Sara Sutton Fell, FlexJobs, Woman Entrepreneur

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Sara is quite the success story.  She started her first company at 21 that sold for $30M.  Then she started another company in the same space when she was pregnant with her first child.  She started her second company, FlexJobs, because she herself was looking for a professional job that she could do from home that had flexibility which included telecommuting, part-time work etc.  Tell me that this would not spark anyones interest. 

Sara grew up in Pittsburgh.  Her parents were divorced when she was young.  Her mother got remarieed and stayed at home with the kids. Her step-father ran his own production company making corporate marketing videos. Her Dad moved to Los Angeles and was in the movie industry.  He spent a few years in NYC too.  Sara worked for as long as she can remember.  In college she worked even worked the front desk of a hotel.  She always made money. 

Sara really wanted to go to boarding school for high school.  She went to Taft located in Connecticut where there are about 500 kids that attend.  She says that Taft gave her world awareness, kept her academically focused and helped her think about balancing herself.  At high school graduation her parents asked her what she wanted for a celebration gift and the answer was a plane ticket for everywhere.  She had never been abroad before.  It was 1992.  She traveled to Russia and even Siberia.  That experience made her think about being in international relations.

She chose something completely different for college, UC Berkeley.  Sara majored in interdisciplinary society technology and the environment.  She did not start until January so she began mid-year. It was at Berkeley where she learned how to get through red tape and bureaucracies after all the school is huge.  The summer of her junior year Sara spent her summer on the east coast doing an internship with the Center for Living Democracy doing data base management.  

She was living with one of her best friends that summer.  Her friends father was an entrepreneur.  They would talk about what they wanted to do after graduation and he would prod them saying you do not have to go work in a job with a suit but you could do something on your own.  That got both and her friends juices flowing.  They kept talking about what could they do?  Should they open a store?  They kept coming back to how hard it was to get a summer internship.  Back then the college offices were just loads of files in folders.  It was 1995.  They came up the idea of an online data base of college internships and entry level jobs post college.  By the end of the summer they had both convinced their parents to let them take some time off from school and build this company.  They called it Job Direct.  It was a great time to start an Internet company and very few women were doing it.

They put together a business plan and started to raise money.  Neither of them were computer science people.  Her partner wanted to be a special education teacher.   Their first round of capital came from friends and family.  They both understood the student market best but they had to decide which they should build first.  They decided the first thing was a resume data base.  They marketed it to students with college reps who each got money for every student they got to enter their information. 

This was the time of serious guerrilla marketing.  They rented an RV with a table of computers and networks partnering with an email service company.  They drove from college to college down the east coast.  They had started with about 1000 resumes and after the first tour they had 25,000.  The next semester they did the east and west coast.  At that point they had a sales force and were working with several colleges. 

The first year was amazing.  Sara found herself running the web development team.  She spent so much time on the computer that she convinced her team to let her move back to San Francisco, open the west coast office while heading up the web development team and finish Berkeley.  Going back and finishing Berkeley while working really made her appreciate how great it was learning just to learn. 

The company eventually got to 125 people.  It was 2000.  Sara left a few months before the sale.  They sold to Korn Ferry, a recruiting company.  It was not the best fit and eventually Korn Ferry sold Job Direct to Monster.com. 

Sara was 25 years old with a nice exit in her pocket.  She decided to take a job with Ancestory.com.  She was so young when she started Job Direct that she felt she wanted to work for people she could learn from.  She liked their mission.  The company was not that big when she began.  The founder understood Sara's entrepreneurial spirit and hired her with no title.  She started to dig in and tackle different problems.  Eventually she became the director of Communications and Marketing. 

In 2001 everything in the Bay Area imploded so both her and her boyfriend (now husband) decided to move to Boulder, CO.  They made a list of pro and cons to figure out where they should go.  They wanted a place where they could afford to buy a house, they wanted access to the outdoors, they wanted to be near a major airport and they wanted the same type of vibe and culture as the Bay Area.  Boulder was top of that list.  They visited and fell in love. 

They got to Boulder, Sara was 27.  She got a puppy.  She took time off to really think about what she wanted to do next.  She wanted to do something totally different.  She got a job in a cooking school doing some marketing and running some home cooking classes.  It was her first 9-5 job.  Within 3 years they asked her to run the school.  She had actually been looking around for the next challenge.  She had been offered to be the Head of Operations for a UK cosmetic company that wanted to launch in the US.  An internet company.  She decided to take that job instead of the cooking school opportunity.  Two months into the job she realized that culturally she was not the right fit.  The good news is she realized she was pregnant.  Eight months into the job they layed her off and gave their son her job who consequently ran the business into the ground.  It was eye opening and she decided to just let it be.  The place was so negative and it was time to take some time off. 

Sara had started to look into doing some freelance jobs before she was laid off.  The company she was working for kept saying how difficult it was to find good flexible virtual employees.  Once an entrepreneur always an entrepreneur.  Sara started to think is there an opportunity here to start a business around this need.  She came up with the idea of FlexJobs and raised some money right before her son was born.

It was 2007.  Starting a family and a company at the same time is a little crazy but she took the plunge.  The guy she was freelancing for told her to go for it, backed her with money and took a seat on her board.  He believed in her.  That was six years ago.  It has been an amazing process.  She first build a platform for job seekers.  The concept was to get employers to pay to post their jobs and job seekers could use the platform for free.  That was not sustainable.  Nine months in they flip-flopped the model  They got job seekers to pay a low cost subscription model that will be fully refunded from an employer once they get a job.  They want people to walk away happy with a job.  The employer side has been harder particularly during the recession so the sales process is not that easy even though it is free for an employer to post.  Also, during the recession they got 3X's the amount of unqualified resumes. 

Currently the company has 27 employees.  There are successful hires every single day.  Sara now has two kids who are 4 and 6.  She'd like to spend more time in the entprenreurial community in Boulder but there is only so much time in the day.  She says there are alot of professional part-time jobs out there. She is a woman with serious energy.  This is company number two.  I am watching Sara.  There is no doubt company number 3 in her future.