(n) Days of Disruption

I have been fortunate to hang in some special environments for fostering and enabling innovation and the entrepreneurial process. This site is all about capturing thoughts, experiences, connections, impressions, epiphanies and/or learnings along the way.

It’s Not Too Late to Get in the Game for Top Talent

Students are heading into finals. Companies are wrapping up the year along with their budgets & plans for next. To help with your planning efforts, here’s an update on where things sit when it comes to recruiting top student technical talent:

Top Upcoming Grads Are Still in the Market
In probably the most aggressive hiring season to date, a contingent of candidates went off the market in the fall (some as early as late August). Most of these students accepted full-time offers from the big tech incumbents and other established corporations. Many had previously interned with these organizations.

However, those students looking to join entrepreneurial organizations that offer opportunities to have impact and make a difference – plus those individuals contemplating their next step – are still widely available. They realize the need to be patient until startups have more clarity around their specific personnel needs and are in the market. Recognizing this, some students are even trying to time their offers for the February/March window to best optimize their choice of options.

On the startup side, some companies competed during this period. Most have not and are gearing up for the spring semester.

Internship Season Goes Primetime in First Quarter
This may come as a surprise, but some companies have already hired 20+ interns for the upcoming summer. And, we’re not just talking Amazon, Facebook and Google. There are more established startups – with forward thinking teams, strong business momentum, and a focused talent strategy – that decided to get aggressive in the fall and compete with the big boys.

This is by far the exception, not the rule. The reality is that most startups are just getting going. Some will hit the market in January/February and others as late as March/April. In fact, many bigger corporations hold off until this time given a fall focus on full-time hires.

Net-net, exceptionally talented students still abound and most universities structure their internship efforts during spring semester to help facilitate opportunities.

Time to Prep & Finalize Your Plan of Attack
Expect both pools (full-time and interns) to still be full of strong candidates, but tailing off deeper into the spring semester. Startups looking to best compete will be engaging in 1Q 2014 (if you’re not already).

The Talent Mindset of Lean, Mean, Fighting Machines (or “How Best to Position to Win Against Google”)

We’ve interacted and worked with with dozens of startups around their campus recruiting initiatives and have observed many more. When it comes to recruiting technical talent from universities today, the differences between those companies that execute well versus those that struggle to do so are significant.

Here are the key principles embraced by companies that experience success on a repeatable basis. They’re:

  1. Institutionally building a talent centric organization. There’s an inherent focus on building internal core competencies in recruiting and talent retention that permeates all they do. It’s an organizational imperative, driven by the CEO or at a minimum the engineering leadership team. Accompanying it is usually a thoughtful, clearly defined and transparent organizational culture that supports and accentuates this approach.
  2. Managing their recruiting process internally. Nobody understands their company and its dynamics better than they do. Hiring is viewed as a team effort and recruiting is seen as scalable given a flexible team working towards the same goals. Outside recruiters may help source additional candidates into their funnel, but these companies own the process themselves.
  3. Staffed to win. Their recruiting process is founder, engineering, or internal recruiter led (the latter are experienced & ideally technically/product competent). Delegating this function to others – particularly during candidate engagement stages without at least strong support and heavy involvement from the above – means they will most likely be outgunned and out-executed by other companies.
  4. Putting up a strong front that shows/sells well. The best and brightest candidates have the luxury of being selective in who they work for. These companies put their best foot forward throughout all steps of the recruiting process, cognizant that the deck is stacked against them and therefore the need to work harder and smarter. See “Staffed to win” for how this gets accomplished.
  5. Moving quickly and aggressively. With more established companies and other hot startups vying for many of the same candidates, there are significant advantages to being the fastest mover while possessing the ability to concentrate resources when needed. These organizations are wired to relentlessly pursue a strong candidate when they see it. Everything is in days, not weeks. This extends to follow-ups and even candidate closure.
  6. Never satisfied. There is no “set way” for finding, pursuing and landing top candidates. These companies have multiple lines in the water and seek leverage wherever it can be found. They are inquisitive and creative, experimenting with new approaches and always looking for new angles, advantages and ways for standing out and reaching candidates.
  7. Taking the long view. While focused on immediate needs, they’re thinking 6-12 months down the road (and sometimes beyond). Specifically, what is needed to compete for talent in the future and what the potential best options are for doing so.

Do you need to embrace all these characteristics to be successful on campus? Absolutely not. You can nail #3, #4 and #5 in the immediate term and still do well. Longer term though, the other principles are critical for establishing a strong foundation for further scaling the organization.

5 Steps for Not “Wasting” Your Time at a Career Fair

Unless you have a strong presence on campus or possess a notable brand, most startups struggle to yield great results from participating in University Career/Recruiting Fairs. First and foremost, while many students may be interested in joining a startup, most don’t know 90% of these companies by name. You’ll get overlooked when put up directly against Google, Amazon, Facebook and dozens of other better-known companies.

Startup Career Fairs can be better. They target smaller more entrepreneurial companies, keep the big boys out, and draw a more concentrated audience that goes in knowing what to expect. Even then, one-off Career Fairs in isolation and without additional campus support to draw out high quality candidate flow can be totally hit-or-miss.

Startups that excel on campus either approach Career Fairs as just one part of the mix in their campus recruiting program or simply skip them and place their emphasis on other channels to reach the best students. If they do participate, they’ll leverage their existing network to premarket their presence to attract and engage more students while they’re on campus. They’ll also use the event to get closer to candidates that you’ve already sourced.

For everyone else, a “just show up” approach is a recipe for a low yield, unproductive day for connecting with strong developers and engineers. Sure, you may get a pile of resumes. But, unless you have the brand that sells itself, you’ll get what you’ll deserve: more than likely, not much in terms of quality.

With the ROI odds stacked against most startups, if you are going to pursue Career Fairs what are the key steps you should take for helping to ensure success:

1. Pre-Market and Get Inside Support
If you’ve been recruiting on campus for some time, you’ll have a list of current students that you’ve already been in touch with. Send them emails in advance of the event as well as the morning of to remind them that you’re looking forward to connecting with them at the Fair. Encourage them to bring their friends and peers, or solicit suggestions on other students that you should reach out to.

Student leaders and organizations offer a vehicle for reaching some of the strongest, most passionate students on campus. Ideally, you’ve already interacted with them (building relationships on campus pays dividends). If not, consider investing some time to figure out the most relevant groups (ThinkB1G Engage makes that easy as we’ve mapped the most relevant student groups on campus and how to contact them). Reach out, indicate that you’ll be in town for the Fair, and ask them to distribute a note to their members. The note should highlight why your company is an exciting one to work with, what types of roles you are looking for, and personally invite and encourage students to stop by your booth and introduce themselves.

Finally, if you know who they are, professors are a great resource for helping you stand out with students. With all the noise on campuses today, a student is more likely to take notice if a professor sends word of a career opportunity. Unless you have a pre-existing relationship, this can be challenging. However, it doesn’t hurt to at least send the email, tell your story, make the request and explore if it’s feasible. This could also be the opportunity to establish a relationship if you’re committed to that school. When you’re on campus, reach out and see if you can grab coffee to further nurture the relationship.

2. Leverage Your Best Assets – Former Interns and Alumni
Former interns of the school you’re visiting have incredible street credibility that should be leveraged. Students will relate to them better than anyone else at your organization and no one can talk up the opportunity and experience as well as someone who lived it. Invite former interns to hang out at your booth all day. In addition, ask them to spread the word about your presence and see if they’ll bring some of the best students to your booth.

Alumni on your team can also help to put the “personal touch” of your presence. Besides building more credibility for you on campus (you’ve hired alumni from that school), it will result in more engaging conversation from their perspective (one of their “own” that can relate to their campus experience). Also, be sure to leverage your alumni’s connections at the university to help get the word out that you’ll be on campus (see Step #1).

3. Have a Great Pitch & Sell with Passion
As a startup, your pitch is the best weapon you have to attract and win candidates over. You need to craft one that tells a great story around who you are and what you can offer a candidate. It should include at least a couple unique things that are outstanding about your company and the roles you have available. Your pitch then needs to be told in a compelling & exciting way, starting right here at the Fair and continuing throughout your recruiting process.

Also, recognize that students can spread a message quickly. If they sense you are an intriguing company that embraces young talent in meaningful ways, they’ll tell others at the fair or text associates to check you out. The next thing you know, a “dream” candidate may appear at your booth as a result.

4. Bring a Techie
If you don’t posses a strong technical background, be sure to take a developer or a member of your technical team with you. The best student developers and engineers will come with a variety of technical questions, including in-depth ones about the projects they’ll be working on and the tools they’ll be using. Without someone that can provide meaningful answers, a strong candidate with lots of options will lose interest in your company. You also miss the opportunity to prescreen the more interesting candidates technically on the floor, accelerating your recruiting process (speed is your ally here).

5. Follow-up Religiously
Take the time to send the students a quick follow-up thanking for them for their time, reiterating your needs and timeline/process. Few companies do it and you’ll stand out and make a lasting impression. Someone who is not a fit right now could be a good fit in the future. More importantly, don’t discount the network effect and positive word-of-mouth, perhaps even kicking up another candidate or being developing into a asset that you can draw on the next time you’re on campus (see Step #1).

Maximizing your presence and yielding strong candidates at a University Career Fair can be hard for startups and emerging growth companies that lack a strong brand. Unless you’re just doing it to support your alma mater, invest the upfront time to stack the odds in your favor.

The Upside of Recruiting at Universities with Vibrant Entrepreneurial Communities

The landscape is changing for campus recruiting. Participating in one-off career fairs without thoughtful prep doesn’t cut it. It takes an understanding of what appeals to students, inside access to reach them, and a game plan to have a real shot at finding students eager for an opportunity that will allow them to grow.

Companies with limited resources need to stack the deck in their favor. Lacking easy access or strong connections to specific universities, one way is to focus efforts on campuses with vibrant entrepreneurial communities. They provide a more candidate rich environment and stronger foothold to compete against established companies.

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Entrepreneurial organizations and competitions are good signs, but look well beyond that. Identify universities that empower students – those that support student/campus incubators and help move ideas beyond concept to early company formation. Ones with active hacker communities that stimulate creativity, experimentation and collaborative teamwork across a broader student base.

These environments expose more students directly to the entrepreneurial and innovation process and give them an active role. Better yet, many students get firsthand experience to the ups & downs of the startup world, helping determine if it’s the right path for them. 

Don’t get us wrong. Joining your “Daddy’s Google” will be the right choice for some.

But for many other students, their campus experience is changing how they look at the world after college. They’re not looking to settle. They’re placing higher value on finding a team and product that they love. To pursue a career with more personal meaning, and one that offers the opportunity to create impact and make a difference.

Recognize and use this to your advantage. If you have limited resources, target universities that provide more leverage. Focus your efforts, rethink your value proposition, and come with a strong pitch that appeals to what more and more students are looking for today.

The Battle for Boston’s Students is Being Fought Right Now

The below opinion piece was also published by the Boston Globe under the title “Wanted: A strong hacker community.”

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The fall semester may have only just begun, but the fight for Boston’s young talent is well underway. Silicon Valley and New York are invading with an armada of startups, emerging growth companies, and even some of the top venture capital firms looking to direct upcoming grads and students (as interns) into their portfolio companies. But many Boston companies are missing out on the action. 

What am I referring to? MIT will be holding their HackMIT hackathon in Cambridge on Oct. 4-6. It’s the third major university hackathon in the last month and tracking to be perhaps the biggest of them all. PennApps (UPenn) was held in early September with over 1,000 students participating. MHacks followed that up with over 1,200 hackers from 100 universities at the University of Michigan last week.

Hackathons are terrific environments for connecting early with collegiate software developers, engineers, and UI/UX designers. They’re providing a means to collaborate and experiment in new ways outside the classroom, all while exposing more students to the world of software, design and development. They’re impacting students’ lives, influencing the paths they want to take after college, and better preparing them to do so.

Why is this important? For companies, a strong hacker community is correlating to a marked increase in the quality of students being hired. As such, they have evolved into a key recruiting ground for technical and creative talent. This is best exhibited by the startups and technology companies from the San Francisco Bay Area and New York that are participating at these hackathons.

What is surprising is the lack of a significant Boston presence at them, particularly HackMIT. Perhaps this is simply reflective of the higher demand for talent in these other regions or that Boston companies feel they have enough local presence to pursue other recruiting initiatives at their own pace?

If that’s not the case, we should all consider the following:

Why is it a priority for West Coast companies to travel 3,000 miles (and back) to spend their weekend engaging Boston students? Why are these companies so excited about this pool of young talent and proactively creating roles and embracing upcoming grads and interns into their organizations? Why are they moving at such an accelerated pace and not waiting until next spring to recruit students?

It’s because they understand the value of talented people and how that is instrumental for fueling growth. Apple, Facebook and Google have actually quantified the dollar value of their employee assets. Facebook has estimated that when recruiting, “Engineers are worth half a million to one million” (each) in added economic value to the company.

This hasn’t been lost on others in Silicon Valley, where word gets around fast. Many in fact even possess the same DNA, having been founded by former employees of such companies.

Thus, the battle for Boston’s young talent is happening right now. Sure, the process will continue into this winter, but students are being aggressively courted as we speak. Some will make early career decisions from these interactions. Companies are on the field and engaging. They recognize that their best chance of winning the war for talent is to be in the game, and are willing to take a risk on someone without 5+ years of experience.

Yes, Boston has high-growth Wayfair involved at HackMIT, plus several startups and public companies’ Akamai and Boston Scientific. Independent of that, athenahealth, HubSpot, and TripAdvisor have also proven to be right in the mix fighting for the best students. Hats off to them. But, Silicon Valley and New York are showing up in force in our backyard and with a sense of urgency to boot.

The reality is that young talent will always flow out of Boston. We should be exceptionally proud of that. It is reflective of the region’s unique position as the education capital of the world. 

That being said, while geographic proximity can be a helpful asset for retaining more than our fair share of students at Boston universities, complacency surely is not. We need to work at least as hard and as smart as Silicon Valley and New York companies, particularly for the innovation economy crowd where these destinations are the mindshare incumbents for many.

Retaining young talent in Boston is a noble aspiration. For it to become more of a reality, we need to address the supply side with opportunities to stay in the area and lift a page from the Silicon Valley playbook to go on the offensive. This requires rethinking approaches to embracing young talent, creatively developing compelling roles for them where they’re contributors out-of-the-gate and additive to a company’s growth, and pursuing a go-to-market strategy with the intensity and pace needed to compete.  

Are Rotational Job Programs Right for You?

Many students and new grads may be unsure of their long-term career aspirations and are fearful of being locked into an initial position that may ultimately not be a great fit. In the process of “sorting it out,” there’s a strong preference to keep their options open. As such, many students and new grads are not only comfortable with ambiguous career paths and early job experimentation, they actually seek them out.
 
A rotational job program, where companies expose new employees to different projects & challenges, enables you to play right into this millennial ethos by providing the environment and arrangement to help them “figure it out.” Such programs offer more than “just a job” to candidates. They deliver a “learning experience” that allows them to flexibly explore different functional areas and teams, while proactively allaying their fears about getting “stuck” in a defined role. They can help position your organization as a step forward and not a step back, no matter what direction they choose to take their careers. 
 
On the company’s end, a rotational program enables you to find the best organizational fit for a talented candidate. In addition, if you’re committed to young talent long term, having such a program (and doing it well) can be a huge selling point for future candidates, particularly top talent that may ultimately have many options. Also, if you can’t beat/match bigger, more established companies on a salary basis, then a rotational program offers another way to compensate for that by making your company more attractive from an experiential standpoint.
 
However, if rotational programs were easy, everyone would be offering them. Establishing a good program that serves your needs and that of candidates takes thoughtful planning and strong organizational execution. They also require some degree of infrastructure breadth in place to offer enough options to make the program compelling, along with a collaborative development/management culture to help ensure a great experience. Thus, they are likely appropriate for only the most committed smaller companies and startups.
 
TripAdvisor offers an excellent model to emulate or learn from via their Web Engineering Program. Targeting full-time software professionals, they offer a custom designed rotation program that allows employees to be a full member of different engineering teams for 1-3 month stints (highlighting that employees will be delivering code with immediate impact on the business is a BIG selling point). TripAdvisor complements this with training and a “buddy”/mentor in each area as well as the opportunity to attend talks given by senior execs at the company.
 
You don’t have to be the size of TripAdvisor to take some of these core concepts and implement them successfully within your company. Consider starting small with a model that works for your organizational structure, one where the rotational roles are not too disruptive and can be additive from a productivity standpoint. You can always build from there as you learn and continue to grow.
 
If you do implement a rotational program, be sure to brand it with a compelling name and work it into your marketing and recruiting efforts. You’ll be one of the few startups to do so and have a compelling differentiator for standing out on campuses.
[Link to op-ed that ran in the Boston Globe: Wanted: A stronger hacker community (aka, “The Battle for Boston’s Students is Being Fought Right Now”)]
The leaves have yet to change, but classes are back in session at most universities. It’s also no surprise to some that things are well underway on the campus recruiting front. Cornell & Illinois already have several of their major fall Career Fairs behind them, with a number of startups participating at them.
Where things have REALLY heated up is on the hackathon front. PennApps, the grandfather of them all, was held 10 days ago with over 1,000 students participating. MHacks, the University of Michigan’s mega hackathon is expecting 1,200 student hackers from 100 universities this weekend (Sep. 20-22) in Ann Arbor. And, in what looks to be perhaps the biggest of them all, MIT will be holding their HackMIT on Oct. 4-6. 
Is this just about a bunch of students having a lot of fun? Hackathons have become much more than that. They’re providing a means for collaborating and experimenting in new ways outside the classroom, all while exposing more students to the world of software, design and development. They’re impacting students’ lives, the paths they want to follow after college, and better preparing them to do so. For companies, a strong hacker community is correlating to a marked increase in the quality of students being hired.
Hackathons can be terrific environments for connecting with software developers, engineering/technical talent, and UIUX/designers. They provide the opportunity to work directly with students on projects, evaluate their potential fit, and sell them on your company. If your product has an API, you can present it and encourage hackers to incorporate in their projects. As companies will be “evaluated” by students as well, it’s best to send a technical founder, product evangelist, or a technical team member that has strong domain knowledge and can represent the company well.
Silicon Valley and New York startups (and even West Coast VCs) are all over these hackathons, and rightfully so given the talent coming together. What is surprising is the lack of significant Boston startup presence at them, particularly HackMIT which is in their backyard. Best guess is that this may be reflective of the higher demand for talent in these other regions or that Boston companies feel that they have enough local presence, at least with respect to HackMIT, to pursue other recruiting initiatives at their own pace.
 Irregardless, it’s game on now for those engaging.

[Link to op-ed that ran in the Boston Globe: Wanted: A stronger hacker community (aka, “The Battle for Boston’s Students is Being Fought Right Now”)]

The leaves have yet to change, but classes are back in session at most universities. It’s also no surprise to some that things are well underway on the campus recruiting front. Cornell & Illinois already have several of their major fall Career Fairs behind them, with a number of startups participating at them.

Where things have REALLY heated up is on the hackathon front. PennApps, the grandfather of them all, was held 10 days ago with over 1,000 students participating. MHacks, the University of Michigan’s mega hackathon is expecting 1,200 student hackers from 100 universities this weekend (Sep. 20-22) in Ann Arbor. And, in what looks to be perhaps the biggest of them all, MIT will be holding their HackMIT on Oct. 4-6. 

Is this just about a bunch of students having a lot of fun? Hackathons have become much more than that. They’re providing a means for collaborating and experimenting in new ways outside the classroom, all while exposing more students to the world of software, design and development. They’re impacting students’ lives, the paths they want to follow after college, and better preparing them to do so. For companies, a strong hacker community is correlating to a marked increase in the quality of students being hired.

Hackathons can be terrific environments for connecting with software developers, engineering/technical talent, and UIUX/designers. They provide the opportunity to work directly with students on projects, evaluate their potential fit, and sell them on your company. If your product has an API, you can present it and encourage hackers to incorporate in their projects. As companies will be “evaluated” by students as well, it’s best to send a technical founder, product evangelist, or a technical team member that has strong domain knowledge and can represent the company well.

Silicon Valley and New York startups (and even West Coast VCs) are all over these hackathons, and rightfully so given the talent coming together. What is surprising is the lack of significant Boston startup presence at them, particularly HackMIT which is in their backyard. Best guess is that this may be reflective of the higher demand for talent in these other regions or that Boston companies feel that they have enough local presence, at least with respect to HackMIT, to pursue other recruiting initiatives at their own pace.

 Irregardless, it’s game on now for those engaging.

Too many companies still making hiring decisions based on gut feel, basic credentials, GPAs, ivy league educations, flashy company names - even SAT scores. Here’s a great look at the interview processes - applicable regardless of a company’s size or resources - that are designed to drill deep into a candidate’s skill sets, actual accomplishments, culture fit and leadership potential:
The Anatomy of the Perfect Technical Interview from a Former Amazon VP

Too many companies still making hiring decisions based on gut feel, basic credentials, GPAs, ivy league educations, flashy company names - even SAT scores. Here’s a great look at the interview processes - applicable regardless of a company’s size or resources - that are designed to drill deep into a candidate’s skill sets, actual accomplishments, culture fit and leadership potential:

The Anatomy of the Perfect Technical Interview from a Former Amazon VP

The 8 Characteristics for Successfully Recruiting on Campuses

The below is the main story in our recent ThinkB1G Advantage newsletter. Click here to sign-up to receive these automatically in the future.

The savvy startup knows that being highly effective at recruiting top students is quite different than recruiting experienced professionals. For every HubSpot, Square or Wayfair, there are dozens of companies that struggle to show success or wonder why their efforts aren’t more productive. It’s simply a different game, one that requires a different mindset and approach.

Startups that consistently show success on campus build their recruiting efforts around eight key characteristics:

  1. Don’t settle for anyone other than exactly the recruits you want. While you may not have every role fully spec’d when you hit campus, put serious thought into your needs, have a good sense of the type of role or person you are looking for, and (most importantly) be able to articulate it. Startups that excel at campus recruiting are committed to bringing on exceptional young talent (it’s not just boardroom talk) and they structure their go-to-market accordingly with the right staff and approach.
  2. Work harder and smarter than your competitors to know your target audience: the students. Have a sense of what’s going on on campus and understand the millennial ethos that emphasizes change and personal impact. Structure your pitch to what ultimately most excites prospects and creatively play to students’ interest in starting their careers with a startup. Show students how they can advance their career and keep their future options open by joining your organization, while convincingly demonstrating how you can help them achieve those objectives.
  3. Have a compelling story that excites candidates and sell it better than your competitors. It starts with job descriptions (rethink the traditional approach here), getting the word out on campus to attract the most talented students, and extends right through the selling, closing and even onboarding (especially for interns). Big visions, collaborative cultures, and the opportunity to have meaningful impact and learn from the best are embraced as competitive advantages. Adjust your entire recruiting approach to market and sell around this.
  4. Face the fact that most students have probably never heard of your company. Look to compensate for this with creative approaches to recruiting that enable you to attractively stand out and get noticed. Leverage both Career Services and the right student groups & superconnectors on campus, particularly at top universities that are ramping up their service offerings to work more closely with startups and cater to their unique needs.
  5. Run an efficient and focused campus recruiting process that presents a unified front to candidates. Recognize that the process for hiring students is not the same one you would follow for hiring more experienced professionals. Know that you should ideally time activities to coincide with the key phases of the academic year and structure your approach accordingly, pulling in founders, CEOs and others as needed.
  6. Recognize that compensation packages must be on par with those of your peer employers. If you can’t beat/match Google/Facebook/Amazon on a salary basis, then win students’ hearts and minds by compensating in other ways - the opportunity to be part of something special and have personal impact, a great work culture, cool perks, positions that expose candidates to many things, or opportunities to develop skills that will show them the money in the future.
  7. Understand that everything doesn’t simply end once a new hire is onboard. Treat interns and new hires well, deliver on what you promise, and provide rewarding company experiences that advance career aspirations. Recognize that this will result in admiration and respect for your organization, which becomes your most valuable asset for helping to recruit future prospects. Some startups also take great care to develop thoughtful and comprehensive internship programs or rotational job programs to help accomplish this.
  8. Build feedback loops to learn and optimize your process, developing a best-in-class campus recruiting practice. Build trust and solicit valuable feedback and then actually act on it to make your go-to-market approach better. Stay in touch with former employees and even strong candidates, turn them into evangelists for your organization and solicit their suggestions for sourcing other students.