Storytelling About Continuum With Nolan Church
Welcome to the Use Case Podcast, episode 142. This week we have storytelling about Continuum with Nolan Church. During this episode, Nolan and I talk about how practitioners make the business case or the use case for purchasing Continuum.
Nolan is co-founder and CEO of Continuum and an expert in all things talent and people operations. Before founding Continuum, he was the 56th team member and first head of talent at DoorDash. After leaving that position, he moved on to become chief people officer at Carta. His passion for building a labor marketplace that connects world-class executives to venture-backed companies for full-time and fractional opportunities really comes through during the podcast.
Continuum is a purpose-built marketplace created to deliver maximum value without compromising security and privacy. Inside, you can outline your criteria in detail, review curated, pre-matched opportunities, unload the busy work of taxes, invoices, payments and contracts and more.
Here are a few things we cover today: What does the experience of Continuum’s marketplace look like? How is the quality of candidates ensured and maintained? Moreover, how does Continuum align with diversity, inclusion, belonging, equity and equality?
There’s more, of course! Give the show a listen and please let me know what you think.
Show length: 32 minutes
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Former Chief People Officer at Carta and Head of Talent at Doordash. An experienced operator that’s built world-class teams and multi-billion dollar companies.Follow Follow
Welcome to RecruitingDaily’s Use Case podcast, a show dedicated to the storytelling that happens, or should happen, when practitioners purchase technology. Each episode is designed to inspire new ways and ideas to make your business better, as we speak with the brightest minds in recruitment and HR tech. That’s what we do. Here’s your host, William Tincup.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup. You’re listening to the Use Case podcast. Today we have Nolan on from Continuum and we’re be talking about the use case, the business case, that practitioners make for Continuum. Nolan, do us a favor and introduce yourself and Continuum.
William, it’s great to be here. I’m Nolan Church. I was the 56th employee and first Head of Talent at DoorDash. I then went on to be the Chief People Officer at Carta and I left last August to found Continuum. Continuum is building a labor marketplace that connects world class executives to venture backed companies for full-time and fractional opportunities. And today we are hyper focused on people operations.
Well, I love DoorDash, A, and I love Carta, B.
So I’ve loved where you’ve been and I love what you’re building. So when we say a labor marketplace, you’re really kind of, you’re targeting as it sounds, you’re targeting the higher end of the market.
That’s correct. If you think about how the world exists today.
This top end of the market is serviced by executive recruiters.
And that is the market that we are going after.
Yeah, it is very inefficient and it has been inefficient. Head hunting has been very inefficient for a long time. So it’s needed some disruption because you just don’t know who’s good at what. And so by creating a marketplace, and you’re going to take us into this, but by creating a marketplace, you’ve got ratings. You can really start to see who’s good at what, where the talent is. Maybe you can cut out some of the middle people. So let’s go into the marketplace, take the audience into kind of their experience with the marketplace.
Yeah. Well, let me tell you how it works. And let me tell you how it works from the company side, first.
So essentially, right now, if you become a customer at Continuum, what we do is a 30 minute, what we call a diagnostic call, to best understand what problems you have and where we can potentially help you. At the end of that diagnostic call, in our product we send you, we call the diagnostic email, and it’s essentially a recap of the conversation to confirm what we heard in the conversation. From there the customer then goes in and says, “Yep, this is everything that we discussed.” And from there, they press a button that says accept and continue. And then we get a note on our back end that says, “Okay, this customer is ready to be matched to an executive to solve these problems.”
So now I’ll switch over and tell you a little bit about the executive side, and I’ll weave it back through. So executives, when they onboard with Continuum, they tell us what their superpowers are, where they can add significant value to early stage venture backed companies. And so with that metadata, we then leverage that when we’re matching to solve problems for customers. So depending on that, availability, stage, size of company, we then curate an executive to help that company solve a problem, typically within 48 to 72 hours.
So at this point in time, we have now surfaced an opportunity to an executive and the executive has the opportunity to say, “Yes, I am interested,” or “No, I am not.” If they say no, they remain entirely anonymous to the customer. Their profile is entirely protected. Nobody knows that they’re on Continuum. If they say yes, we then surface the executive to the customer. And then from there, the customer will then accept that, we will have a 30 minute intro call, and begin working.
So a few things, and first of all, lovely business model. This superpower, how do you validate… I mean, you’ve been in the world of talent.
So you already know where I’m going with this.
How do you monitor that? How do you validate that? Your super power of three jobs ago might not be the superpower of today or…
Maybe you want to change superpower. So take us into that. And then the next question is going to be about quality, how you maintain quality kind of everywhere in this process?
Yeah. I think we’ll probably kill two birds with this answer. So…
Our vetting process today, is the first piece, every executive must have worked at a venture backed, pre IPO company in a Director, Head of VP or C-Level role. That’s the first thing. Secondly, every executive is referenced through the current Continuum network. And third, as the executives begin to engage with customers, we then use that data to better facilitate matches and validate what an executive is strong at or not.
So, first of all, and I love the focus, the only thing… And you’ve answered this probably a [jillion 00:05:42] different times, but historically, you would look at a VC firm in their early aughts, let’s say. And you’d go to the team page and it’d be 20 middle aged, pear shaped, white guys.
Right. And that’s just, it is what it is. We don’t need to go and do history lessons. But how do we, and your clients, I’m sure it’s on their mind. How do you, while keeping that quality, because I love the focus again, you’ve been there. So you’ve you understand how venture back, you understand what pre IPO or what all of that looks like. Maybe even acquisitions, plural, or being acquired. Okay. You understand that and you’re understanding at a high enough level that you weren’t just there, you were in the mix.
So I love that, but also I can see that being fairly homogenous and it might be wrong… And I hope I’m wrong. But I can just, as an outsider, I look at that as like, “Okay, well, first of all, I love the experience because it’s…”
It cuts out a lot of the learning, “Okay. Hey, we’re going to take on 20 million in funding. Oh boy. Here’s what happens next.” If they’ve done it twice, three times, they already know what comes next. So I love that part. Just my initial worry is, “Okay, well, how do we balance that out with diversity inclusion, belonging, equity, and equality?”
Well, let me say a couple things on this, because I’m a hundred percent with you. The first is today we’ve been at this for about 14 months. We raised our seed in March. We have about 90 executives on the platform, and just from a gender representation standpoint, it’s about 50/50 today of the execs on Continuum. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing, is I really believe bias shows up in the hiring process, as I’ve worked with hundreds of hiring managers, read all of the studies, we all see it.
So one of the interesting things that Continuum does is we remove the search bar for companies. And so instead of them perusing through another analogous network, be it like LinkedIn, right? And you’re getting all these pictures of different people and all of the human biases are in effect.
With us, you just get one person, served up on a platter, and we very clearly articulate you why this is the right person to help solve your problem. And so we’ve been thinking about diversity and inclusion from the very beginning for how we design this. And it’s one of the reasons we settled on no search bar, because we don’t want companies to be searching through piles and piles and piles of candidates.
We want to find them the one person that can solve their problem and have it be focused on the problem versus focused on any of the other human biases in effect.
I love that. I love that. And the dumb question alert. When you said VC backed or pre IPO, I’m again, dumb question alert. Does it have to be a successful venture?
Oh, absolutely not.
I’m dancing here.
Yeah, I know.
This is me dancing. Me being delicate because I’ve actually been in a firm that raised 11 million and it was a complete catastrophe. So…
Well, let me elaborate. So as somebody who’s probably… I mean, this is also one of the reasons and founder insights for Continuum, I have probably made more mistakes than anybody.
As it relates to talent and recruiting. And so I actually think when you make the mistakes yourself, you actually do learn a lot more.
But the issue is, and really where we have product market fit with demand, is oftentimes these companies don’t have the time or the money to make the same mistakes that I was afforded to make at DoorDash and Carta. And so we connect you to experts that can help you see around corners, that can help you avoid these landmines, primarily, because they’ve stepped on the landmines themselves.
I couldn’t agree more. And I can tell you from that experience 180 years ago, in literally my next experience, I learned what not to do. So that again, it was a catastrophe, I just admit that. But I learned all of the things that I needed to do right the next time. So yep, I got it.
How you do… It’s a two-sided marketplace, right? So you need folks that need to find this talent and they want a more refined and a sophisticated way of doing so. And you also need to find the talent, or the talent needs to find you, I guess. And so you want the marketplace to be balanced or balanced out. So let’s talk about both sides. What’s your acquisition strategy to finding the folks, the company side?
And then what’s your acquisition strategy for finding that talent?
Yeah. So demand acquisition with companies. I actually think it first starts with the content that we are putting out, specifically that I am putting out, on HR, people, recruiting and talent topics. So I’ve started writing a lot more, tweeting a lot more, and a couple of the threads have gone viral and that’s been a great way, actually, to drive demand to Continuum.
So that’s the first way. The second way has actually been through word of mouth. And this is what excites us the most about what we’re on right now. So I would say of the about 35 customers currently on the platform today, maybe 12 or 15 of those have come through word of mouth referral. And again, we’re still in the very, very early innings here.
From there, we’ve also made a few partnerships with VCs. And, as you know, many of these VCs are building in-house talent teams that are costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars a year. And oftentimes, they actually aren’t providing a whole lot of help to the operators inside of a company. And so we do feel like the there’s significant value add to the VCs. One of the pitches to them, is that we feel like we’re venture capital insurance. Because some of these people, again, to your point in that last conversation, have made a lot of these mistakes already and can help avoid the same mistakes as these companies are building out.
And then the fourth, which we just started turning on maybe three or four weeks ago, is some very light outbound to some of these companies that are in that Series A through Series D initial customer profile that we’re targeting. So that’s how we’re going after companies today.
And the talent side itself, to make sure that you have that right, and again, validated the superpowers, they fit the model, et cetera. Filling all of those folks up and into the marketplace and getting them excited about being in the marketplace, right. And being excited. Again, I love these, this is full time, but you also mentioned at the very beginning that this could possibly be a project or fractional or other types of ways to work with this type of professional.
You got it. So actually, I would say fractional is probably where we have the strongest product market fit today. And so what’s really interesting is when we’re trying to acquire executives, when we mention that we have opportunities to advise, consult and invest, it’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel, to be very candid with you. I did not expect this, when we first started Continuum, but we have extreme product market fit with executives.
And I think the reason why, is this phenomenon happened maybe five years ago, CEOs started heavily angel investing into other companies. Tony Xu, the CEO of DoorDash, Henry Ward, the CEO of Carta, they’re both investors in Continuum. They’re frankly, both investors in probably dozens, if not hundreds, of other early stage companies. I knew this as an operator inside of those companies, everybody knew it. And the executives, when I got to this point in time at Carta in my career, where I was like, “Okay, I’ve made a lot of the mistakes. I now know, I’ve been there, I’ve done it a couple of times. I feel like I can add value to early stage companies,” but what I didn’t have was deal flow and I didn’t know how to get it. And I’m not a self promoter.
And it turns out that the best executives actually feel the exact same way. They are typically operating heads down in the company. They’re adding a tremendous amount of value inside of that company, but they all want the access to these fractional opportunities, but they just don’t have the time, bandwidth, energy or deal flow to get them. And so when we reach out and say, “Hey, we have the opportunities to advise, invest, and consult,” people get really, really excited. And so to your point around balancing the marketplace, I got this question a lot when raising the seed and we just had a little bit of validation.
And my hypothesis, at the time is probably similar to what you’re thinking right now, which was, “Hey, if you onboard somebody, you probably want to get them active within a week or two weeks.” Well, I’ll tell you right now, there’s a couple of world class executives who we have onboarded that, unfortunately, just given the dynamics of an early stage startup, we haven’t been able to activate for 30, 45, sometimes 60 days.
And one person in particular, who I’m thinking of, had worst onboarding experience with bugs in a product, typical seed stage company problems. We didn’t get him active for 60 days. We sent him his first consulting opportunity and he responded within four or five hours. And now he’s been in that engagement for, I would say, about three or four months. And is one of the biggest Continuum promoters that exist. So it’s quite interesting some of these dynamics and hypotheses that we originally thought that have turned out to not be true in a positive way for us.
So the reaction from the executive search community, not to say that you’d become the most hated person ever, in executive search or in that space, you’re bringing refinement. Right? Again, you’re bringing just to… And you’ve dealt, you’ve purchased executive search services, at points in your career, I’m sure.
Yeah. So, you know how it is as a buyer. You probably even know how it is as a candidate. So you’re bringing a refinement there, but people don’t necessarily love that refinement. You’re shaking the tree here. So what’s been the response so far?
So I’ll give you the full story. So as we were coming up with the idea for Continuum, it really started when I was running all of these exec searches inside of Carta and DoorDash, and there’s big problems. They’re so expensive. I mean, $100,000 to $150,000 searches. Sometimes they require equity, which I think is insanely outrageous. They’re slow. So typical searches take between six to nine months. And then if you think about these companies growing so fast, oftentimes the person that you hire, you have now outgrown their skillset in 18 months. And so now you’re back to doing it again 18 months later. And so I noticed these problems, and I have a many friends, in executive search.
They are very, very good people. And I went to them and I said, “I see these problems, why aren’t you trying to apply technology to help make it cheaper, make it faster and make it more efficient for companies?”
And to be very honest with you, the answers that I got were, “Well, Nolan, I make $2 million a year and I work 40 hours a week. Why would we do anything differently?”
And so that was the first piece. The second really big piece was around fractional. And we had actually asked for this, even going way, way back to my first or second year at DoorDash, we needed help with an engineering advisor. Everything was breaking every weekend.
Because we’re getting so much demand. And so we went to an executive search partner and said, “Hey, can you connect us to an advisor?” And they basically said, “No, we get these requests all the time. We only do full time.” And so, as I was thinking about Continuum, and I was interviewing executives and they kept telling me, “Nolan, I want access to fractional opportunities.”
I went back to that person and I said, “Hey, please explain to me why you aren’t doing this. Why aren’t you helping companies here?” And his response, I’ll never forget was, “Well, Nolan, we make so much margin on full-time search that it doesn’t make sense.” And so, as Jeff Bezos said, your margin is my opportunity. And so look, what we are building, we are a minuscule spec in the universe.
Compared to what executive search is today. Obviously, we have grander ambitions, but I do believe competition is healthy. And I do believe that the current system is broken and antiquated. And I feel very lucky and privileged to be one of the few people who’s trying to change it.
And you are. I mean, I know you are, just from reading the releases and looking at the site. You’re just a different take on it. And again, a marketplace has a… There’s a beauty to a marketplace that kind of, it susses itself out, which I love. Take us into the demo, in terms of both on the company side and the candidate side. I don’t even know if we call them candidates. What do you call the… You call it talent, right?
We call them execs.
Execs. Okay, good. Thank you.
Let me get the lingo, got to get my lingo down. So on the corporate side, what’s their kind of first experience when you demo it, kind of show them that. Their experience, what do they love? And then the same thing with execs. What do they fall in love with?
So, William, this is how we know we’re solving a really big problem because we don’t do demos. We basically, which I know is very… It’s not the standard conversation [crosstalk 00:21:31] that you have.
No, I love it. No, I love it.
But candidly, when we explain to a company that we can get you help within 48 to 72 hours, and that help is someone who has been there, done that, solved your problems before, and can immediately add value to the business, they’re just like, “What do you need me to do?”
So that’s on that side. The same is true, frankly, on the executive side. When we say we can connect you to fractional opportunities, they say, “Wow, where do I sign up and how do I sign up?” And so there isn’t a demo experience that we currently offer and we likely will not offer for the foreseeable future.
And it’s also, it’s again, there’s a white glove approach here.
Executives kind of expect certain things to be a certain way. And so that kind of makes sense, because you’re dealing with talent at a certain level. So the where you make money question can be answered.
In a lot of different ways. But I think people will just be curious, as to kind of maybe in general, what’s the economic model?
Yeah. So we’re very candid about this. Executives come in and they set an hourly rate. We help them set this with a whole host of factors, which is their current salary, what the median salary is on Continuum, what we’re seeing in the market. We have a pretty wide aperture and so we can help people narrow in. Also, there are marketplace effects at play. And so we tell people that, right, depending on what they set their price at, obviously it will affect buyers’ decisions.
Over time, we’ll build something probably analogous to what you see on StubHub. So instead of us telling you like, “Hey, this is what we’re seeing. This is the…”
“The median and top quartile percentile or whatever.” It’ll all be built in product. So we charge 15% on top of the exec’s hourly rates. And that’s it. It’s really, really simple. And that’s what’s intended to do. And the way we justify that 15%, is you get help within 48 to 72 hours, which normally takes six to nine months.
You get immediate access to these folks. And if you have any other problems, you just ping us and then same the same is true.
So I mean, first of all, I love the economic model because this could be… In a marketplace, you could charge the executives but you’re making it focused on the company side and saying, “Listen, we’re going to get you there faster.” And it’s a way of looking at retained executive search in a way of saying, “Yeah, we can just do it faster with people that have been there, they’re vetted, et cetera.” As it stands right now, with Continuum, is it invite only? Or am I overthinking it? Are you finding talent?
Or you… Yeah. That’s what I thought.
It is invite-only people. People can request an invite on our website. We have cold out bounded a few folks.
Specifically, one of the things we haven’t talked about, one of the biggest areas in which we see a need, right now across the board, regardless of the size of the company, is within compensation and leveling.
This is probably the hottest area, right now, given that talent is on the move, salaries are changing rapidly, and I think in a good way, going up. And so a lot of folks are requesting help. So we have actually done some outbound there, but beyond that, it’s either requesting an invite on our site or getting referred by a current Continuum member.
So the customer stories, and again, without naming names. You’ve got some great investors, you’re out of the box, technology is bulletproof. What are some of the, as you can discuss, and again, without naming names, just things that you’ve kind of fallen in love with just how people have used Continuum to facilitate problem solving?
And maybe even in intended or unintended ways.
And just take us into a couple of great customer stories.
Yeah. So I’ll start with what I thought it was originally going to be. I originally-
That’s honest, right there.
Ladies, gentlemen, that’s what honesty looks like.
I originally thought it would be a kind like a bat phone, in which, “Hey, I’m solving this very specific problem right now. And I want to pick up the bat phone and I want to talk one of the world’s experts who solved this before.” So that’s what we thought. And what’s been really interesting, is that customers on the demand side have pulled out so many more use cases from us, that even during my seed pitch, I hadn’t even considered.
So one is what we call the recurring advisor model. And now because we went with some of the early customers, they’ve actually helped us figure out what the right cadence should be. So this looks like an hour synchronous call every other week, plus an hour’s worth of asynchronous communication every month. And this is so helpful for somebody that is up and comer. Very similar to my profile at DoorDash and my profile at Carta. I had not been around the block two or three times.
I was solving new problems and I essentially get to talk to somebody every other week and can email, text them whenever I want, whenever I have problems. And they can be my sounding board, they can be my gut check and they can be the person that’s outside the organization that’s helping me look like a superhero inside of the organization. So that’s the first one.
I love that.
The second one is project work. So I mentioned [compent 00:28:00] leveling.
We have a customer that started as a Series B, they very quickly raised three rounds of funding to where now they’re unicorn series E, and they needed help with their compensation and leveling. It was unstructured, they didn’t have anything in place, and they didn’t have an expert in the building to help them do that.
And so we connected them to two executives. One to help with the leveling framework, the competencies, the matrix, the job families. And another to then map that to the Radford data and then to help them also organize where they would be at, from a percentile factor of Radford, and also help them build an equity refresh program in which that executive has now presented to their board of directors. So again, not something I ever anticipated happening 14 months ago, which kind of blew our socks off. So that’s the second use case.
And the third use case is where I think the world is going, which is what we call full-time fractional. And so this typically means in the neighborhood of 20 to 40 hours a week. And so we have one customer who is about to raise a very large Series C hundred billion dollar round that needs to fill out their executive bench immediately.
And candidly, the CEO is very growth-minded. And she’s very honest about what she knows and what she doesn’t know. And she doesn’t know who are the best executive recruiters. We actually still need to use those today. She doesn’t know how to set up an interview process to suss out who is actually good and who is not. She doesn’t know how to get that person excited. And so we placed an executive there who’s working now about 20 to 30 hours a week, helping this executive build out her entire executive bench. And I think we’re going to see a lot more of that use case in the future.
Love it. Last question, and I just want to make sure the audience understands, if someone starts with an interim or a project and then the company falls in love with them.
How does that conversion work for y’all?
So this is another area to where we feel we’re adding significant value to the marketplace. So we want that to happen.
Right. [crosstalk 00:30:31] Try before you buy.
We want companies to fall in love with executives. And so typically, recruiting firms or any sort of placement fee is in the neighborhood of 25 to 30%, and we charge 10% of the first year’s base salary.
Oh yeah, that totally makes sense. I mean, and again, that’s much cheaper than what you would see from kind of an older business model.
Nolan, this has been fantastic. I absolutely love what you’re building. And I think it’s just going to be just a game changer, because again, this is a very inefficient space and they don’t really have a real reason. When you’re pulling down $2 million a year, you don’t have a real reason to innovate and you do, and you are. So thank you for coming on the Use Case podcast and explaining it to us.
I appreciate the time, William. It was a pleasure.
Absolutely. And thanks for everyone listening to the Use Case podcast. Until next time.
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William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.