Reports Business Person of the Year

Boyer named Virginia Business Person of the Year

Shawn Boyer steers to the top

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

Shawn Boyer
Born: Aug. 8, 1971 in Richmond
High school: Lafayette High School in Williamsburg
College: Bachelor’s degree in business administration,  College of William & Mary, which he attended on a football scholarship
Graduate school: Law degree, Washington & Lee University; master of law in taxation degree, Georgetown University Law Center
Family: Married the former Tennille Hurley,’s first salesperson, in September 2006. Their daughter, Macy, turns 2 in December.

It’s not every day that your business gets a personal plug from the president.

Last year, Shawn Boyer stood in the East Room of the White House to accept the Small Business Person of the Year Award from the U.S. Small Business Administration. In presenting the award, then-President George W. Bush recounted how Boyer created the job-recruiting Web site “I asked him to leave a business card,” the president joked.  “Seems like I might be looking, after awhile.”

The White House ceremony occurred nine years after Boyer quit his job as a transactional lawyer in Washington and persuaded his family to invest their life savings in a startup Internet company.  He wouldn’t draw a salary from SnagAJob until a year later.

All of that was proof, Bush told the crowd, that Boyer is among the nation’s “dreamers and doers.”  Boyer takes a more humble view.  “Part of it was stupidity,” the Richmond native says with a laugh.

Today SnagAJob is the nation’s fifth-largest online job recruiter overall and the leading Web source for part-time and hourly jobs.  Annual revenues at the privately held company total more than $20 million. Before 2009, its yearly growth averaged 83 percent.  The recession has taken a toll, but this year’s revenues are on track for a 20 percent increase. SnagAJob boasts more than 17 million registered job seekers and has garnered a growing collection of honors. 

To that list, Virginia Business adds one more, naming Boyer Virginia’s Business Person of the Year. The honor annually recognizes people who have transformed their companies, their industries or the state’s economy.

When Boyer began, its success was far from assured. The climb was steep and slippery in an industry littered with the bones of failed dot-coms.  There was a time when that appeared to be the company’s fate. “I was working as hard as I could,” Boyer recalls.  “I had nothing more to give.” 

Boyer’s father, Hardin, was the first to invest in the idea.  He describes the company’s early years as “the most pressure I’ve ever been under in my life. We could have gone under just as easily as make it.” 
They did make it.  SnagAJob is thriving despite the weak economy.

So how did the company survive?  SnagAJob’s employees credit their boss. Boyer credits his employees. “It’s a miracle,” says his father.

The correct answer: all of the above.

Too simple
Boyer was born in Richmond but raised in Oklahoma.  For more than a decade his father preached at a large nondenominational evangelical church in Tulsa, but Hardin heard a calling for another career. “I didn’t know how to size a ring,” he remembers.  “Or change a watch battery.”  Yet the family took a leap of faith.  When Shawn was 14, the Boyers moved back to Virginia to open a jewelry store — Boyer’s Diamond & Gold Source — near Colonial Williamsburg.

“That was pretty gutsy,” says his son. “Everything they had got poured into that business.”  It was in the store that Shawn first saw the appeal of self-employment.  “You didn’t see a lot of the pressures.  But you did see the cool parts.” 
After Boyer graduated from high school, he went to the College of William & Mary on a football scholarship and pursued a business degree.  His goal was to own a commercial real estate firm. But he wanted to do it right.  Following advice from real estate professionals, Boyer studied tax law.  He earned a law degree from Washington & Lee University and a master’s in taxation law from Georgetown University Law Center.  After graduation, Boyer stayed in D.C. and practiced transactional law at Watt, Tieder, Hoffar & Fitzgerald LLP and Brown & Wood LLP (now Sidley Austin).

From the start, Boyer viewed law as a temporary career and kept a lookout for his next opportunity.  It came in 1999 when a friend asked for help finding an internship online.  The task proved to be a challenge.  Where was a central listing for summer opportunities?  For that matter, where was the site for part-time or hourly jobs?

Boyer remembers thinking, “Someone should provide this service.”  His next thought: “Why not me?”

It was the height of the dot-com boom when “why-not-me” was in vogue. “A lot of people were starting their own companies, leaving traditional jobs they were trained for and starting dot-coms,” says Boyer.

He ran the idea by his father, who thought it too simple.  “Somebody’s got to be working on it.”  So for months they waited, checking for a site to surface.  None did.  The two men revisited the idea.

It was a terrifying gamble, recalls Hardin Boyer.  “Shawn was leaving a career in law to open a business we knew nothing about.”  Still, the Boyer family took yet another leap.  In August 1999 Boyer gave notice at the firm and went to work full time on his startup:  His father thought up the name. 

Snagging a profit
“Six years later I might have been too entrenched,” says Boyer.  But back then he wasn’t married.  He had no kids, no mortgage.  “My living expenses were nothing so I was able to save up and get by with no salary for a while.”

NewsWorking from a cheap rental space in a doctor’s office in Williamsburg, Boyer crafted the business plan.  He kept it simple.  Companies would pay to post job openings, employer profiles and advertisements.  Volume discounts would be used to attract national chains that perpetually have openings.  Job seekers could create user profiles and let the program match their interests, skills and experience to local positions.

Boyer hired a contractor to construct the Web site.  By May 2000 it was up and running.  To spread the word among job seekers, the Boyers blanketed high schools and colleges in four states with brochures.  “It was $175,000 just for printing,” says Hardin.  They hadn’t raised a penny yet.

So the elder Boyer went looking for investors.  He started close and circled outward, pitching to friends and business associates.  “Every time we ran out of money, I’d think of somebody and go give them my spiel,” says Hardin.  He and his wife had already refinanced the loan on the jewelry store and invested in their son’s vision. 

Hardin’s faith was persuasive.  During the next three years, father and son raised about $2.8 million.  The company flourished.  In May 2002, days after its second anniversary, SnagAJob saw its one millionth job application.  It hadn’t made a profit yet, but that day was fast approaching.

Before the company reached it, the venture capital ran out.  “It was like somebody turned the spigot off,” says Hardin.  They’d already tapped everyone they knew.  “We were literally within two to four weeks of going under,” he says.  “Not because it wasn’t a great idea but without financing the best business model can fail.”

SnagAJob went into triage mode.  The company cut staff, fired the cleaning crew and tried to keep faith. “I’m a firm believer that you can never let your mind go to, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’” says Shawn.  “But every now and then it’ll go there for a second … It’s one thing to lose your own money, another when it’s friends and family involved.”

For Hardin the stress was the worst of his career.  “I’d used up every dime I had personally.  Borrowed everything I could borrow.  But what kept me awake at night was that every investor, literally, was a friend or business associate.” Then, the miracle.  In April 2004 SnagAJob turned a profit.

‘The real deal’
Gone are the days of fliers in high schools.  Today the company markets on Facebook and My Space.  It runs national commercials targeting viewers of ESPN2, Comedy Central, MTV and the Sci-Fi network.  SnagAJob boasts 97 percent client retention. And it just won the No. 3 spot on the list of Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America for the second year in a row. The list is compiled by The Society of Human Resource Management. 

SnagAJob’s new headquarters occupy the 35,000-square-foot second story of a building in a Henrico County office park.  A mural in the foyer reads:  “At the top of these stairs you’ll meet the biggest, proudest backers of America’s hourly workers and employers.  They’re called Snaggers and they make no apologies for their passion and enthusiasm.”

Jessica Bennett was the company’s first employee — aka Snagger — after the Web site went live.  Plenty has changed since then, she says, but the culture has stayed the same. “Shawn is the architect of that culture,” says Dave Bosher, SnagAJob’s senior vice president and chief financial officer.  “The fact that we’re the third best place to work in America, that isn’t something we fell into.  That was a goal of Shawn’s.”
There is something appealing about an office with a foosball table, a Wii Station and a coffee bar, evidence of what Boyer calls “busting it while having fun.” 

“It’s like football,” says Boyer, who played wide receiver at William & Mary.  “If you screw around in practice all week, you’re going to get crushed on Saturday, and that’s no fun.” 

But Bennett says toys aren’t the reason employees are dedicated to SnagAJob. It’s the sense of family Boyer fosters, she says. “Shawn is a leader.  It’s not about him, it’s about everyone else,” Bosher says. 

Bosher had just retired as CFO of a highly successful Richmond-based Internet firm, Payerpath Inc., when he joined SnagAJob as a consultant in 2006.  SnagAJob was ready to expand again and was seeking funds, so Boyer took Bosher on an investment road show. He returned with two institutional investors and a new CFO. “Shawn’s the real deal,” says Bosher.  “I work for a president that makes me feel like a partner.”

This ability to inspire loyalty helped Boyer assemble a seasoned leadership team — “A team for a much larger company,” says Bosher — that has guided the company’s rapid expansion.  Three years ago the company had 22 employees.  There are more than 130 today.  The company cut six members of its client services department last spring when new technology made their positions obsolete, but it has since hired 14 new Snaggers and is advertising openings in many departments.

Boyer knows each employee by name.  He also knows the names of every spouse and all their kids, says Bennett.  “He may not know the names of all the new babies, but he knows there are new babies.”

That sort of leadership spoils you, says Bennett.  She left SnagAJob once.  When the company moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 2001, she stayed behind.  “I hated every minute of it,” she recalls.  “Six months later I called Shawn and said, ‘I don’t care if I clean the bathrooms.  I want to come back.’”

At SnagAJob, says Bennett, “You know that what you do makes a difference.”

Recessionary effects
Sixty percent of the American work force gets paid an hourly wage. That figure includes teens earning weekend money and families supplementing their income with part-time jobs. Nonetheless, for a swelling number of workers, hourly labor provides the primary paycheck. 

The recession accelerated this trend.  When SnagAJob was founded, the nation’s jobless rate was 4 percent, the lowest annual average since 1969, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.  This fall unemployment climbed to 10.2 percent, a 26-year high.  The economic climate has affected SnagAJob’s pool of job seekers.  “It got older,” notes Boyer.  “It got more male.”  And there are more of them.  Though job postings have dipped as much as 40 percent, the number of job seekers registering on the Web site increased by 5 million in the last year alone, raising the total to 15 million.

Scholars aren’t surprised.  “When you see unemployment as we do, the number of hourly workers will increase,” notes Robert R. Trumble, director of the VCU Labor Studies Center and former dean of the VCU School of Business.  “They’re less expensive.” 

Trumble calls hourly workers the base of the U.S. economy. Boyer calls them the nation’s backbone. “They’re everywhere you look,” he says. “The cashier at the gas station; the ticket taker at SnagAJob Pavilion [a music venue within earshot of the company headquarters]; the office cleaners; your waitress.  They’re all hourly, though they may not want to be.”

Most employees prefer salaried positions over hourly work, says Trumble. “They’d make more money and have more benefits,” including health care and paid sick leave.  But when people get laid off, they need a paycheck.  “To be candid,” says Trumble, “hourly work is probably not good for the worker.  But during bad times, it can keep the wolf from the door.”

Boyer sees SnagAJob as uniquely positioned to keep families afloat by helping people find work fast.  Last year, SnagAJob launched its Campaign to Hire America, which connected 400,000 job seekers with what the Web site calls “sweet new hourly gigs” — jobs suited to an individual’s skills and schedule.  And users are grateful.  Every week, at the company meetings they read recent e-mails from the newly employed.

“I have been out of work for seven months,” writes an Alexandria resident in a typical message.  “I thank SnagAjob for helping me find a job and keeping me from losing my mind.”

The feedback, says Bennett, puts in perspective why she works for the company. From an investors’ perspective, adds Bosher, “If we have happier job seekers, we have happier customers, we have a bigger revenue stream and happier [investors].”

The next step
For SnagAJob, the short road from survival to success signifies a mix of planning, hard work and luck. “The quintessential entrepreneur story,” says Bosher. 

Of course, there is no “happily ever after” in business, and Boyer is busy plotting the next steps.  The company’s 2015 vision includes expanding into foreign countries and diversifying the client base (now dominated by national chains including Burger King, Target, and Fed Ex) to attract small and mid-sized businesses.

Will this growth necessitate going public? “That’s a definite goal in the distance,” says Bosher.

Boyer also is pushing to expand what he calls “the community element for job seekers.”  He envisions one-stop shopping, where people can find job listings, get feedback on employers and pick up advice on shaping a career. Earlier this year the company partnered with PayScale, giving job seekers access to wage and cost-of-living calculators and tools for matching skills to a desired career path.

The last goal is to see SnagAJob honored as not just one of the best places to work, but the best.  “It’s been a part of the long-term plan,” says Bosher.  “I’m happy to settle for No. 3, but that’s the difference; Shawn wants to be No. 1.” 

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