioner. I was at PwC at the time. And I hated getting the pitch calls and the fake advice. So I made that my one rule.
Steven Rothberg 14:49
Every once in a while somebody will chime in. It's like, you know, oh, my product does that in full disclosure, I am you know, vice president of sales for XYZ company. To me, that's okay.
So, the job board market. Peter Weddell, who's the owner of the, call it the job board association. I know, he doesn't like it to be characterized that way, but it's dominated by job boards. He estimated years ago, 5+ years ago that there were about 100,000 job boards worldwide, roughly half of which are in the US now. I think that that number has shrunk dramatically, I wouldn't be surprised if it's half of that It might even be a third of that. Because what used to be a lot more popular were companies like Nexxt. They had at one point, I think something like 15,000 job boards that they powered. And it was kind of a cookie-cutter thing, where they had different industries, sites, different geographic sites, the database was kind of the same. And so you would see the same job on many of those sites.
Martin Burns 16:21
Yeah, they're just kind of relabeled it basically, reskinned it is a better way of putting it, but behind the scenes, it was still the same thing.
Steven Rothberg 16:27
Yeah. And in my recollection from those sites is if you went to like an engineering site, you were not going to see nursing positions, right. So it wasn't like, it was just a different skin and everything behind it was the same. But the plumbing was the same, you know, the content that you saw the job postings that they would be, they would be largely different. But if there was a nursing job in Houston, you would see that job on the nursing site, and also on the Houston site, which is appropriate. I would guess that they're probably roughly 20,000 job boards in the US. There are hundreds that matter, where you've got a fair number of employers who are really relying on them. And then you've got a whole lot of sites out there that are basically pulling in a lot of job seeker traffic, through articles, buying traffic, whatever, and then sending that traffic off to different aggregators or job distributors. So for example, if one of the largest sites in the world is Talent.com. It's a big aggregator, I think their head offices in Montreal, but they've got a strong European background, they're strong in Canada, they're strong in the US. As a small little job board, you can get a feed of jobs from them, and then display those to the job seekers who are using your site. And talent will pay you per click. So every time one of the job seekers comes to your site, they run it, they see that nurse job in Houston and they click your apply button to go over to you know, Humanas website or wherever they're going, then you might get 25 cents or 50 cents. And if your costs are pretty low, you can make a pretty decent living that way, by driving job seeker traffic. The sites that really sell directly to employers or through advertising agencies, you know, whether it's while I was just about to say TMP, but it's now called on Radancy, or "the artist formerly known as TMP".
Martin Burns 18:47
They're going to be just a symbol someday.
Steven Rothberg 18:49
Yeah, like the glyph... But you know, if it's through a Radancy or HireClix, you know, there aren't that many job boards that do much of that’s where the bulk of our revenues come from is selling postings, mostly on a per-click basis on either directly to employers or through their advertising agencies. And we also get postings from what we call backfill partners. They're the aggregators like the talent coms of the world.
Martin Burns 19:31
That kind of behind-the-scenes kind of movement of traffic is always kind of to me kind of fascinating because that's the plumbing behind all of it. How we can flow candidates around? What do you think about that? I've heard some allegations recently that there's a lot of bot traffic happening, a lot of bot clicks happening on job boards. How do you deal with that with your data and your actual true clicks,
Steven Rothberg 19:54
It's a massive problem. You know, those of us who are managers, executive owners, whatever of our businesses, hopefully, most of us are realistic to know that our businesses have strengths and weaknesses. This is an area where we're we're actually really good at, it's really important to us. So when we send a click to a candidate to an employer's ATS to hopefully apply, that click we determine - using software that we built - if that click is valid, is it a real jobseeker? Is it going to the employer site in a timely basis? Or did we send out a job match alert email six months ago, and for some reason, somebody opened it today and then clicked on the jobs. Employers don't want to pay for somebody to go to their site that when that ad hasn't existed for six months.
Martin Burns 20:55
Well, the experience is terrible for the candidate and it's a black eye for the employer.
Steven Rothberg 20:59
Sometimes, but if you're say, Target or Walmart, and you've got an ad for a retail sales associate, that ad is going to be running on your ATS all the time. More commonly is what I think you're envisioning. You know, "Sally just quit in accounting, we need a new accounting assistant", and then some company posted ad and maybe 10 days later, 30 days later, they pull down the ad. That would be a terrible candidate experience for somebody to go to the ATS and for that job to no longer exist. So most of the better job boards, in fact, probably every single one of them has technology where they're trying to determine is that click a bot, is it just some spiders, some spiders and bots are good. Google comes to our site, many times a day goes through our site to look for new content, updated content, or whatever, that's a bot. That's a good bot but provides value to the ecosystem. There are also bots from, you know, companies in Russia, that then take job postings and create bogus job boards just to get people to register and steal their identities. That's not a good bot. But some of the bots, there are some job boards that tend to be smaller, that do not do a good job of identifying that click came to their site, it saw the job posting, it sent the candidate over to the employers, ATS. If it's a bot, the employer shouldn't have to pay for that. But some job boards just simply don't know, quite frankly. In 2021, I think it's that they don't want to know. The technology now is not revolutionary, it's been out there for at least a decade, it's pretty easy. Employers should never pay for bot traffic, they should never pay for what we call "foreign clicks". If there's a sales position in Boston, and there's a fantastic candidate in Estonia, that clicks on that job, that employer should never pay for that candidate, because that candidate is almost never going to be qualified to accept that position. We're starting to see with those foreign clicks, a further tightening where some employers are insisting on that being non-local. So if you've got a candidate in New York City, who's applying for a sales position in Boston, some employers don't want to pay for that click. Quite frankly, I think that goes too far, especially in our niche. Literally, most graduates of four-year colleges and universities relocate upon graduation. So if you grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, basically down the street from Boston, and your fiance is in Boston, and you're graduating from a school in Manhattan, there's a really good chance that you're going to be running a job search from your apartment in New York City, looking for a position in Boston, and you are not looking to that employer to pay for your relocation expenses. That's just how the search works for college grads. That local candidate only just doesn't make sense in that niche.
Martin Burns 21:07
That makes sense. I think it's good to sort of define your parameters here. North America. Probably good. Estonia, maybe not so much. Bosnia, probably not.
Steven Rothberg 24:47
Yeah, to me the country thing is totally fair. I'm not really quite sure how they handle it in the EU. You know, if you've got a candidate in the south of France, who's looking at a job in, you know, North Eastern Spain? So they're 12 miles away from it? Roughly 20 kilometers. Is that candidate foreign? If they're both in the EU and you're allowed to cross borders to work at? That's probably okay.
Martin Burns 25:17
I would think you probably will know what the UK no longer. So that's complicated. That's interesting. Yeah. I didn't really, I didn't really grasp all of that. But that's, that's fascinating.
Steven Rothberg 25:37
I know that there are a lot of recruiters, probably a bunch of people who are going to listen to this and be like job boards shouldn't swap postings like that. I would ask those recruiters to consider, especially like in the third party recruiter, aka headhunter, aka staffing company, what would happen to those industries, if there were no splits? So for years, probably, basically, forever in the recruiting industry, you'd have a recruiter who has the candidate, and another recruiter who has the job. And they'll work together, and they split the fee that they're paid on for that search. And very few people say that there's anything wrong with that. They both bring value, and the employer doesn't pay anything more by having both organizations involved in the search. Job boards are basically doing splits, that we've got some job boards that are really good at driving job seeker traffic, and other job boards that are really good at essentially selling postings to the employers. And they work together to get that candidate connected to that employer, and it doesn't cost the employer anything more. To me, that's good, as long as there's disclosure.
Martin Burns 27:04
And as long as the experience for the candidates is good, they're not double-clicking from one board to the other, and then finally to the employer, because that can happen too. That's where it gets weird.
Steven Rothberg 27:13
Good point. We don't do this. But there are definitely job boards where the candidate sees the posting, and they click the apply button. And then they're on another job board, they have to see the same posting, and they have to click the apply button again, and again, and again, and again. And then you go over to an ATS that just gives you like a blank white screen and tells you to log in. And then there's a little link that says "Create Account". And that... where do you even start to improve that process?
Martin Burns 27:46
Even Google does that to an extent. Google Jobs. Unless the employer has the right schema set up, and not everyone does yet. They wind up going to a job board, and then to the employer. So even Google, who is the experience kings does this too. That kind of click and click and click piece. Have you heard about the Amazon story, I think the title is "the $300 million button." It's worth looking up. It's a few years back. It's a story about UX. Amazon used to require you to make an account before you started buying anything. You log on to Amazon, and they want to know your name email, and they thought this small little thing and then you can go shopping. They thought this was no big deal. They thought. They hired a UX consultant. And he said, "Well, let's put that at the end". Shop first. And I think the first year that their revenue went up, by $300 million. They were losing that much because of that one bit. And that haunts me. I think about our process as recruiters, this multiple click, click, and then you get to a job board. And they're mostly powered by a start to a career site. They're often powered by Taleo, and it's hard wired, you have to make an account, no matter what. You aren't given that option to offer a better experience, or where to move it.
Steven Rothberg 29:21
As a job board owner, people are surprised when I say. That there's not a single candidate out there who wakes up in the morning and says "I can't wait to go to College Recruiter, Indeed, LinkedIn, whatever". We're all a means to an end, right? They're coming to get a job or if they even know they're on a job board, which a lot of them don't, they don't understand what it is they see a job. It's like, I don't know how you fit in. But there's a job and I'm interested, so I want to apply to it. Quite frankly, that's all they should know. They shouldn't have to understand the financials and why are we asking them to register here not register there, what a job alert email is right, it's way, way too complicated. We're asking them way too much information, at the end of the day, we need to remove as many speed bumps as we can between that candidate and that recruiter. And if a job boards livelihood depends on extracting data from a job seeker, and then doing that at scale across, you know, millions of candidates so that the job board can harass them to generate 25 cents worth of clicks. But to me, it's just not a sustainable business model
Martin Burns 30:43
As recruiters in general, I think we're facilitators. Our job is to move things along quietly and not even be seen. I don't know if you watch the show The Blacklist. But I view Raymond Reddington, that character as like a job board. He's connecting things behind the scenes, and he doesn't want to be seen - for lots of reasons. But his goal is to kind of connect A with B, he's a broker. Right? And his goal is to not be in the way of the deal happening. Yeah.
Steven Rothberg 31:17
And he's kind of evil.
Martin Burns 31:18
Oh, yeah. He's great. Kind of personal hero.
Steven Rothberg 31:26
He's got my haircut.
Martin Burns 31:27
There you go. There you go. He kind of rocks a hat kind of doesn't. But I think you're right, the idea that our job is to make their lives easier. And when I say they I mean, the employer and the candidate. Make the hire happen. And getting in the way and trying to grab data and clicks. For our own reasons, to make extra money and sell ads is not a good way to go. It's not sustainable. It's not scalable, I think to your point because it's simply that wheels fall off. You're going to be ignored and you're going to become a logjam and a blocker, and smart employers are looking at that and saying "my traffic from your job board is not moving fast, it's not quality, because you're slowing yourself down, so I'm going with somebody else."
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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