As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Johansson.
Jennifer is the founder and CEO of Placed — the app that matchmakes recruiters and job candidates using a mobile-first platform. Placed has changed the face of recruitment and job seeking, removing the need for CVs, emails and outdated application processes.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I’m originally from Sweden, where I started working in the hospitality industry part-time when I was at school. I was a breakfast hostess for a hotel and couldn’t possibly have known it then, but waiting tables in that hotel kick-started my career in hospitality as well as my love for the sector. I moved to London when I was 18 and not long after got my first full-time, ‘real’ job, at Quintessentially Lifestyle — a global lifestyle management company that services the rich and famous. My role was to build relationships with London’s hottest members clubs, restaurants and nightclubs, ensuring access for our members.
From my many meetings, wining and dining restaurant owners and hotel managers, I realised that they all had the same problem — chronic difficulties recruiting and retaining staff. I learnt that hospitality is the largest employer of people aged under 25, yet the recruitment processes were so antiquated and costly. It really struck me that these outdated recruitment methods simply didn’t match the way younger people wanted to find employment. That was the inspiration for the Placed app. The tech-first approach, using an algorithm to help find accurate matches and live updates for the candidates and our clients, was the solution to a sector-wide problem. Since then demand has grown beyond the hospitality industry and we are working with employers of all sizes across many sectors including retail and logistics.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I think one of the most interesting turning points in the story of the Placed app is the funding journey. Convincing investors about your vision and your big idea is an important step. Asking people to part with their money is the real acid test. We had to do this particularly early on in order to build the platform and get it to market. Investors have to believe in it, believe in you and ultimately back your idea up with cash.
It remains such a huge source of pride to see so many highly regarded entrepreneurs sharing our excitement about the Placed app by backing us. That’s when everything starts to feel very real and very now, rather than a dream for the future. It is also such a huge responsibility at this stage. You are about to bring the dream into reality.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I think ‘You Get In Life What You Have the Courage To Ask For,’ by Oprah Winfrey is a brilliant quote, important for anyone regardless of what they want to achieve in life.
From a young age I was always told I could do whatever I want, achieve anything I want. This wasn’t a throw away comment — I have always really believed it. This really gave me the courage to go after my dream of setting up my own business.
My mother is a serial entrepreneur and she has always been an inspiration because she is a ‘doer’. She makes things happen. I believe in dreaming big and striving for goals that make you proud.
Anything is possible but you can’t simply wish it. You have to do what it takes to get there, even if you are not sure exactly what that entails when you start out. Once you hit one goal, you are ready to reach the next one and the next one — and before you know it you are a world away from where you started.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
“Wild Company”, the book by the co-founders of Banana Republic, tells a funny story about how a big vision can take “professional amateurs” (as they describe themselves) far. It also identifies innovation as the key feature for a successful business, which is incredibly important for any tech startup these days. I think the ability to communicate this, especially to your team in the early days, makes a great startup leader.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe the best companies are the ones that are founded to provide solutions to real problems. I believe founders or leadership teams that have personally experienced the problems that they’re solving are the ones that stand out.
As a young job seeker when I first arrived in London and with years of experience in the industry, I witnessed the recruitment issues in the hospitality sector first hand, and wanted to design the app with the job seekers in mind. The job seekers are not the users that pay to use our app, but their input is the most important factor in order to find the right matches for the paying clients — the recruiters. By supplying the right fit for the right roles we have built trust across numerous sectors with many high profile employers relying on the Placed app to fill their vacancies. Placed is disruptive because we have done something completely different in the talent attraction space. It is user focused, targeted and uses the latest technology to optimise the process. If you always do the same thing, nothing changes. The Placed app is about change and doing something different to get better results.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Believe in yourself and keep pushing through. You have to be tenacious and confident that you can achieve your goal.
It can be daunting to set your sights on a very ambitious end goal. However by achieving smaller goals and milestones along the journey, you can trust that success will eventually come. Laying the foundations well in the early days helps you to build without limitations.
Learn from the setbacks — nobody gets a perfectly smooth road. Celebrate the achievements, take pride in the work that you do and surround yourself with people who have the passion and talent to nurture the business. You need people on the journey — it shouldn’t be a lonely road.
Don’t be afraid to think big but remember you cannot do everything overnight — there will be small goals to hit on the way to success.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
“Raise as much capital as you can and scale as fast as you can” — you hear this early on when you start a tech startup. But some things you simply cannot scale just with more money. There are some things you can only scale over time. User feedback is a great example. Yes, you can pay to get more users faster, but the feedback from the second time they use your product, or the third time, or when they come back after 6 months after having not used the product in a while, this feedback is invaluable. Scaling your team is another thing that can go incredibly wrong if you try to do it too fast. Your team culture, company ethics and values are also developed over time and not simply by money.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Drive. I do keep pushing — I never give up and I am proud of that. It is the hard times that people don’t tend to talk about or read about but those tricky hurdles get you there in the end. They develop you as a person and as a business. Lows will come and success follows when you persevere. Cash flow, for example, is problematic for any startup and I have lost count of the number of sleepless nights I have personally had over this. However we have overcome those difficult patches to grow and thrive. Sometimes we face problems that are completely out of our control, such as the Covid19 pandemic for example. Hospitality — a major section of our client base — was particularly badly hit. We have had to support one another, change our plans and innovate in order to navigate through this completely unexpected global turmoil. The hard work pays in the end.
Collaboration. You cannot man-manage everything — it can never be about one person. You have to be able to trust and delegate — that’s why you have talent in the team. Collaboration inspires creativity and progress. This is something I believe in wholeheartedly. Everyone at Placed has shares in the company and that helps to make the journey a truly shared experience. We all benefit from working well together.
Focus. I think it is important to be able to filter out the noise and prioritise. There may be two-hundred things on the to-do-list but you need to choose where to start right now. I am a list person! I like to write down what I need to achieve and it feels great to tick each thing off. Of course the list never ends, in fact it probably gets longer every day, but it changes and that means that we are progressing and moving forwards. It is about being goal oriented and achieving goals rather than standing still.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
Prioritising is right up there in terms of the difficult decisions a C-Suite exec has to make. Rome wasn’t built in a day — sometimes the most difficult decisions are about what to leave out. There is also a really tricky balancing act to perform as a C-Suite exec. You need the big vision and the ambitious plans but also you have to deal with some of the heavy lifting at the coalface. You are the CEO but you are also the maintenance person at the same time. In early stage business, everyone learns on the job. However the CEO must learn while every stakeholder is watching.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
These days people often think CEOs must be larger-than-life extroverts and love to promote and build their personal brand. It is almost like it’s expected when you’re the CEO.
It is not true because ultimately it is the results that matter. Great leadership comes in many styles. It is the substance that truly counts.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Getting to know your team early on is so important. Don’t feel like you need to be across the brief straight away or to appear to be in charge the moment you enter the role. Far better to ask questions about the team members and their roles. Get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses, where they need support, their talents and how you can best work together. Build trust and open lines of communication so they feel confident about sharing their ideas and feedback.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Perhaps unsurprisingly my answer focuses on recruitment! All too often people underestimate just how difficult it can be to recruit the right person for the right role in a timely fashion. If people are struggling to recruit, sometimes they neglect to truly investigate why. Is it an internal problem or is your vacancy not being noticed by the right audience? Attracting and retaining the right talent is fundamental to the success of any business. High levels of churn and vacant roles for extended periods of time should always be a matter of urgent concern.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Building a great business takes time. I know I’ve already mentioned it, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Be patient and find joy in the day to day and not just the end goal.
- Don’t spread yourself too thin. Being able to say no is really hard in the beginning. You want to test and do everything. And you should, in moderation. Quickly realise what isn’t working and let it go. Spreading yourself too thin is dangerous.
- Keep learning! From people around you — your customers, your team, your mentors and your peers.
- ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ Often, not so much. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
- Healthy work-life-balance is key. When you set up your own business you’ll love your job and have no problem spending the majority of your time doing it. It’s easy to take a step back from friends and family and put all of your focus into your business. However, in the long-term it won’t hold up. Being able to completely switch off is important. I now have a rule that at least one full day at the weekend, I do not touch work or read work emails. This re-energizes me before the week starts again on Monday.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
For me the culture of the workplace is of paramount importance to the success of any business. As someone who works in recruitment, I would urge all employers to really focus on building a workplace environment with a thriving company culture that nurtures its staff. A good, supportive, creative company culture that makes people feel part of something special will feed out into all aspects of the business including productivity, customer service and of course, further growth.
Much of this comes down to excellent communication. Keep people up to date on developments and share news about goals and successes. Ensure that people are confident in sharing ideas — give them a voice. Help employees to feel genuinely invested in the company with shared goals and the potential to grow with the company.
Are there opportunities for coaching and training? Do you have staff members who would be great mentors for those with less experience? Beyond the salary package, what do your employees really value about being part of your team? Are people incentivised?
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. :-)
Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, we launched our “WaytoWork” campaign.
It was about empowering people to find a way to a job — carving out a route. This included access to mentorships, advice services and online or app based tools including Q&As. It was a huge success and I would love to expand the campaign into a much wider movement. Everyone is different and this caters to the individual. Your jobs, your way. #WaytoWork
How can our readers further follow you online?