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“Startup founders, don’t fall in love with your product. Listen to the market”, says Jobful founder Mihai Cepoi

Mihai Cepoi, founder of Jobful speaking at an event
Image credit: Mihai Cepoi, founder of Jobful, photo by Imperiul Leilor
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Like every other person, Mihai Cepoi, the founder of Romanian recruitment platform Jobful, has been through some very unpleasant experiences in the process of applying for a job. “I’ve been applying on three different job boards, trying to go to career sites and two different employers and it was awful as an experience,” Mihai shares.

So he decided to create a platform focused on human talent, where people could gain motivation. The idea for Jobful, the first gamified recruitment platform in Romania, came from Mihai’s desire to create a place where people could enjoy the process of applying for a job, with the best outcome for the business as well.

The young entrepreneur has a background in enterprise sales and presales, and HR. He used to work at SAP where he was appointed MVP for HR sales. In 2018 he left to be fully in charge of Jobful. In 2019 Mihai was included in the generation of Forbes Romania 30 under 30. 

In this interview for The Recursive, Mihai shares that Jobful is preparing to raise a round of 1.5M. He also talks about how the pandemic has affected the HR market and gives useful tips on how to build a sustainable business.”

The Recursive: What motivates you on a daily basis?

Mihai Cepoi, founder of Jobful: Well, I’d say there are plenty of things that motivate me. When I started, the idea of having tools or technology that actually worked for people was the key part. And that’s what we’re doing. Any technology that is built for people, for human talent, is starting with this mindset – this is the business process and we have to back people on the processes. Because this doesn’t happen enough is why we have The Great Resignation, why we have drop-off rates, why people are leaving organizations constantly, and so on. 

So, what we thought of is why don’t we design the tool with the talent in mind? Why don’t we motivate the people and make the experience attractive, having the best outcome for the business as well, as a result? That’s how we developed Jobful. And that’s what motivates me, as well. Just knowing, receiving from day-to-day different feedback from candidates, from customers, from different professionals. This is what I’ve been looking for. 

Tell us more about Jobful.

We actually started as a gamification agency. Gamification is a buzzword like machine learning or AI. But we started learning about it and we realized that apart from being a buzzword, the power of this is actually this human-focused design. Placing the motivators of people that are interacting with the solution at the core of the solution. 

And you can see this difference between business apps and consumer apps. Because nobody tells anyone to go to Instagram, Tik Tok, Snapchat, Facebook to do some actions. These tools are just desirable. They tap into our motivators. And that way we’re trying to take from consumer apps and add to HR tech as a change in the design. And indeed, we don’t know any other company doing this. So, this is the innovation that we’re trying to bring. And starting with this idea in mind, we said: “Well, this can change everything in terms of business software.” 

But the largest impact, for sure, is in talent tech, because that’s where you see people interacting on their own behalf. And it’s weird – this discrepancy, when you discuss with customers. They are talking as HR professionals from the name of the company, and they have different reactions when you ask them: “Well, as a candidate, as a professional, what it looks like for you versus in your role, what it looks like for the organization?” They are looking at people as resources as an organization, but when they are considered the resource, because they are also people, the discussion totally changes. 

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What are some of the company’s main clients?

We’re working with BCR, which is actually Erste Bank, known as the largest subsidiary in Romania, Microsoft, Accenture, Libra Bank.

What is your competitive edge on the market?

There’s a differentiator. The HR market, it’s a very red ocean, especially after the pandemic and during the pandemic. There are tons of solutions – doing simple things, but doing them very well. And, in general, startups tend to go towards a small aspect of it. They don’t do talent acquisition, which is the entire process. They do screening or interview scheduling very well, or they do different things in terms of microservices. And they niche on that, pushing that business to grow, which is a very smart model. In our case, we look totally different. We look not as a solution, but as a platform. And we said well, we know how to engage people and that’s our differentiator with human-focused design and knowing how to engage people, it means that we can actually develop on top, or connect with different other tools and keep our platform as a basis for engagement and interactions.

What is the technology behind your platform? 

Well, the technology itself is Laravel, which uses PHP and MySQL as a database. We have our own algorithms for machine learning, for CV parsing, or for recommender, just to eliminate the pre-screening phase. So, we work with the latest technologies, because we are a tech company at the end of the day, and there’s enough talent in the Romanian market in terms of IT. We look at technology as an endorser, as a catalyst to challenge the current situation in the market. Process design is done through gamification from our experts, but the one of the differences is that we’re using technology wherever it’s needed.

What is the company’s value proposition to the candidates and to the recruiters?

The idea is to bring to organization the tools that can empower talent. In terms of the value that it’s bringing, it’s in engagement and desirability. And this desirability is across processes because we’re doing deployments for talent acquisition, for onboarding, for learning, for employee engagement, and different other processes. So, when we’re looking at businesses, we don’t look at processes.. You have tools for recruitment, tools for learning management systems. We’re looking as a cross layer, as a niche, right now. As a cross layer that is just bringing engagement and better adoption for the tools that they’re using in general, through our platform.

Can you tell us more about your grant from InnovX-BCR?

InnovX-BCR is the last accelerator we graduated and the most impactful. We’ve also been to SAP.iO in Berlin and WEVE in New York. We’ve been to different programs and competitions because we wanted to spread the word. Bringing innovation in the market, especially in the HR space, also has a component of education. This is how you can do better. We need to spread the word and promote this change. 

In terms of investment, the last one was with SeedBlink. I think it was in total around half a million. 250K euro from angel investors that we signed previously, and 250K euro signed with Seedblink, which is a crowdfunding platform so multiple investors putting money together and investing through SPV (special purpose vehicle) as one cap table in Jobful. 

Do you have in mind another investment round? 

Yes, it’s what we’re doing right now. We’re looking to raise 1.5 million. 

What are the revenues of the company for 2021, compared to 2020?

In 2020, we were badly hit by the pandemic, we closed the year around 50K euro. In 2021, we closed it at 150K euro. This is annual recurring revenue and it’s 150,000 euros. So we grew 3x last year and we’re looking to grow another 3x this year.

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What is the monetization strategy of the company? 

We work on a subscription base, but we’re offering support, maintenance, upgrades, updates. It’s a SaaS model. On top of that, we have success criterias for pricing. Meaning that, if you grow above 10,000 people in an active database, it’ll have another layer on the subscription as a model, or on different models.

Approximately how many users of the platform do you have?

It has customers and our customers have users. So, it really depends from customer to customer. We have an example with I Future, which is a Singapore based company, also present in Romania. And they have around 40,000 people on their database. For Erste, we’re now looking at 8,000 people as employees for engagement and their external database, the talent pool that they are looking to build, which we need to import, it’s already around 50,000 people. It really depends on the customer. As mentioned, that’s another way we monetize. If they get bigger and bigger and have more successful stories based on our technology, they have a larger subscription.

Do you recall some of the most interesting cases you have encountered within the platform?

Well, I’d say that by far the most impactful deployment of ours is for Ukraine. After the invasion, BCR came to us and said: “Well, what can we do? Can we create a platform for refugees to find jobs?” And it took us four days to put it live. And one month later, there were 3,000 refugees on the platform. There were more than 1,000 employers from all across the world. We donated the project to an NGO that was operating and working with refugees. I’d say that’s the most impactful that we’ve seen. Right now, we’re looking at how to spread the wings over there. Because they are looking at peer learning, they are looking at upskilling, reskilling. How we can support talent in their paths. And I’d say that’s by far the most relevant case.

How do you envision the company in the next five years? 

Right now, as I mentioned, we’re looking to raise our seed round because we’re challenging the HR tech market. And another advantage that we have is that no big player can come and copy the solution. Because the way it’s built, it means for them, for SuccessFactors SAP, or Oracle, or any other HR tech that’s huge in the market, for them it would mean to start from scratch and rebuild their technology, which they are not willing to do. This is just the way you design the entire experience. Do you have the business process in mind, or do you have people and their motivators in mind? Which allows us to challenge a lot of what’s happening right now in HR. 

For the next five years, the plan is to raise our seed, build up a larger and larger business. Right now, we just opened with the first customer in the US with partnerships in Spanish market, Portuguese market, The Middle East, Japanese market. We started operating across multiple markets, so I’d say, in five years, just being one of the top HR tech players and looking forward to replacing the current type of solutions in the HR tech, hopefully inspire others to do the same. That would be a great point to achieve or the milestone within the next five years.

Do you have an exit strategy for Jobful?

Well, not right now. I’ve been asked by VCs in every single currency. The mindset that I’m currently in is – it’s worth exiting when the road doesn’t keep its pace. As long as you’re growing 300%, and we’re looking to do this next year and the following year, as long as we manage to grow at the same pace, there is no reason to sell or to exit in any way, shape, or form. So, right now we’re looking to continue our growth at this pace, and to grow as soon as possible as much as possible. And whenever that growth doesn’t happen exponentially, but linearly, that’s when I’d consider an exit strategy.

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What are the biggest challenges that you have encountered over the years?

I’d say the biggest challenge we had was the pandemic, obviously. We just raised before the pandemic, we were investing as adviced, because there’s the mindset from any investor to make an omelet, make some eggs, how to put some money in time, to spend it, in order to make more money. But we’ve been hit directly during the pandemic. So, the resilience behind it was one big challenge – to adapt the model to everything that we’ve done. 

The second one is that HR was never in focus for businesses. In this capitalist world, they’re driven by profitability. So, sales and marketing are priorities, in some cases of operations as well. But HR was never in focus.

Now, HR has become a hot topic. And I’m happy about that but the challenge is that not being in focus for so long, it means the business application in HR professionals is not always there. They have been delivering on processes and working, strategizing. And what we’re proposing is a change in strategy, not tactical – just to get more candidates from here or there. We need to educate, and we need to push HR professionals to become more relevant at the board table, which they’re not used to. Hopefully, HR professionals are becoming more and more relevant in business and they’re growing their competencies in terms of business in order to achieve and work closer to us.

Do you have any top tips for building a sustainable business?

If there’s one big lesson that we took from the pandemic is that we get all these crazy ideas about the product, all these things and we assume that they will be used. But we forget to listen to customers in this type of constant brainstorming and it’s just us hitting our heads against the wall. It doesn’t make sense to just fall in love with the product and your ideas. Because that’s a sure way of not being sustainable. The first thing that I’d say to become sustainable is listen to the market because even though you think you’re right, the market is your business. It’s working in the market. 

The second one is to keep a backbone. I think right now in the startup ecosystem, there’s a lot of glorifying, and you could think that your business is amazing without it actually being the case. And there is a lot of pressure for venture capitals, angel investors, board members, advisory boards. I think having a strong backbone and driving your business, not executing it on behalf of other people, is super important, in order to become sustainable.

And as I am in HR tech, I’d say – find the right people. Because when you have 5,000 employees, having 100 that are not delivering, it’s marginal, it doesn’t really matter. Having 5-10-20 people in the team means that every single one counts. Every single person in that startup counts and can make the difference. So, finding the right people from an early stage, I think, is critical.

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