In the summer of 1995, college juniors Rachel Bell and Sara Sutton were in a Boston taxi "stressing" about the prospect of finding jobs. Sutton complained that she had surfed the Net for an internship, but the search was fruitless. Bell remembered her father's advice: "You should really consider starting a company with a group of your friends." Their epiphany: an Internet job service for entry-level positions. "We were passionate about this idea," Sutton recalls. "We could reach out to students like us, and we could help our friends."
Friends themselves since their childhood in Pittsburgh, the two women took leaves from their respective schools (the University of California-Berkeley for Sutton and Hobart & William Smith College for Bell) to flesh out their idea. They raised some $60,000 from family and acquaintances and read every business magazine and book they could find before launching JobDirect (www.jobdirect.com) in August, 1995. Then they purchased a recreational vehicle and hired graffiti artists to spray-paint it to look like their Web site. They equipped the vehicle with 15 laptops for students to type in resumes and drove off on their first promotional tour of college campuses in the fall of 1996. Forty-three campuses later, their database contained the curricula vitae of 5,000 young job-seekers. "We knew it would work--there was just no way it couldn't," says Bell.
After a lean first year, that certitude paid off. JobDirect says revenues exceeded $1.3 million in 1997 and will top $3 million this year, all from the fees paid by employers to use the service. The Stamford (Conn.)-based company has been buoyed by two trends: the surge in online recruiting and the labor squeeze. Collegians look better than ever to prospective bosses these days. The National Association of Colleges and Employers predicts a 19.1% increase in new grads hired this year.
Of course, Bell and Sutton are not the only ones offering online job databases. Decade-old Jobtrak (www.jobtrak.com), with a database almost twice as big as JobDirect's, competes most directly to place entry-level workers. Unlike Jobtrak, JobDirect automatically alerts candidates by E-mail when a position is posted that meets specifications they've entered. After following a link to get more information about a job, students can click on a response button to dispatch their resumes.
Students use JobDirect for free (80,000 resumes are now on hand), while more than 100 clients, including Price Waterhouse, Sun Microsystems, and Teach for America, pay from $500 a month to the five figures. The fee depends on such factors as how many jobs they're advertising and how broad a geographic area they wish to target. JobDirect's technology allows recruiters to search the database by a student's state, major, college, or grade point average, among other criteria.
"JobDirect paid for itself in two months," says Heather Cooper, a corporate recruiter for CH Robinson Inc., based in Eden Prairies, Minn., a transportation company that has hired 17 employees through the service.
CONCERT TOURS. To persuade students to register, JobDirect has shown some imagination in marketing itself. The company sends out its three "buses," each equipped with beds and a kitchen for the student employees, to campuses twice a year and accompany a popular summer concert tour. The company also gives away free mousepads emblazoned with its name and pays more than 250 student representatives at schools around the country to talk up the service.
The co-founders, meanwhile, still marvel at the path their own careers have taken. "Some entrepreneurs at age five aspire to be Bill Gates," says Sutton. "Rachel and I didn't expect to go into business. We weren't techies and didn't take finance classes. But we've been told one of our strengths is that we admitted we didn't know anything." The offspring of successful executives, they were savvy enough to hire experts to execute their vision. For example, Robert E. Ford, a former Tufts University professor and consultant, is president and chief operating officer. And recently, Kevin E. Gage, former president and chief executive officer of Hometown Bancorporation/Bank of Darien, was tapped as CEO. Sutton, who heads up the student-rep program, and Bell, who handles client services, both serve on the board.
Now owned by about 60 private shareholders--Sutton and Bell each hold an 11.6% stake--JobDirect has raised $2.5 million through private placements and is negotiating with several venture-capital firms to bankroll future growth. Will success in business trump education for these 24-year-old dropouts? Both swear they'll finish college soon. But it may be that they've grown too accustomed to their own road rules.