Found In The Rockies

Harley Blakeman (Honest Jobs) \\ Providing Real Second Chances

July 13, 2022 Les Craig Season 2 Episode 24
Found In The Rockies
Harley Blakeman (Honest Jobs) \\ Providing Real Second Chances
Show Notes Transcript

And on today's show, we have Harley Blakeman, who is the CEO of Honest Jobs. He is sharing with us one of the most authentic and powerful stories of inspiration you will hear anywhere. Harley founded Honest Jobs, to help people impacted by the criminal justice system. find meaningful employment. He is going to tell us his story, what circumstances landed him in jail, and where his passion came from to start Honest Jobs. 

Here’s a closer look at the episode:

  • Harley’s early life in Texas, Arkansas, and Florida
  • Tragedy that lead to drug use and drug dealing
  • Incarceration and turning the corner
  • The struggle with finding a job
  • Understanding the pain point and finding first customers
  • Mistakes made building the platform
  • Educating companies about statistics around employment people with a criminal record
  • Harley’s own hiring practices
  • Company culture and camaraderie
  • Raising capital - first Angel investment
  • TechStars
  • Finding a engineer turned CTO
  • Advice to other founders in the early stages of their company
  • The importance of legal advice early on
  • Protecting your equity
  • Changes in 2022
  • Startup Island


Honest Jobs:
Harley's Linkedin:
Honest Jobs LinkedIn:
Honest Jobs Facebook:
Harley's Twitter:
Honest Jobs Twitter:
Honest Jobs YouTube:

Harley 00:00

I went to community college for a year, got into Ohio State University's Business School, graduated with honors. And I couldn't find a job. I graduated top of my class. I'm a white male with a good education, support system, all the, you know, advantages you could have in life really. But this felony from when I was an 18 year old kid was keeping me from getting a job. So I was rejected over 100 times. And ultimately, several years later, that led me to start my company Honest Jobs.

Les 00:33

This is Found in the Rockies, a podcast about the startup ecosystem and the Rocky Mountain region, the founders, funders and contributors and the stories of what they're building. I'm Les Craig from Next Frontier Capital. And on today's show, we have one of the most authentic and powerful stories of inspiration you will hear anywhere. And I mean that, on today's episode, we have Harley Blakeman, who is the CEO of Honest Jobs, a company that Harley founded to help people impacted by the criminal justice system. find meaningful employment. 

Harley, thanks so much for joining us on the show today. 

Harley 01:14

Yeah, Les thank you so much for inviting me to be on. 

Les 01:18

Yeah, we're excited. So to start off, why don't you tell us a little bit about your story? Who you are, where you grew up, and how you ended up in the Rockies? 

Harley 01:45

Yeah, absolutely. It's a long one. So I'll try and condense it a little bit for this, but it's a good one. So hold on, everybody listening. Yeah. So I've got a kind of a story that is pretty tragic, if you will, but it makes it a really great story is I grew up very, very small family. My mom and dad were both kind of the black sheep of their families, where neither one of them really graduated college, my mother, in fact, didn't even finish high school. They both kind of ran away from their hometowns to do their own things when they were kind of 18 years old. And they found each other in Dallas, Texas. And

you know, my mother had a son when my mom and dad met that's my older brother. But other than those three, I really don't have didn't have much of a family outside of them. I I knew their families, but we didn't visit them often. They didn't come over like it was like every three Christmases I would see someone else in my family other than my mom, dad and brother. I lived in Dallas until I was like six. That's where I was born, moved to Hope, Arkansas for like three years, which was fun. Then I moved to a small town outside of Gainesville, Florida, called Keystone Heights, Florida, when I was about eight years old, and I lived there until I was probably 17-18. In this small town, Keystone Heights, Florida, there's just my mom, dad, my brother, I grew up in a trailer park. You know, I was lucky because I had food on the table. I had shelter. I had my mom, I had a family. But I was unlucky in the sense that it was just a really small town with no opportunity, didn't have money, lived in a trailer, all those things. Then my mother lost like 80 pounds when I was 13. And she divorced my father after like 19 years of marriage. And when she divorced my father, she was also heavily drinking and started using drugs. So wasn't really a drinker was wasn't using drugs, lost this weight, started drinking using drugs divorced my father and just disappeared from my life. She like literally left and I didn't know where she was for like two years. Shortly after they got divorced, my father passed away in a motorcycle accident, completely unexpected. He was young. I think it was 41 when he passed away, so pretty young. And it's just completely shattered my life like okay, what do I do now? They're taking the home away that I lived in. I don't have any parents. 

Les 03:54

And how old were you Harley at the time? 

Les 03:57

Yeah. When my father passed, I was 15. My older brother was 18. So we did have my older brother. But my older brother was 18. And we were growing up in a town where there was no opportunity. And he had already started like experimenting with drugs and didn't really have plans to go to college. And I think he took it really hard. I took it really hard, but he took it really hard as well. And he fell into depression and drugs. And I think I…at the young age of like 15 I started taking Xanax and like was basically I didn't go into foster care. I didn't get rescued by anyone. My dad's side of the family came down for the funeral. And my mom showed up to the funeral and she actually told my dad's family that she was going to take care of me. She was like, I'm going to make sure it's okay. So my dad's family left thinking everything was okay. Well, my mom invited me to come stay with her. And her house was some dude she met at the bar. And I was supposed to sleep on the couch. And there was like trash everywhere. There was no food, like this was some guy that I didn't know. So like the second night I just left. I was like, I'm not, I don't know this guy. I don't know. You don't have a car, you don't have a job. There's no food here. So I ended up going to stay with a friend. And honestly, for the next three years, I just lived on couches. I bounced around from couch to couch and was basically a homeless teenager. 

Les 05:26

Were you where you were going to high school, or were you just kind of in and out 

Harley 05:27

I was at that time. But when I was 16, I stopped going. I dropped out of high school at 16. And didn't have transportation, didn't really have clean laundry most of the time, it was really bad. And I was just abusing drugs. By the time I was 16. I was abusing Percocet and Vicodin and painkillers and drinking. And really, like, didn't have anyone to let down. Like I know, there was no one that was going to be disappointed in me. So I was just like, not doing anything. I dropped out of high school. And while I was 16, closer to 17, I started selling drugs. And it turns out I'm a natural born entrepreneur, I was pretty good.

Les 06:04

So you put it you put those those natural born entrepreneurship skills to good use and made a living. 

Harley 06:16

Yeah, unfortunately, you know, that was the thing that there was ample demand for in my town was people wanted marijuana, people wanted Percocet and Vicodin and all this other stuff. And my brother knew a woman. Of course, I won't say her name, but a woman who was a registered nurse who could get a hold of lots of prescription pills for dirt cheap. And she actually was getting them from the manufacturer down in Miami. So I ended up started selling prescription pills. And that's where I really found that I could make a lot of money. So when I was 17, I started making thousands of dollars a week. I actually met a guy in Savannah, Georgia. And I started he was the only person I sold to,,, so when I was 17. I was driving to Savannah, Georgia once a week, and I would sell him 400-500 oxycontin at a time when I would make like $3,000 to $4,000 a week selling to one person. So it's a really long story. I'll try and cut to the chase. 

Les 07:10

But no, I look, I really appreciate you sharing it. And for our listeners that are probably like where is this gonna end up? You’ll see, just hang on, you'll see. 

Harley 07:14

Yeah, so. So yeah, so I was selling drugs in Georgia. I turned 18. Two weeks later, I get arrested by the Chatham County narcotics department in Savannah, Georgia. And I'm at 18 years old first time ever been arrested, I get sentenced to 14 months in prison in Georgia. And, you know, no money for for a lawyer. They took all my money, they seized my vehicle, everything. So I ended up being sent to 14 months of prison and in prison, you know, there's a whole podcast, I could talk about what prison’s like, it was awful.

Les 07:48

Ha ha, that’s not this one.

Harley 07:50

Yeah, but while I was there, I got really a new focus and direction. I read a ton of business books, I got my GED, and I came home motivated, I really wanted to do better. And I also built a relationship with my dad's sister who lived in Columbus, Ohio. When I got out of prison, I went there, I went to community college for a year, got into Ohio State University's Business School, graduated with honors. And I couldn't find a job, I graduated top of my class, I'm a white male with a good education, support system, all the you know, advantages you can have in life really. But this felony from when I was an 18 year old kid was keeping me from getting a job. So I was rejected over 100 times. And ultimately, several years later, that led me to start my company Honest Jobs. So that was the very long explanation to starting on Honest Jobs, which is a national employment marketplace for formerly incarcerated people. And for your listeners that don't know there's overnight, there's about 19 million Americans with a felony conviction. And this is their, this is their life's challenge, is like overcoming this felony. And one of the main ways that holds him back is in the workplace. So we've built this marketplace that's catered to solving their problem, and we've gained some traction. So I'll stop because I know we’re at 8 minutes already. 

Les 09:03

No, know, I look. First of all, I just I want to just thank you for sharing that story. It's, it's an unbelievable one. And I mean, you it says a lot about who you are as a person, what you've been through where you've come as a founder, and I think most significantly, the inspiration and the motivation that you have and the insight that you have to be to be the founder to innovate in the space and to really have, you know, an amazing impact on on on this this major, major problem facing you know, our country in the criminal justice system. What can you take us back to you shared with me before previously about, you know, some of the some of the interview process, like how far it came and how close you got? Is there anything you can kind of just share with share with us on that? 

Harley 09:51

Yeah, so like I said, I worked all through college, but they were like odds and ends, washing dishes working at restaurants where a lot of companies don't even do background checks, but I was working came full time while going to school full time. And I graduated with honors out of Six Sigma certification. So every like most of the jobs I applied for I was getting at least first round interviews. And, in fact, my senior year, I had over 80 companies do second round interviews with me where I'm meeting with kind of the next step. And I even had a couple of job offers come through, because people were telling me well, you know, the perfect fit for the job, we're so excited to talk about it. But when they would find out about the record, is when I would get either a rescinded job offer, or they would just say, we've decided to move forward with someone else, you know, and what's really tough about this, for these for these job interviews, you know, to get the job, you have to prepare, you have to learn about the company, learn about the position, prep, do interview, preparation, you know, get dressed up, drive across town, whatever it may be, before COVID, you actually had to do a lot to do an interview, now you just hop on Zoom, but all of that and being rejected over and over and over again. And knowing in the back of your head, it doesn't matter what I say, right? Doesn't matter how I dress or how I answer their questions, it all comes down to this question they haven't asked me yet, which is around a background check. So yeah, I think, you know, unless I skipped over something you were looking for there, that was really the pain point that this this population in America, it's that they've made the mistake, they've paid the debt to society. But now there's this mistake, that they can't change, they cannot do anything about the fact that when a background check runs, you're gonna see it, all they can do is hope that you'll have, you know, grace or empathy or whatever it may take for you to give them that second chance. 

Les 11:43

Absolutely. And this, this actually has an effect of creating sort of this perpetual cycle in the criminal justice system, right. I mean, this is there's, there's a lot of statistics and, and just observations, I think that that suggest this…

Harley 11:58

Yeah there's a ton of data that shows that, you know, the number one indicator of staying out of prison is being employed. So people who come home, if they can find a job, there's, there's like a really big increase in their chance of successfully staying out of prison. However, there's also data that shows that over 60% of people are still unemployed one year after release, even though they are actively interviewing and applying for jobs. So they're going an entire year of interviewing, and they can't even get like an entry level job. So it's extremely painful. I don't know if you've ever been rejected in a relationship or any type of rejection before, but it's not fun. And having a life just full of rejection is really hard. So yeah, that's what we're trying to do is help people get rejected last and help people just provide for their families and themselves. 

Les 12:48

It's an amazing undertaking. It seems like a tremendous challenge, though. How do you? How do you approach it? Or what what was the original when you when you sort of had this inspiration? And this fire the spark To start this company. How did you approach it? And where have you started to see that sort of develop into traction? 

Harley 13:11

Yeah, I'll try and be brief. But in my mind, when I came home from prison, I knew that I didn't have the skills or education to really have a good job. So I thought, let me just fulfill those. Let me get some skills, let me get some education so that I can get a good job. Turns out like that wasn't enough. I also was a pretty savvy, digital person. So digital literacy through the roof, I was Google AdWords certified all this stuff, like I knew the internet, but I couldn't even find a place on the internet that could help me. So it's like, what is going on here? There's literally nothing on the internet of value for people like this. And there's so many people like this. So when you get Google AdWords certified, you kind of learn about how to identify words that are frequently searched for, and like “jobs for felons” and “who will hire felons” was like a really high search term. So lots of people were searching for it. No surprise. So in my mind, I'm like, you know, I don't know what the solution is. But there's clearly a need. You know, so that's, that's actually a really good place to start a company is like, I know, there's a pain point. Right? The pain point is, definitely there. Now, what can I build to solve this pain point? So when you think about it like that, you know, my product couldn't fail. Because I didn't have a product. I was looking at the customers and saying, What can I do for you? And that kind of led me on a windy road that started with a an LMS, a learning management system, I was creating content that could help them rebuild their credit, get into college, find a job. But after about six months of doing that, I surveyed the customers and asked them to tell me what their biggest need was, and just like hands down, like 89% of people said they needed help finding a job. So it didn't start with tech. It really started with very manual. I found a manufacturing company where I knew someone in HR I said, they said we hire people with records. We've hired lots of people out of prison. And they told me, we'll pay you $500 per referral. If we hire them, we'll give you 500 bucks. And I was like, Okay, I've got a business, I don't, I don't know what it's gonna look like. So, sure enough, maybe a month later, they hired the first person I sent them or, one of the first people I sent them. And that was kind of how I got the idea of Honest Jobs going. And from there, I made many, many mistakes, I, you know, building a first version of a platform where employers could come to me to get this service. And I can hopefully help them fulfill their need. The version one was on a WordPress site, I had no idea what I was doing. And there's so many mistakes made. But now we're, now we're three years later gaining quite a bit of traction and have a lot of success. So and we've helped a lot of people. So it feels really good. 

Les 15:52

That's great. And so, so initially, thinking about this from the from the demand side is is that right? You were you were going after your getting employers as customers, and then trying to figure out the supply side for them. Is that, is that fair? 

Harley 16:05

Yeah, the learning management system was only for jobs. It was only for people with records. They weren't even job seekers yet, because I wasn't focused on employment. Surveyed them and when I found out that employment was their main problem. I was like, Okay, there's tons of people out here that have this problem. Let me go talk to some employers. When I had an Yeah, I had this employer who said, If you can, if you send us someone and we hire them, even if they have a felony, we'll pay you. And they ended up doing that. And, yeah, so from the very beginning of on Honest Jobs, quote, unquote, which was focused on employment, I was very much working with employers first. And then and then looking to fulfill their their needs. 

Les 16:45

Interesting. And so on the employer side, is there. Are there initiatives or efforts or there's a desire specifically to to hire, folks? Well, obviously, there's there's work workforce shortages and demand there. But I mean, it sounds like there's there's employers that are saying, we want to hire people that have criminal records, or we want to hire people that are coming out of out of kind of reform. 

Harley 17:08

Yeah. So there definitely are companies who are very knowledgeable of the space and have been public about why they do what they do. Ben and Jerry's is one of them. They hire a lot of formerly incarcerated people to manufacture brownies and things that go in their ice cream, Chobani Yogurt does this. Dave's Killer Bread is a company that was at one point exclusively hiring people from prison. And they've done it rather successfully. You know, there's research that shows customers actually prefer buying from corporations that have programs like this, because it shows you you know, you're investing in the communities you work in. So when you when you say it like this. “Companies actually want to hire felons, right?” The answer is no, the answer is no.

Les 17:53

But yeah, I was I was I wasn’t very soft in my delivery. 

Harley 17:57

Oh, it's okay. It's okay. But that's the question a lot of people have. Why would companies want to hire felons? Well, that's not the question we ask. What we know that they want is they want to hire employees, who will show up, who will stay and who are trainable. And employees who aren’t expecting stuff to be given to them. Well, guess what this population checks all those boxes, there's research and data from government, from universities, from across the board that shows formerly incarcerated people don't expect raises, they don't expect you to give them the job at all. They're thankful when they get an entry level job, because no one will give them a job. Beyond that, they show up and they stay longer than employees without records. The US military did a study that showed people, they they did a multi year period where they let people with felonies into the military. And they studied it. And what they found was that people with felony convictions moved up the ranks faster and to higher ranks than people without on average, the average person, and that's a widely cited study. So it's just it's hard to believe because it's it's counter to the American perspective on people with a record. But when you look at the data, it's there and we have that data too from our customers. So that's really the education process. And it's extremely valuable when you look at it from that perspective. 

Les 19:20

It makes it makes total sense when you when you frame it that way. I mean, they are, they're earning that opportunity every day, every day when they show for work, they're earning it and that's and then something that is not not common across most crosscut of sadly of American society. 

Harley 19:35

Yeah, and there's also you know, the trend over the last probably 5-10 years has been people are job hopping, you know, young people especially they get a job they want to move every six months to every year or two and, you know, I don't I don't necessarily blame them. But these people if they don't have the option to Job hop because no one will hire them. So when you get someone like this, you could be you could get someone that sticks with you for two or three years. You could get someone who sticks for you for 12 or 13 years. You know, and that's, I can tell you just from my small time running this startup is having loyal employees is very beneficial. So the last thing I'll say is very, it's not the reason companies do this, but it is beneficial is there's also federal tax credits. So you can get up to $9,000 in tax credits for every person you hire with a felony. So, many businesses, especially kind of profitable, small and medium sized operating businesses will hire from this population, because they can end up writing off, you know, $400,000 in taxes or something, because they hired from this population. 

Les 20:42

So sure, very cool. And what about state by state? Are there are there some state states that have incentives and promotions as well, in addition to federal incentives? 

Harley 20:49

You know, I'm sure that there, there is, I have, I don't want to quote something that's incorrect. But I did read recently about I think, maybe Nebraska, or North Dakota or something, a state passed a bill that does give incentives to employers who do this. But what we are seeing more and more is the kind of from a different angle is punishment for not considering them, which I'm not, I'm not a huge proponent of because I just don't really believe that, like, Ban the Box laws and laws that say, We're gonna find you if you the truth is, is it's not a protected class. So the businesses with money will always be able to weasel their way out of punishment. And I don't think it's the best way to solve the problem, either, we really got to figure out how do we make this palatable for employers? And when we do that, they’ll hire them. And that's what we're aiming to do. We're aiming to educate and make the processes simple enough to where any employer can hire someone with a record without risk or fear. 

Les 21:51

That makes sense. And speaking of that, how have you thought about sort of some of the fundamental principles of, of what you do as a company in terms of your own hiring? Have you? Have you hired any any folks with criminal backgrounds at Honest Jobs? 

Harley 20:49

Yeah, absolutely. It's, you know, it's a high pride point of mine, because when I think about my company, I talk about revenue, and monthly active users and product and all this stuff, I'm always talking about that, because that's what excites me. And that's what makes this company, hopefully, you know, venture backable and scalable, to solve the problem on a national level. But at the end of the day, we get a lot of reward from seeing the impact. And I've tried to incorporate that into our company. So we post all of our jobs on our platform first. We get, you know, sometimes we get applicants who aren't even kind of qualified. And we pass, you know, we, we move, we don't hire them, of course. But when we do post all of our jobs on our platform, we get many, many high quality candidates who have criminal records. And to this day, we have 20 employees and 15 of us have felony convictions across our executive team, our software team, our marketing sales, on every aspect of our business, there are people with felonies and you know, in 2021, we grew on average of about 30% month over month. And that was on the backs of, you know, formerly incarcerated talent, not just people, but people who are super talented, who made a mistake. And now they can't get a job. So like, we get engineers at the best price, we get marketing leaders at the best price and in they're committed and they're passionate. So, yeah, I'm glad you asked that.

Les 23:32

I'm sorry, sorry to interrupt you. But you must just have an amazing culture to boot. I mean right? It's like, because it's like so much of just eating your own dog food and mission mission first. I mean, it's, it's got to be a special special group of folks, I would imagine. 

Harley 23:46

Yeah, the level that they interact amongst themselves in such a positive way. Like I can just watch Slack all day, and how they share stuff and talk and though, share articles and talk about how they invite each other to these little webinars on fair chance hiring or like, after prison life or whatever. There's just this really strong camaraderie amongst our employees around the experiences that they've had. And the US moving the needle. So you know, if I don't doubt for a minute that if we didn't make payroll that people would not even say question it, that they would be like, how are we going to bounce back next month? You know, they wouldn't be like well call me when you can pay me again. I'm not the type of leader you know, everybody has full benefits and everything in our company, but I hear about companies that have a hard time getting employees to want to be there and things like that. It doesn't make sense to me because my employees love what we do. And I think, you know, they don't even want to go on vacation.

Les 24:47

You’ve got different problems. That's awesome. That's awesome. Harley, what about, so take us through you know, so from WordPress to like building a product you went through TechStars like tell us a little bit more about the journey just like starting starting a company, raising money like what? What was that? What's that ride been like? 

Harley 23:46

Yeah, so, um, I'll start with kind of how Guy Raz is into “How I built This” podcast is like luck, right? I worked really freaking hard. But I had some luck. And I met a guy at a bar while I was drinking a beer. And he happened to be a angel investor from Boston. And I'm in my little bubble in Columbus, Ohio, where there's like no venture capital activity. And this guy just I told him my story. And he's like, I have a son that got arrested, charged with almost the same thing you got charged with, but he did. No time, no probation, nothing because I have money. And I think that's sad that not only does race play into it, not, you know, just your class, are you poor? Or do you have money if you have money, you're not going to jail, essentially. So he was really intrigued by the story. Gave me his card, we emailed back and forth a few times, and he ended up investing 100k. And that was kind of the blessing that I had to really like, focus on this, I quit my job, and I paid myself 30 grand a year. And I, I focused on it for 14 months before I got into TechStars. And it was on a WordPress site. I had a business partner that didn't work out. You know, went through all the trials and tribulations COVID hit, you know, we had gotten to a point where we had to $2,000-$3,000 a month in revenue, which at the time felt like the amazing. Then COVID hit, we lost everything in two weeks. Right when COVID hit us when we got accepted into TechStars. And it's funny as I was sitting racking my brain, is this worth 6% of the company? I don't know, I don't know if I should do it. I don't know if I should do it. But I ended up doing it thank God I did because yes, of course it's worth it. When you're at an early stage product, you don't know what you're doing. TechStars was amazing. I mean, honestly, and I couldn't be luckier that, you know, there was some people in my cohort including Natty from Matchstick Ventures, which is a bit, you know, I don't know how everybody else perceives them. But I perceive him as a little bit of a legend. And as far as TechStars goes, because he was in the Boulder program for so long. And he's been so successful in his own right, so Natty was a mentor of mine, as well as a couple other high profile people that showed interest in me. And we ended up closing an additional $1.1 million round during the program. 

Les 27:20

wow, amazing. By the way, Natty is definitely a legend. He his name comes up so much. On the podcast, and he's such a good friend. We need to have him on. So, Natty, if you're listening, we got to have you on. 

Harley 27:31

I'll be honest, like his name is part of it. When I first met him, I was like, Natty Zola. There’s something about this guy? I don't know. So he's great, though. But yeah, so like, right, right when we were considering accepting TechStars is when we actually were rebuilding from a WordPress site to a custom built product. And during, during COVID, that my current CTO, my, my CTO now saw that I was looking for a contract engineer online and he reached out and said, hey, you know, I'm happy to help, we got on a call. And he said, You know, I'm, I'm usually a consultant, but all my gigs are gone, because COVID I'll work for free for the next couple of months. Because I really like what you're doing. And at the end of the, at the end of the work, you can either you can just like send me an invoice and pay, I'll send you an invoice and you can just pay me if you can, like, it's really we don't even have to sign anything. 

Les 28:27

What what, what a CTO find! Where did you, you gotta tell us where this pond of fish exists that’s unbelievable.

Harley 28:36

The Midwest man, you know, it’s different. So anyways, he and I ended up talking more, and we agreed that I would make him either I would either pay him or I'd offer him equity, he ended up taking the equity because we had such a good working relationship during COVID. And in the beginning of TechStars, we we rebuilt and launched the product, and my developers really liked him and we built a team. And it's been great ever since. After TechStars, we pivoted our business model a little bit, but during and after TechStars, we've just accelerated our growth like crazy, we now have over 650 employers across the US that hire through us and we just broke 22,000 job seekers. So still a fairly low number on the job seeker side. But, you know, we do need jobs for those job seekers. So it would actually be worse for us if we had like 2 million job seekers because we wouldn't be serving them. So we're balancing those, those growth numbers intentionally. 

Les 29:26

That's amazing. I mean, it's, it's, it's fascinating to hear the evolution of the technology, of the business. It seems like you've really been your timing has been great. From a development perspective, what what advice would you give I like like how you started with WordPress and sort of like tested out the idea, would you would you give that advice to founders like go light and validate first or like what what would you what advice would you give to founders before? Before I just, assume…

Harley 30:00

Yeah, it's tough because what I've realized is that I know some other first time founders that are just getting started. And the truth is, is sometimes you just can't shortcut it. You can't give them that nugget of advice that's going to make them go like skip the first three years, like the truth is, is I think everyone has to kind of some people are going to be smart enough to in the early days, I had people telling me, You should do a land and expand strategy where you really focus on one market, do a good job and then expand to others. I didn't take that advice, because someone in Atlanta reached out said, Hey, we want to pay you. And I'm like, hell yeah. All right. Let me get the money. And then someone in Houston was like, we want to pay you. So I ended up being all over the place, which was really hard. And now, we're focusing on doing these, like market penetration strategies where we're focused on key markets. But I think the idea is like, the best advice is starting light. You know, everyone wants to build out a full website and a full marketing plan and all this before they ever have a product or a customer to pay for it. You know, it sounds absurd, but the best thing to do is find your customer and get them to pay you to do it before you even have it, which sounds impossible, but it's really not. If you have a clear vision of what you're trying to do, I think a lot of times you just be more authentic, like, share with them that you're really passionate about solving this problem, and that you're planning to do X, Y, and Z. And I'm looking for a customer to work with me. Oftentimes, that relationship is what you need, you don't even need a product, you need a relationship where someone has agreed to work with you.

Les 31:29

Oh, it's such a good tidbit. It's so true. Yeah. And you need a relationship, not a cause or not a product. That's right. 

Harley 31:34

Yeah. Cuz those relationships are, you know, that's how most business happens. And of course, to scale that you need a product. And oftentimes, you know, startups fail because they're scaling something that isn't, isn't right. So getting it right is more important than getting it to scale. And I think, you know, if you build a, if you raise a $50,000, SAFE and you build a product, you probably just burn through 50 grand, and you still don't know what your customer wants. 

Les 32:00

So yeah, I can definitely identify with that as a founder. For sure.

Harley 32:07

So of course, we're still learning how to do product, right. And when to build versus when to just, you know, hack together something for testing purposes. But oftentimes, hearing from someone getting them to buy-in early is, is the fastest way to revenue. And much more cost effective, for sure. 

Les 32:26

What about what about advice on advice to founders on finding that sort of like technical counterpart that CTO or co founder, because I find I mean, you are the epitome of like a mission driven founder that like experience, the pain point knows, knows what you want to go after, but didn't didn't have the technical background. And I see that I think more more often than the opposite, which is like the technical person that's like looking to build something really cool looking to be inspired. So what advice would you have for founders that are looking to go find that technical counterpart?

Harley 33:07

Yeah, I think you can't, you can't rush it. You need to know basic knowledge about what you actually need now and then what you're gonna need if it's successful, because oftentimes people will, they'll look for what they need if it's successful. And they don't need that now. Yeah, actually going to way overpay for something that is not what they need now, or they're going to get something this is also equally like a lot of founders, especially in college and stuff that like my CTO and my COO and my C-this and it's like 4 freshmen in college, like, the truth is, is if your company is successful, like you're screwed, because you've got these people who have never managed anybody, they've never launched a product. 

Les 33:47

But they’re really good at making PowerPoint slides, and pitching it at a Pitch Night.

Harley 33:53

Yeah, it's a lot of fun. But the truth is, is like, one of the things that I just, I can't emphasize enough is if you raise money, if you raise money, please invest in a lawyer to talk about your founding documents and how to structure your company. Because I can tell you, it cost me $90,000, I made the mistake of raising money on a SAFE without ever getting lawyers involved. And I ended up buying out my business partner. And although I can't speak to what happened, it's just you need a vesting schedule, to make sure that it when you bring in co-founders that somebody can't just say, “Well, now that I signed the document, I'm gonna go home and do nothing for the next year. And you're gonna, and I'm gonna own a third company” because yeah, so So I think that's really it. It's a journey, you're gonna learn a ton, and just trying not to give people huge amounts of equity. Unless they are clearly you they've earned that right by expressing to you their passion, right. My CTO worked for free and told me that I could pay him when I had the chance. 

Les 35:00

He passed the test. 

Harley 35:02

I got to work with him for months before he wanted to sign the docs. And the truth is, is in the early days, you don't need a a CTO, who's going to need 30% ownership of the company or 20% ownership. In fact, what you need to do is is rough it and kind of learn and find someone who, when a CTO who is that caliber runs into you, and they love what you're working on, and they're like passionate about it, then the relationship will probably naturally work itself out. But just be wary of anybody who wants to sign a document after talking about it twice, you know, like, build that relationship, you need to have a dozen conversations with somebody before you sign a co-founder agreement and always do a vesting schedule. If you don’t know what a vesting schedule is, start there.

Les 35:50

Read. Yeah, very cool. What about any exciting kind of what's in store like with with growth, or you know, how user engagement has been, you know, improving how revenue has been improving? Like, what's, what's coming in 2022, for Honest Jobs. 

Harley 36:06

Yeah, so being from the Midwest and not being like, having a ton of money from the beginning, we were kind of very low investment. In the early days, we were focused on proving that people pay for a product, and that they'll stick around and keep paying. And we and we did prove that to a certain extent. But we always had a very small team, no marketing budget. And when we got our last investment, we were able to slow down a little bit and think about what are the other health metrics around our platform, including, you know, how many jobs are people posting how many people are applying for those jobs, how many people are getting hired. Now that we knew people would pay for it, let's make sure that they're getting the best experience they could get. So really excited to report that after actually right at the beginning of 2022, we changed our business model to where anyone, any employer can post unlimited jobs for free. Now, we have a a sponsorship model where you can sponsor your job, you can put a budget behind it, we always knew that we would get to this point. But it was just it required a lot of custom engineering. And it wasn't required for us to prove our business model and raise money. So we didn't do it in the beginning. Now that we are kind of at a certain level of credibility, it was worth the investment on the engineering side. So now people can post all their jobs for free, then they can sponsor jobs, and we make money that way. And what we're seeing is we went from an employer on average of posting about 1.8 jobs per employer. So very low engagement now to over nine jobs per employer on average. And that's just in a short period of time. We also have done some really cool stuff where we're integrating with applicant tracking systems. So, for instance, PepsiCo has 1500 jobs with us. You know, we have Koch Industries has like 900 jobs with us. And these are through API integrations. So we're, if you think about Indeed and Zip Recruiter, not a lot of employers are actually logging in and posting one job at a time they're integrating to where there's a massive amount of jobs coming in automatically. Sorry. And we've really invested in standing up scalable stuff over the last year. So we have a new partnerships API, this is probably what I'm most excited about is, you know, we're talking with the other leading job boards about offering our technology in their app. Without giving them our secret sauce, they can plug into our API, and they can, their users can get some of the same experience they get with us. But in their app. There's a whole conversation around how that works. But we've rolled out some cool features where jobseekers can see not only how likely are they to get a certain job before they apply, but they're able to see how many formerly incarcerated people have already been hired with this employer. So there's some transparency, some transparency, some social proof. And there's never been anything like this ever. Like, I spent years looking for it, as well as millions of other job seekers tell us all the time, like I can't believe this exists. I'm so glad I found it. So we believe that the other large players in the game want to work with us. And we're building out the infrastructure to where instead of you know, our only option being an exit or an acquisition is we can build our value by being plugged into every major player, and just being everywhere. So we're working on that. And the last thing I'll say, because I got a lot of exciting stuff to share. Last thing is we just signed a distribution contract with a company that has tablets, in jails and prisons across the US that inmates can use tablets for communicating with their family members. And there's about a half a million tablets and jails in prisons across the country. And we're going to be on all of those tablets to where they can search, get to know Honest Jobs search for jobs. And when they come home, they'll know about us, they'll have an account, and it's going to be a really large distribution play for us. So you know, It's hard to monetize..

Les 39:58

Congratulations. That’s amazing. Amazing. 

Harley 40:01

Yeah. So lots of lots of exciting stuff. And we do plan to raise around later this year and hoping that it's hoping that's a good one hoping we get some new, great, great investors and people on on our team to help us take it to the next level. 

Les 40:17

That's awesome. Awesome. Harley. Well, I definitely look forward to having conversations not on the podcast with you about that. So that's exciting. So kind of last question I would have for you, you just kind of more of a personal one. If you if you weren't the founder of Honest Jobs, what do you think you'd be doing in life right now? Any idea?

Harley 40:45

I…at the risk of someone stealing the best idea ever. I'm gonna pitch it. I'm gonna give you the 30 second pitch. So imagine, imagine Shark Tank mixed with Survivor, mixed with Silicon Valley the TV show. 

Les 41:08

Okay, so is this a reality show?

Harley 41:13

It is, it's in a business accelerator. So it's actually like TechStars, mixed with start mixed with Silicon Valley, the TV show and, and Survivor. So it's called Startup Island. And it's actually a Fund where we invite founders to come live on the island. But it's a reality show, where we, we, we invest in them, but we have challenges each day like Survivor. And then they also like, there's drama, you know, we invite on young founders that are like sexy that like get in fights and stuff with each other. But think about it, because the value of Shark Tank is that the world sees you. So this is a whole season long thing where we invest in consumer product companies, and they're on an island, and it's gonna be a huge hit. So let me know if you know, anybody wants to be an LP in the fund. It's a Fund but it’s called Startup Island, and it's also a TV show. 

Les 42:09

Well, yeah, I'll definitely watch. I don't know if I'll invest. But what I mean, what a great, what a great way to end on just sort of the fun and creative person that you are. 

Harley 42:22

Yeah, I mean, the truth is, is I'm doing Honest Jobs. And this problem is big. And it's gonna take a while to solve it. So maybe that'll be my retirement business. 

Les 42:26

Cool. Awesome. Well, I just want to thank you again, for telling your story for sharing and just the the honesty and the transparency and for being on the show today was so much fun. And would you would you please tell the audience a little bit about where they can find more about you and Honest Jobs online?

Harley 42:48

Yeah, so for me LinkedIn is my spot. That's where I'm a little famous on LinkedIn. If you will, Harley Blakeman on LinkedIn, I post a lot about fair chance hiring and why we should hire formerly incarcerated people. And then for the company, the main thing to remember is that it's If the guy who owns is listening, please sell it to me. I've been trying to buy it for a long time. I'm trying, I'll eventually get it, hopefully. But it's You know, we're on all the major social platforms as well. So please follow us and check us out. 

Les 43:24

And Harley speaking of your LinkedIn, I have to say it because the first time somebody ever told me about you, and I looked you up on LinkedIn and looked up your career history, your first job ever, “drug dealer”, on LinkedIn I love it. 

Harley 43:50

I have HR professionals all the time, reach out to me and tell me how amazing it is because I even talk about managing accounts payable without use of force or violence and all types of stuff. So it's, yeah, I tried to have a bit of a character, if you will on LinkedIn, it's working. 

Les 43:55

So it's amazing. Well, thanks again. So great to have you on the show. Keep up the amazing work. 

Harley 43:58

Absolutely. Thank you, Les.

Les 44:09

Thank you for listening to this week's episode of Found in the Rockies. You can find links in the show notes or go to to get transcripts, links and contact information for today's guests. If you liked what you heard and want more, please don't forget to rate review and subscribe to get notified as our new episodes drop every two weeks. We'll see you next time.