A company that set up a careers website for young people with £2 million of government funding has gone into liquidation amid questions over what the huge outlay of public money for a single website achieved.
Plotr was launched in beta form in 2012. Aimed at 11- to 24-year-olds, it was supposed to be a "one stop shop" for careers guidance, advice forums, and job notifications.
It received seed funding from the government, but was set up as a community interest company – in which all profits are invested back into the business. The idea was that it would eventually become self-supporting because commercial partners would pay it to advertise job opportunities.
However, BuzzFeed News has learned that on Wednesday liquidators were appointed to the company, following the resignation earlier this month of five of its directors – one of whom is Piers Linney, a “dragon” from the BBC TV series Dragons’ Den. The company will be sold to a careers guidance firm called U-Explore.
Plotr’s CEO, Jim Carrick-Birtwell, said that of its eight members of staff, six had signed new permanent contracts with U-Explore, while one would work as a consultant and another was still in discussions with the firm. He said the website would remain online. U-Explore later confirmed this would be the case.
He said the website had run up debts that meant it had “lost control of what it could do”, and described the decision to go into voluntary liquidation as a bid to “cauterise” the situation Plotr had found itself in.
He blamed the company’s failure on two main factors: the acquisition of its main sponsor, a computer storage company called EMC, by Dell, which put a moratorium on funding, and stringent restrictions on the government funding Plotr received, which only allowed for it to be spent on website development, and not on marketing.
A former senior employee told BuzzFeed News that the website’s traffic was extremely low and the return on the government’s £2 million had been negligible. In April this year, BuzzFeed News contacted Plotr for a full breakdown of its traffic statistics over the past 12 months, but the website refused.
At the time Carrick-Birtwell said “there are commercial sensitivities to providing all stats going back to Jan 2015, mainly concerning the fact that Google Analytics has changed much of the terminology that it uses over the course of the last 18 months,” which he feared could create confusion if the data conflicted with the figures provided by other sources.
Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow minister for digital economy, told BuzzFeed News: "This gets to the heart of the need for better accountability in procurement across the board. Too often private contractors can hide behind commercial confidentiality, and that's why we need genuine reform of freedom of information."
Carrick-Birtwell told BuzzFeed News on Thursday that the site’s traffic was 190,000 unique views in August this year and 200,000 in September. However, a former senior employee claimed monthly unique visitors had been around the 55,000 mark only a year ago and called into question the methodology behind the site’s measurement of its traffic. Independent analysis by BuzzFeed News supported their claim, and also suggested that under half of these visits were by people not based in the UK.
Carrick-Birtwell said he would be able to provide fuller traffic analytics in due course.
BuzzFeed News was told by the former employee that the low traffic had led to commercial partners, some of whom had paid tens of thousands of pounds to advertise as potential employers, refusing to provide funding to the site. Carrick-Birtwell confirmed that some partners had “found it easier to work on a pro bono basis”, but denied that this was due to any concerns over the website’s impact.
He said that while he felt the site’s traffic figures were respectable, they were far from the only metric of success. He said it was “relatively easy” to generate spikes in traffic, as the site did when it hosted a video featuring a popular YouTuber, but that the number of teachers and careers advisers accessing the site was equally important. He said 2,200 British secondary schools had at least one teacher registered to use the site, and that there were 6,500 teachers and careers advisers using it.
It is clear that Plotr failed to build up a mainstream following on social media: It currently has just 4,094 Twitter followers and 673 Facebook likes. “We do social media,” said Carrick Birtwell, “but we understand [careers] are not the sexiest subject and you’re on a hiding if you treat it like it’s the new chocolate.”
Following a freedom of information request to the Treasury, BuzzFeed News has established that a total of £1,998,000 has been given to Plotr by the government since 2012. However, it was not given all at once, nor by one department.
The website’s initial funding came in 2012, in the form of £350,000 from the Cabinet Office and the same amount from the now defunct Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS). It was originally run by Andrew Thompson, a director at outsourcing firm Serco – and the idea is believed to have originated from a roundtable discussion convened by the company. Thompson was seconded from Serco to run the company.
In April 2013, however, Thompson returned to Serco. According to his online CV this was part of a planned move. It saw Carrick-Birtwell, a board member with experience in the HR industry, replace him as a director.
A year later, Plotr received a further £1.3 million from BIS, and the site relaunched with a “psychometric careers game” that aimed to help young people find jobs that matched their abilities.
Labour’s Louise Haigh said: "If this is meant to be a flagship government website and no one has heard of it that raises real concerns. I will be tabling questions to ministers and demanding some proper answers."
Tanya de Grunwald, who was employed as head of content for 18 months during Plotr's launch phase and now runs careers advice website Graduate Fog, told BuzzFeed News: "Plotr is actually a pretty decent website. So why has no one heard of it? Clearly, something has gone very wrong."
De Grunwald, one of the country's most vocal critics of the government's failure to crack down on unpaid internships, added:
"Questions must now be asked about where the money went, and who is ultimately responsible for Plotr's collapse. … I saw little evidence that the government's heart was in it. To me, Plotr always felt like a tick-box exercise that politicians could point to when asked what they were doing about youth unemployment, which was at record levels when Plotr launched.
"For example, why didn't the Department for Education do more to help get Plotr into schools and colleges? The project had plenty of money, but nowhere near enough support in the areas where it needed it most."
While De Grunwald questioned the government’s role in the fiasco, others familiar with the company say the management was at fault.
Ashley Richardson, who worked at Birtwell’s other company, Changeboard, for four years but is now running Gorkana Jobs, said: “Jim Birtwell always seemed to me an odd choice for running Plotr. He’d run a jobs board but had no experience in the graduate jobs market and with working alongside schools, which was key. He was lucky to have employed [and] inherited an excellent team who have worked incredibly hard over the past few years.”
Earlier this year Dr Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, told parliament careers advice has been underfunded and fragmented ever since 2010, when the Connexions service was abolished.
In April, Carrick-Birtwell told BuzzFeed News he took a similar view of the problem: “For too long the careers part of education in schools, colleges and universities has been an ‘add-on’, with many organisations in the marketplace doing great work in silo’d parts of a very complex puzzle to enable young people to transition from education to the world of work,” he said at the time.
He said the “complex and patchy service of careers education” was one of the reasons for the high rate of youth unemployment in Britain. Plotr, he felt, “provides a digital platform, aimed at inspiring and informing young people about the full range of careers available to them, as well as the routes into that career or sector from school leaver programmes to apprenticeship and degree programmes.”
Speaking again on Thursday, he said: “We could have let it [Plotr] fold. But to be blunt I would be damned if I was going to let that happen.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “High quality careers advice is vital for preparing young people for the world of work. That’s why we fund a range of support including the Careers and Enterprise Company and the National Careers Service.
“The government provided funding to Plotr between 2012 and 2014 to help it with the development of its website. Business operations are a matter for the company.”