Interview with Liz Wessel, Co-Founder and CEO of WayUp
Liz Wessel is the CEO of Co-Founder & CEO of WayUp. WayUp is a job site and mobile app for that college students and graduate students can use to connect with employers. As of 2017, the app has over 5 million users and 300,000 employers.
Business Today (Mallory Williamson): How did you get the idea for WayUp? What sorts of challenges have you encountered along the way in making it the success it is today?
Liz Wessel: The idea for WayUp came in college, while my co-founder JJ and I were at the University of Pennsylvania. We saw first-hand how hard it was for college students to find really cool internships and jobs with companies that couldn’t necessarily come to their campus, or diverse part-time opportunities that would help students accelerate their resume. So, originally, the idea came out of a personal frustration. I remember when I was applying for different internships in college, a lot of the companies I wanted to work for weren’t a really big presence at Penn, like Silicon Valley companies that, at the time, maybe would go to Penn once a year for a quick info session. I remember feeling frustration about two things: number one, not knowing which companies were looking for students like me, and number two, not really knowing what a job description meant. I think job descriptions are often very vague, and I remember thinking when I applied for a product marketing role at Google that I had no idea what a product marketing intern at Google does. Across all companies, I sensed a lack of transparency, if you will, about what the job search actually is. So fast forward two years—during which I worked at Google after college, and JJ at McKinsey—and we decided to leave our jobs to start WayUp. 4.5 years after starting WayUp, we’re now at over 5 million users, and over the years we’ve surveyed a bunch of our users, asking them questions like ‘what’s the most frustrating part of the job search?’ And it seems like there is a lot of information online about jobs—especially with the Internet. But, what we’ve started to see are a lot of students saying “I apply for 20 jobs and hear back from five of them.” So, what we’ve actually started to do over the last year is shift our focus from just helping connect students with job applications to helping students always hear back from what they apply for. We now are completely focused as a business on partnering with clients who will ensure that every single person hears back within 24 hours on whether or not they get to the next round of interviews, and then actually gets that next-round interview within a week. So, for example, if you applied for an internship at Nasdaq this past year, you would be guaranteed to hear back within 24 hours if you were eligible for a phone screen, and then you could schedule the phone screen for as soon as that same day. Every single candidate had that exact experience, whether they met Nasdaq in person or if they just applied online.
BT: After only about a year, you changed WayUp’s name from Campus Job. To what degree do you believe strengthening your branding has changed your business?
LW: The original reason for why we really changed our name from The Campus Job to WayUp was because we were also offering summer internships and full-time jobs for seniors, and The Campus Job doesn’t make sense if you’re thinking about what that means, as it implies that we only offer part-time jobs during school. We did also change our logo this past summer to build a stronger brand. I think that you want your brand, and your logo, and the way you speak and the pictures and colors you use, to represent what you’re trying to do. I think one problem we were having is that we didn’t have one unified way of speaking to our users. So, if one employee wrote one email, and another employee wrote the copy on our homepage, and another employee wrote another page’s copy, every piece of text sounded different. We decided we wanted to have one unified brand, one where we’re all speaking the same language, so that no matter what we’re sending out it feels like WayUp. Hopefully, that will help our users feel like they understand what WayUp stands for.
BT: In what ways do you believe WayUp has distinguished itself from other job application websites? How have recent changes in the way people apply for jobs—like the ‘ghosting’ phenomenon, as you mentioned—played into WayUp’s successes?
LW: There are several ways WayUp is different from other platforms. By far, the biggest way is that, as far as I know, we are the only platform that is completely focused on making it so that when you see a job and apply—it’s not all our jobs, don’t get me wrong, but the percentage is growing rapidly every week—you actually hear back. Imagine going to a platform where, after every application you submit, you hear back. You would probably shift the way you apply for jobs, and instead of using the ‘spray and pray’ method—where you apply for 100 jobs and hopefully hear back from ten—you’ll actually be much more thoughtful about which jobs you’re applying for, because you know you’ll hear back. That’s what we’re completely focused on building. So I think the first one is about that user experience. That part is about the students, but it also helps the employers, because now they get fewer, but higher quality applications. The next one is about the information we’re giving to candidates. When you go to a place like Monster, yes, they have an unbelievable assortment of millions of jobs, and that can be sometimes overwhelming, but at the end of the day it’s just a lot of jobs. I would tell you that, on WayUp, when you see a job, we want you to learn more about the company and what you’re going to get if you end up working there, and so we’re trying to give you a lot more information about each job, which is why we have company profiles, and an entire content team that’s writing content about ‘a day in the life in this job’, ‘what this company actually stands for,’ ‘what it’s like to work there,’ and other similar topics. Third but certainly not last, a differentiation point is that every job you see on WayUp is one that you are at least mostly or fully qualified for. The reason is because we get profile information from each user, and then employers tell our system what qualifications they’re looking for, and then we filter out the candidates who the employer would automatically reject anyway. That also saves time for our students and employers
BT: Do you believe that the fact that you and your cofounder aren’t very much older than the clientele you serve has helped you connect with your user base?
LW: I’m 28 and when I started the business, I was 24. JJ, my cofounder, is 29, and when he started it he was 25. I definitely think that us being closer in age in the early days allowed us to make sure that we are building for something that we, and our friends, and those we knew would want to use, but on the flip side, now that we’ve gotten older, it’s not like we are less in touch, because we’re still talking to students all the time. We also have several employees dedicated to getting feedback from or talking to users. I still also read probably about 10% of our user support tickets—I’m reading our user tickets all the time, so I still find ways to stay in touch with the users. It’s so funny: I feel like being 28, I’m so old now! But, the average college student—this is something most people don’t know—is 26 years old. So it’s not too different.
BT: How would you describe workplace culture at WayUp? How does the way the office is run affect the product you put out?
LW: Our culture is one where everyone is obsessed with learning. I think that it’s one of the top traits we look for when we hire someone: how do they learn, and are they a lifelong learner? We have nine leadership principles, which all together are what we think makes a great employee at WayUp. One of them is ‘be a master at your craft, but know you’re not the master,” which means ‘be really good at what you do but know that you can always improve, and always should be looking for ways to improve.’ I think that very much is indicative of our culture—it’s a team where everyone is incredibly passionate about what they do, and passionate about our mission. We’re a very mission-driven company—when we get an email from a student saying that they got hired through WayUp, we celebrate. We put the quotes up on the bathroom walls, and at our Friday team meetings we celebrate our ‘Hire of the Week,’ and put them in our internal newsletter. We love celebrating people getting hired, especially when it’s someone who got hired for a job they otherwise wouldn’t have found. My favorite quotes are when someone says “I never thought this company would have wanted me,” or “I never would have found this company had it not been for WayUp.”
BT: You have a super cool background for a young entrepreneur—you didn’t come from a traditional academic business background. How have you adapted the skills you took away from your studies of politics, Japanese, and math at the University of Pennsylvania to your work at WayUp?
LW: My major had nothing to do with what I did after college. I think some people argue that majors help you with certain skills, but I would argue that the political science classes I took didn’t help me to be a better CEO. I know it’s controversial, but it’s how I feel. I decided I wanted to study something I loved, and I loved politics—and still do—and as a result I decided that I was going to study something I loved and build other skills and find other interests outside of the classroom, or in my minors, that can help me figure out what I want to do because I didn’t want to go into politics right out of college. I started one company in college, and that helped me learn that I loved entrepreneurialism, and that I believe that technology is the best way to scale a company. I also minored in math, which helped me with my quantitative skills. I did a lot of writing for some of my extracurricular clubs like Model Congress (probably more so than my poli sci classes), which helped me with my copy skills, and then senior year I could’ve graduated early but instead my last semester I took all these classes I thought would help me with marketing skills like a Photoshop class. I was very proud to say I was able to study something I loved, but I can tell you—as the person who gets to see all the data behind the scenes of what the best companies in the world are actually looking for, unless it’s a computer science job where, yes, they’re looking for computer science students, or an accounting job where they’re looking for accounting majors, with the exception of maybe 10 to 15 job types, most of our clients don’t care at all about what you study if they’re recruiting an undergrad. And I think that’s a really cool thing! We have clients who are among the top banks on Wall Street who are really excited about an English major, as long as they also show a quantitative interest—maybe that they’ve bought their own stocks on the side, or whatever it might be. They’re really excited about that diversity of interests.
BT: WayUp is the founder of National Intern Day. How does speaking directly to the intern experience affect your strategy?
LW: Everything we do, we do to help people figure out what they want to do for a living and to help them actually accomplish and achieve that. An internship is one of the most crucial aspects of figuring out what you want to do. Sometimes it helps you figure out what you do want to do, and sometimes it helps you figure out what you definitely don’t want to do. In college, I interned at Blackstone in Tokyo in a private equity internship, and it helped me learn two things: I definitely did not want to go into private equity coming out of college, and on the positive side I did want to live abroad—I did get to do that while at Google. We have such a focus on internships because our ultimate goal is to help as many college students and recent graduates achieve the careers that they want to achieve and get into the careers that they want to get into, and internships can play such a crucial role in figuring out who you are and what you do and don’t like.
BT: What advice would you give a college student looking to found their own business?
LW: I would say try to start when you’re in college. I think you can learn very quickly whether you actually are cut out for the entrepreneurial world and whether you actually like it. I think you can learn some of the hard-to-learn skills while still not risking everything, because you’re still a student and can get away with a lot more. If you’re a student entrepreneur, you’ll get a lot more responses to emails. I would say, anyone who’s thinking about it, stop thinking about it and just try doing something in college, and you can see for yourself if it’s the lifestyle you want, because it’s not a lifestyle that’s super glamorous.