Note: This article was originally published in June 2017.
HR tech is like Hansel in Zoolander — so hot right now. Money is pouring into the sector, with $2.4 billion invested in 2015 alone. This has resulted in a lot of noise for buyers and significant competition for vendors. The market is evolving at a rapid pace, with new companies popping up every day. 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 (now ConveyIQ) in late 2011, HR tech was very, very unsexy. But over the years, we’ve learned what it takes to make it in a market that’s heating up — and only getting hotter. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned along the way:
Deeply empathize with your buyer
ConveyIQ started with a mission — to create a better hiring experience for companies and candidates. The year 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, boost my productivity, and create 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?
Then somewhere in the swirling chaos of phone screens, it hit me: there’s gotta be a way to streamline this screening process.
I hired an engineer, wrote wireframes on napkins, hacked together a basic prototype, and started testing with a few friends. Turns out, we started spending less time on the phone, and making better hires, faster.
You could say we were on to something.
Around this time, a mutual friend connected me with my co-founder, Danielle Weinblatt, who was solving the same problem and already had a few customers using her product. Danielle’s background is in investment banking, and she’d seen first-hand the inefficiencies of campus recruiting. We both felt the pain of high-volume recruiting, and it was that frustration that fueled our passion to solve the problem from day one. Once we realized we shared the same vision, we decided to team up.
The Importance of Staying Focused
We raised some capital and were off to the races. In the early days, our biggest competitor was the status quo. Those first HR leaders we spoke to looked at us like we had three heads when we told them digital interviewing would transform their recruiting process.
Landing those first few clients was the hardest work we’ve ever done.
“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 we’d wonder if our solution would ever take hold, or (and this is worse) if we even had what it takes to get there. It was one challenge after another — who knew our clients would expect us to offer 24/7 support for every single candidate? Who would have anticipated that companies could screen over 1,200 interns 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 so-called “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. A few amazing brands like NBCUniversal and Zappos believed in us and gave us a shot early on. 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.
Find Your Tribe (Or People As Crazy As You)
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 on-boarded by one of us. We got to know clients really well, and built strong partnerships with them — which helped us when we needed it most.
When you’re just getting started, things are hitting you from all sides. Our first big client pushed our servers to the limit and our site went down briefly. 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, the client was laughing at the situation and even grateful (yes, grateful!) that we had taken the time to reach out to every candidate and provide updates. They understood, and were supportive — something only a good client relationship can bring.
Hiring a great team
We’ve hired great people along the way, 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, and a willingness to jump in and add value wherever needed. But at some point in time, you need to begin hiring people with deep domain knowledge. Both generalists 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 the startup world.) Some of my proudest moments are seeing employees reaching milestones in their career — 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 would never be where we are today without our amazing investors, mentors, and advisors. Our advisory board, made up of industry experts and thought leaders in the talent acquisition space, helped offer 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, offer strategic value spanning from recruiting, to business strategy and operational best practices.
Finding the signal in the noise
As we’ve grown our business, our market and the broader HR tech ecosystem continues to expand. HR tech buyers have their work cut out for them. Unlike a decade ago where the only ‘safe’ options were major software companies, now you have hundreds of options out there. Prioritizing vendors that act like partners will always win out in the long run.
Prioritizing vendors that act like partners will always win out in the long run.
Industry noise aside, 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!