Q&A with Jennifer Johansson, founder of recruitment app Placed

She's shaking up hospitality and retail with a rethink of how to hire
BizAge Interview Team

What is Placed App?

Placed App is a mobile-first recruitment and talent attraction platform that aims to revolutionise the way in which employers target, attract and retain staff. I founded it in 2017 after spending some time working in the hospitality industry where I worked at Soho House before becoming Head Of Relationships at an exclusive concierge service for the rich and famous. Here, I met with owners and managers who always asked whether I knew of anyone looking for work. I very quickly realised that these places were always recruiting – especially for lower and entry level positions. The hospitality industry is the largest employer of people under 25 years old but, when I began researching how the industry was attracting talent, I noticed a huge disconnect. “Staff needed” signs in windows are still being used. Often job seekers are asked to bring along a printed version of their CVs to their interviews. I found that this sector was clearly not attuned to how younger generations searched for jobs. Furthermore, employers were struggling to attract talent in the first place by failing to communicate all the things that made them a desirable employer. Then there was the hospitality industry’s image ‘problem’, deterring prospects from considering a long-term career in the sector.

Nothing was being done to address these problems. Where technology has revolutionised many industries, hospitality was being left behind. So I had the idea to automate the recruitment process where prospects could create a profile that didn’t just celebrate achievement and experience but personality. Jobseekers could be matched to employers that aligned with their values and role desires. Meanwhile, employers could showcase all the unique aspects that made them an attractive business: from culture and career progression to benefits. AI could take a leaf out of the dating industry’s book with a matching algorithm supported by machine learning to match candidates to recruiters, saving time and money for businesses in the process. This is the fundamental idea behind the business I have called Placed App.

"We have an open, honest, collaborative, inclusive and diverse company culture and, yes, this is very much influenced by my native Sweden"

Why is it better than traditional jobs boards and recruitment agencies?

Industries with a high churn rate, such as hospitality, retail and care work, are caught up in a perpetual cycle of recruitment and training with no long term benefit given that new recruits quickly leave. An element of this retention problem lies in recruiting the wrong candidate whose career aspirations or values may not align with that of the employer. Using technology to match compatible candidates with compatible employers ensures that positions are filled with people who are a better cultural fit for companies. This saves a huge amount of time and money on the recruitment process.

CVs remain a very traditional way of applying for jobs, but these documents underscore achievement more than personality. Businesses in hospitality, retail and care require people who are engaging, empathetic, diplomatic and, in many respects, warm and friendly to be with. Skills can be developed on the job, but personalities really matter in service-led careers. Placed App provides a platform for those key personality traits to come through in a way that a CV doesn’t allow. This is particularly important for young job seekers who may feel overwhelmed or lack confidence in their employability because they might have little to no experience. Through engaging quizzes and questionnaires, candidates can build up a compelling profile on Placed App that captures one’s passions, values and aspirations which will be attractive to the right employer.

A majority of employers are also out of touch with the way in which they search for talent. Younger generations are digital-first; by using technology to target and attract candidates from a wider talent pool, employers can optimise their recruitment efforts with quality applicants.

I’ve always been curious about the UK’s hospitality recruitment problem. It’s a vibrant, sociable, exciting and creative industry in which to work if you’re a people person. In Sweden, if a graduate has ambitions to build a career in hospitality, no one challenges, belittles or judges this desire. They’re not considered to be over-qualified and the sector is not perceived as an unattractive one in which to enter. When it comes to growing professionally in nearly all sectors, one always starts off at the bottom and progression occurs with hard work and experience. Hospitality is no different in this respect. Yet what I saw here was the hospitality industry’s image ‘problem’ preventing prospects from considering a long-term career in the sector. This negative PR image has in some way contributed to the industry’s perpetual high-churn rate.

The ongoing pandemic has seen hospitality businesses struggle more than twice as much as other industries to fill vacancies. The care sector and retail industry are equally suffering. This is, in part, exacerbated by Brexit and the lack of EU applicants but also, in part, a result of perception shifts regarding jobs in these sectors. Hybrid working, now widely the norm, is giving people an alternative to the hard slog of shift work demanded by industries such as hospitality and care work. With mental health issues being a particular feature of the pandemic, people desire employment that fosters better work-life balance, more flexibility and more well-being benefits from their employer. If more consumers are being choosier in who they shop with – particularly in light of how badly some corporations have treated their staff during the pandemic – then the same can be said for the number of candidates looking to work for a socially responsible and caring employer. It is the strength of this ‘soft power’ that will determine how well and effectively businesses can attract talent in these turbulent times.

Our proposition enables employers to showcase their point of difference – be that their culture, their benefits, their stance on employee wellbeing, their strategies for becoming better global citizens or their training programmes so that employees can reach the highest levels in an organisation if they are invested enough in the business.

In terms of metrics, we gauged that businesses that use our solution have three times higher conversion-to-hire rate; a 70% view-to-apply rate compared to just 10-15% with traditional jobs boards, and on average, it takes 9 days to successfully recruit, from job post to hire.

What clients have you got?

The industries we support include hospitality, retail, care, telecommunications and delivery / logistic operators. Retailers include O2, Ocado, Deliveroo Editions, Co-op and Lidl; Greene King, which owns over 2,700 pubs, restaurants and hotels nationwide; Whitbread, one of the largest hospitality groups in the UK, whose brands include Premier Inn and Beefeater; Marston’s, Welcome Break; restaurant chains including Wagamama, Cote Brasserie and Pizza Express; other brands including E.On, Sky, BUPA, Guinness Care, as well as exclusive private members clubs. We have 2,000 employers using us nationwide, and this figure is growing.

How hard was it to get investors to back you? What won them over?

Fundraising is always difficult, but even more so when one is outside of the typical mould of a start-up entrepreneur - such as myself who is a sole female founder, a first time entrepreneur, non-technical and with no business background or university degree. Less than 2% of investment raised goes to female-founded businesses. By contrast, your ‘typical’ start-up founder is male, from a management consultant or investment banking background or has started or existed a venture before.

That said, I think investors were drawn to my industry knowledge and understanding of a problem that had not yet been adequately addressed. At the very start, when I first conceived my idea for Placed App, I knew I had to show that this was a commercially viable idea in order to secure the investment. This was especially important because I did not have a physical product to show. I obtained 50 signed letters of intent from managers and owners in the hospitality sector stating that when the Placed App product came to market, that they would use and pay for it. The first release of the Placed App launched nine months later on the App Store; Google Play followed after. I have obtained vital backing from investors including the chairman of Burger King, the former chairman of Wagamama, the Casual Dining Group and the founders of HR tech company Thomson’s Online Benefits. Since inception, Placed App has raised approximately £3m in funding. We’re taking the next step in our business growth with a Series A round, which aims to close early in 2022 to continue with our geographical and sector expansion.

Interestingly, our last round of funding (which was at the beginning of 2021), we attracted investors based on projections of the macro effects Brexit and post pandemic would have on recruitment.

Placed is already boasting strong user numbers and placement rates

How did the pandemic affect you, and your job seekers?

COVID-19 was naturally our biggest challenge. Almost overnight, the hospitality industry ceased operation as lockdown was enforced in March 2020. So we immediately knew we had to diversify our market scope in order to weather this. Diversification of our product offering had always been on the cards, but it was a long term plan. The pandemic catalysed this change. Within three weeks into lockdown, we were out pitching our services to other sectors. That was when we saw huge demand from enterprises and much larger clients than we were used to working with pre-pandemic. We began immediately supporting essential retailers and care providers to strengthen and grow their workforce in the wake of COVID-19. Our business grew despite economic adversity. Our revenue increased 25% month-on-month in 2020. In 2020, we were just six staff members. By the end of 2021, we’ll be 20-strong.

You've spoken about the importance of workplace culture. What is the culture like at Placed? And is it too simplistic to ask if it's influenced by Swedish work culture?

We have an open, honest, collaborative, inclusive and diverse company culture and, yes, this is very much influenced by my native Sweden, which takes a very collaborative approach to business and work culture.

Tell us about yourself. Are you a technologist by background?

Where I come from, in Gothenburg, Sweden, being a woman and a leader in business is not unusual. In early life, I grew up with a strong female entrepreneurial presence, which seeded my desire to set up my own business eventually.

My mother is a serial entrepreneur herself and has run multiple businesses. So, from a young age, I was always supporting her with this. I would often accompany her on business trips and hand out flyers and advertising material around town whenever she was launching something new or wanted to promote an offer. My friends and I were often guinea pigs for any new products she launched: one was a franchise business for a popular American spray tan product. I remember spending most of that year walking around looking orange!

My first job was working as a breakfast hostess at a hotel, aged 14. I’ve had plenty of other hospitality jobs too, working at McDonald’s and at supermarkets. Working from an early age has definitely shaped my work ethic, reinforced my confidence and helped me understand and appreciate the value of money.

I moved to London at the age of 18 to study a 4-month advanced English course to improve my language skills. Shortly afterwards, I landed a job in Soho House as a waitress before working at a global lifestyle management company, Quintessentially. Here, I was responsible for making sure that the rich and famous could access whatever they wanted – from booking a table at the most exclusive and in-demand restaurants to curating art and travel experiences. I nurtured our relationships with some of the owners and managers of the coolest private members clubs, bars and restaurants, which was a really fun job to do at age 20! There were plenty of perks that came with the job too: free dinners at the best restaurants, priority entry into nightclubs and I was invited to all the new restaurants, member clubs, bars and hotel openings.

I’ve always had an optimistic outlook when it comes to business. I grew up in a family where I was taught that I could do and be whatever I desired to be. Therefore, whenever opportunities came my way, I would always approach these with positive energy. I think being optimistic is one of the most important attributes an entrepreneur needs in order to succeed – especially in the very beginning of a business journey when a lot of things might not work out as well as you would want it to.

What is the long-term plan for Placed?

We aspire to be a global business and become the go-to solution for every single job seeker looking for their next career move or opportunity. We want to keep innovating the way in which employers attract talent and make our brand experience an empowering one for job seekers. In the immediate future, we are focusing on our UK growth. The plan is to scale our London team from 22 to 60 and to continue to penetrate sectors outside of hospitality. In 2023, we aim to go international.

Written by
BizAge Interview Team
November 28, 2021
Written by
November 28, 2021