Serial Entrepreneur Sara Sutton Fell on the Joys of Flexible Working
The NextWomen Career Theme.
Sara Sutton Fell is a successful entrepreneur and founder whose business, FlexJobs, has grown since its founding in 2007 to become the leading career website for flexible and telecommuting jobs.
For her work with FlexJobs and her expertise in the online job market, Sara was named a 2011 Game Changer by Workforce Management Magazine, and has been quoted by CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes.com, Entrepreneur, Inc., and Fortune.
Before founding FlexJobs, Sara co-founded another job service, JobDirect, which she helped to grow to over 100 employees and sold to Korn|Ferry International in 2000.
We spoke to Sara about selling her first company; the joys of flexible working; and the best career decision she’s ever made.
TNW: How did you come up with the idea for FlexJobs and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?
SSF: When I was pregnant with my first child, I began looking for flexible job opportunities that would allow me to be more present for my family while also being productive in my professional career. I was open to almost any kind of work flexibility, such as telecommuting, freelance, part-time or flexible schedule options, but the overall effort to try to find legitimate and professional jobs with any of these was frustrating. There were scams, ads, too-good-to-be-true offers, and other junk.
The experience inspired me to found FlexJobs, because quite simply, I believed there should be an easier way to find jobs that offered flexible work options.
TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?
SSF: FlexJobs is a niche job search service that provides a safer, easier, and faster way for job seekers to find legitimate, professional-level telecommuting and flexible jobs. We do that by alleviating a major pain point in the job search process for these highly desired jobs – we make sure every single job on our site (1) is with a legitimate company, (2) offers some kind of work flexibility, and (3) is career-oriented. Our team of job researchers find and pre-screen every job and company before posting them to our site, something that almost no other free job boards do.
Most job seekers nowadays don’t consider the job search experience a positive one.
We’re truly aiming to serve the job
seekers and make it a more productive and enjoyable service In addition
to our core differences, there are no ads whatsoever on our site, and we offer
additional benefits to our users such as expert skill testing and over 50
related savings offers.
TNW: Who are your customers and partners?
SSF: Our customers are job seekers looking for
flexibility, and this includes lots of groups, like working moms and dads,
young professionals, retirees, military spouses, people with disabilities,
rural job seekers, and anyone seeking better work-life balance. We also have
employer partners who post their jobs directly with FlexJobs because they’re
looking for qualified, professional job candidates who are serious about
We also have partnerships that support overarching initiatives for the company. One that we’re really proud of is with Working Mother, where we are their official job board. Another is with Cancer and Careers, a great organization supporting cancer patients and survivors who are staying in and returning to the workforce.
In addition, we partner with over 50 businesses and organizations who offer career and work-life balance products and services, like Dell computers, LegalZoom, Women For Hire, Nutrisystem, Carbonite, and Lynda.com. We are thrilled because our partners offer our job seeking members discounts of 10 to 75% off their products and services to help them balance their work and personal lives.
TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?
SSF: Every new business considers different revenue models and after founding FlexJobs in 2007, I had to confront the difficult reality that our revenue model wasn't working, and unless we made big changes, the site wouldn't be successful. We made the unconventional decision to flip-flop the revenue model by charging job seekers a nominal membership fee and keeping the site free for employers to list jobs. By taking this creative leap, FlexJobs demonstrated that job seekers are our number one priority and we've continued to grow and thrive as a business.
If we hadn’t made this risky change, we probably wouldn’t have succeeded as a company.
TNW: Tell us a little about selling JobDirect. How did you manage the exit process? How did it feel to sell your business, and did you always know you would go on to found another business?
SSF: JobDirect was one of the most fun, challenging,
and rewarding periods of my life and bringing that to a close was emotional for
sure. But it was time. We had grown the company to over 100 people,
brought on a new CEO, and had a complex investment structure. Selling the
company was the right thing to do, and given what happened in 2000 with the
internet economy imploding, it was the right time as well. At the time, I
didn’t know if I’d go on to found another business, buy my experience with
JobDirect certainly gave me the confidence to more easily consider the option
in the future.
TNW: What lessons did you learn from founding and running JobDirect and go on to apply to FlexJobs?
SSF: With JobDirect, we managed the company like a
traditional start-up, with a team of young, eager professionals who worked tons
of hours, were friends with each other just as much as colleagues, and who all
felt empowered and dedicated to the success of the company. With FlexJobs, I
wanted to recreate that passion and empowerment, minus the 15 hour workdays.
The mission of FlexJobs is to help people find better work-life balance through
flexible work options, and we practice what we preach – no all-nighters or late
work hours, only flexible schedules that complement our personal lives, and
instead of a corporate headquarters, everyone works from home offices. It’s a
far cry from my experience with JobDirect, but I’m very proud to have created
two companies that have great corporate cultures, with both productivity and
enjoyment levels being very high.
TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?
SSF: Find an idea/product/service that you really are passionate about, and then research the market thoroughly to see if there is a window of opportunity.
One of the most important elements is to listen to your intuition, and if it’s an idea that you can’t get out of your head, that’s usually a good sign.
And then really think it through and be honest with
yourself – do competitive research, flesh out the concept with trusted friends
or advisors, think through the funding side, ask as many questions as you can
think of, and consider how it will impact your life and whether you can make
those changes or accommodations. It’s not a decision to take lightly, but
it’s also not one you should be turn away from because you’re afraid or because
it’s new... because on the flip side, it could be an amazing, empowering,
worthwhile adventure that could change your life!
TNW: What is your top tip for balancing motherhood with a career?
SSF: For me, I keep them as separate as possible – when
I’m working, I’m working, and when I’m with my family, I’m with my family.
I don’t try to do both at the same time, because I find that it leaves me
feeling like I’m doing neither with the focus I ideally want.
As my company has grown, I’ve really focused on creating a team I can trust, and then delegating to them. Similarly, I’ve created a childcare support system that I can delegate to and trust. I’m a big believer in giving away the little (and sometimes big) tasks that can be handled by someone else! For example, I have sitters do errands for me and basic grocery shopping, and I gave in to having a cleaning team come regularly to help with the house chores.
The hardest part for me sometimes is to not be my own worst enemy, meaning that I need to be disciplined in prioritizing what’s important to me and then actually dedicating my time accordingly Work is really important, but my family is more important, so I don’t want to be working 12 hour days... I have to stop my workdays and spend the quality time with them. I don’t want to just talk the talk; I have to walk the walk too!
TNW: What is the best career or management decision you have made?
SSF: That’s a tough one. There are a few decisions that I am proud of, but one of the consistent “bests” for me is probably my dedication to creating companies that have integrity all-around – we have missions we believe in, we make solid decision for long-term health of the company, we focus on truly creating value for our users, and we build great work environments for our team members.
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