February 17, 2021

An “a-ha” moment full of wins

In spring 2020, as the spread of the pandemic spurred an economic shutdown, Ashley Watt faced a unique problem: She was suddenly getting more business calls than she could handle.

But thanks to an old idea and a hard-earned persistence, Watt was able to take a colossal economic catastrophe and produce a little victory for everyone—an online job board called JOBCRE.com—that proved to be a big win for her brand.

Watt works in recruiting. Fifteen years ago, she founded The Pillar Group, an executive search firm that actively hunts for executives for the commercial Real Estate arena. Her job is to locate the best talent for investors, operators, developers, and construction management firms. But after the arrival of COVID-19 cast a cloud of uncertainty over the economy, companies were slashing jobs and leaving open positions unfilled. Overnight, Watt was fielding inquiries from dozens of talented and experienced workers looking for work with a limited number of places to send them.

“We were getting tons of calls from people who had been laid off,” says Watt. “They didn’t know what they were going to do or how they were going to find work. I couldn’t talk to them all. There was no real way to capture all of them even if I could’ve put them on contract.”

A passion project she had long set aside…

That’s when Watt remembered a passion project that she had long set aside. For much of the prior decade, as the Internet expanded and took more and more business into the electronic realm, Watt had toyed with the notion of starting an online job board.

“I’m by no means a tech guru,” says Watt. “I just know how it works. Recruiting is my gig. But job boards and recruiting are compatible businesses. And you can connect with more talent faster through technology.”

The problem was that Watt had never had the time. She had started Pillar in 2005, after she learned that the company where she had served as director of recruiting was going to lay her off upon her return from maternity leave with her second child. Watt built her business—attracting top tier Dallas-area developers like The Staubach Company, Billingsley Company, and Hillwood Development Company—all while being a single mom taking care of two kids in diapers. Fast forward to 2020, and Watt’s kids were teenagers, leaving her much more time and energy to pursue a separate venture.

The other problem that hadn’t gone away was the issue of monetizing such a site. Starting out, Watt wouldn’t really be able to charge companies to post jobs on an unproven board, and it made no sense to try and squeeze fees from the unemployed applicants. Any advertising revenue would be minimal, at best, initially. But Watt still knew the site would be profitable in the long run. Not only extending the reach of her main business at Pillar, but also offering a dedicated resource to the Commercial Real Estate Industry.

“What you’re doing is building your reputation,” says Watt. “Pillar also gets more access to candidates and jobs. We offer the job board as a non-profit for one year to support our clients and the applicants looking for jobs. It’s the least we can do. This industry has supported our livelihood and we want to give back.”

Watt looked around and saw no real competition in the larger sector. She talked to a few of her longtime clients at Pillar to see what they thought and how they’d approach it. Then she scoured her network to find tech savvy connections to help her build the thing.

Success in the first 5 months

By the summer, Watt was ready to launch JOBCRE.com (the “CRE” stands for Commercial Real Estate). In the first five months, more than 11,000 jobs were posted on the board.

That relatively large response for a niche job board that only focuses on the real estate, commercial construction, and hospitality sector was enough on its own to get Watt’s attention. But then she shared the site with a job candidate in California who was contemplating a move to Texas. The candidate responded with an article from a prominent equity investment firm explaining that there would be so many jobs when the economy reopened post-COVID that online job boards—particularly those focused on specific fields—were sure to be in high demand.

“That was a ‘a-ha’ moment,” says Watt. “I realized my passion project was an idea whose time had come.”

Photo credit: Unsplash

Watt feels confident that JOBCRE.com will quickly boost its number of jobs to 100,000 and beyond. But for the moment, she’s balancing her commitments to Pillar and the job board and letting the latter grow organically.

“There are only wins here,” says Watt. “It’s still a work in progress; it’s running as a non-profit for a year. I’m content to let it run for free. It’s my way of giving back. We have a very lucrative and productive long-term plan for the site. We will be the largest Commercial Real Estate Job board in the U.S. That’s my commitment.”

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