Brand Recognition the Key to Attracting Talent at Start-Ups: Interview with Inga Wehrmann of OTTO Motors
Last week I had the opportunity to interview Inga Wehrmann, Human Resource Manager at OTTO Motors, a division of Clearpath. OTTO Motors is located in Kitchener, Canada and designs self-driving vehicles for industrial use.
Her key piece of advice? Brand recognition is the key to attracting talent at a start-up. More insights from Inga are in the interview below.
Q: What have you done that has been effective in helping OTTO Motors attract and retain talented employees?
A: OTTO Motors launched in April 2016 with a line of self-driving vehicles for material handling. The division spun out of our parent company, Clearpath Robotics, which had become a leader in unmanned vehicles for research and development. We had a loyal following and strong brand to start from since we were very well-known for doing exciting things in the field of robotics.
OTTO Motors has since built a reputation as providing emerging technology to early adopters in manufacturing and we participate in many discussions and events both locally and internationally to educate the industry about how robotics will impact and benefit the workforce and the economy. Having a brand that is recognized as a thought leader, educating the public on emerging trends, and getting people excited about technology is important to attract and retain talented employees. When we launched our line of OTTO self-driving vehicles, we really made an effort to publicize them. The message spread wide and generated a lot of interest.
We also regularly participate in community events. Last year we hosted a Year of Code event at our facility, which was a local initiative to provide opportunities for people to learn about software development and coding who otherwise may not have had the chance to. That develops a lot of interest for people in the community. Recently we hosted Hackernest for the second time. Once a month they host a networking event at a local tech company where 100–200 people get to network at the company and chat about current issues, trends and technology, and see a live demo of robots. Guests were able to get a behind the scenes look at what we do at OTTO Motors and meet our team members. The event provided a unique and interesting experience, which led to many job applications the following week.
Q: What are some of the ways you develop talent?
A: When new employees come into the organization, we typically partner them with an experienced team member who has a good understanding of the technology, processes, and what we are trying to achieve. It doesn’t necessarily need to be someone in the same role as that individual. They are meant to be a guide for that person outside of their direct manager to provide support, show them the ropes, and answer any questions that they may have during their first few months.
Beyond that, we also offer regular training sessions, from field-specific training to thought leadership. We regularly have in-house experts provide training on strategy, road mapping, and tools, or we bring in industry experts from other organizations. We also host lunch and learns for team members, typically once a month on topics spanning health and wellness to lidar technology. Everyone in the organization is welcome as it’s an opportunity for our employees to gain insight into areas that they may not be regularly exposed to. Beyond that we have also sent managers to leadership training at technology incubators like Communitech.
Q: Are there any challenges you face from a talent standpoint?
A: Recruiting within the tech industry is challenging because there are so many companies out there. Although we specialize in mobile robotics, we are competing for talent against a lot of other high-tech companies, both locally and internationally, including tech giants in Silicon Valley like Google and Facebook. To garner attention of prospective employees when they’re young, we work closely with the University of Waterloo, which is one of Canada’s top universities for engineering and, as a result, we hire a lot of our co-op students through their programs. Many of them love the work we do and enjoy the culture and end up applying for a full time position once they’ve graduated.
Q: As the organization has grown, how has your talent management strategy changed?
A: People at OTTO Motors are passionate about what they do and it’s that passion that hasn’t changed since the very beginning. We’re not a startup anymore but in many ways we operate like one, where every employee has a direct impact on the organization — we’re all accountable and it’s this type of thinking that continues to lead our talent management. We find that talented individuals out there don’t necessarily want to work for the “big guys” and become a number in a cubicle. We have also always targeted individuals who are comfortable with adapting to change. Moving from a small 10-person company up to about 140 employees in 30,000 square feet of space, we have all become experts at adapting to change and being flexible with processes, expectations and needs of the organization.
Early on we were targeting a lot of recent grads and junior employees. As we have grown, we are bringing on leadership positions with industry experience to bring structure to our organization. It’s definitely helped with passing on knowledge to our junior employees.
Q: Do you have any final advice for those who are tasked with developing a talent management strategy at a start-up?
A: Recruitment takes a lot of time — it’s an investment. Don’t underestimate the amount of time that it takes to really build an effective strategy and hire the right people for the right role. Also, work with your marketing team to build a brand that is recognizable, especially if you’re a startup. This will help talent move from well-established, “comfortable” jobs at larger firms.
And of course, it always helps to build robots — Who doesn’t want to work with robots every day?!
Found this interesting? Check out more interviews with leaders in the tech industry on The Leadership Pad.