By Nick Travis, partner at Smith & Williamson
This article was originally published in Smith & Williamson’s Enterprise magazine, a thought leadership publication for entrepreneurs and growth companies.
Alex Farrell and Emma-Jane Flynn have created an ‘Uber for work experience’. They describe how Workfinder was born and how it seeks to address and democratise an inefficient market.
Work experience is a useful tool for any ambitious young student. It opens up the world of work, helping them make better choices about their future. The problem is, the system doesn’t work very well.
Firstly, it isn’t very democratic. Work experience tends to be more readily available for those with the family or school connections to get hold of it. Even then, it may be in the wrong sectors or confined to larger companies. Targeted work experience in the right areas can be hard to come by.
This was the problem Workfinder set out to solve. It grew out of the Founders4Schools programme, which brings together educators and business leaders on an online platform.
The scheme originally aimed to spread the word on entrepreneurship, encouraging more students to consider starting their own businesses.
Sherry Coutu, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor, created Workfinder as an app-based initiative designed to make work experience more democratic and accessible. She brought in experienced entrepreneur Alex Farrell as CEO, who had previously scaled and exited the largest technology job board in Europe, and Emma-Jane Flynn, who had previously been Managing Director of The Supper Club, joined as Commercial Director. Around them the business has built an A-list team: its senior members are drawn from Just Eat, the Cabinet Office and other big-name businesses.
Alex says: “There was a massive underserved category of ‘pre-employment’. It wasn’t very well- served by technology and there wasn’t a LinkedIn equivalent for people to use as a network. I came on board to create the brand.”
The business spent three years in development as a segment within Founders4Schools.
Emma-Jane says the business has two key purposes: to democratise work experience and to bridge the skills gap: “Work experience is completely inefficient. It matters who you know and who you are connected to, rather than whether it’s the right opportunity and the right community. Even those who have access to opportunities may not find the right roles. Equally, scaling companies cite access to talent as the biggest barrier to growth.”
This is particularly true in certain sectors, such as technology. They believe that talent can be more readily matched to timely resource needs and Workfinder wants to make that easier.
They have built a platform and then worked on filling up both sides: they need to bring in the right talent pool to attract businesses but also bring in the right businesses to attract talent. Alex says: “We want to make sure we are serving students with an interesting business profile and areas of interest.”
The group has a data feed, which tracks the growth of the companies on the platform. Alex explains: “This algorithm can steer people to companies that are growing and therefore more likely to have opportunities. For the companies it’s a pay-as-you- go model. If a business is looking for a week’s work experience, the fee is £100. Alternatively, there are bespoke packages. It is an Uber for work experience with tools to do matching and screening.” Importantly, this means that scale-up and start-up companies can participate, bringing a breadth of work experience opportunities previously not available.
Workfinder has sought to bring in students through partnerships with schools and universities. Emma-Jane says: “Employability is the one thing that keeps universities awake at night. The work experience makes their students more employable and can even be more relevant than results, so universities are very incentivised to work with us.”
In order to support social mobility, Workfinder encourages companies to pay living wage for all internships and even when the work experience is shorter and for school age students, companies are encouraged to cover travel and lunch, which would otherwise be a problem for poorer students. Alex says many students are now doing six to eight cycles of work experience.
“They are not just doing one bit of summer work. This is really breaking the mould.” She adds: “My background was in start-ups. I saw how the greatest challenge was often access to talent. With this business model, we want to break apart how it’s currently done, taking on a segment that is hugely inefficient.”
Its next ambition is a geographic rollout and expansion, moving into Canada and the US over the next 12-18 months.
Alex says that being a purpose-led business is a game-changer: “Our purpose drives everything. It gives an entirely different colour to the whole business. It draws a different set of talent, who want to come and work for us for the mission rather than the salary. The funding is different. It is far more compelling at every level.”