Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and I am a workplace change agent, author, and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer, I am the founder and CEO of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and host of the Workology Podcast.
Workology.com is a destination for the disruptive workplace leader discussing trends, tools, and case studies for HR, recruiting professionals, and business leaders. The site and community are designed for those who are tired of the status quo and are compelled to change and transform not just their organization but the world of work and the human capital industry. We reach half a million HR and Recruiting leaders each month with our website, newsletters, and podcast.
Workology also has a training and development platform for HR professionals called LEARN by Workology. We offer on-demand courses for HR certification with Ace the HR Exam, career development for HR professionals with Upskill HR, courses for SHRM (Society for Human Resources Management) and HRCI (Human Resource Certification Institute) recertification credits, new manager training, audio courses, practice tests, and more.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Note that this is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Digitizing Talent: Creative Strategies for the Digital Recruiting Age, which will be published in 2022.
After just graduating from college in 2001, I was new in my HR role, working as a store HR leader for Target. My store location had a quarterly budget of $250 for recruiting and job ads, and I invested all of our budgets on job advertising in the classified section of the newspaper. While candidates did apply at my store location, I didn’t make a single hire for the sales associate, order puller, or cashier roles that were open at my store.
Having spent our entire budget on two ads and 12 inches, I set out to find a creative and cost-effective way to reach my candidate community. I was broke, and I didn’t want to lose my job three months into my new role, so I looked on the internet. In 2001, the two main reasons you were on the internet were that you were looking for love or looking at p0rn. I decided to use the former rather than the latter in my recruiting efforts and began using free online dating websites to source candidates that fit my job openings.
I saw these online dating websites as digital Rolodexes, searchable and similar to how we use LinkedIn to search by city, job title, and/or company name. Once I had my search criteria figured out and a few qualified candidates sourced, I reached out to them via private message, letting them know I was a recruiter and I had a job opening they might be interested in. The response was amazing, and I quickly made hires for all types of positions at our store, from assistant manager to cashier, at no cost with my creative digital sourcing.
My digital love affair (no pun intended) with the internet continued, and I expanded my internet sourcing and recruiting to forums, chat rooms, and social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. At around the same time, I created and launched a job search blog in 2005. Originally called BloggingforJobs, I created the blog on a free blogging platform called Blogger and used it successfully to share job seeker tips and best practices while also building a candidate pipeline as HR Director at my company. I started blogging about the job search from a recruiting and hiring manager perspective, and people started writing me back and emailing me, and - from this - I was able to create a candidate funnel that could quickly fill my job openings.
Many of the openings I was charged with filling were what I called “evergreen jobs,” meaning that I was almost always hiring for the role of sales manager, call center sales, outside sales, and other sales supervisor and sales support roles. How many of these roles I hired for, however, fluctuated based on the sales forecasts we had for the region and the division my team was responsible for.
It was very common for headcounts to change dramatically. During the first quarter, our expected headcount shifted to 250 openings from 25 with the expectation that we needed to fill those roles immediately. My team wasn’t prepared for the fluctuations, and we went through a painful and weekly process of explaining to our boss and the division leaders we supported via group conference call why the roles were not being filled as fast as they wanted.
My blog and social media outreach and campaigns helped us to establish a pipeline with the understanding that headcounts would dramatically change again, and we were able to create a list of 50-200 candidates who were pre-vetted, qualified, and waiting for offers until those headcount numbers again changed. Having worked in retail for several years at Target and other big-box retailers, I was no stranger to mass hiring, especially during high volume seasonal hiring times. It was a strategy that worked well for us and quickly started me down the path of sharing these experiences with other HR and recruiting leaders.
From 2007 to 2009, my internet recruiting activities accounted for 30 percent of all our hires, and I discovered that candidates from social networking sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and MySpace had higher retention and lower turnover rates. The work I was doing was outside of the brand. I was doing it using my personal social media accounts, and BloggingforJobs was still relatively anonymous. My bio didn’t list my employer and only included my first name and last initial.
My success in these areas was getting noticed, which was exciting, but my employer at the time wasn’t excited about or impressed by my use of social media. They were fearful of the results and the potential liabilities and risk it posed. I remember sitting down with our general counsel during a meeting about an EEOC investigation that was pending. I was the HR representative that did the initial investigation, and counsel was working on submitting the company’s response. It was during that conversation he asked me about any outside activities (such as social media or blogging), and I saw the fear and concern on his face.
After countless conversations with senior leaders about the benefits of social media and digital recruiting, I realized that I had a responsibility to help educate, train, and share resources and best practices with HR and recruiting leaders like our HR and recruiting leadership team. This was a new era we had entered, and digital recruiting wasn’t something we should fear; it was an opportunity to reach candidates in a new and different way.
Fast forward nearly 15 years. Since that time, I’ve written several books, spoken at hundreds of conferences, and published thousands of articles to educate, evangelize, and share best practices and stories of HR and recruiting practitioners. I think of myself as a workplace anthropologist, and my educational background happens to be in Cultural Anthropology. This is the branch of anthropology concerned with the study of human societies and cultures and their development. I see my role in HR as someone who studies the culture of the HR and recruiting industry as well as the human society that is the world of work. My area of interest within this microcosm is the technology that is intertwined with this human resources aspect of human society.
How I got here, well, it’s because I made a lot of mistakes. I took a lot of chances, and I listened and talked to a lot of people. I wrote millions of words and shared what I learned with others. I read a lot of books, and most importantly, that employer I mentioned earlier in this chapter gave me the best gift I never knew I wanted. I was fired from my job. It was the best decision I ever made, and it gave me the courage to go all in writing, speaking, teaching, and training in HR and recruiting.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first product was our Workology website. Workology.com was founded in 2005 and is the leading HR and Recruiting blog with 20+ regular contributors and 8,000+ published articles and resources. This community has been twice recognized by Forbes Magazine as a leading career and work resource.
We focus on providing great resources, downloads, and articles for senior HR and Recruiting practitioners that are looking to drive transformational and disruptive change at their organizations using many different types of digital media, including articles, podcasts, videos, webinars, infographics, white papers, and ebooks. To date, we have over 8,000 published resources for readers and community members in HR and recruitment. We have a robust webinar archive with 70+ HRCI & SHRM recertification credits and an active email newsletter with over 400,000 subscribers. We average nearly 200,000 web visitors per month.
In 2017, after our rebrand from Blogging4Jobs to Workology, we developed a proprietary learning system called LEARN by Workology because I recognized a need in our community for HR professionals preparing to take their SHRM or HRCI certification exam. These exams are extremely difficult, and many practitioners do not pass them on the first try, which ends up costing them more money. Our online learning platform delivers courses on-demand, whether it's ongoing learning and development courses for courses and memberships, including Upskill HR, Ace the HR Exam Course, Ace the HR Exam Audio, and HR Practice Test. To date, nearly 15,000 HR leaders have received online training facilitated and led by Workology. We are committed to helping workplace leaders increase their knowledge base and earning power.
The Workology Online Learning Platform is LEARN 3.0. This latest version launched in February 2020. Look for our mobile app to launch in Q4 2021.
Pictured with me is Lauren Lindemulder, who is now Marketing Manager for Workology. Lauren was one of my first full-time hires and has been working with me since early 2019 when she was our marketing assistant. The other photos are of me on a panel at HR Tech.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I had a lot of starts and stops with my launching of the product and business since I stepped out into full-time entrepreneurship in 2009. In 2009, my business was mostly HR consulting and in-person speaking and training, and I was exhausted. In 2014, I had a miscarriage. My business nose-dived, and I was depressed. I stepped away from consulting for a year and a half to take a corporate job as the VP of Talent for nearly two years. It helped me heal, but I was reminded again that corporate jobs are not for me, so I left the position and dove headfirst back into entrepreneurship full time.
In 2016, I decided that I would re-launch my blog and community. I took that opportunity to do a rebrand from Blogging4Jobs to Workology and build our own Learning Management System helping provide training, support, and resources for the HR community.
As far as finance, I used the money I’d saved from my job to do the rebrand and our own LMS, which happened in 2016. It gave me a 12-month window to put together a solid product and generate revenue that allowed me to begin to build out a team. We launched our first product, now called UpSkill HR, in 2017, and I transitioned from HR consulting to focus on online training for HR leaders and content development, demand generation, and brand awareness for those in the HR industry who want to reach the Workology community.
You don’t need funding to launch a product or service. Just a good idea that others are excited about and willing to buy.
It’s because of that, my business is very different from many of the products and services you see on StarterStory. Workology offers paid training and coaching but started as a blog, which is why we offer sponsorship opportunities for companies to reach our community. I’m not unlike most influencer businesses in that way, and we operate as an agency as part of our business, creating content and buzz to support our HR and workplace vendors and technology clients.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The community we have built is the core of our business. When we engage with a prospect, we strive to form a relationship that will be long-lasting. Being in the HR industry, we want to help everyone from the entry-level person studying for their certifications to the CHRO who wants to elevate and grow in their career.
Facebook Ads have been a huge part of our sales funnel. Specifically to drive members to our Facebook group that now has over 8,000 members. We provide resources, free webinars, and connection that then converts to sales. These are a great revenue stream that is repeatable and consistent for us.
Twitter was a huge growth tool that supported Workology back in 2008. From growing relationships to trending hashtags, I have too many Twitter friends to count.
Email campaigns are crucial to our customer journey. We use a CRM called Infusionsoft that takes our customers from start to finish. Starting with a trigger action such as subscribing to our newsletter or purchasing one of the digital courses, we send follow-up messaging to keep engagement there. See the screenshot sample below.
My focus is a community and creating funnels with a resource-based approach. Our sponsors and content development work come to us without a lot of sales or outreach because the community they want to engage is already listening to our podcast, taking our training, and getting our newsletters.
Having multiple revenue streams has been a huge part of our success during COVID, allowing me and the team to pivot as the market changes, not to mention there is a seasonality to our courses as well as the content and sponsorship business.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Workology has grown from a company of one to a team of 10-12, podcast production, video, outreach, marketing, advertising - it’s much more organized than it was when it was me and some freelancers. I hired an office manager this year, and she jumped right in and organized everything. I have my OG “do everything to help me” staffer, Lauren Lindenmulder, who is now our Marketing Manager, and I have ahead of content.
I speak to amazing people nearly every day as guests on my podcast, and I know from them that we have a really good process. Our podcast project manager is one of those naturally organized people, and she does everything from outreach to scheduling to preparing guests on what to expect to make sure the audio, transcript...it still makes me feel really good when our podcast guests tell me that they feel really prepared and comfortable.
Our revenue goal for 2022 is $5,000,000, so our focus for the rest of this year is building out the process and infrastructure to help us get there. We are currently testing some new funnel strategies for us, including a focus on YouTube video and a new high-end offer membership community that will launch in Q4. In-person events are returning for us in Q4 and into 2022, where we are focused on creative and fun ways to support our community which includes several international retreats that are fun, tropical destinations in addition to our current courses, memberships, and client offerings.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think I did what a lot of inexperienced entrepreneurs do: I didn’t know the rules, so I broke them a lot. I also made a lot of mistakes, but I learned from them, changing my approach to provide a better customer and client experience.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to support HR professionals because I was one and spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to do things, the workarounds, the ways I could reach candidates that no one else was doing. I can’t say that I had a complete and cohesive business model though. Because of that, I took on a lot of work as a one-person business, from speaking engagements to leading workshops and panels at HR conferences to writing daily content for my website and newsletters to designing my site. And then you add the invoicing and quarterly tax filing and chasing after payment. I knew I was headed in the right direction; I just didn’t know if I could get there without burning out.
Our business was an HR and recruiting consulting firm that was created out of a blog, so I have been an influencer in my industry and vertical for over 10 years. We pivoted to less consulting and more training and resources focused online, allowing me and my team to reach more people allowing our business to truly scale.
I was lucky to have a great support network of friends and colleagues in and out of HR, some of them were entrepreneurs as well, and I learned that I needed to start delegating part of the “business of me” (because at that point, my name was the Workology brand) to other talented people. I hired freelancers, contractors, part-time assistants, virtual assistants, and over the course of a few years figured out where my time was best spent and what I could delegate to someone else.
I think the timing was also good. Before 2008, it was absolutely a candidate’s market and I wrote and created content and tools for job seekers, but also for HR and talent acquisition professionals (as I had been one). So I had two channels active and produced all of the things I wished I had as a job seeker and as an HR director. When the recession really began to take hold around the end of 2008 and through the next few years, I really paid attention to my audience and what they were looking for: How to lay off employees, how to handle being laid off, how to avoid burnout, how to deliver bad news to employees with empathy, how to keep the human in human resources when so much of HR at the time was soul-killing.
I stuck with it long enough so that the market turned again into a candidate’s market, and employers were putting a lot of pressure on their HR and Talent Attraction teams to bring in top-tier talent, especially in tech, especially in cities like Austin. I sort of went back to what I had done by seeking candidates on dating websites, but this was in 2014, 2015, so the tech was so much better. We had LinkedIn and boolean searches and I spent a lot of time producing content and courses for Talent Attraction leaders on how to find the best possible candidates in some of the most interesting places.
The most important thing is focusing on your personal development and listening to your customers along with having a great support team to bring your vision to life.
I have a team now. My company is based in Austin and I am also partners in a coworking space called Duo Works, so we have an office there, but the majority of my 10-12 person team is all over the world. I love the concept of asynchronous work. I hire people who are really good at what they do and let them run with it. If someone on my team wants to learn something new, I make sure that happens. I want them to grow with me, and I think that comes from my background in HR. It encompasses so much, from people to the tech we use in our workplaces to benefits and compensation to onboarding and offboarding and - during the first months of the pandemic - furloughs and layoffs and remote work...I pivoted really quickly to virtual events like webinars and panel sessions to help workplace leaders in HR support their companies.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Because our team is all over the world, we use a lot of tools to help us communicate and work asynchronously. We use Trello to manage projects and tasks, Zoom for team meetings, Slack all day every day, Google Sheets, and Google Docs for collaboration. I have really good project managers that know how to work as a dispersed team and we get a lot of work done with around a dozen people - plus me.
I use Infusionsoft, Wordpress as well as LearnDash for our Learning Management System, memberships, and courses. Honestly, there are so many tools we use and experiment to count, however, these are our core systems that my team uses on a daily and/or weekly basis.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My favorite book of all time is by Chris Voss and is Never Split the Difference. This is a book on negotiation, conversation, and building relationships. It has been key in how I talk to my community and in how I work with our clients and partners. I used to think that negotiation was a win vs. lose situation but now I work to find a win/win for both parties.
Last year while quarantining at home, I decided to work towards earning my NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) certification with Katie Raver. I believe to be the best leader, coach, and mentor, I have to have my own personal shit together to be able to fully support and show up for my community and team. It has been a major key to my huge growth and business shift.
Find things that you are intuitively drawn to as a person and look for a way to integrate them into your business and how you lead and grow your team. It makes it easier to learn and more fun along the way.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Most founder stories are not the fairytales you read and hear. They start years or even decades before. Launching a business takes a solid plan, support team, and a lot of starts and stops along the way, but it is your own story so I would encourage you not to compare yours to other entrepreneurs. It wasn’t easy, but I learned, was consistent, and stuck with it. I started a family at the beginning of my journey. I stepped away from my business for a period of time. I experienced great loss and depression, but I woke up each day knowing what was important for me. This helped me step back into and grow my business into what you see today.
The most important thing is focusing on your personal development and listening to your customers along with having a great support team to bring your vision to life. You don’t need funding to launch a product or service. Just a good idea that others are excited about and willing to buy. I can’t stress this enough. You are not doing this alone and that support team extends to your spouse, your friends, family, and beyond.
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