My heart was in my throat recently as I coached a major university alumna who sought me out for startup advice. Six months post launch, her new online jobfinder website had clearly flatlined. The score: 100 or so visitors a month, virtually no revenue and no bright lights anywhere.

I soon discovered three problems in a nutshell:

First, I saw a small, self-funded startup struggling to find traction in the well-developed, massively-cluttered online employment arena. Alexa reports finding 804 job and employment websites (and I believe they're likely as not missing a zero!).

I held my tongue and declined to ask why the world needed yet another one, especially with such massive, successful competitors as Monster, Indeed, Dice, and Glassdoor (four of the biggest) before you even get to Craigslist.com and many aggregators who scrape and sort jobs from scores of sites.

Second, I couldn't get the founder to crystallize her site's value proposition, also sometimes called a unique selling proposition. As a coach, I strive never to discourage an entrepreneur--the day-to-day challenges are often challenging enough. Pushed to describe her "unique value proposition," the entrepreneur was literally all over the place, offering five or six different, discordant value propositions in the first few minutes of our conversation.

The value propositions ranged from "we help people find their first job, post-college," or "...part-time and weekend work while in college," or "...temp work close to home," plus a few more along the way. Most of the prospective value propositions had long since been adopted by scores if not hundreds of websites, many with multimillion-dollar ad budgets, and more than a few claiming "more than a million job seekers served."

Third, as is often the case, the bright, energetic entrepreneur was totally, maniacally focused on the product, having invested significant perspiration and (hopefully less significant) cash on sophisticated AI technology, repeated design iterations, and more--without focusing much if any energy at all on customer discovery or acquisition. Passionate startup founders make this deadly mistake often, in my experience, spending months and money building the product before giving any thought whatsoever to that old saw, "will the dogs eat the dog food?"

What's a founder to do?

When confronted with a flatlined web-based business that resists all attempts at traffic stimuli, it's likely a sign of either an indistinct value proposition or a blurry customer focus. Why would a customer risk his or her career on an unknown website with very few jobs to offer? And what employer would solicit new hires from a job site with unmeasurably low traffic?

When growth stalls, make it smaller points you richer customer focus and understanding in any or all these ways:

1. Focus on a far narrower customer segment

I often encourage startups to first identify the 20 or 30 customers who desperately want what the site provides. Even though many of these niches are already taken, might the target segment be narrowed to returning moms, speakers fluent in Arabic, or even hacker jobs or perhaps reallyhardwork.com.

Find an audience target that's both big enough to support a startup, and of course has an adequate population of prospective employers. If you can begin building traction in the niche, move as quickly as possible to expand the segment by adding--for example--"speakers fluent in Greek" and "...in Polish" once you've begun to build traction and your brand in the first customer segment, albeit small.

2. Reduce the product offering

"Jobs here" is about as broad and indistinct as a claim might possibly be. One former partner describes these vagaries as "boiling the ocean..." trying to do it all, a daunting challenge, that in this case offers candidates little reason to choose your site over one of the many large, established--and well-advertised--online services.

The narrowing or focusing of a value proposition recognizes that platform sites are two-sided, with employees on one side, employers on the other. A successful platform must attract steadily-increasing volumes of both. Think of your first job, for example (already taken @www.firstjob.com and @www.collegegrad.com, among many others). Consider building a brand in a small niche like www.fastgreatwriters.com, www.walkalotjobs.com or www.returningmomjobs.com and www.mathwhizjobs.com to name a few.

Employers needing these specific traits might beat a path to your door, even if in smaller numbers. Expand by adding niche after niche. Bring on additional niche value propositions as traction builds for the first few.

3. Narrow the geography

It's hard for even the largest job boards to cover the entire U.S. or New York geography. A quick search for (NYC outer borough) "Bronx jobs" turned up lots of derivative links like www.monster.com/jobs/bronx, but barely any dedicated websites. Narrowing the focus to a precise, close-knit community often gives the founder a chance to get face-to-face frequently with initial customers and prospects, an education customer needs, perceptions, and motivations for buying your product or service--and if not, why not?

Published on: Jun 7, 2017