Employer Branding Ideas
London, UK
Employer Branding Ideas
London, UK
Do Start-Ups Really Need Employer Branding?
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Let’s face it, start-ups have 99 problems and surely employer branding ain’t one of them?

I’ve spoken to Erin Wilson of Hirepool.io, who says au contraire; start-ups have to double down on employer brand, or talent community as he prefers to call it.

Have a listen below or keep reading for a summary of our chat. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

Tell us about yourself and what you do?

I’ve been in the industry now for 9 or 10 years, in the talent acquisition space, helping people. And so I started as a recruiter, moved into internal work, and then head of talent. And after some light consulting and advisory work I’ve now launched a new venture called hirepool.io, it is a super CRM for the job seeker.

I’ve had the opportunity to learn from those ahead of me and observe some more macro trends. And there are a couple that I noticed, one being that the talent and people-centric ideas were coming more and more to the forefront, and here you are as one of those pioneers. And in light of that there was a huge push of investment and innovation in the HR recruiting space. The opportunity I see is that almost every ounce of that effort is geared towards helping companies hire better, which of course is only one half of the equation. So we set out to really flip it on its head and spend all of our time, energy, and efforts supporting the act of job seeker, and really helping them interview better and find the right opportunity for them.

Do start-ups really need employer branding?

It’s no doubt they absolutely need it. They need to start early and they need to talk about it often. I think that the technology, as they say, is a blessing and a curse, and one of the by-products there is that we all live online. It’s a digital world, it’s an extremely noisy world that we live in. So if you’re building a company today, if you’re part of a start-up and you want to see that company succeed, you essentially need to grow continuously. And in order to do that you’re going to need to attract talent. In order to do that you’re going to need to tell an authentic story that people can relate to and find. It’s really hard to do that if you’re not putting effort into it. Meanwhile, companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Salesforce, Amazon, they will gladly do it and continue to hire the best of the best if you do not.

Is an employer brand more a corporate concept? Surely a start-up should focus on product and maybe culture?

Yeah, absolutely. And I’d add that while they may not be start-ups, you’re competing with them for real-estate online, so as a start-up it’s something you have to think about. And I think employer branding can be associated with a corporate in a simple sense – the idea that this employer brand it’s something you can do after the fact. It almost feels transactional. But from a start-up perspective, I tend not to use the term “employer branding”, I tend to lean more heavily on the concept of talent community. And the reason although branding has tremendous value, this resonates with me as more of a transactional initiative, as transactional as a job or in many cases a company, they will come, they will go. But the idea of talent community is much deeper, it’s the authentic storytelling, it’s the share of your cultural values, and it’s continuous. You’re building these communities altruistically, and you’re doing it with people in relationships that will persist far beyond any one company.

How do you start building a talent community?

You can Wikipedia “Talent Community” and there’s a short description in there specifically around social recruiting. And my point of view is that, if that’s your starting point then you’ve already lost. The idea is really again community building. And so it really has to start with your values, one of the purposes of the community is to tell a story and build a safe place where values can resonate between your internal community and your external talent community. And it’s really hard to do that if you don’t have a value set to begin with. So I would start there with your cultural values, they’re extremely important.

How do you extract and define values?

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with quite a few start-ups at this point, and the good news is many more are thinking about values earlier in their life-cycle today. A couple of thoughts I’ll probably throw out there is, one, keep it simple, really focus around three or four key values that you have, they typically come from the top but ideally you have buy-in from your early teams to help clump those values. You know any more than that it becomes really hard to turn those values into actionable assets which they become in time.

So starting with the three or four values, important buying from the team. And then the piece that I would throw out is just it’s really important to continuously calibrate around those values, so as you grow in scale your company, your community… It is not safe to assume that the word “used for your value” means the same to all people as you continue to grow. So we’ve got the values which allows us to begin developing a narrative, and we are giving first in this scenario to the external community. We are a group of people who value acts, who operate in a specific way and who interact with each other based on this set of values. And you really have to understand how that narrative plays out in your environment, and be willing to share that, and be willing to receive feedback as well on those values. But I really view that narrative as just the true story that you tell the rest of the community around what it’s like and what’s happening inside of your company.

How do you insert your narrative into your storytelling?

I think that the obvious place for you, where you see that narrative is on the front end, with your talent acquisition strategy in that team. And if you really think about that team there’s a lot of talk around the marketers and it’s very true, but they’re the first impression anyone has typically when they come into your company’s purview. So really making sure those values are part of the way your talents team talks about the company and the opportunities, how you operate inside, it starts with that talent team saying a very consistent message to each and every person you interact with.

But I would encourage that narrative to grow. It can live in your employees’ LinkedIn profiles, it can live in your corporate blog. And there are ways to weave that through over to the marketing side. But push deeper, find ways, if you put it into your interview process you have to assess against those values, and then once people join, hopefully the management team and leadership realizes how you can actually run the company based off these values, drive through performance management, I mean it’s really a consistent thread.

What’s the role of employees and founders in storytelling?

So let’s start with the leader part of it. It is paramount that the leader embodies these values, and that the staff can then see the leaders practicing these values day-in and day-out, because most of us learn by watching and observing, we learn from example. So I think that it starts there. I wouldn’t say that it’s the leader’s job to communicate those values as much. I put lead from the front on their job title or their job description. Then the employees themselves you hope you have compelled them to share those values and your employer brand authentically.

I will liken this to marketing very much, and I will continue to sound like a broken record out there on this point, but it is not what you tell your consumers about your product, it is what your consumers tell other consumers. And this is no different in the employer brand. If an executive is running around touting their values that’s one thing, it is much more powerful if the employees are living it, breathing it every day, and they’re the ones sharing those stories.

What are some of the mistakes that start-ups can learn from?

I think the two biggest mistakes that I see are:

  1. The brand just is not authentic. And I don’t think that’s intentional or malicious. It’s a decision to jump into the employee branding game, and then you try to do it through a collective or divide and conquer. And Matt Charney and I were talking over Twitter recently about whether or not you need a dedicated person or a function to do this type of work, I would argue, absolutely do. It’s a deep, three dimensional job, it takes time, effort, and focus. So I think one is just if you’re going to be serious about it, you have to invest in it, build a team.
  2. The second mistake that I see most often is, it’s good in theory, it begins, but there is a ton of long-term thought behind it. And so what you end up seeing is this reactionary employer branding. And I think Glassdoor is a good example of that, someone posts a review, let’s address it. Someone just quit because of that, let’s change it. And that’s certainly a good start. But pushing yourself to get to a place where you have a framework in place where you really facilitate that feedback and integrate that feedback into your future actions rather than just react to it.

How can we measure ROI from employer brand/talent community at a start-up?

I think that this is a phased approach, and part of the challenge right now is we’re still in the early days of employer branding and talent community. And so there aren’t as many folks out there who have had the experience to forecast this to your CFO, but more will come. Then certainly being able to explain what it will look like over time, and so I would say that in your first year it’s very likely that you will have almost no ROI to prove. Certainly some anecdotal feedback, you may be able to point to the progress or the consistency of your impact, but in terms of a bottom-line ROI it’s tough, nearly impossible.

That being said, I’ll make you stick with it, you get into year 2, year 3, you will have the ability to do a few things. One, you can always measure it from an advertising standpoint. So you can run through concepts like outreach, page views, clicks, and then push the conversion. How many applicants is that turning into? How many referrals does it generate? And of course in the end I think people are looking for, “How many hires do I generate from these efforts?” So I wouldn’t necessarily put that as the most important metric, but it is certainly a way to measure ROI over time.

What about employer review sites such as Glassdoor?

I have mixed feelings about Glassdoor. I have the utmost respect for them. They absolutely disrupted and they absolutely have contributed to what we all see coming as the transparency economy. Despite the anonymity they still play that role. So I have a lot of respect for them. I think I’ve been in the game long enough to have heard some horror stories, I’ve been a part of some myself, so there’s always concerns. There’s concerns around the authenticity of those reviews. I view them now having similar challenges as maybe Yelp did many years ago. If I’m a jobseeker today or an employee, how do I really know how these reviews apply to me or if they’re relevant even today? And I think having worked internally for start-ups and top five internet companies, sometimes I question some of the business tactics from recruiting advertising platforms, but that’s something here nor there, I think it’s just we all have challenges and those are some of theirs.

What about Uber, you recently had a look at their Glassdoor page, what did you learn?

Well, I certainly like to stir conversations, that’s not a secret. Everyone who knows me knows that. And I think it’s current events, there’s some interesting topics, honestly there are some sad topics happening at Uber today, and so out of curiosity I went over to Glassdoor and wondered what they said about the culture there, and threw that out to my network. And I think this is part of the concerns I have, are those reviews on Uber authentic? And why are there not more constructive reviews that would be indicative of what we’re seeing in the news today? And these systemic problems that I would consider very deep and I will assume only many more stories will come over the next few months. So in that sense it’s concerning, almost misleading. But again, I think we all have challenges and they’re just facing theirs, Glassdoor that is.

A representative from the company chimed in on the thread and mentioned that in fact Glassdoor’s ratings have been declining over the past few months, and it would indicate that Glassdoor it is more trustworthy than some people question. I think the counter I would have for that individual or that space is, again that data was only shared because it needed to be shared, it was reactionary. My question is, they have that data, what are they doing with it today, because they’re not passing it on to the jobseeker? So how are they using that data on the enterprise side, and those are where probably more of my questions lean.

What start-ups are doing it right?

I value the companies that are telling true stories, but also finding ways to speak to the populations that need to find safe places to work. And one that comes to mind recently is Intel. I know it’s not a start-up, it’s a larger company, so minus the budgetary differences. But I recently saw one of their employer branding campaigns, it was around a woman Amy, and they were talking about how she’s a respected leader at the company, she’s also a mother. And that story really resonates with me, they’re going out of their way to talk about normal needs that we have in this life, and how you can do that and succeed in their company. You might not have known that about Intel until you see that ad.

I think other companies that have done it well in the past, Airbnb for years now, again they’ve grown but they started their talent branding efforts as far back as I can remember, and their founders were very involved even to the point where they took the experience of their customers and built it into their talent process, and then began telling stories from those experiences. So I think there’s a few out there who are great.

So recently I’ve been spending time with a start-up out here in San Francisco called HoneyBook, and I’ve been spending time with their founders. They’ve already done a phenomenal job at building a community around their product and their vendors which they call the “Rising Tide Society.” And they really sit out to me because even the t-shirts they built for the community suggest community over competition, which I really appreciate. But they’re beginning to channel all those efforts into their talent branding, and you’ll see them continue to share the stories of creative entrepreneurs and women leaders in tech, and things that are very important to their core values. And so very quickly you’ll see if HoneyBook is the place for you where you want to work. So I’m really excited to see what they do in the upcoming months.

And then I really appreciate what Michael McGovern did back at Yahoo, and he really went on a run where he showcased different Yahoos that you needed to be aware of. And he focused very specifically on the DNI groups at Yahoo. And so he was creating a platform or a showcase for individuals that may not have the opportunity, may not have the access previously, but now his talent community, can’t tell through any efforts, was giving them an opportunity to advance their career.

What do you think is the next big thing in this space?

We’re not cut out to the world of Periscope or Facebook streaming. I don’t expect to see an entire ecosystem of live streaming cultures, but at the same time I see us progressing there. So much more content, much more dynamic kept up-to-date, and there are tools out there, and there’s great companies like The Muse and others that are going to help companies do that. So I see just a much more immersive experience in terms of the companies who are interested in the talent communities.

I would love one day if the head of talent straps on a GoPro, and just wore it all day, and of course, you’ll probably need to edit some things, but this is what it’s really like to work here and jump on in. So I’m excited to see where technology takes us, but more so and before technology, just again genuine care for people and continued investment in this space.

Follow Erin on Twitter @techmatchmaker and be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.