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Innovation Economy

Monster may have lost its way, but there’s hope

Monster revolutionized the job search process and became the state’s biggest Internet company in the last decade. But newer rivals have undercut its dominance.

Mike Segar/Reuters

Monster revolutionized the job search process and became the state’s biggest Internet company in the last decade. But newer rivals have undercut its dominance.

Like a lucky survivor sprinting from a burning jumbo jet, Monster.com was one of the few local tech companies that emerged from the dot-com crash in 2000 pretty much unscathed.

The Maynard-based website had changed the way people hunted for jobs, and the way companies filled open positions. It owned two blimps emblazoned with its trademark monster characters, advertised on the Super Bowl, and became a sponsor of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. By 2003, its parent company, New York-based TMP Worldwide, which bought Monster.com in 1995, changed its name to Monster Worldwide to reflect the career site’s importance to its overall business.

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Today, Monster is looking for a buyer and shedding employees. Its stock market value is about one-fifth of what it was in 2007, when chief executive Salvatore Iannuzzi took charge. Competitors like Indeed, Craigslist, Dice.com, and LinkedIn continue to chip away at the business that Monster built, and its share price hit an all-time low last week.

“Monster is like a dinosaur that never innovated or changed,” says Keith Cline, a tech industry recruiter whose firm, Dissero, serves clients in the Boston area. “In fact, if someone’s resume is on Monster and they’re in the tech field, I’d be a little skeptical.”

So what happened to Monster, which was Massachusetts’ biggest Internet brand for much of the 2000s?

The business was built on founder Jeff Taylor’s belief that the Web was a powerful new tool for connecting companies with prospective hires. In April 1994, before most of us had heard the word “browser,” Taylor launched The Monster Board; it was among the first 1,000 commercial sites on the Web, and it was the first to develop software to match job-seekers with relevant open positions. In 1995, TMP paid $3 million to acquire The Monster Board and Adion, a recruitment advertising agency Taylor also ran.

Taylor was the face of the company, driven by a mission to help people “think more actively about managing their careers,” says former Monster executive Peter Blacklow. Blacklow says Taylor had a vision of people constantly keeping skills and work histories up to date, even when they weren’t in the job market. And he talked about “profiles” on the site, not resumes.

‘As long as Jeff was there, he always had the mantra, “Innovate or die — and death is not an option.” ’

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“That’s exactly what LinkedIn did later, but Jeff saw it coming,” Blacklow says. “As long as Jeff was there, he always had the mantra, ‘Innovate or die — and death is not an option.’”

But Taylor left the company in 2005 to launch another start-up. Monster found itself competing with not just established sites like CareerBuilder and HotJobs, but also new players like SimplyHired and Indeed. The new “aggregators” displayed open positions from many different sites, including corporate websites and Monster itself.

Thanks to its comprehensiveness, Connecticut-based Indeed eventually began attracting more visitors than Monster. In September, Indeed was acquired by Recruit Co. of Japan for a reported price of about $1 billion.

Sites like Craigslist undercut Monster’s prices. Monster’s cheapest job listing targeting Boston workers costs $365; the same listing on Craigslist is $25.

Then there’s LinkedIn, founded in 2003. The social networking site de-stigmatized the act of keeping your CV up to date, and in full public view. LinkedIn also enabled employees to solicit endorsements from former bosses and colleagues, and reach out to friends of friends to get some inside information about an open position.

Monster responded with its own service, Monster Networking. But unlike LinkedIn, Monster Networking came with a subscription fee, and it never took off. This year, for the first time, LinkedIn’s annual revenues will likely surpass Monster’s.

Traditional job boards like Monster and CareerBuilder “haven’t been able to capture the attention of two highly desirable candidate pools: recent and upcoming college graduates, and passive candidates” — those who have jobs but may be willing to consider an enticing offer from another employer — says Ben Russell, vice president of human resources at Bullhorn, a Boston software company. Russell says his company has found LinkedIn and Facebook helpful in reaching those two kinds of candidates.

Iannuzzi, Monster’s chief executive, came from Motorola. Trained as an auditor, he didn’t have much Internet experience, and he booted a number of longtime Monster executives.

Iannuzzi now oversees the Monster.com career site from New York, visiting Massachusetts about once every two weeks. A Monster spokesperson wouldn’t make Iannuzzi — or any other executives — available for an interview.

This year, Monster set aside $250 million to repurchase its own shares, money that might be more wisely better spent acquiring innovative recruiting start-ups, burnishing its brand, or enhancing the usefulness of its site. Today, Monster employs 700 people in its offices in Maynard and Cambridge, down from more than 1,000 at its peak.

In its earliest days, Monster.com was a disruptive force in the newspaper industry, taking away revenues from help-wanted advertising that newspapers had long considered their birthright. But then Monster got disrupted itself. “The hunter became the hunted, the innovator became the defensive and reluctant follower,” says Hans Gieskes, a former Monster executive. (Monster is now a partner of Boston.com, a website operated by The Boston Globe.)

John Sumser, who follows the human resources business at the San Francisco research firm HRxAnalysts, says Monster may have lost its way, but it still has value as a brand because of the awareness it has built up over nearly 20 years.

“It’s a gem that has just got some gunk on it,” he says. “Now that Mitt Romney is looking for work, maybe he should come in and shed a couple unprofitable businesses and thin out the management.”

What Monster needs now is a new CEO — and perhaps a new owner, too — who can revitalize its brand, and start investing intelligently to make Monster a relevant tool again for job seekers and companies looking for top talent.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled recruiter Keith Cline’s last name.

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