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How Beyond.com became a web powerhouse by being flexible

by Grant Buckler, Senior Writer, SoftwareCEO

When Rich Milgram started PhillyJobs.com in 1998, he never expected it to become the world's largest online network of career sites.

He did it mainly to find contracts and staff for his consulting business in Philadelphia.

Today Beyond.com is the umbrella brand for 15,000+ different job sites, with more than $11 million in revenues in 2007, up from $8.7 million in 2006.

The company is #29 on Deloitte's list of fast-growing technology firms, with 6,099 percent growth over five years. It's been named one of the fast-growing firms and best places to work in Philadelphia.

And chances are, you've been on one of these sites, looking for work or looking to hire.

How did a local job board become a software success story?

CEO Milgram says it's all about flexibility: letting his customers and partners do things their way. And he tells us how his firm went beyond all expectations in the following 14 tips.

Going beyond tip #1: Take an existing idea, and make it better
When Milgram decided to build an online job site in 1998, some people were not impressed.

"There were people who said, 'Well, that's not sexy,' or 'That's not interesting,' because there are job boards out there," he recalls.

That was OK with him.

"I took it from the perspective that there were certain successful businesses in 1998 on the internet: careers, gambling, and porn," he says.

"I don't gamble, and porn is not for me, so careers seemed like a logical choice. It also aligned and was very complementary with my consulting business."

So rather than trying to invent the Next Big Thing, Milgram took an existing business concept that was already working for others, and set out to improve it.

... there were certain successful businesses in 1998 on the internet: careers, gambling, and porn.

"It worked well with my personality. I had a baseline. I knew what existed today, and I was figuring out what was wrong with it, and how to go about it in a different way."

Some people are more comfortable inventing something new.

But with Beyond.com, Milgram showed the potential of taking an existing idea, and pushing it further than anyone else ever had.

Going beyond tip #2: Offer one-stop shopping for everyone
After PhillyJobs.com took off, Milgram decided to expand it into a national operation.

But he knew that unless he raised a lot of VC to support a big marketing push, he was going to need partners.

So instead of a big national site, Milgram began building a network of partners and a set of niche job boards like ManhattanJobs.com and EngineerJobs.

Over time Beyond.com has built more than 15,000. Some are geographically based, like BostonJobSite.com and HoustonJobs.com. Others serve particular industries, like HealthCareJobsite.com and LegalCareerSite.com.

Then Beyond partnered with outfits like CMP Publishing (now United Business Media), which publishes print and online trade journals like InformationWeek and VARBusiness.

Milgram offered a way to add job-search functions to the publisher's existing websites.

Beyond became that publisher's exclusive recruiting agency, so that all online job listings and career ads in all its publications go through his company.

And any firm that's recruiting can list the same jobs on other sites, such as the ones for their own cities.

Some people thought he was crazy. Why spend money for a name?

"We provide [the publisher] all the tools and the ability to display career information to their users," Milgram says, "and we manage all the traffic and all the information for them.

"So they get the value-added benefit of revenue plus user satisfaction, in increased page views and everything else, and their users get an additional feature."

In other words, Beyond offers one-stop shopping all down the chain: to its customers (publishers), to its customers' customers (recruiting companies), and — in a sense — to its customers' customers' customers (job-seekers).

Now that's pushing an idea way beyond anyone else.

Going beyond tip #3: Get your branding right
Milgram made another decision that some questioned.

In 2005, he bought the domain name Beyond.com, previously owned by a software company that went under. He retired the brand name he had been using, 4Jobs, as well as the parent company's name Artemis HR Inc., and replaced both with Beyond.com.

Some people thought he was crazy. Why spend money — he won't say how much, just that it was a sizeable sum at the time — for a name? What was wrong with 4Jobs, anyway?

Milgram says he did it because the company is about more than just jobs.

"We are going beyond what traditional job boards do," says Milgram.

He sees the company not just helping people to find their next job, but helping them manage their careers; helping employers not just fill a single job, but solve all their staffing issues.

And he wanted an over-arching brand that fit with that vision.

Even so, the Beyond.com brand isn't that visible to people searching one of its many job boards. A job-seeker in New York searching ManhattanJobs.com may have no idea what Beyond.com is.

That's just the point, Milgram says.

Beyond.com is the brand for employers, who want to deal with a big network that can do many things for them. Then the individual sites have their own brands to define them for the job-seekers who are their target audiences.

By not trying to foist his master-brand on each of his niche sites, Milgram got the message right.

By not trying to foist his master-brand on each of his niche sites, Milgram got the message right, even though it cost him some cash to achieve that.

Does your software firm do it this well? Or do you have a welter of brands that don't make much sense to anyone?

Going beyond tip #4: Don't try to be all things to all people; market to niches instead
Beyond.com is not one big job board. It's a collection of smaller, specialized sites, and Milgram says that's an important part of the strategy.

"Instead of just one site, one destination with a whole bunch of people that may not be the kind of candidates you're looking for, this is targeting and matching your job specifics to the candidates that you're trying to get," he says.

"And those candidates aren't necessarily on a general job board, but they're reading an article on Nurses.com, or boning up on some tech question on TechCareers.com, or whatever."

This strategy also differentiates Beyond from competitors like Monster.com that list every type of job under the sun.

"We are the largest career network, and we are targeted recruiting, all in one," Milgram says. That works for all three parties: employers, job-seekers, and his company itself.

This is a good lesson for any software marketer. Focus your aim, and that may mean creating niche-specific offerings.

For instance, SaaS firm Netsuite offers multiple versions of its offering, tailored to different sectors such as e-commerce, IT resellers, media and publishing, services, wholesalers, and even software firms.

Going beyond tip #5: Be flexible with your partners
Some software firms have a rigid partner program where one size fits all. Not so Beyond.com.

Beyond offers a variety of options for different partners. Most partners have a revenue-sharing deal to split the revenue from the traffic they deliver. Others get paid based on the leads they generate.

The fact that different partners have different relationships is no accident. Milgram sees this flexibility as a key selling point, especially in the beginning.

Some software firms have a rigid partner program where one size fits all. Not so Beyond.com.

"We wanted to establish the relationship with the partners the way they wanted to work," he says.

So there were very few restrictions on how relationships worked, and Beyond.com set out to tailor its arrangements to suit its partners.

As the company grew, Milgram admits, it's had to reduce that flexibility a bit.

"Now with thousands of partners and thousands of sites out there, it's important that we maintain the quality across the whole network... so we're a little more restrictive."

There are a few conditions now that didn't exist at first, such as a requirement that partners display Beyond.com's terms of service and privacy policy.

However, he says, the company still tries to be as flexible as possible with all its partners.

Going beyond tip #6: Be flexible with your customers
Employers can list a single job on a single Beyond.com site, or on multiple sites, or they can contract with the company to advertise multiple positions through multiple channels.

And beyond the online job boards, the company helps employers with other recruiting tools, such as e-mail campaigns.

"It's a matter of talking with them individually and understanding what they're trying to accomplish, and then using a combination of our services and the breadth of our network to assure that they get it," Milgram says.

One option Beyond.com offers employers that none of its competitors do is the ability to search its resumé bank for free.

The search is blind: Employers can't see candidates' names or contact information. If they find a candidate who interests them, they can buy an individual resumé for $25. Any company that wants more than one or two resumés can get a package deal.

Once again, Milgram says, it's all about offering different options that make sense.

Going beyond tip #7:
Be flexible with your software, too
Although on the surface Beyond.com looks like a web company, at its core it's a software company.

Today he says, in a sense, he was using XML before XML ever existed.

After all, the software that Milgram developed for PhillyJobs.com and then expanded to support multiple job sites is central to its success.

"Building the software so it could be tailored to many communities' needs, as opposed to just one, was critical in our growth," he says.

The terms XML and SOA weren't current back in 1998, when Milgram started developing his software. Today he says, in a sense, he was using XML before XML ever existed.

"I certainly didn't call it XML; it was some language that I built to make it easier for me to stuff data and content into a page, but in a sense that's what XML evolved into today."

Similarly, Beyond has always had a building-block approach that today we would call service-oriented architecture.

It's constantly evolving, Milgram says, and the flexibility is easier to accomplish with today's tools, but the key is that it's plug-and-play. And that means it's easy to make changes to support his flexible approach to his business.

Going beyond tip #8: Hire good listeners
Every software CEO faces the same challenge: hiring and retaining great people.

This is the area Milgram specializes in, so his advice here is drawn from a great deal of real-world experience.

If you're picking a surgeon to operate on you, he says, qualifications and experience are everything.

But for many jobs, that's just not the case.

"The important thing from my perspective — and this is what we tell our employers also — a lot of the time, the most important thing is the personality and not the skill set," he says.

With his firm's emphasis on flexibility and doing things the way the customer wants, an important part of the right personality is the ability to listen.

Even if you sort through lots of resumes for the perfect candidate, and interview carefully, no one ever gets it right every time.

"You don't want to come into a business... and be a bull in a china shop," Milgram says. "You want to come in there and understand how to grow. And how you grow is by understanding your value in the world and trying to continue to grow that value."

Part of doing that, he says, is to "hire the right people, who are going to listen, not only to you, but to your customers."

Sounds good, but how do you find people like that?

It's not easy to define, but Beyond looks for people who show a desire to learn. And Milgram says the ability to multitask is also important, because in a small and growing company people won't be doing one thing all day.

And since matching people to jobs is tricky, he says, it's important to interview plenty of people.

"You're not going to just look at three resumés, interview those three people, and hire one of them." More likely, he says, you'll look at 50 resumés, interview three people, and hire one.

And in his business, he would know.

Going beyond tip #9: Try people out (and let them try you out) for 90 days
Even if you sort through lots of resumes for the perfect candidate, and interview carefully, no one ever gets it right every time.

"You don't always get the match right the first try," says Milgram. "And a lot of times, what the job-seeker thinks they want may not even be what the job-seeker wants.

"And what you think you want may not be what you need, as an employer. And it may take trial-and-error to figure that out."

So Beyond hires every new employee with a 90-day trial period. But Milgram says that's not just for the company to see how the new person is working out; it's also for the new recruit to see how the job is working out for them.

Each new employee has goals for that 90-day period, during which the company evaluates them, and they evaluate the company.

In the few cases — and Milgram says it doesn't happen often — where one party isn't happy after 90 days, the trial allows them to deal with that situation more cleanly and professionally.

Take a tip from someone with deep roots in the recruiting business, and do likewise.

Going beyond tip #10:
Understand how your users think
You might think most job-hunters get home after a hard day and sit down at 6 or 7 p.m. to look at job listings online.

You'd be wrong.

Most online jobs sites get their highest traffic in the middle of Monday morning, Milgram says.

How can that be?

"You walked into work, you got frustrated by something going on there, and you decided to pull up a job site," he explains.

And that's exactly the sort of thing that Beyond.com — and its partners — need to understand. Not just because it means the peak load on its servers is on Monday morning, but because understanding how your customers think is critical to serving them better.

Another example, Milgram says, is that people want "content and community."

Most online jobs sites get their highest traffic in the middle of Monday morning.

That's why Beyond has focused on niche sites targeted at specific industries, job specialties, and locales. Segmenting job opportunities in these fundamental ways helps everyone search the way they naturally want to.

The bottom line here is to find out how your users think, and how they work, so you can offer them what they need.

Going beyond tip #11: To get noticed, share your knowledge
Like many corporate websites, Beyond.com has a section for press articles that mention the company.

But if you sift through them, you'll find many aren't directly about Beyond.com. They're stories that quote Milgram and other company officials about employment trends and issues.

That's one good way to build a company's profile.

Another is the blog at employmentmetrix.com that Milgram recently started.

"I'm hoping that it becomes a venue for a lot of people in the recruiting industry to get good information, and to connect with me and share their own thoughts," he says.

Milgram also produces a monthly trends report aimed at job-seekers and HR professionals, Beyond's two major target audiences. He also speaks at conferences, and his byline appears on articles in industry publications.

Whether it's blogging, making yourself available to reporters as an expert source, writing articles, or speaking at conferences, showcasing your expertise is good for business.

As a software CEO, you should consider promoting your company as much a part of your job as making sales calls to big prospects. For the time you invest, the visibility you gain gives you a profound ROI.

Just make sure that what you publish is genuinely useful to others, and not simply a sales pitch for your offerings.

Going beyond tip #12: Put people ahead of boom-and-bust growth
Beyond.com might have grown faster, Milgram says, if he'd been willing to take certain chances.

Chances like hiring 500 people in one year, knowing that if things didn't work out, he might have to lay off 450 of them the next.

"Especially in the career space," he says, "that didn't make sense to me."

So, Beyond may not have grown as fast as it could have, but it's never laid anyone off in 10 years. And remember, this is an internet company that started in 1998. Getting through the dot-com bust without any layoffs is a huge accomplishment in itself.

"I chose slow-and-steady-wins-the-race," Milgram says. "I wanted to ensure that I was building a business... I always second-guess myself about 'Were there things that I was a little too conservative on?'

"But at the same time, deep down in my heart, I know that this was the right model for my family, my family being everyone here."

Beyond may not have grown as fast as it could have, but it's never laid anyone off in 10 years.

That attitude also means "low cubes" that add light and visibility to the office, company fridges stocked with free food, a suggestion box, and regular employee outings.

For instance, Beyond has a company softball team on which 15 out of about 70 employees play. Any time five or more employees want to get together and see a movie at a cinema down the street, the company pays.

And after a writer from Philadelphia magazine happened upon an end-of-summer barbeque, the company was named one of the best places in town to work.

"We spend the time ensuring that this team gels the way they should, so that the workload is that much easier," says Milgram.

In an industry too often flawed by a gold-rush mentality, that's a welcome focus on stability.

Going beyond tip #13: Go beyond your comfort zone
Although Milgram sometimes talks about his approach to building Beyond.com being right for his personality, he hasn't always done what was most comfortable for him.

"Being from the technology world," he says, "it's easy for me to go back and start looking at the technology, and start tweaking something in the technology. But there's other people in the company empowered to do that, and they're probably much better at it than I am at this point."

So, he says, part of building a successful software firm is recognizing where the CEO needs to spend his time for the good of the company... and then doing those things — whether or not they're what you most like doing.

And he has one other rule: not to ask anyone in the company to work harder than he does.

"It's a thing that they will notice," he says.

Going beyond tip #14: Create processes for listening
Everyone talks about listening to customers. But if all you do is talk, it doesn't accomplish much.

"You have to set up the processes," Milgram says. "If you just try and do this as a one-off thing — 'Oh, it's a good time to talk to our customers this quarter' — it doesn't end up really working as well."

Here's what he does.

Every employer that advertises with Beyond gets a follow-up call seven days after buying, and another call 30 days after buying.

Between those calls the sales person makes contact, "to make sure the person you did the deal with is still remaining a part of that relationship," Milgram says.

Beyond holds monthly half-hour conference calls with partners, "to say how's it going, what are you seeing that you like, what are you seeing in the industry, what are you seeing that you don't like, are you getting the reporting and information fast enough from us, how can we do it better?"

The company also sends partners a monthly newsletter, and assigns relationship managers to listen to their feedback.

"So you always have the monthly update newsletter, you always have the message from the CEO, you always have the quarterly calls or the monthly calls, depending on the level of customer," Milgram says.

"And you always keep that in place to assure that it's constant growth, as opposed to relying on it being a one-off thing."

About the author: Grant Buckler is an award-winning technology journalist with 28 years' experience covering computing and communications news and trends. He writes for business and general-interest publications and research firms in Canada and the U.S.

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