Nov 27 2007

John Chuang

CEO, AQUENT — 2006 Revenue: $500 Million
John W. Ellis

Looking into the rearview mirror, what’s been your best IT investment?
In 1986, I started a dorm-room typesetting business with some Harvard University friends and fellow students, Mia Wenjen and Steve Kapner. With the proceeds from our first job — a newspaper for the Harvard Business School — and a loan from a local bank, we bought one of the first consumer-friendly laser printers. It was a big decision: $5,000 was, and is, a lot of money.

Laser printers were fairly rare back then, and the high-quality print was novel and impressive. We rented the printer out to classmates so they could do resumes and term papers. We had a couple of early Apple Macs for them to work on, too. Pretty soon, businesses that had bought Macs started calling us for help and training. That got us thinking about the temporary staffing business, so we started MacTemps [later renamed Aquent].

Twenty years later, Aquent has emerged as the leading marketing staffing agency — a matchmaker for employers needing people and marketers looking for opportunities. From a dorm room and then Harvard Square, we’ve grown throughout North America and Europe, Asia and Australia. We’ll gross more than $500 million next year.

In hindsight, what would you say was your biggest IT mistake?
I’m never happy with the status quo. So in the late 1980s, we tried to use technology to reinvent the process of matching clients and job seekers. It’s an interesting challenge when you consider what makes a given candidate valuable, or not valuable, in the eyes of a hiring manager.

We first built a database [in Hypercard] with the most extensive job-seeker profiles imaginable — skills, yes, but also personality attributes, career goals and even IQ. Our matching algorithm was equally complex and would have made Google proud.

We marketed the system’s precision matching … and quickly found that while our clients wanted great talent, they didn’t really care about our internal processes. They just wanted great candidates. And they missed the value and insights that our recruiters brought to the matching process.

“I obviously don’t write code for a living, but I’ll happily confess to being a little nerdy. I’m online 24 x 7, have successfully installed RAM and other peripherals and have even built my own Linux-powered computer.” —John Chuang

The lesson? We had lost sight of what makes us valuable to our clients. With all due respect to online job sites, no algorithm will ever replace a skilled recruiter’s judgment. There’s real client value created when we engage face to face with our clients and talent. Technology can help, but it’s not a substitute.

What advice would you give to other executives who want to leverage the strategic value of technology to grow their businesses?
The trick in business is to remember that clients, talent and employees come first. Technology should serve them and their needs. Otherwise it’s a waste of time and money.

At the same time, I’m more interested in what technology can do to help us better serve our clients and talent than I am in cool new gadgets — though I do like cool new gadgets! If something helps my team do their jobs better, then I’m for it. If it’s an annoying and cumbersome distraction, then I’m opposed.

Bio in Brief: John Chuang co-founded Aquent in 1986 while an undergraduate at Harvard University. He earned a bachelor’s degree cum laude from Harvard College in 1987 and a master’s in business administration with honors from Harvard Business School in 1992 while serving as the company’s CEO. Chuang serves on the board of Angie’s List, a consumer advocacy network, and for CareerSoft. Chuang calls his cat Vel, short for Velcro.