Starting an Employment Referral Service

Interview with Sara Sutton Fell, Founder of FlexJobs

Sara was like many people searching for work at home. It is so hard to find a legitimate employer among all the scams. She founded FlexJobs to provide legitimate work at home opportunities.

Sara Sutton Fell founded FlexJobs in 2007 in her home office in Colorado.

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

FlexJobs is a subscription-based online service for telecommuting and freelance job listings. It gives job-seekers a way to find legitimate, hand-screened jobs quickly, easily, and safely. We screen out online scams (a huge problem in the telecommuting/work from home niche) in order to deliver our users the best of the best telecommuting opportunities in an easy to search, ad-free website. FlexJobs is also a resource for employers to source, screen, and recruit top-notch candidates for telecommuting, freelance, and online jobs.

How did you come up with your business idea?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was looking for a legitimate, professional job that was more flexible than a traditional on-site, 9-5 job and that might allow me to work from home sometimes. It was a frustrating experience because while I knew the opportunities were out there, it was extremely difficult to find job leads online - the legitimate jobs were buried under scams, ads, and sketchy business opportunities.

The experience gave me the idea to start FlexJobs, an honest, reliable online resource that provides job-seekers with the best, hand-screened telecommuting and flexible jobs out there. About a decade ago, I founded a job website for entry-level job-seekers (JobDirect), so with that experience and my belief in the importance of work-life balance - I went for it!

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

Immediately before I started FlexJobs, I was freelancing and was very pregnant (yes, I started a company while I was starting my family!). FlexJobs is the second company that I started. The first, JobDirect, was a service for entry-level job-seekers. I started it when I was in college and even took time off from school in order to grow and run the company. JobDirect grew very quickly and was an amazing learning experience. It gave me a love for entrepreneurship, growing a business, helping people find jobs, and following my passions!

Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?

FlexJobs is a company that advocates for telecommuting and working from home, and we practice what we preach. I run the company from my home office, and my staff is free to work anywhere they want as long as they get their jobs done.

There are pros and cons, of course, but the pros definitely win out. Some examples... There is much less social interaction and general interruptions, so we are able to stay more focused on projects. Our breaks in focus are when we need them, not because we're stopping by each others' desks to chat. The office politics are nonexistent, and therefore not distracting or frustrating.

We all need to be more proactive and open and attentive in communication, because we rely on email, phone, and IM mostly, where we can't see facial expressions, read body language, or rely on running into each other in the hallway to ask follow-up questions. And of course, there's the benefit of not having to deal with the headache of a long commute before or after your day, which helps us experience our work more positively, too.

What specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur?

1. Network with other entrepreneurs. The support you can get from other entrepreneurs (male and female) is important. It helps build your confidence to share your challenges and hear about theirs. It's a way to learn about resources and successful tactics. Other entrepreneurs are great to brainstorm with, too.

2. Roll with the punches. You will need to be flexible and willing to adjust your vision and business mission to grow and weather challenges (and there will be MANY challenges -big and small).

3. Women sometimes lack the confidence to go for business ownership - this is unfortunate because women make great business owners! If you are creative, resourceful, determined, and willing to work hard (and many, many women are) being an entrepreneur can be an extremely rewarding experience! If you don't feel confident - face this head-on. Find a mentor, create your support network, and learn everything you need to know about in order to make your business thrive.

Green business is all the rage right now. Has it really been practical for you as an entrepreneur to incorporate green business practices?

I am committed to incorporating green practices into my business. The biggest green practice we use is telecommuting. We walk to work without leaving home! Sun Microsystems did an internal study to determine the benefits telecommuting had for their employees. They found that "by eliminating commuting just 2.5 days per week, an employee reduces energy used for work by the equivalent of 5,400 Kilowatt hours/year." To give an anecdote specific to FlexJobs - one of my work at home staffers recently shared with me that in the past 1.5 years she has worked at FlexJobs she has accumulated less than 5,000 miles on her car (this includes all her mileage from running errands, driving carpools, and weekend trips).

With the current economy in a slump, what cost saving tips would you have for a new entrepreneur?

I would recommend starting out as a virtual company - or at least implementing some type of telecommuting program. If you need a physical space for your office, instead of having desks and space designated for every employee, freelancer, and independent contractor you hire, use a hoteling system in which your staff reserve a desk when they need to be in the office. Hold your employees accountable for projects and job tasks -not being in a certain location (except when necessary for the job such as face-to-face client meetings).

In addition to the real estate savings - you can also increase employee loyalty and minimize turnover by offering telecommuting/work from home and flexible scheduling options (replacing and training employees can be extremely expensive and time consuming). My staff appreciates these scheduling options and considers them key benefits. I have had no turnover in two years.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

Find a mentor who you feel comfortable with - someone you trust, feel comfortable going to, and who has experience running a company. You may need to really search and network to find a good match for you - do the legwork! It's worth it. The advice, support, and sounding-board of an experienced mentor can make all the difference.

Thanks for your time, Sara. That is great business advice for a new era!

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