Interview with Jennifer Johansson, CEO and founder of Placed App

When Jennifer Johansson worked as a concierge, she noticed that there was a gap in the recruitment market that matched compatible candidates with compatible employers to ensure that positions are filled with people who are the right cultural fit. Find out how she launched Placed App to solve the problem.

What’s your career background?

My mother is a serial entrepreneur 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!

I moved to London at the age of 18 to study a four-month advanced English course to improve my language skills. Shortly afterwards, I landed a job in Soho House 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, bar and hotel openings. 

Working in hospitality suited my personality. I love working with people in dynamic environments, so 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, where I come from, 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. I knew the industry well but I couldn’t see anything being done to address the sector’s image ‘problem’, which was preventing prospects from considering a long-term career in hospitality. This negative PR image has in some way contributed to the industry’s perpetual high-churn rate. 

This problem presented to me as a business opportunity to create something that would help organisations promote all the unique things that make them great employers, and to make the recruitment process infinitely more effective and thus efficient.

Technology has revolutionised many sectors, but hospitality was being left out in this sense. 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, which I set up in 2017. 

Where did the idea for Placed App come from?

When I was working at a high end concierge service, I had many daily meetings 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. A majority of employers are also out of touch with the way in which modern jobseekers search for talent. Gen Z and Millennials 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 envisioned that technology could be used to match compatible candidates with compatible employers to ensure that positions are filled with people who are a better cultural fit – saving a huge amount of time and money in the recruitment process. No one else was doing this, so I began working towards realising this vision.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

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. Whilst my idea got me excited, there was this ‘small’ issue of funding.

I used personal savings to get started and obtained signed letters of intent from managers and owners in the hospitality sector stating that when my product came to market, that they would use and pay for it. After a couple of months, I received 50 letters of intent, which enabled me to secure my first round of investment and build the first iteration of the platform. It took about 9 months to get the first release out in the App Store, and Google Play shortly followed after that. 

I obtained vital backing from some high profile 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, I’ve 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, which will fuel our geographical and sector expansion.

What’s your USP?

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. 

Our proposition enables employers to showcase their point of difference and company culture through videos, images and testimonials, take advantage of Placed App’s matching algorithm which automatically targets only the most suitable candidates for the job, centralises all communications relating to job applications in one place saving time, and our insights dashboard enables employers to understand candidates better about the values they find desirable in an employer. 

For job seekers, we’re doing away with traditional CVs. Instead, using our 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. This is a much more effective way of determining whether a company or a prospect is the best cultural fit, right from the onset.

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. 

Another thing is that candidates can browse companies based on values, including sustainability, diversity and inclusion. Gen Z is the demographic that is the most values-driven generation, although all workforces largely believe in the importance of a healthy work/life balance. What a company is doing in terms of being a responsible global citizen – be that charitable work or cutting its carbon footprint – all these elements count towards how attractive a business is to work for.

Companies that promote themselves as socially conscious, responsible and caring employers will be the kinds of businesses that will appeal to the workforce of today and tomorrow. We allow these organisations to promote and celebrate these traits. 

Who’s your target audience?

The industries we support include hospitality, retail, care, telecommunications and delivery / logistic operators. Because many of the sectors here employ younger generations, and because we are a digital-first product, we are primarily attractive to the Millennial and Gen Z jobseeker.

However, we aim to become the go-to solution for every single job seeker looking for their next career move as well as a go-to solution for employers operating in sectors suffering from a high churn rate. Ultimately, we want to keep innovating the way in which employers attract talent and make our brand experience an empowering one for job seekers.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

We have some great testimonials from partners that are household names, so we use this for new business acquisition as it showcases how effective the product is. We also use case studies and social media in order to engage with our target audience, and have started using PR to raise wider awareness of what Placed App is. 

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

COVID-19 was 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; revenue increased 25% month-on-month in 2021. In 2020, we were just six staff. By the end of 2021, we were 22 strong; by the end of this year, we hope to have grown our team to over 60. 

And your proudest moment so far?

Not a moment as such, but what makes me most proud about is the team that I’ve created. They are truly talented and amazing to work with and I feel honoured that they’ve come and joined this journey with me. From graduates who are pouring their early career days into Placed App, to people who have left large organisations, high salaries, better funded scale-ups to join me in this venture. I believe it’s a testament to the culture we’ve together managed to build.

These statements have enabled me to hire a brilliant team: “if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” and “hire smarter than you”

Why is work so important to you?

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. 

Who inspires you?

In early life, I grew up with a strong female entrepreneurial presence, which seeded my desire to set up my own business eventually. In that sense, my mum has been, and continues to be, my inspiration. 

How do you balance your business with your home life?

When I first started my business, I was really excited and enjoyed so many aspects of the job that I found it easy to overwork. I’ve come to realise that  it’s so important to switch off and recharge. My weekdays include very long hours (10-15 hours days) but on weekends I do minimal work. I have a rule where I take at least one day in the weekend that is work-free.

Growing a start-up is demanding and can often mean working out of hours, but it’s important to have at least one day completely off. Personally, this provides me with the space to switch off and recharge after a very intense working week.

My husband runs his own business as well and also works very long hours, so it works quite well for us that we work hard on weekdays but are off on weekends. Taking a holiday, going abroad (when travel restrictions allow) and being away from the business really helps one to get a new perspective on things. I always do my most productive work when I get back from a holiday. 

Switching off takes practice, but it’s worth it. You want to go back to work after a holiday full of new ideas and energy. 

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

Starting up and running a business is singularly the most rewarding and most challenging thing anyone can undertake. What has kept me going in the most difficult of times is an unwavering belief in what I’m doing. I’ve never doubted this. But, whenever I feel overwhelmed, remembering these three things always keeps me grounded: 

  1. Building a business takes time. It’s important to find joy in the day to day. The journey is just as important as the end goal.
  2. Quickly realise what isn’t working and let it go. Agility and focus is important, especially for a start-up that is still finding its way.
  3. Keep going. Lows will come, and success follows when you persevere.

Find out more about Placed App.