Shark Tank Meets HR Tech: Testing the Recruiting Waters at iTalent.

italentLast week I attended the 2015 HRO Today Forum in the heart of historic Philadelphia, PA – birthplace of the American Revolution, cheese steaks and obnoxious sports fans – and came away from a pretty jammed packed itinerary full of meetings, presentations and conversations with quite a few ideas, observations and insights in mind (such as the repercussions of the growing contingent workforce).
But I’m going to start off where the actual HRO Today Forum agenda ended: with the 2015 North America iTalent competition recognizing innovative talent-focused technologies.

Sink or Swim: Shark Tank Meets HR Tech

The iTalent competition followed a familiar format that’s becoming increasingly prevalent, following in the footsteps of TechCrunch Disrupt’s startup competition, the “demo day” that inevitably comes at the end of every technology accelerator process and TV’s Shark Tank (or Dragon’s Den, for my Canadian friends), to name just a few examples among the infinite other iterations out there.

You know the type: presenters representing each of the technologies selected as finalists were given a tight time frame to pitch a product to a judging panel comprised of a cross section of industry experts. For iTalent, the six vendors selected for the finals in Philly were given a scant seven minutes each to present the company, product and market positioning to the judges, who, along with an interactive vote from the audience, chose a winner by allocating shares based on which finalist they would be the most likely to actually invest in.

In the case of this panel, which included Bill Filip, Managing Director and Founder of private equity firm Delancey Street Partners, Bill Boorman, who advises VC-backed HR Tech accelerator Talent Tech Labs and Mir Ali, VP of Global Technology Solutions for FutureStep, a Korn/Ferry Company, this investment scenario wasn’t entirely theoretical.

Similarly, the audience, which consisted primarily of CHROs at some of the world’s biggest brands and the senior leaders of some of the world’s biggest HR outsourcing firms, reflected the cross-section of decision makers ultimately responsible for buying and implementing the kinds of talent technologies featured among the iTalent finalists.

The idea is that while everyone regularly sees dozens of product demonstrations from a litany of potential platform providers and software startups focused on talent technology, and spend an inordinate amount of time listening to various vendors pitch companies on why they should use their product, iTalent an opportunity for the HR and recruiting leaders attending the HRO Today Forum to hear these same vendors present on bigger business issues.

By focusing on why each respective vendor felt their technology would create both disruption and a viable, successful business and walking through such issues as revenue generation models, market positioning, competitive landscape and industry trends, to name a few recurring talking points, the end users and buyers in the room heard a completely different pitch – and perspective – than the type tailored to decision makers during the typical purchasing process.

On The Clock: How iTalent Reflected Trends in Talent Acquisition

2015-05-15_05-40-01The competition’s master of ceremonies was Matt Charney, partner and Executive Editor for the Recruiting Daily properties (like the one you’re reading now).


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During the competition, Charney likened the iTalent competition to attempting to recreate the pitch that vendors typically give when trying to raise institutional investments or present to potential venture capitalists.

While the format of iTalent indeed emulated competitions normally associated with start-ups, this was clearly not a start-up competition, but rather, a way for some of the usual suspects in the space to highlight new product innovation.

Other than one finalist founded in 2014, the other vendors presenting were all established players who have been at it for a while, and have already raised millions of dollars and have already built the associated revenue streams required to help those investors realize the requisite ROI, albeit to varying degrees of success.

The only rule for entrants was that they couldn’t be publically traded and were still taking on external investments, and it was telling that the finalists was made up of many bigger players who technically met this criteria, but who have been in the space for long enough that this purported showcase for what’s new and what’s next in talent technology was ultimately rounding up the usual suspects, as it were.

The slate of iTalent finalists in the competition did, however, reflect several of the most prominent trends we’re seeing within the talent acquisition segment of the HR Technology industry: employer branding, recruitment marketing, recruiting analytics and “big data” plays, usability enhancements for consumer grade experiences, and integrations (or full product builds) with the Salesforce.com platform.

Breaking Down iTalent: 6 Talent Technologies Worth Watching

The finalists picked to present in this fourth iteration of the annual North America iTalent competition were:

Here are my quick thoughts on each of these vendors and my overall iTalent impressions.

Editor’s Note: I have added my own thoughts on each of the finalists, but wanted to feature the analysis George originally published on #HRWins since it’s far better and more informed than mine – not to mention he did a better job covering this than I ever could, as you can see. Dude knows his stuff, but wanted to let you know why the occasional, obnoxious italics are there. – MC

1. Universum Global (2015 iTalent Winner)

2seRJypz_400x400This year’s winner was Universum Global, who showcased their new Iris product, which is set for a general release after a fairly lengthy time spent in beta. Universum, of course, is the antithesis of a startup, having an established global business surveying students and new graduates about their job and career preferences since 1988.

That’s 27 years, which is pretty much an epoch in HR Tech terms. But with that history, they have also collected more data on student preferences and employer brands than anyone else I’m aware of.

Universum has built a successful employer branding and consulting practice based on this deep research, but Iris marks their first foray from services into a pure product play.

Iris is a stand alone SaaS solution to track candidate behavior and employer brand engagement for each respective customer, who will purchase access to the platform on a subscription basis. It’s more or less a social listening and monitoring tool that has been specifically tailored for the HR and Talent industries.

Matt Charney: I like this product because it’s marketing software in HR Tech clothing. For companies spending so much time and effort on social recruiting, online engagement and building their employer brand, it’s a way to actually monitor, measure and optimize that investment.

But unlike more sophisticated consumer marketing platforms with similar functionality, it’s really intuitive, clean and user friendly – and when you’re talking about HR and social, idiot proof is everything. I think that this sort of tool is long overdue and that it won shows me that there’s a clear market need, too. I actually joined Universum’s advisory board for this product after the competition concluded, so I can confidently assert the best is yet to come. 

2. Greenhouse (2015 iTalent Competition Runner Up – Audience Award Winner)

greenhouselogoGreenhouse is a rapidly growing applicant tracking system that launched in 2012 with a promise to help companies find a better way to hire.

With an intuitive and consumerized interface, focus on leveraging collaboration and predictive analytics throughout its feature set and growing point solution integrations, Greenhouse has created an ATS whose candidate screening and selection process is driven by data – and leads hiring teams to better hiring decisions.

Greenhouse has achieved very rapid growth since emerging onto the scene as a new HR technology vendor, and their client list speaks to the fact that “high growth” is a defining characteristic for both the company and its customers.

Now, “high growth” is a buzzword that the market likes to throw around as a euphemism for emerging companies in the SMB segment (small to medium sized businesses) that normally have fewer than 5,000 employees, but with Greenhouse, it’s more than just a market definition, but rather, a way of thinking.

Having raised more than $25 million in venture capital since launching in 2012, Greenhouse is no stranger to the VC pitch. During the Q&A session with the judges after his presentation, Greenhouse CEO Daniel Chiat emphasized going “upstream” with larger customers and the associated challenges of scaling the product interface to reflect the growing demand for adding more features, and changing needs of customers whose growth is every bit as impressive as Greenhouse’s.

Responding to a question from judge Elaine Orler, Chiat mentioned that Greenhouse will have to balance the promise of simplicity and speed made to existing customers that tend to be more driven by compliance and scale in larger companies. For companies that have tried this balancing act before Greenhouse, their execution was lacking, to say the least.

MC: I think the last thing the world needs is another ATS, but while I know how much recruiters love to hate these systems, almost everyone I’ve ever spoken with who actually uses or is considering switching to Greenhouse has nothing but stellar things to say about their experience.

I myself do a lot of candidate experience audits, and every time I’ve applied to jobs at organizations using Greenhouse (think: every hot brand in Silicon Valley), it’s so easy by comparison to traditional systems it’s night and day, really.

Taleo, Brassring, Kenexa, or any of the “recruiting” modules that are as crappy as the “integrated talent management systems” they’re tacked onto (looking at you, Workday and Cornerstone) should really be worried, because I’m pretty sure the knocks on the entire ATS category the traditional vendors created are selling points for Greenhouse and the other emerging players in this market.

That it won the audience vote indicates, to me, that they’ll have no problem selling into enterprise employers. Now, keeping them happy and renewing is another story, but their code base and feature set seem agile enough to scale and push updates quickly enough to meet the demands of the market.

2. SkillSurvey (Second Runner Up)

SkillSurvey-LogoSkillSurvey offers a cloud based suite of products designed to deliver data driven insights directly into the hiring process by injecting automation and science into the reference check process.

By administering reference checking much earlier in the hiring process than traditional providers, SkillSurvey is able to provide new insights and predictive analytics to help inform critical hiring decisions, while simultaneously generating a much more targeted pool of potential hires that’s already undergone pretty sophisticated algorithmic due diligence – meaning that it extends the utility of candidate pools by promising (and delivering) quality.

SkillSurvey launched in 2001, and have been aggressively extending their products in new directions ever since, particularly when it comes to developing the necessary capabilities to support high growth vertical markets like tech, healthcare and finance.

SkillSurvey’s presentation, delivered by Rob Bennett, was both crisp and on point. They have clearly been studying up on recruiters, recruiting organizations and the talent acquisition market, a deep understanding that was deeply obvious even during such a short presentation. Their product offerings are very interesting, and should prove useful for both direct employers and staffing firms alike.

MC: What I like about SkillSurvey is the fact that it’s basically helping get hiring manager buy-in by only presenting candidates that have enough predictive analytics and hard science backing up their candidacy to be way more compelling than the gut feeling that is the only thing most recruiters have to go off of.

I think reference checks are pretty worthless to do anything but limit liability, but this has the potential to actually make them more useful in hiring decisions instead of only checking a box after that decision has been made. Will be keeping my eyes on a company I had been ignoring because, well, reference checks are about as exciting as watching paint dry or sitting through a general session at a state SHRM conference. But this is interesting.

4. Jibe

logoJibe presented their newest positioning of their growing suite of products, which in its current form, is now a “candidate experience platform,” apparently. While the tag line is new, I couldn’t tell from the presentation, by CMO Ivan Casanova, if there were any actual new features supporting this direction.

Candidate experience is definitely a hot button issue in the world of recruiting, and one of the most discussed topics at every HRO Today Forum session I attended. Just look at any recruiting content or social stream and you’ll see they’re constantly abuzz about this talent trend. The success and visibility of the Candidate Experience Awards underscores this.

Jibe’s product suite include such features and functions as talent networks, an employee referral solution, automated job posting and distribution, recruiting analytics and, in a nod to their original product positioning, a mobile job apply tool.

Prior to the iTalent presentation, I’d noticed Jibe’s recent focus on the concept of “data driven recruiting,” but it wasn’t clear to me whether the new candidate experience positioning reflects another product pivot or a forthcoming shift in product focus.

Jibe presented their differentiating feature, or “secret sauce,” as they referred to it, as their ability to integrate directly with applicant tracking systems and improve the candidate experience by providing an additional front end layer for candidates to overcome many of the experience issues endemic to the back end of most ATS solutions.

MC: I’ve been helping Jibe with their Data Driven Recruiter campaign, so in the disclosure that they’re a customer, I think that they were really ahead of their time with mobile – and now that it’s that time, they need to stop repositioning what’s a really solid technology and focus more on their core competencies, which are all related to integrating with crappy systems to overcome their capability gaps.

The inability to apply for jobs on mobile devices or even see a mobile optimized career site is what’s causing most of the major issues making candidate experience a major issue, so wish they’d focus on doing what they do best and not commoditizing a category that their product has been working to solve for years, now.

5. Clinch

7nR0ylRu_400x400Clinch touted themselves as the “Hubspot for Recruiting,” and what they presented was a content marketing system and e-mail engine to drive the kind of candidate nurturing campaigns and targeted engagement that makes the comparison seem fairly obvious and potentially apropos.

I’m just not clear whether the analogy to Hubspot ends there, or extends to the kind of focus Hubspot has had on educating the B2B and B2C marketing communities inside and outside their interface on content marketing.

Also, it was not clear from the presentation from Shane Gray whether or not Clinch extends into CRM as Hubspot does with their sales platform.

Clinch was founded in 2014, is headquartered in Ireland, and seemed like an interesting new offer amidst the flurry of recruitment marketing tools and platforms we’ve seen get traction over the last few years.

MC: I hope they drop the Hubspot comparison, because I’m guessing from what little I’ve seen from Clinch that it’s both cheaper and easier to use than Hubspot, which is more or less proof that marketing can make your product seem way better than it is (which is why LinkedIn is a professional network, you know).

I first met the Clinch team at SXSWi, and know from that random encounter that if they keep paying attention to the consumer marketing solutions and bring back the cutting edge to an industry still talking about stuff like “the Cloud” or “mobile,” they’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of the hundreds of other players who show up at the HR Technology Conference and ignore the fact that this industry is the Flintstones while the rest of tech is the Jetsons.

One more note: the fact that they’re out of Dublin gives them a huge edge, since they’re down the street from the EMEA headquarters of every big Silicon Valley company (Twitter, Google, Facebook, etc.) but without the echo chamber of BS and insular thinking that’s as endemic to Sand Hill Road as it is to the HR Tech exhibition floor.

6. Talent Objects by Lumesse

kHo9XZoZLumesse presented the Talent Objects suite of products, a SaaS solution built on the Salesforce.com platform. The Talent Objects modules consist of Recruiting, Performance Management, Rewards, Succession Planning and Learning. This presentation, however, focused only on the recruiting capabilities of the product.

Alan Johnson, the head of marketing for Talent Objects, reinforced this suite of products was directly targeting the Salesforce.com customer base, leveraging their existing investment in the platform to extend the software’s capabilities into HR and recruiting.

The decision to develop on the Salesforce Platform is a strategic move with an interesting upside for the HR customer. I’ve written a lot about Salesforce and their moves in the HR Technology market; click here for my most recent thoughts on the implications of Salesforce in HR Tech.

MC: I want to like this product, and it’s really awesome compared to what’s on the market today, but the thing is, companies like Cornerstone OnDemand and Oracle HCM have already had a robust partnership within the Salesforce marketplace for years, and generated a significant portion of their revenue from under the table channel sales that rewards The Force with cash in exchange for winging them customers.

I can’t say that Lumesse, a fairly blase, traditional integrated HCM player, is doing anything other than actually putting all their cards into one integration and channel partner that’s not even close to the best tech in the CRM market.

But if you love your on-premise HCM so much you can’t get enough crappy tier-one ERPs, by all means, live the dream. Because if Salesforce thought that it could make a viable, stand-alone talent acquisition product that was worth building a business around, they wouldn’t be doing these kinds of partnerships, so something tells me that this exists because Salesforce didn’t want to waste time or resources on adding these capabilities in-house instead.

Click here for more from Larocque, Inc. and the #HRWins blog. To learn more about how you can get your product featured in the #HRWins, get in touch here.

bxw profile photo2About the Author: George LaRocque is recognized as one of the top global influencers in the area of B2B HR and workforce technology.  He has amassed more than 20 years in the field as a Recruiter, Talent Management professional, HR practitioner, HR Technology executive, analyst and consultant.

George is available as an advisor for those firms who understand that marketing and sales success requires a deep knowledge of the HR Buyer and substantial go-to-market experience with HR tech products and services.  George is the founder and conference chair of InfluenceHR. A marketing symposium for B2B HR technology vendors committed to a better understanding of their customer.

As Principal Analyst and Director of Go To Market Services for The Starr Conspiracy Intelligence Unit, he is focused on the HR Technology space and involved in some of the most comprehensive and current research on trends impacting HR and HR Technology.

For more from George, visit www.larocqueinc.com, follow him @GLarocque or connect with him on LinkedIn.

George LaRocque


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