Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses up front. This will help you figure out who you are missing from the start. Is it a partner? Is it a technical resource? Is it a key hire? Whoever it is, make note of who they are and how they can help you fill gaps in your business before you hit the ground running.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Clint Smith.
Clint Smith founded CareerPlug in 2007 with the simple idea that there was a better way to help employers connect with quality applicants. Clint works every day to fulfill CareerPlug’s mission: Make Hiring Easier. Leading by example, Clint loves spending his time developing new ideas and teaching others.
After graduating from the University of Florida, Clint worked in investment banking and strategic marketing; both experiences influenced the development of CareerPlug. He also spent a year away from the business world teaching 5th grade in Boulder.
Clint is passionate about helping others succeed and is involved in numerous mentoring programs. He and his wife, Sarah, are also foster parents. Clint enjoys family time, beach volleyball, and outdoor adventures.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Istarted CareerPlug in 2007 in my apartment with a laptop and a few thousand dollars. My original idea was to help businesses attract higher-quality applicants. We designed a recruitment marketing service where we would take job postings, package them up in personalized microsites for candidates, and then send emails to the candidates to invite them to learn more and apply. That service really triggered our growth and helped us land large accounts like Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Mattress Firm.
Around 2011, I became interested in transitioning to a software business and saw an opportunity to help small business owners with hiring. That opportunity came to fruition when one of our clients asked if we could help all of their independent agents hire people using our recruitment campaigns. This request led us to make our software business idea a reality. We launched our software in early 2012, and it now powers the hiring for over 10,000 companies.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
We were running the recruitment marketing service for large organizations. While I knew we were adding value, we were supporting large recruiting and HR teams that were well-oiled machines. And it felt like we were just feeding those machines. I started thinking more about small business owners and reflecting on the experiences that I had growing my own team. There were lots of ups and downs, especially around people! I wanted to help small business owners more. At the same time, I was interested in doing that in a way where it would put the resources in their own hands. We wouldn’t provide a service, but we’d provide a software platform to do that.
Right around that time, I became more familiar with applicant tracking systems. I noticed that it was mostly large companies that were using them to manage their hiring process. But I knew that small businesses would benefit from them too. I just needed a compelling reason for them to try it. Then one day it hit me.
There was a shift happening in the job board space. Jobseekers were moving away from traditional sites like Monster and CareerBuilder and now turning to vertical search engines, like Indeed, to search for jobs. All of these job search engines were eager to get every legitimate job on their sites, just like Google does for websites. A couple of them told me that I could set up an XML feed to get our clients’ jobs listed on their sites for free. This was the “aha moment” for me. We ran with this and became one of the first applicant tracking systems focused on the SMB market.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When we were running the recruitment marketing service, our largest client became so big that they rolled out a program for us to be able to help them recruit across the entire country. Then they switched us over to a pay-for-performance model. We performed very well and earned a lot of revenue in a short period of time. From there, I staffed up to meet the demand and continued to grow.
Five to six months into it, our client came back to me and said they had run out of budget for the program. They told us we had done well and that they wanted to give each individual region the option to continue working with us using the fixed-fee structure that we had in place previously. I didn’t have a problem with this because it meant we would be working with more regions. However, it did cut down on our revenue quite a bit and made us closer to break even after I grew our staff.
The real challenge and the hard part of this whole story was that it felt like there was a period of time where we were moving sideways. It felt like we were stuck in mud. We just weren’t growing. I realized that some of the key people I had on my team weren’t entrepreneurial and ready to put in the effort that it took to be successful as a startup. We should have been spending more time focused on growing our client base so we would not be reliant on a single client. I knew something had to change. I never felt like giving up; I just knew that we had to stop doing what we were doing.
After coming to this realization, I met up with my original employee, Garrett, on a dark and stormy night at this old, 1980s time capsule of a bar called Deep Eddy Cabaret. Garrett knew exactly what I wanted to talk about and agreed things had to change. The next morning, which happened to be my birthday, I let the other two people on my team go. So that left Garrett and I the task of rebuilding the company ourselves.
I had to put a lot of work in at this time. I was already working a lot of hours, and Garrett was too. But I started working even more. During the day I was selling, and in the evening I was doing a lot of the work behind the scenes to fulfill our resume reviewing and campaign services. It was tough, but we landed some new accounts, and eventually, I was able to hire David, who now leads our Product and Marketing teams. He gave me the time back to be able to work on the business and think about things. Having that time back led me to come up with the idea to move into software, and that’s really what propelled us to where we are today.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I’m really pleased with how things are going today. We just had the whole company in town and took a team photo. It really blew me away. We have close to 60 employees now, and it was a humbling experience to see that. We have a ton of happy clients, and we’re continuing to grow. We stuck it out through the tough times. Sometimes it’s easy to forget all the hard stuff that you had to go through, especially if you are a person like me who is always looking forward. When I go back and think about it, there were a lot of long nights and tough moments that we had to work through to be able to get to where we are today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I never worked in sales before CareerPlug. My background was more focused on finance. I worked in investment banking, and then as a fifth grade teacher for a little while. I have some natural sales ability, but there were certain things I just didn’t know how to do. I got in contact with a prospect, and he agreed to speak with me, but he wanted to make an appointment. We set up a time to talk, and I asked him, “Do you want to give me a call?”. Then this guy was basically like, “Look, you’re the one selling to me. You’re supposed to be calling me!” I never made that mistake again. That was my first hard lesson in sales — Do whatever it takes to make it easier for the person you’re selling to.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What really makes us stand out is that we focus on making hiring easier. And a lot of this is really out of necessity. Our first set of clients were insurance agents, and these were not the most tech-savvy people. I remember when we first launched the product I was on a call with an agent who was just trying to log in and get started. I realized I couldn’t just give instructions, I had to explain what a web browser was and how to type something into an address bar.
When I got off the phone with this agent, I knew I was going to have to make our software really easy to use, and we did. A lot of our users aren’t HR people, and they don’t have time to sit in front of CareerPlug all day and use it. They’re usually doing other things like running a business or managing a store. Those are the people who we really designed our software for. Our software is for people who need guidance on the right way to hire but also want the process to be as easy as possible so they can get back to doing their normal job. I think this focus of our business is where a lot of our success has come from and is what ultimately makes us stand out.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Spend a lot of time working on mindset. Especially early on when things are tough, it’s easy for your confidence to get dinged up and not feel so great about how some things are going. I love to meditate and read something inspiring, which is talked about in a book I read called The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. I also have a mantra that I’ve written and say out loud, which is an idea I got from another great book, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I use a journal to express gratitude and work through some ideas I’m considering. I love to exercise too. That’s another thing that gets me really pumped up in the mornings.
Set some boundaries and make sure that you’re blocking out time for your family or for hobbies. All of these things can help you thrive and really get the most out of the time that you have at the office.
My best advice on avoiding burnout when you’re at work is to make sure that you’re spending a lot of time getting organized, and that you’re really clear on what you need to get done. There are plenty of things that can wait. If you focus on what’s most important and come to work with a lot of energy, then you won’t have to work all hours at night to get things done.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am excited to answer this question. I’ve had many mentors over the years, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without my wife. In the early days of the company, she did whatever it took to help me run the business. These days her support is more behind the scenes as my closest confidant. Her emotional intelligence is off the charts, and she’s helped me navigate through many challenges I’ve faced over the years. Most importantly, she does a great job of lifting me up when I need it and keeping me humble when I need that too.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
We currently have about 12,000 paid clients who are primarily small and medium-sized business owners. The first and best step we’ve taken is to grow through partnerships. It’s hard to sell to that audience one-to-one. But if you can find ways to sell in a one-to-many way through a trusted partner, you’re going to be really successful. So that’s what we’ve done in industries like franchising where we will set up a partnership at the franchisor level and build a tailored hiring solution program specifically for their franchisees. Then the franchisor helps us roll it out.
The second step we’ve taken to build our community is make our software easy for everyone to use. We’ve built a reputation around the fact that our users don’t have to be HR professionals to use our software. There are large groups of people who fall into this group, which opened a channel for us to grow our client base over the years. We also give our clients a playbook on how to hire, and our clients have seen a lot of success with it. This success gets our clients talking and generates a lot of word-of-mouth business for us.
We’ve also priced things in a way to make it easy for people to start using our software. We could probably charge more, but we wanted our partners to be able to provide something that all of their businesses that are affiliated with them could use, not just their top performing ones that probably don’t need as much help. We made our product approachable so it’s a no-brainer for affiliates of our partners to use us.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We typically roll out a freemium model with the partnership groups we have. Franchisees, for example, get a free basic account. That would allow them to get their jobs posted on the franchisor’s website and give them some of the basic applicant tracking tools. Then we have a Pro version that provides some additional resources like getting jobs distributed out to different sites, use of our evaluation tools, and some other features like being able to text message applicants.
We also charge based on locations. Most of our clients are in a decentralized location-based business so that model makes sense to them. They spend more money with us when they add locations. We don’t limit our clients on the number of jobs or users. I didn’t like the charge per user option because I felt like people were going to share the logins. I also didn’t want people to feel like they were paying per post since we are their own internal hiring software — not a job board.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know your niche. You should be or be able to become the number one or number two player within your niche. If not, then you should find a different niche or narrow your focus further. We started really narrow with one strategic partnership. We focused on growing that partnership for two years before we decided to find our next niche.
- Be clear on your mission, vision, and values. I had a breakthrough once I wrote our mission, vision, and values with our team. We clarified our purpose and strengthened our commitment to it by writing it down. Everything — from the people we needed to surround ourselves with to the very product that we needed to produce — became clear after that.
- Understand your team early on, and hire really talented, motivated people to work with you. Jim Collins talks about getting the right people on the bus first and then figuring out where to take the bus in his book Good to Great. I really do believe in that. When I started CareerPlug, I didn’t know that we were going to become a software company. It wasn’t until I got some talented people on my team to run the day-to-day for my business that I was able to focus my efforts. This got us pointed in the direction where we ultimately ended up.
- Don’t be afraid to share your product before it’s perfect. You don’t want to solve a problem in a vacuum. We sold our first big partner before we even built the software. Then we got their financial support to build it. This would not have happened if I wasn’t comfortable selling them on the vision.
- Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses up front. This will help you figure out who you are missing from the start. Is it a partner? Is it a technical resource? Is it a key hire? Whoever it is, make note of who they are and how they can help you fill gaps in your business before you hit the ground running.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would advocate for everyone in the world to move to a plant-based diet. Studies show that a plant-based diet helps people live longer, healthier lives. It’s also better for the environment and could help address world hunger. The farm land used to feed livestock could be transformed to produce food for humans to eat. A plant-based diet is also kinder to animals, which is important to my wife and me.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!