Sara Sutton Fell: Why I Founded FlexJobs
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When Sara Sutton Fell began her search in 2006 for a flexible, professional job that would allow her to grow in her career and be a good mother, she came to a realization that would change her life:
Flexible work was hard to come by.
So she set out to change that. In January of 2007 she officially launched FlexJobs, a 25,000-member strong site that promises to “find the best telecommuting jobs, part-time professional jobs, and other flexible jobs in over 100 career categories, all hand-screened and legitimate,” according to the site.
FlexJobs offers work in multiple areas, from account management and recruiting positions to legal work and retail. To date, the company has helped over 300,000 people in their job searches and is the only job site to receive an Online Trust Award for Excellence in Consumer Trust. Fell herself was honored last year by Workforce Management as a “2011 Game Changer” in the employment field.
Something of a serial entrepreneur, Fell founded another company called Job Direct, a job site for entry-level job and internship opportunities, that she and her co-founder sold in 2000.
But she was 21 then, whereas she was in her 30s and pregnant this time around. How does a new mom—especially one craving time with her family—find the hours to launch a new business, and a successful one at that?
We chatted with Fell to find out what makes her tick, and what her advice is for other entrepreneurial spirits out there, whether moms yet or not.
How did you know you were onto a good idea with FlexJobs?
Both times I’ve started companies, I’ve done so in response to challenges I felt in my own life, when I saw a window of opportunity.
When I started FlexJobs, I was in my early 30s, professionally driven, and pregnant with my first son. I had been VP of Operations and Sales for a start-up online beauty company. It wasn’t a job I’d want to keep after my son was born, so I started to look for viable options that offered flexibility. I was pretty open to anything—part time, consulting, telecommuting, freelance, but it was very difficult to find legitimate professional opportunities. There seemed to be 60 scam jobs for every real one. Especially for moms, who are so busy, the cards are stacked against you because don’t have as much time to look. I kept thinking, “Why isn’t this easier?”
And there was my window of opportunity.
What were your first steps to launch the company?
Between my full-time job at the start-up (where I was laid off when I was eight months pregnant) and starting FlexJobs, I worked as a consultant on email marketing and business strategy. I told a client of mine at the time about my idea for FlexJobs and he helped me formulate a plan and offered to invest. I worked with him to gather even more investors, and we officially launched in January of 2007, three months after my son was born.
What was that like for your family?
It was difficult getting ready for the launch. I discussed it a lot with my husband, and lucky for us he had a very stable job with good health insurance, which made it easier for me to take this risk.
When I launched my first company, I was 21 and I poured my heart and soul into it. All of our team slept at the office and we worked 18 hour days. So I was apprehensive about whether or not I had what it took to do the same years later, when I was a mom. But I’d wake up in the middle of the night with ideas for FlexJobs. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was that passion that prompted me to do competitive research, look at the market, and assess the opportunity. From that, I could see that this was totally worth pursuing.
Looking back now, would you say it was worth the stress?
At the end of the day, definitely. I was lucky: The investors were aware that I had just had a child, and because of the mission of FlexJobs, they knew I would be true to it by starting the company on a balanced timeline for myself.
Do you follow a flexible schedule for your workers at FlexJobs too, then?
I think our model of providing a flexible workforce for employees is much more sustainable than traditional work models in many ways. I started in a way that honors the company, customers, and our team members, and we do the same for them. Everyone on our team works remotely from home offices, and almost all positions have schedule flexibility. There are only a few positions, like client services, which have set hours to make sure the phones are covered.
We all have lives outside of work, and I don’t make them choose between their lives or their work. You have more loyalty from employees if you work that way. It’s really a win-win.
What would you say you’ve learned through this experience?
First, that there will be challenges, and you should always ask for help. The last five years have been a reminder that anything you really care about isn’t easy. Whether it’s an investor, co-founder, team member, a network—find your outlet.
The second thing is to be honest with yourself at all times. Reassess and make sure there aren’t flaws in your business model that can be tweaked. For example, we flip-flopped our revenue model nine months in. We went from charging employers to post jobs to a low-cost subscription service for job seekers. It was a leap of faith, and not many people were doing it at the time, but for us, it has been a huge success.
Were there any lessons from your first business that helped with FlexJobs?
I learned to follow your gut, common sense, women’s intuition, whatever you want to call it. Especially in my first company, so many people told us we were doing it wrong. We didn’t have MBAs, and we had so many other people giving us direction. We actively read as much as we could, and asked questions of everyone, always soliciting insight. In retrospect, if we followed what we believed was right for our company, we would have been better off.
Often, you won’t have a lot of confidence launching your first business, but you have a lot of passion, so harness both in a balance. With this company, if someone tells me there’s a different way to do something, I stick to my guns because I understand the audience—because I am the audience.
Definitely listen to your gut. It’s much more important than having an MBA.
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