My 11 Lessons in 11 Years of Founding JobHouse Ghana
Eleven years ago I was doing my national service as research assistant at the Institute of Environment and Sanitation Studies (IESS) at University of Ghana, Legon.
I had only my laptop and a strong determination to help fresh graduates get access to job vacancies.
This was the time almost all important job vacancies were published in the Daily Graphic (Ghana’s leading newspaper).
But there was one problem: the average fresh graduate job seeker could not afford or have access to this newspaper and publish online for wider access.
Our approach was simple; extract job postings in the newspaper and publish online for wider access. With the help of a friend at the time, we would get copies of the newspaper and publish on our website the job vacancies before 7am.
Combining this routine with my national service role and other business activities was tough but one thing which kept me going was the joy I found it doing it.
Today, JobHouse has transformed from a job portal into a reputable limited liability company (LLC) with specializations in recruitment and contract staffing, website design and other businesses.
We have changed offices three times, increased our workforce to 24 direct employees (by 2019), expanded to Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania and scaled back within two years, got cheated a few times, radically increased our earnings and strengthened the structures of our company.
Since 2015, we have adopted a new and clear vision – to become Ghana’s leading temporary/contract staffing agency. This vision is what drives our team to each day to be different.
The journey from 2012 to 2021 has not been easy. It was not without occasional failures and disappointments.
However, with grit, we have excelled and we continue use our failures as catalyst to bounce back again and again.
LESSONS FROM FOUNDING AND MANAGING JOBHOUSE
1. Start with what you have
Nike has a simple but effective slogan “just do it!” A grand strategy is nice but it takes action to actually get things done. In 2008 while doing undergraduate studies at Legon, we realized most Computer Science and Computer Engineering students could not design websites. Together with a friend of mine we teamed up and started organizing practical website design to our fellow students using WordPress platform. I was a novice myself at the time with WordPress but with determination and consistent practice, I learned to master website design within weeks. Our class had a duration of 8 meetings within a 8 weeks. For each semester, we produced two batches of graduates. By the next year, the small lab we were using couldn’t contain the size of our class anymore. We had to look for a bigger room. Consequently we rented a place just outside the university and the class size grew to over 50. Each student paid GHC 100 at the time. It was our first windfall and it motivated us to push further.
Another skill I had and used throughout my undergraduate studies with commercial printing skills. While waiting for my secondary school results I took internship role with my uncle who was running a printing business at the time. The valuable skills I learned, combined with my entrepreneurial drive helped me to pursue printing as a side hustle on campus. I teamed up with two great friends and we printed thousands of books, polo shirts, certificates and even ballot papers. We spent a number of holidays hanging around campus, making printing deals with incoming student leaderships.
The monies I earned those days from printing and website design lessons helped immensely in the early days of JobHouse. For the first two years, JobHouse made no money. It got to a point our job portal at the time became the most popular job website in Ghana. Extra hands were needed to keep the site updated. Allowances had to be paid. But earnings from side hustle kept things afloat.
I didn’t feel inadequate to start the dream. In fact, the dream only became clearer by each passing year. This tells me that success is never a one-day activity but consistent performance over a long period. Success comes when we keep iterating but never stopping.
2. Never spend it all
Our first major earning came in 2013, over 3 years since JobHouse was founded. We had a deal with an Indian company which was providing value added service (VAS) to one of the leading telecom companies in Ghana. Our part was to provide our job listings in into a feed in xml format. Our partner’s system will visit our feed url, index the job listings and send the listings to job seekers whose profiles match the jobs as SMS.
After one year of partnership our second payout delayed for 10 months. When the payout finally came, it was over 16,000 US dollars (which today converts to GHC 93,000). We had just 2 employees at the time. I didn’t go partying wildly. I had my first car at the time, a Kia Rio and the temptation was to buy a bigger and nicer one; I didn’t. Of course I rewarded myself and key people from the windfall in order to keep motivated. But ultimately, over 70% of the funds was invested back into the business. We rented a new office, purchased equipment and spent part on our promotional activities.
Events which followed after we moved to a new office and increased our workforce strongly suggest that we couldn’t have closed certain deals without the reinvestment. Often times we assume savings should only concern individual. The lesson here is to keep investing much of your earnings back into the business in the early stages especially. If you don’t invest into the business at this stage nobody will likely do it. Consequently, it could take far longer to witness real growth. Certain events happen to catapult our business to another pedestal. Be vigilant to identify them and be mindful to retrain yourself from going overboard.
3. You’ll need multiple skills as an entrepreneur
The five functional areas of business are: Finance, Marketing, Human Resources, Operations and IT. When you start a new (small) business you will be the accountant, marketer, HR & admin manager, operations manager and IT officer. Nobody is going to do it for you (at least not for free). You are likely to be low on cash at this stage. From my experience, having multiple skills is crucial at this stage.
Can you type 40 words per minute? Can you use word processes to intermediate level? How good is your spreadsheet (Excel) skills? Have you tried your hands on marketing before? How about negotiation skills? In the early days of JobHouse I did our invoices, did our digital marketing, created and maintained our websites (3 to 5 mostly) and provided customer service. In addition, I had to learn how to negotiate and form important partnerships. I learned to do payroll using Excel. I took hours of tutorials on Excel to the point I could use many advance functions to process all kinds of documents. I could do a bit of graphic design using CorelDraw. This was critical in the early days. This list is long but the point is clear; having multiple skills as an entrepreneur is a must.
4. Hire people with skills, not just degrees
When we moved to a new office in 2014/2015 we needed to recruit a few more hands. Our office was not properly equipped and we couldn’t pay competitive rates. We decided to engage a handful of people we already knew under various arrangements. In the end, such arrangements didn’t work to expectation (nothing against the people involved, I don’t blame them).
Since that phase, we decided to recruit only people who had to skills we needed at a particular period in our business. We took new recruits through general aptitude test, personality test and work samples. We never asked new recruits to present their certificates. Within 2 weeks of joining we are able to determine if the new fellow will drop out sooner than later. This approach has helped us to recruit and retain some great people who have been instrumental in the growth of our business over the years.
As much as possible, open your recruitment process to all. Do not restrict to old school mates, your church members, friends and relatives only. Employ people based on merit. You could be compromised in case you have to take a drastic action against people you know for the good of the company. At JobHouse, we have been deliberate about our composition in terms of gender, ethnic and other considerations. It has helped us to appreciate diverse views and tap into the specialized skills of others.
5. Don’t run away from regulators
In the early years of our business, our focus has been on growth. From 2013 when we started having employees, the focus has been on business survival. This means watching our cash flow situation carefully, making enough revenue to pay staff and cover overhead costs, renewing rent, etc. If care is not taken you could forget about regulatory authorities and their requirements.
JobHouse was lucky that from the onset, we had key people who gave us advice on how to be compliant with our regulators. One of them, Mr. Mahhoud Tahir encouraged us to to compliant and never adopt the strategy of running away from our regulators. According to him, regulators don’t have the mindset of collapsing our businesses and only use that approach as last resort. Therefore even if you failed to comply in one instance, the best option to to try and make amends as soon as possible. For our business, we had (and still have) the Registrar General’s Department (RGD), the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA), Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT) and the Labour Department.
Each year, we are supposed to file a business renewal form with the RGD accompanied with a copy of our annual report duly stamped by GRA. There’s a small penalty for not filing with the RGD on time. But not filling for a number of consecutive years could cause your business name to be expunged. Not compliant with the GRA can harm your business badly and the timing could be such that it could be devastating. As much as possible, file your VAT returns and PAYE every month without excuses. I can understand if at the early stages you could not put all your staff on PAYE but do file for the few consistently. Missing one or two months draws unnecessary attention of your regulators on you. The same with SSNIT.
If you hope to attract business from international organizations then being compliant is crucial. Have you renewed your the specific license for your service. For example, as employment agency we are obliged to have a valid employment license from the labour department. To be in good standing, we have to send quarterly reports to the department in addition to some indicators. Since we got our first license we have always tried our best to be in good standing. The benefit of being compliant is that when a big deal knocks on your door, you are more than ready to grab it! Don’t take things for granted and miss out on a great opportunity.
6. Pursue bigger contracts, you’ll learn even if you fail
One project which drastically improved us was the massive recruitment we did for one government organization. This was in 2015. The organization came under the light for serious malpractices and became an albatross for the government. Serious funds were embezzled and far-reaching reforms were called for. The government answered by dismissing the board and instituting a new one and recruiting a new CEO.
When we got an email from that organization requesting for response to their Request for Proposal (RFP), our initial reaction was confusion. On the one hand, we doubted we could be selected since this organization was so big and we were small, without any influential people on our board. On the other hand, we were not too sure about the reputation of the reconstituted organization. We had a dilemma. Thankfully, we had a key resource person who led the response to the RFP for us and did using the templates he uses to consult for top international organizations. We were shortlisted for the first round and eventually got the deal! Nobody requested for a bribe or favours and there was no indication anybody wanted one.
From the initial contract of recruiting over 24 senior staff, we had two more contracts and made over GHC 100,000 in fees cumulatively, spanning 15 months. We screened thousands of CV’s, developed dozens of templates and reports, and conducted close to a hundred interviews. In addition, we interfaced with the the Public Services Commission (HR arm of government), arranged CEOs and leaders in from divers fields to serve on interview panels, and more.
By a long distance, this was our biggest recruitment contract since we started recruitment service in 2013. We performed creditably and we were commended. Had we not gone beyond our ‘level’ at the time a bit there was no chance we would have won and there was absolutely no opportunity to radically improve our processes. I encourage you to go beyond your comfort zone. That’s when you will learn more and grow.
7. Commit to continues learning
One of the best decisions I took in my early years as CEO was to enroll for MBA program at University of Ghana Business School. A typical MBA program exposes you to the ‘big picture’. It challenges you to think from global perspective and helps you to better appreciate the 5 functional areas of business (which I mentioned under point 3). Perhaps the unwritten benefit of most MBA programs is the friendship and acquaintances with colleagues; just a phone call or recommendation from one of these colleagues or former colleagues could prove decisive at a point.
Another way to complement continues learning is self-education. What we are exposed to greatly influence us and as leaders we must control what we consume. I made commitment to reading books and taking online courses. For example, I took and completed a few HR-related course, strategic management, advance Excel, digital marketing, website design and more. I watched video tutorials to improve specific aspects of my life, looked up many new words and tried new things from time to time.
Two books that have influenced my life the most are “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen and “The Richest Man in Babylon” by George S. Clason. The first posits that the key to mastering your life is harnessing the power of your thoughts, which helps you cultivate the philosophy and attitude of a positive, successful person. Success starts from the renewing of our minds. The second exposes us to ancient (but still relevant) secrets of wealth creation; how to earn more, how to keep the money and how to use it.
8. Take care of your employees
9. Forget about the banks in your burgeoning days
10. Be ruthless and bullish where needed
11. Associate with more experienced and wise people
NOTE: I will expatiate on points 8 to 11 in the coming days.