Meet The Disruptors: Hari Kolam of Findem On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
One of the best words of advice I heard from an investor fairly early on was the importance and need to hire the right people. The cost of bad hire has a cascading effect and is extremely hard to undo for any company. I have personally endured this more than once — where we had to course correct teams that were wrongly built, which pushed the company back by many months. Being thoughtful about building and scaling team has huge positive impact in the long term, and that was one of my biggest motivations when building Findem.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hari Kolam.
As the CEO and co-founder of Findem, Hari is responsible for driving the company’s overall direction and strategic growth, as well as overseeing its day-to-day operations. He’s a serial entrepreneur with more than two decades of experience building companies and creating trailblazing technology solutions, as well as an accomplished technologist who has co-authored more than 50 technology patents. Hari was previously the co-founder and CTO of Instart, where he led the company’s technical vision and translated customer requirements into realizable, innovative solutions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’m an engineer turned entrepreneur and my journeys have always started off with the urge to solve the hardest problem having the biggest impact. I’m motivated by that kind of challenge. Anyone who has scaled teams will tell you that building the right team is the single most important job of any business leader. It’s a difficult problem to solve, and I learned firsthand how challenging it can be while scaling Instart, my previous venture that we grew internationally. Bringing together individuals from different walks of life and making the team truly diverse while undergoing this level of growth is a tall task, but it’s fundamental to business success.
Traditionally, the only way to solve this talent scaling problem has been through brute-force, along with a human element. But, as I examined it further, it struck me that this is actually a data problem at its core, and the correct way to solve it is to approach it like a data problem. This kernel of this business idea first grew into a passion project and then into Findem. I was fortunate to assemble a highly skilled and equally passionate Findem team that worked fervently in stealth mode for a year to develop what we believe to be the best solution thus far — a People Intelligence platform built on top of a robust data infrastructure.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
We are disrupting the way people search works. An organization’s people are the most important component in determining its success, and the hiring decisions that are made today have a massive impact on the business tomorrow. Building the right, diverse team is fundamental to business strategy and a proven competitive advantage.
When organizations are searching for people, in reality they are looking for key attributes — a combination of skills, experiences and qualities — that are needed to complete the team. These attributes are holistic and cannot be confined to the boundaries of a traditional resume. Resumes are insufficient these days because they provide an incomplete picture of a candidate, only providing information such as previous titles, years of experience and major accomplishments.
The standard way that HR teams search for people today is also broken. Searches are typically based on a set of keywords and Boolean queries that appear on user-defined resumes, which is incredibly restrictive and takes a lot of manual data enrichment and verification to evaluate the attribute-fit. A simple keyword-centric search also confines the available talent pool, as most people do not have the perfect set of keywords in their resume. In fact, we estimate only about 8% of the available talent pool is keyword searchable.
Using AI and deep data analytics, our platform fundamentally changes the way HR leaders search for candidates, replacing keyword or Boolean searches with attribute searches. Attributes can be tangible, such as whether someone is an open source contributor, past founder, female, has a PhD or builds diverse teams, as well as intangible, such as whether someone has an entrepreneurial spirit, embodies the company values or is a go-getter.
We’ve done something no other company has come close to achieving, which includes building a library of over 1 million searchable attributes, which serves as the building block of People Intelligence. These attributes can provide a data-informed picture of each individual and can be used, for example, to provide unbiased insights into individuals or teams, benchmark organizations against their competitors, and identify high-quality, diverse talent with the exact attributes you need to fill your talent gaps.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I see an industry gap and opportunity, I tend to have a strong perspective on how it can be made better. My engineering senses kick in, and I engineer my imagination to see a version of the future in which the vision is already realized. This then becomes my motivator and a goal chase.
We started Findem because existing HR systems were unable to look past keywords and titles, and instead understand candidates based on real-world attributes. The solution seemed obvious when we looked at it from a data-infrastructure perspective — we’ll just integrate the data and enable attributes to be built upon all publicly available data sources. The first version we designed for ourselves was a robust BI platform with a lot of dials and knobs that was super flexible and powerful — too much so, actually. We even tried to onboard early customers and soon realized the complexity was way too high. That didn’t go as planned, and there was nothing to do but laugh and move on.
This taught us an important lesson about change management and how difficult it is to conceive or deliver a novel product. The net takeaway was that extreme simplification has to be at the epicenter of all product and go-to-market decisions. We try hard to adopt and live by that.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
We unlearn and learn things as we evolve and grow. Across my career, there have been a variety of people I have learned from, starting with my father. Other key mentors along the way included my professor who forced us to think differently, my first real tech lead who taught me the benefit of building right, my co-founders who I look to for advice every day, our early investors who I’ve had the fortune of working with for more than a decade and who are still part of our core influencer groups, and many more.
I also read a lot of biographies, and the transformative life stories of iconic leaders influence me greatly.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I believe disruption is always good, and is the only way to evolve. Disruption by its very nature requires changes in the status quo, so managing that change is hugely challenging. That said, I find the word disruption to be used and abused too often — the bar has to be quite high and the alternative solution has to be radically different to suit the definition. Disruptive products usually drive a massive change in habit either due to lower costs or extreme simplicity. Advances such as OTT, cloud computing and Wikipedia fall into the above definition.
For us at Findem, people search is ripe for disruption. For more than a century, hiring decisions have been made with two pieces of information — a job description and a resume. Both are textual, highly ambiguous documents that require a human to parse, interpret and search. One advertises the candidate and the other advertises the company, and it is very well understood that both are incomplete pieces of information and will always require a human in the loop to fill in the gap. This made sense back when the problem was originally set up and when access to large scale data through tech was evolving, but today it seems very dated. The right data-driven solution will simplify how people search is done in the future, and we are passionate about being that solution.
Can you share some of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
One of the best advice I heard from an investor fairly early on was the importance and need to hire the right people. The cost of bad hire has a cascading effect and is extremely hard to undo for any company. I have personally endured this more than once — where we had to course correct teams that were wrongly built, which pushed the company back by many months. Being thoughtful about building and scaling team has huge positive impact in the long term, and that was one of my biggest motivations when building Findem.
Another important piece of advice that has stayed with me over the course of my career is to learn the right habits. Setting things right the first time is a lot easier than patching and fixing things retrospectively. Early go-to-market motion and early customers define a lot of habits for companies. If the go-to-market plan is self-service, for example, staying true to that and facilitating the product evolution in that direction becomes super essential. In the past, we made a mistake of protecting the product with an early support team in an urge to satisfy the customer. This turns out to be a bad habit, as it does not scale and sets the wrong expectations of the product experience.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
That’s right, we’ve only just begun really. We’re on a mission to advance HR to a place where all people decisions are driven by data. The approach that we took with our platform — architecting it to solve attribute-centric problems — allows us to put data at the center of everything and achieve that mission.
Our next goalpost is to make people attributes accessible to everyone involved in making decisions about talent, and that’s something we’re actively working on now. A huge part of that initiative involves building a complete self-service workflow where companies can first discover the attributes they want or need most in a candidate and, through that, discover candidates who possess those exact attributes (a VP with 10+ years of SaaS experience who worked at a company that went public, for example). Think about enabling data-driven HR services in an AWS-like self-service cloud. That’s the larger vision we’re building toward. As well all major technological advances that see widespread adoption, the key is to ensure that it is super easy to use.
Do you have a book, podcast or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
As I mentioned previously, I admire transformative biographies. I love to listen to how things get built, and I always find entrepreneurial stories inspirational. The IBM transformational story captured in the autobiography, “Who Said Elephants Can’t Dance,” has been a great influence on me for a long time now. I also follow “How I Built This” on NPR because the stories recounted there are always captivating.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The one that connects the most with me is a popular one — “You only fail when you stop trying.” In the business I am in, there are no absolute failures or successes. I truly believe that we need to constantly learn and evolve in order to get to the right answer. The intermittent failures are important learnings and each helps us get closer.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Above all, I’d like to see every company prioritizing diversity in hiring and have a process in place to make it a reality. In my opinion, progress on this front isn’t moving quickly enough, and it’s costing companies at the end of the day. Statistics show that companies with gender, ethnic and cultural diversity significantly outperform their counterparts in profitability. It also improves employee happiness and retention, incites innovation and creativity, and is positive for your employer brand, helping you attract different candidates, customers and partners. With all of these positive outcomes, who wouldn’t want to be part of a movement to make diversity hiring a mainstream process?
How can our readers follow you online?
I would welcome the chance for them to follow and interact with me and Findem on any of my social channels. You can find us on Twitter at @hkolam and @FindemAI, and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hariharan-kolam-30bb3b1 and https://www.linkedin.com/company/findeminc.