Jennifer Johansson

Jennifer Johansson is founder and CEO of recruitment platform  Placed App.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I don’t identify myself as a ‘female’ entrepreneur. Where I come from, in Gothenburg, Sweden, being a woman and a leader in business is not unusual. In early life, I grew up with a strong female entrepreneurial presence, which seeded my desire to set up my own business eventually. My mother is a serial entrepreneur and, from an early age, I have always supported her in her ventures, from accompanying her on business trips to handing out flyers.

I came to the UK aged 18 to study a 4-month advanced English course to improve my language skills. English was always my weakest subject at school and I was intent on improving it. Thereafter I settled in London, working in various hospitality roles before joining a global concierge service for the rich and famous. Here, I was charged with arranging the most exclusive experiences for our high net worth client base; from booking a table at the most exclusive and in-demand restaurants to curating art and travel experiences. As Head of Relationships, I became connected with some of the owners and managers of the coolest private members clubs, bars and restaurants. It was a great job to have at the age of 20, and it came with a lot of perks. I dined for free at some of the most exclusive restaurants, attended cool venue launches and got priority entry into nightclubs.

It was in this role that I 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 I discovered that the way in which businesses in this sector were recruiting was ineffective and out of touch with how young people consumed media and searched for jobs. “Staff Needed” signs in windows was still a common recruitment tactic and job seekers would often need to bring along a printed version of their CVs to interviews. Businesses were also struggling to attract staff right from the onset because they were not communicating all the things that made them a desirable employer.

I’ve worked in the hospitality industry since the age of 14 and I’ve always found it a lively, fun and vibrant industry to work in. It’s great if you’re a people person and love providing a service, so I’ve always been curious about the UK’s hospitality recruitment problem. In Sweden, working in hospitality is a respected career route; one in which there is ample opportunity for progression. In the UK however the industry has an image problem. People assume it’s always poorly paid and the working hours are unsociable.  This has in part contributed to the ongoing recruitment and retention issue.

From what I could see, nothing was being done to optimise the way in which employers search for talent, advertise jobs and redress the hospitality industry’s negative image. So I began envisioning a way in which these problems could be tackled using technology and AI. Here, the cumbersome recruitment process would not only be automated but highly targeted and accurate. Prospects would be able to 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. Meanwhile, the algorithm would recognise employer’s hiring patterns in order to improve the quality of matches to always ensure that they’re recruiting the right candidates. This is the fundamental idea behind the business I have called Placed App – to make the recruitment process simpler than traditional methods by centralising advertisement of a job and communicating with candidates directly in one place.

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. Using technology to match compatible candidates with compatible employers ensures that positions are filled with people who are a better cultural fit for companies. This saves a huge amount of time and money on the recruitment process.

I set up the business in 2017 and managed to gain 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, the business has raised approximately £3m in funding. We also work with some of the UK’s biggest employers, not just in hospitality but in retail and care too: from O2, Ocado, Co-op and Sky to Whitbread, Greene King, BCPartners group and Pizza Express. We have 2,000 employers using our solution nationwide, and this figure is growing. Currently, the business is undertaking a Series A funding round, and the funds will be used to fuel our geographical and global expansion.

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Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I always knew that I wanted to set up my own business.  In early life, I grew up with a strong female entrepreneurial presence which stoked my ambition to eventually start my own venture. But I didn’t formally draw up a plan to shape this. I started work early in the hospitality industry, which enabled me to get a greater insight into the problems the sector faced. This ultimately inspired my business idea. I knew I had to do it.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

COVID-19 has presented the biggest challenge for me and the business, although the experience has certainly strengthened my resilience. 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 the pandemic. Our business grew despite economic adversity. Our revenue increased 25% month-on-month in 2020. In 2020, we were just six staff members. 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.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My biggest achievement is not necessarily launching my business, Placed App, but managing to take the venture to where it is today, regardless of the lows (and there have been a lot of these! But the highs have kept me going). We don’t have one of these stories that you often read about tech startups where we became almost an overnight success. In reality, it took us a while to find a product market fit and we needed to go through quite a few iterations of who we were selling to, how we packaged/positioned the product and the features of the product itself. The resilience of not giving up and to keep going is definitely my biggest achievement to date.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I’m lucky to have come from a very supportive family. I was taught that I could do and be whatever I wanted to be. So whenever opportunities came my way, I would always approach these with positive energy. I think being optimistic is one of the most important attributes an entrepreneur needs in order to succeed – especially in the very beginning of a business journey when a lot of things might not work out as well as you would want it to.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

I’m not a typical tech start-up entrepreneur. I’m a sole female founder, a first time entrepreneur, I’m non-technical with no business background or university degree. Less than 2% of investment raised goes to female-founded businesses. By contrast, your ‘typical’ start-up founder is male, from a management consultant or investment banking background or has started or existed a venture before. So my advice, particularly to women looking to crack into or advance their career in technology is:

  1. Don’t be put off just because you break the mould.
  2. Research the industry and learn about the problem you’re trying to solve thoroughly.
  3. Prove that you are the expert and the right person to develop a solution practically because you have the knowledge and mindset, not just because you have the proper credentials on paper.
  4. Grow your network and learn from people within the industry
  5. Proactively get involved in projects within tech
  6. Develop and enhance your skills – find appropriate training programmes and courses
  7. Find a mentor

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, absolutely there are still barriers. I think a lot of women are put off by the idea of becoming a tech entrepreneur because they have no experience in tech, or aren’t a software developer. The truth is, you don’t need to be. I had the idea, and I enlisted developers to bring the idea into something tangible. So I think there needs to be more education and understanding of what it takes to become a tech entrepreneur.

Also, there aren’t enough women in leadership roles within tech companies, and I can see how this can be quite intimidating to some women. But the more women that start to assume these leadership roles, the more this will become normalised and more accessible.

Finally, ​​less than 2% of investment raised goes to female-founded businesses. It’s also no coincidence that many VCs are men. There needs to be more women VCs to address this huge imbalance.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

More coaching and mentoring within companies is needed. Men working in the field should also help support and advocate women to progress, particularly in a sector that isn’t gender diverse. I’ve had great experiences with mentoring, particularly in the earlier stages of my startup. Finally, addressing the gender imbalance in the tech fields starts at school. Workshops would be really helpful in getting children, especially girls, to consider this as a possible, and exciting, career path.

There are currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

The change needs to be sustainable, so it starts from addressing misconceptions at school about careers in technology being only for boys and men. Children need positive role models and girls need to see more women in this space. This attitude shift will make women’s entry into technology much more attractive and accessible. The entire ecosystem of tech entrepreneurship needs an overhaul too. As mentioned, we need more women VCs and we need men in influential positions to support and advocate women too.

What have you discerned from your own entrepreneurial journey in raising investment – do you think your gender didn’t get in the way of this?

I think my knowledge of the sector I was addressing and the robustness of the business idea I had superseded the fact that I was a woman with no technology or business experience or university degree. But absolutely, there were instances where I felt that my gender could work against me. I also know that there are other women within my business network that share a similar story. There are many female entrepreneurs that are concerned that their wanting to have children whilst growing a startup will be met by disapproval by investors – current or potential, and it’s this kind of fear that can prevent women from starting up or scaling a business. It’s a problem that does need immediate addressing.