As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Marja Verbon, an award-winning female entrepreneur, feminist, and thought leader on all things management, positive pyschology, and career development. She is a founder and COO of Jump.Work — a fast-growing startup leading the innovation and transformation of the hiring industry from a people-focused perspective, enabling professionals to succeed in their next job. She is a Forbes contributor and sits on the Oxford University Business School Alumni Council and is a regular mentor and advisor to other startup founders and entrepreneurs. She has also been featured in major publications such as Forbes, Management Today, and SHRM, and was shortlisted for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in 2020.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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?
I was born and raised in the Netherlands, and looking back now, I was a very curious child from the outset (though my parents might put that another way…) I was obsessed with understanding why things are the way they are, so was constantly asking questions, much to my family’s dismay. I recall my mum buying a book of 1000 Questions and Answers in an attempt to keep me occupied, and I finished it in two days — suffice to say it did not do the job!
I moved to the UK when I was 17 to study at Oxford after falling in love with the city on a school trip. I finished my B.A. in Economics and Management, which was followed swiftly by a Masters in Sociology. I absolutely loved specialising in this field of study, because it fed my curiosity for people-focused problems. Analysing human behaviour is incredibly hard, and for my thesis I examined if women and men form different social networks and how this (dis)advantages them in terms of career progression.
After some time at McKinsey and in Venture Capital, I made the leap with my co-founder to set up Jump.Work, and I guess you could say the rest is history!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
This is a tough one! Looking back, there have been so many moments that now I’m glad I can laugh about them. There is one in particular that comes to mind though…
When we first started raising angel investment for the company, we spoke to a lot of different type of investors. As we were looking for the very initial seed funding, these were mainly private, HNW individuals.
One crazy experience we had was that one of the potential investors invited us over to his house to discuss the business idea further over dinner. We didn’t think much of it and agreed. Dinner was a lot of chit-chat and despite us trying to start on the topic of Jump, we didn’t really get to discuss it. However, after dessert, the potential investor said “let’s get to business.” Obviously, we thought he meant a business discussion, but he had something else in mind. It turned out that he had some indecent proposals which we were definitely not there for!
The main takeaway — vet your investors!
Of course this story is an extreme of what people’s intentions can be, but it’s also very true for serious investors — understand what they bring to the table, if they align with your vision and if they will stick with you through the thick and the thin. After all, you’re always going to face many set-backs when building your business.
Some ways to do this are to get in touch with other founders they’ve invested in, ask them about their approach to investment (are they hands-on, or off) and about their investment expectation and return over time. Make sure they understand that angel investment carries a high risk-return profile, as it’s not a conventional stock investment either.
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?
My mum was always my biggest supporter growing up. She always encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do, which for someone like me who struggles with Imposter Syndrome, was really important.
She was a key influence in setting up Jump during a period when it seemed like the scariest thing in the world, so her support was such a foundation for me to go out and take that risk. During this period, she had a relapse of breast cancer which was now diagnosed to be late-stage and terminal, so this was of course incredibly difficult to deal with. Frankly, it brought my whole world view into question.
On the other hand, it really helped give me perspective and think about the possibility of failure. It almost made me say “why not?”, because there is nothing wrong with that aspect of failure. It also gave me a strong drive to do something positive, which is something that I still hold as my North Star today. Even though she can’t be with us now, I thank her every day for the support and positivity she gave me.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
This is a great question! While Jump has definitely undergone some changes over the years, our mission has always been the same since I founded it back in 2017 (time flies!), which has definitely been a key factor in our success.
It was really a culmination of my life’s experience up to that point, perhaps even a Eureka moment for me. I got a lot of exposure to labour markets when I moved into Venture Capital, which brought back a lot of memories from my Masters. I realised that the job market, and the way people search for jobs, is fundamentally broken.
So from the outset, the vision has been to transform the hiring industry and match businesses and professionals together in a way that isn’t subjective or biased. Empowering people and decisions using data has definitely been the cornerstone of Jump since the beginning, and I don’t think I’d be where I am today without that difficult and ambitious driving force behind me.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Jump is a job recommendation platform that uses data to personalise the job search for professionals and help them discover roles based on their strengths. We do this by combining behavioural data science and machine learning to have a positive impact on people’s lives. We want to help people understand that by using this technology and access to data, you can make more of what you have in a place that you can really fit in.
While that may sound pretty complex (partly because it is), at its core, Jump is really about helping job seekers navigate what is often a confusing and uncertain market. By focusing on perfecting job recommendations for professionals, rather than just selecting candidates for businesses after applying, we help save jobseekers time in applying for their jobs in the first place.
We are very people-focused, turning the tables on what has traditionally been a very quiet and closed-off process. Too often, job boards or recruiters promise to find you the “perfect” job without ever really asking what that means — Jump is changing that, one match at a time.
Of course, you still have to consider the businesses’ side of the equation, which is just as complex. But by understanding what makes people unique and by focusing on perfecting job recommendations, it attracts a much higher quality of job applications for businesses. So really, it’s a win-win for both!
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
This is an interesting question for Jump, because really we see ourselves as the technological innovation that has been and is disrupting the industry.
However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has further disrupted the hiring industry over the last year, making the already uncertain process of finding a new job even more chaotic and anxious as so many people have been left jobless or unsure about the future.
Which is why I feel Jump is even more important at the moment, as there are many more jobseekers than jobs — all of them looking for advice, assurance, and confidence in their job search. A people-focused approach is essential in today’s climate in order to help people identify their best chance at being successful, and it’s why we’re doubling down on our personalised approach. You need to start with the jobseeker’s perspective and build a product that helps them solve their problems first and foremost. Helping businesses attract better candidates is a logical, and welcome, consequence.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
Seeing so many people from different backgrounds and walks of life affected by the pandemic led us to really focus on how Jump could support job seekers.
On one hand, we focused on scaling and expanding Jump into new industries to enable more people to find the right match for them. In particular, we focused on those areas under particular stress, from healthcare and medical services to retail and logistics. This required a lot of quick thinking from our team about how we could build models that usually take months in a few weeks, and I couldn’t be more proud of our team and their effort in building coverage for hundreds of thousands more jobseekers.
On the other hand, we also wanted to take a much more personalised approach to our platform, particularly as we saw so many users reaching out for advice and support. We decided to remove some of our automations and focus on providing actionable advice, tips, and feedback to answer their queries exactly instead of directing them to a support or FAQ section.
In addition, we have been continually releasing new features on our platform that help job seekers further refine their job search and navigate the market. For example, job seekers can now sign up to see exactly how they match to a job’s specific requirements before even applying. In this way, they can prioritise which jobs to apply for and make the most of their time.
Really, that sums up our amazing team here at Jump. Finding novel solutions that help us to scale, while still offering that personalised, people-focused approach that is at the core of our mission.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
It’s hard to pick an individual case that really sparked this change. By speaking to our users every week, we have encountered so many unique cases and stories from people simply looking for advice or reassurance.
Whether it was a user looking for feedback on their CV layout, someone feeling disheartened about what they might be doing wrong in interviews, or a candidate new to the emerging virtual recruitment processes put in place, they all felt unique and needed a unique, personal response. But it was great being able to share the extensive resources we have created with our users, like the Jump Academy, and demonstrate how Jump goes beyond being just another job platform.
And from a personal perspective, it’s great to be able to use some of my lockdown time to create content of value and share some advice with my 24,000 Linkedin followers. Even if just reaches a handful of people, that still feels like a huge win!
So really, it was seeing the scale and variety of the problems people were facing that made us think we had to play our part and in one sense, hold ourselves accountable to what Jump is trying to achieve.
While it meant investing more time, it was really an easy decision for us to make and one our team has really stepped up to.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
So far (fingers crossed), things have been overwhelmingly positive. It’s amazing how appreciative people are when you simply take the time to stop and listen. Even in cases where we may not have been able to help as much as we might have liked, our users are delighted to have the added support which in the recruitment space can sometimes be hard to come by.
It’s really helped reinforce the importance of what we’re doing and has sparked so many ideas about how we can build on this personalisation, as we’ve seen organic traffic to our platform increase almost every week, and the number of users signing up is at an all time high.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
This pivot was really about personalisation, so it makes sense this should be a story about one of our users.
One story that really stands out to me is from a user who had lost their job in the pandemic and was worried about finding a new position. After getting in touch, this user realised that they were interested in a career change into healthcare, wanting to help out and contribute to the current situation. At that point, our team was able to direct them to loads of helpful resources and actionable guides we have to help kick this process off. And since we’ve introduced thousands of healthcare jobs, they have used the full range of Jump tools to discover which roles they might be best suited for.
It’s stories like these that really show the impact we can have each day. For me, that’s about as rewarding as it can get.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
I would say the most important role of a leader during disruption is to listen. If you want to be successful in adapting to the circumstances and surviving change, you have to be agile. And the only way you can do this is to be susceptive to the feedback around you, from your team but also from your users. It’s what has helped us pivot in this pandemic, but also during other moments in the past.
This idea forms part of one of my favourite values we have here at Jump, which is about cognitive diversity. By building teams of unique expertise with different viewpoints, it allows me to consider so many perspectives I wouldn’t normally have access to. My role then is really just to listen and reprioritise based on what people really need. It’s sometimes easier said than done, but I think it is a crucial skill for any leader looking to adapt and work through a disruptive period.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Celebrate the small wins, whatever they may be.
It can be one new sign up or it can be a new product release, but celebrating these moments forms the foundation for any team or business, and helps to hold you together through the ups and downs.
It’s important to stay positive when things do seem uncertain, so I think success and achievement in any form is important to recognise and celebrate.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Don’t be afraid to fail, especially during times of uncertainty. I find that you have to accept failure is a part of the journey, so you should use it to your benefit when it does happen. It’s always an opportunity to learn and develop, and can often spark moments of creativity, brilliance or clarity that proves the foundation for future success.
Whether it’s a new marketing campaign or a product update, try something new with the acceptance that it may not work out, but that you can learn a lot from the process. It has worked wonders for me recently, and has meant I’ve tried new things in both my personal and professional life that I may never have even considered before.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Underestimating the ability of small business to iterate at speed: Speed and agility is one of the biggest advantages small businesses have over larger companies. Yet they so often ignore this factor in favour of the status quo. So always try to keep your teams and business agile as you grow — it’s the key to innovation.
- Thinking they know the customer because they have “more experience” or have been in business for longer: The only way you can truly know the customer is by spending time speaking with and getting to know them — it’s invaluable.
- Underinvesting in technology because old barriers to entry are too strong: You see this time and time again with businesses simply being out of touch with trends, developments, and technology, which can mean missing out on huge opportunities and innovations. It’s the main reason why I always try to stay in the loop about innovation in the hiring space, but also in the startup and tech sector more generally.
In short, you should never stop innovating, as the market never stops changing. You need to set yourself up for a process of continuous iteration and improvement, no matter how big or successful you have gotten.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Have honest conversations with everyone around you. Your team, your users, or your clients and customers: It was only by engaging with our users that we realised we had to bring more personalisation to their experience on Jump, and this has become one of our biggest successes and core foundations over the last year.
- When you’re innovating, focus on the problem you’re trying to overcome, not just the idea: When we were first starting out, we struggled with how to approach building the platform we wanted. But it was only through the discovery that recruitment wasn’t looking at the individual that we realised Jump had to be a people-focused platform that took into account what makes each person unique.
- Be bold: Pivoting often comes at times of uncertainty or disruption — times that always require creative and ambitious solutions. So never be afraid to say yes to those “out of the box” or perhaps overly ambitious ideas. If someone said to me 9 months ago that we have expanded to all the new industries we are in, I would have gone very pale and listed off a number of reasons why that would be a bad idea. Never underestimate your potential to innovate.
- Steal as much as you can: Particularly in moments of disruption, it can feel like you need to reinvent the wheel, which requires a huge investment of time and resources. However, you can often find inspiration from so many areas around you, both within and outside your business, that can lead and promote innovation without starting from scratch — the two aren’t mutually exclusive, something that has almost become our mantra in our product team when planning new features.
- Be prepared to fail and make mistakes: I’ve touched on this a little bit already, but seeing as it’s one of my biggest aims over the next year, it’s one of the best pieces of advice I can give. Too many leaders, founders, or entrepreneurs are afraid of failing that it can stifle innovation and progress, especially when disruption does come along. If you accept that failure and innovation are so often linked, you’ll be able to iterate much more quickly and remain agile in the most uncertain of times. You’ll quickly find those experiments that don’t quite work out help lead to and inspire huge successes. The integration of thousands of jobs on our platform all started from a small experiment that encountered many rough patches along the road, but now helps drive a record number of sign ups.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Winnie the Pooh (and his diverse friend group) has pretty much been my personal life coach since I was 4. I love the positive psychology and mindset, as he always focuses on the opportunity that lies ahead and lives life to the fullest every day.
The characters face many challenges in their adventures in the Hundred Acre’s Forest and share their fair share of wisdom along the way.
So, when times get tough, and I don’t feel as confident as I should do in facing a fresh challenge, I remember what Christopher Robin told Pooh:
“You are braver than you believe, smarter than you seem, and stronger than you think.”
A quote often attributed to A. A. Milne, it was actually added later to the Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon franchise, but I love it nonetheless.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Well if you’d like to check out Jump, they can take a look here, and of course sign up if you are interested in a new way of finding a job. You can also check out the Jump Academy for job seekers which features lots of tips and tricks.
You can also check out my personal blog here, where I publish somewhat sporadic lessons I’ve learnt from my years as a female entrepreneur.