Talent Tech Labs Searches for Recruiting’s Next Big Thing

As if you haven’t already noticed, the world of talent acquisition is awash in vendors promising to revolutionize every aspect of the process, from sourcing to pre-screening to interviewing to onboarding. How to keep track of it all? The founders of Talent Tech Labs confronted this very same question and decided to form their start-up, initially called Headhunter Labs, to help the community cut through the thicket and identify which vendors specialize in what. The company is jointly owned by Mercer, Allegis Group and Mitchell Martin, a healthcare-staffing firm.

“If you read the sales pitches, it’s like [the vendors] all do the same things,” says Jonathan Kestenbaum, Talent Tech Labs’ executive director. “We wanted to create a taxonomy to help people understand the space better. We’re building a community of people who are interested in talent acquisition technology.”

That taxonomy takes the form of TTL’s quarterly Talent Acquisition Technology Ecosystem, a color-coded infographic that tracks new and established vendors in the space and categorizes them based on what they specialize in. Vendors are grouped into “bubbles” in the infographic based on categories such as crowd-sourced recruitment, candidate relationship management and job marketing and distribution. TTL recently added a new bubble to the Ecosystem for analytics vendors.

TTL also serves as a business incubator for start-ups in the industry. Its headquarters in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley neighborhood has hosted 15 start-ups since launching in 2014, including InterviewJet, which has signed up more than 450 companies to its network (which connects employers with experienced engineers with hard-to-find skill sets) and has raised $750,000 in seed money. TTL recently announced three new companies that will be joining its incubator: TTL takes partial equity in the companies in return for its incubator services, which include mentoring and advising, matching firms with potential investors and the use of its office space. TTL also hosts regular invitation-only CEO roundtables

TTL’s Kestenbaum, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” whose past experience includes building a tutoring company while in college, has overseen TTL since 2014. We spoke with him recently about trends in the talent acquisition space.

What are some of the developments in talent acquisition technology that you’re most excited about now?

We’re excited by innovations in the staffing industry and the vendor-management-system space. There’s interesting stuff happening with solutions that match candidates with jobs that let them chat with employers in real time. I wrote a piece on five trends in talent acquisition tech we think will happen this year. These include game-based assessment tools replacing lengthy psychometric questionnaires, analytics dashboards, Analytics-as-a-Service, there’s some interesting stuff happening with staffing firms partnering with temporary labor marketplaces, such as Kelly Services’ agreement with Upwork. I think we’re seeing some exciting developments with candidate relationship management platforms that let companies see what the most successful recruiters are doing.

What areas of recruiting and talent acquisition are most in need of improvement?

We’re tracking about 1,500 influential and innovative companies in the talent acquisition space. One area where I believe that there’s a billion-dollar company waiting to be built is recruitment marketplaces. They seem to have hit a level of scale, but no one’s really hit it out of the park so far and I believe it’s a collaboration problem. Recruiters and staffing firms, in general, seem to have this fear of being collaborative, and whoever can solve that collaboration problem will have a really big impact. The closest I’ve seen is a company called Opolis — they’re doing some really interesting stuff around collaboration, building a collaborative marketplace for independent recruiters. That’s an area I’m very interested in. I also believe there’s going to be some consolidation over next three or so years and we’re going to see certain vendors emerging that take an all-in-one approach with the ATS and candidate relationship management converging. There are some really interesting tools coming out of the interview-management space, such as Comeet, a company based in Israel. I also think there’s going to be a convergence between vendor management systems and temporary labor marketplaces. Imagine, for example, a company logging on to its VMS and not only being able to see what the staffing firm puts in front of them but being able to connect directly with freelancers via Upwork and hire them.

Are there areas of talent tech that you think are getting too much hype, that are being oversold?

I have to really think about that one. Speaking as an investor, in certain segments of the ecosystem valuations are higher than would make sense based on traditional businesses, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not going to be able to garner that valuation if they were sold or went public.

How many “incubator” companies are at TTL at the moment?

We currently have six companies right now. Every month I review about 30 technologies, I short-list them down to three, put them before a review committee and we determine how we want to work with them. We will be bringing on between six to 12 companies a year and will increase that number as we scale up our business.

Can you describe some of these companies?

We’re about to sign a company called Hyr, whose CEO was the chief technology officer of Zynga. They’re building a temp labor marketplace for on-demand employment that uses artificial intelligence to match companies with workers. These guys are going to kick ass; we’re very excited. Then there’s Talennium, which built a data dashboard that aggregates data from different point solutions to improve recruiting performance. We have Step.com, which built a platform that lets passive candidates assess their market value. We also have Talentron, which helps you create behavioral interview guides; Majio, which matches candidates with jobs; JobHuk, a recruitment marketplace; and InterviewJet.

How do you decide which companies to incubate at the lab?

We do an extensive review of a company; we need to ensure there’s a product being built that I can put in front of buyers. But what I really need to know is whether the company has a CEO who has vision, and can see it through. I need to know that you can build the technology and then sell the technology. Fourth, I want to know whether you’re self-aware. It’s not only having a vision, but you have to be self-aware of what that vision is. For example, if you tell me your competitor is LinkedIn and I don’t see it that way, then something’s off. Lastly, you have to have strong listening skills. I’m more of a talent scout, and so one of the key identifiers for me is listening skills: I really want to know not necessarily that you’re going to listen to me, but more importantly, if the market tells you “no, there’s no demand for this,” then you need to be able to adapt and move on rather than go ahead and try and sell something that’s not working. So I look for people who have the ability to listen, to learn and pivot.

How do you determine whether someone is a good listener?

I ask them lots of questions, even stupid questions. I might ask them if they’d be willing to change their company’s name. I’m not looking for them to just roll over and say “Sure, OK,” but don’t just say “No, because I want to do this.” Or, I might say “I don’t think LinkedIn is your competitor, I think this is your competitor,” and I’ll see how they react.

This article originally featured on the Recruiting Trends website.

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