Plotr's liquidation: what can we learn?

It has been revealed last week that Plotr, a company and website set up to help young people find jobs, is in the process of liquidation. Plotr was launched in 2012, aimed at students aged 11 - 24 and was intended to be a ‘one stop shop’ for careers guidance, advice forums and job notifications. It was seed funded by the Government, and set up as a Community Interest Company - in which all profits are reinvested back into the company. The intention was that the site, and company, would eventually become self-supporting as commercial partners and external organisations would pay to advertise vacancies on the site. 

I don’t want to paraphrase too much of the original Buzzfeed article: ‘Company awarded £2m of public money to run jobs website “no one has heard of” goes into liquidation’, as you can read it in full on their website - but what I did want to do, which is probably more useful than just stating the facts, is to delve deeper into the ‘why’ of Plotr’s decline and what we can learn from it.

1. No amount of funding can ensure success

My initial reaction to the news was one of shock. If I’m honest, it wasn’t shock that they had gone into liquidation - we do, after all, live in a competitive marketplace - what shocked me was the sheer amount of funding that had gone into Plotr. Initial funding was £350,000 from the Cabinet Office in 2012 and then £1.3m from BIS in 2014, which was used to relaunch the site with a ‘psychometric careers game’ that aimed to help young people find jobs that matched with their ability. 

I don’t think there really is an industry where you can just ‘throw money’ at a problem and watch it sort itself out. The business model has to be self-sustainable, or it is just going to be a massive drain of resource and accumulation of debt. Of course, the plan here was for Plotr to become self-sustainable, but my question is what work was put in to ensuring that plan worked? It doesn’t seem like there was much. As Tanya de Grunwald, Plotr’s former Head of Content said: “Plotr is actually a pretty decent website. So why has no one heard of it? Clearly, something has gone very wrong.” 

Money isn’t always the answer, nor does it provide a solution to a problem. As a social entrepreneur myself, I can vouch for that - it takes a lot of determination, grit and the will to continually drive the business forward to really make it.

 

2. It's a saturated market

Sorry folks, the early rec market really is a saturated one. To succeed, you have to be doing something really special or stand out against your competitors - and believe me, there are plenty. The graduate market has been full of suppliers for a while now, and following the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, we are seeing a spike in the number of new solutions to the market. 

There is a lesson to be learned here which is something that leads straight off my first point: you cannot just expect something to work, just because you put it out there.

 

3. Young people are a difficult target market

If there is anything to be taken from this liquidation, it’s that young people are a very difficult audience to work with and for. In a world of driven by smartphones and apps, young people have a wealth of information and entertainment - you know, pictures of cats and funny fail videos - already at their fingertips, it is difficult to draw them away from that, especially when the subject choice is so, well, so boring. 

Okay, it’s not just me saying that - I have taken this information from a well-respected source, I can assure you. The recent Moments of Choice Report from The Careers and Enterprise Company basically said the same thing: young people need careers advice and information presented in the same easy format as their go to apps: Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest. I think if you a driving young people towards a website without interaction in school, then you must have a strong social media campaign - something that Plotr was quite clearly lacking.

 

4. A 'national' solution is difficult

Again, I am going to quote The Careers and Enterprise Company and say that a national solution just doesn’t work. What needs to happen is a local approach, on a national level and I think the sort of approach that Plotr took was to develop a national strategy that worked in principal, but didn’t work when it came to the different regions of the UK and the differing audiences within them. 

I think the downfall for Plotr is that it was given an influx of cash and utilised that to create a content heavy site relevant to the majority of young people; unfortunately, it lacked the resource and leadership to take it’s - and let me be the first to say it - great content into the real world and in front of the audience it was aimed at. 

What I think would have made this better was Plotr taking the time and using some of that funding to get their solution directly into classrooms - where young people will have accessed it within lesson.

 

5. The government is not always right

We should all know by now that Government decisions are not always the best ones. There have been plenty of solutions in the past that quite simply haven’t worked - and I’m talking over all sectors here - but somehow, careers advice for young people simply cannot be agreed upon. Following the dissolution of Connexions across the UK, we have seen a mismatched approach to careers guidance - with the next government, local authorities, big businesses, schools and entrepreneurs grabbing a slice of the action and we are perfectly within our right to do so.

My point here is that it doesn’t make something right if the Government gives funding. There are plenty of solutions out there that provide a useful services to young people without government funding - it is a case of finding the right balance, and the right service for the young people.

 

A round up

As I read back on this article, it started to read like most of the five points I have given as learnings have merged into one. I can tell you now, that wasn’t the intention when I started writing but upon reflection and a second read through, I realised that it was almost inevitable. The situation this industry is in right now is an interesting one, with many companies merely surviving. And this is the bit that is key for me...

A ‘one stop shop’, one-size-fits-all approach simply isn’t the answer. There are many people who’ve tried it over the years and there is a clear pattern emerging and that is failure. Blanket solutions are unable to meet the demands of the individuals they are trying to serve - because these individuals have different needs and simply cannot be approached collectively. I think the key here is that we have to be collaborative - what works for one, might not work for another - whether that is on a whole school, year group, class or individual level. I wanted to leave this one open to discussion in the comment box below, as I’m sure there will be a lot of people thinking about what this means for the industry and some quite healthy debate to be had from each of my points; and if I had to leave on one final comment to sum up my feelings on this, it would be the Career & Enterprise Company’s motto that resonates with me here: ‘work nationally, tailor locally.’

But that's just one man's opinion. What do you think?