How to Make It In HR Tech 💪
This article was originally posted on the Take the Interview blog.
HR tech is like Hansel in Zoolander — so hot right now. Money is pouring into the sector, with nearly $2.5 billion invested in 2015 alone. This has resulted in a lot of noise for buyers and significant competition for vendors. With a new company popping up daily, the market is evolving at a rapid pace. The Starr Conspiracy, a marketing agency that serves the HR tech ecosystem, says it best: “If your understanding of talent acquisition is a few years old, it might as well be 100 years old.” But it wasn’t always this way. When we started Take the Interview in late 2011, HR tech was very, very unsexy (think Toby from The Office). But over the years, we’ve learned what it takes to make it in both an ice cold and then white hot market. Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
Deeply empathizing with your buyer 🤗
Take the Interview (“TTI”) started with a mission — to create a better hiring experience for companies and candidates. It was 2010 and I was a recruiter at the time, feeling the effects of the recession and trying to make ends meet. My day consisted of phone screening high volumes of candidates for very few open requisitions — not fun. Then, somewhere in the swirling chaos of phone screens, it hit me — there’s gotta be a way to streamline this screening process. If I already knew who the top candidates were, I could spend more time with best ones, boosting my productivity and resulting in a better candidate experience. Why not ask candidates to answer a few interview questions upfront via video and send me them to me at their convenience to review?
I hired an engineer, wrote out wireframes on a few napkins, hacked together a basic prototype, and started testing it with a few clients. I was spending less time on the phone, they were spending less time on the phone, and we were finding top candidates faster.
You could say we were on to something.
Around this time, a mutual friend connected me with Danielle Weinblatt, who had just started similar startup trying to solve the same problem. Over many coffees and calls, we realized we shared the same vision and passion and decided to team up. Danielle’s background is in investment banking and she’d seen firsthand the inefficiencies of campus recruiting at large banks. We both had felt the pain of high volume recruiting firsthand, and it was that frustration that fueled our passion to solve the problem from day one.
Staying focused when all seems lost 👀
We raised capital and were off to the races. In the early days, our biggest competitor was the status quo. Back then, those first HR leaders we spoke with looked at us like we had three heads when we told them that video would transform their recruiting process.
“What about discrimination? What about people having access to a webcam or smartphone?” they would say.
Landing those first few clients was the hardest work we’ve ever done. There were many soul-searching nights where you’d wonder if your solution would ever take hold, or even worse — maybe you don’t have what it takes to get it there.
It was one challenge after another — who knew our clients would expect us to offer 24/7 support for every single candidate? Who knew there were so many different models for running a recruiting process, and that product requests would be all over the place? Who would have anticipated that companies could screen over 1200 intern candidates in 48-hours with our software without batting an eye? The novelty of playing startup had definitely worn off, and we were suffering through the trough of sorrow — along with countless sleepless nights.
But little by little, we increased our client roster and expanded our product’s functionality in a meaningful way. Early on, a few amazing brands like NBCUniversal and Zappos believed in us and our vision and gave us a shot. Over time, others saw the success of our early clients and started signing up. And then one day, after many long days (and nights) of laying the groundwork, we looked up and had ourselves a scaling SaaS business.
Finding your tribe 👪
Making friends with early clients
When we first got started, Danielle and I fielded every call, every email, every support request, etc. We met in-person with every prospect we could and every new client was sold and onboarded by one of us. We listened to all customer feedback and tried to keep our clients at the center of everything we did.
We got to know clients really well and built strong partnerships with them. This paid dividends later on in word-of-mouth referrals and grace when we needed it most.
When you’re just getting started, things are hitting you from all sides and mistakes will inevitably be made. Our first big client pushed our servers to the limit and our site went down briefly. It felt like the world was ending at the time, but we fought through it. We stayed up all night fielding support tickets and making sure the client knew we were there for them every step of the way. The next day, when we jumped on a call, the client was laughing at the situation and even grateful (yes grateful!) that we had taken the time to reach out to each and every candidate to answer questions and provide updates. If we hadn’t invested in this relationship early on, we would have gotten a much different response from them.
Hiring a great team
We’ve hired great people throughout every stage of our journey. As we grew, our needs evolved, which allowed us to think differently about hiring over time. We learned to look for generalists early on — people that were versatile, able to learn quickly and evolve, with a willingness to jump in and add value wherever needed. We still have great early employees that are with us today that continue to evolve their skills to meet the needs of the business. But at some point in time (for most businesses it comes around series A or about 10 employees), you need to begin hiring people with deep domain knowledge. Both generalist and specialists add tremendous value, but getting the ratios right is key. And the longer you’re in business, the more the ratio will shift toward domain specialists.
Above all else, the number one quality we’ve hired for is a growth mindset. We love learning and always wanted to work alongside lifelong learners.
This type of mindset typically brings with it a desire to grow, evolve, take initiative, and figure things out when the answers aren’t obvious (and they are rarely obvious in startupland). Some of my proudest moments are seeing employees reaching milestones in their career — a support specialist crushing it in her new role as product manager, a business development rep learning to code and joining the engineering team. This is the most rewarding part of being a startup founder.
Cultivating cheerleaders, advisors, and investors
Surrounding ourselves early on with the right support network was critical and we wouldn’t be where we are today without amazing investors, mentors, and advisors. Building out a strong board of directors and advisory board were instrumental for us early on. Our advisory board, made up of industry experts and thought leaders in the talent acquisition space, helped offer vital market perspective and product feedback when we’ve needed it most. Our board of directors, consisting of several key investors and a seasoned HR tech entrepreneur, offers strategic value in ways spanning from business strategy to recruiting assistance on key roles to operational best practices.
Finding the signal in the noise 🎶
As we’ve grown the business, our market and the broader HR tech ecosystem continues to expand. HR tech buyers have your work cut out for them. Unlike a decade ago where the only ‘safe’ options were major software companies, now you have hundreds of acceptable options out there, spanning from categories like HRIS, ATS, screening/interviewing, sourcing, recruitment marketing, candidate relationship management (CRM), and the list goes on. Many of these categories overlap and share similar features and functionality. Prioritizing vendors that act like partners will always win out in the long-run over check-the-box features.
Around TTI, ‘vendor’ is a bad word, as we strive to have our clients call us ‘partners’.
Amid all the industry noise, we continue to set our sights on our customers above all else — to listen to their needs and deeply understand their challenges. It’s their feedback that continues to help us improve our products and send us down new roads. This, in my opinion, is the best strategy for building a great business and making it in whatever industry you find yourself in. We are excited for what the future holds and where our clients will take us next.
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