Rob Kelly, CEO of Ongig, developed a love of business very early in life and he believes that everyone can (and should) love business and entrepreneurship too. Why does this simple statement summarize Rob? He believes in creating value for others, and he sees business and entrepreneurship as a direct path to achieving it. Rob’s journey to Ongig may very well be a perfect example of how many of our journeys look. It consists of sage advice delivered by a loving parent, encouraged to follow a path he didn’t want to immediately pursue, a discovery of a talent and passion he didn’t know he had, and a series of major successes and a few colossal failures.
His current passion is helping employers create and promote their career opportunities with job ads that don’t suck. Rob and the team at Ongig are turning talent acquisition into the marketing focused activity it’s meant to be. Our longest episode yet is filled with a potpourri of wisdom, stories, and opinions on everything from going to college, to starting a business, to swimming with dolphins, and even a little music trivia sprinkled in.
- 3:00 – Attends his first board meeting at 16 years old
- 8:08 – “Programmed” to love business at an early age
- 12:38 – Why he didn’t start his Wall Street career right after high school
- 17:00 – His college newspaper days (how he left a major impact with his final article)
- 22:48 – An interest in tech is sparked
- 27:05 – The switch from writing to creating
- 30:35 – His first investor, the MTV of the internet, MoJam, is born
- 33:52 – Selling to Wolfgang’s Vault
- 38:38 – Brad Smart’s impact, why getting the right hire matters
- 43:37 – How personality plays a role in hiring
- 48:00 – Ongig is created to bring hiring into the modern age
- 54:00 – If you try to appeal to everyone, you’re going to appeal to no one
- 56:43 – Why he left everything to go farm in Australia
- 1:00:44 – Stories from the farm
- 1:05:42 – Everyone should be an entrepreneur
- 1:09:10 – Three things old people wish they would have done
- 1:12:03 – “When in doubt, take action because things will happen”
- 1:14:06 – Why Grateful Dead’s legacy lives on
- 1:20:18 – “It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing”
Book: An Enlightened Entrepreneur: 57 Meditations on Kicking @$$ In Business & Life
Rob’s website: robdkelly.com
Company Website: Ongig
Rob Kelly Podcast Interview
Your first role sounds like it was essentially analyzing public and private software companies, and then writing about them for digital information group and their software industry bulletin. Is it safe to say this opportunity was where you probably developed your passion for technology but were also able to parlay that experience and continue to hone that passion you had for writing?
Absolutely. What ended up happening was, I really disliked school, university so, what I started to do was skip class. But I wasn’t the kind of guy to go skip class and go party and go off and just sit on the couch and stuff. I basically wanted to work because my dad taught me to love work.
What I did was, I went to as few classes as possible, and then I went to the Career Center at the University of Bridgeport. This is one of the biggest gifts they gave me, it is the biggest gift. I went in there, and I said, “Hey I want to work.” And they said, “Okay let’s look at the jobs here.” First one was like sweeping the floors at Kentucky Fried Chicken or something. And I said, “OK what’s the next one? They said, “Oh no, you’re not going be interested in this.” I think they could tell I wasn’t like attending class– I wasn’t like an A student. It was a high tech consulting company called New Science Associates, spin off of Gartner Group. For those, you know Gartner group quality research company, consulting company.
Basically, the career counselor person said, “Yes, you’ll never like this.” They start explaining it to me. To describe it, it was a small team, eight or nine people. I went and visited them, there in South Norwalk Connecticut. They all had new Macintoshes, and it had a start-up feel to it. Even though, I didn’t know what a startup was yet. They were all young, and a couple of guys had beards, a couple of guys had flip flops, and they were charging American Express and others, 20k a year, to basically be on call to help consult on artificial intelligence, and computer or software engineering, and neural networks, and a bunch other things, Image processing. I ended up being a gopher to these guys, an assistant. They’re mostly guys, a couple gals, and that got me into the tech world.
Then my next job was writing for that software industry bulletin, and that was a real job. The first one was more assistant, Now, software industry bulletin, that was a breakthrough job because I got to write weekly for software CEOs, and it was just me and one other guy, Jeff Silverstein. Awesome writer, researcher. And we just wrote for the CEOs of software companies on encapsulating the week in the software industry and earnings that came out or trends. Then I’d write some articles and then he’d send me into the mail room. I would literally lick the labels or eventually bought a label machine and put a label on the print newsletters on the envelope. I started to look at the names and I started to get- just identify some of them, recognize some of the names. They were Bill Gates, they were Jim Manzi, CEO of Lotus back at the time. They were Alan Ashton and Bruce Bastian, the co-CEOs of WordPerfect, the number one word processor at the time.
Those of you who remember all this. Of course, Microsoft gobbled up all these guys or beat them. Basically, what was really neat was I was writing about these companies, Microsoft, Lotus, and WordPerfect and then was mailing them to the very people I was writing about. That led to my career in writing about advanced technologies, High Tech Information Week magazines was kind of where I spent most of my time. That’s where I got to meet Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and some other real awesome leaders.
During the Mojam time, in your time building the business, you had an interesting meeting, I think it was in 2005, you had met Brad Smart. For those of you listening who don’t know who Brad Smart is, he is one of the brains behind the talent acquisition processor system known as Top Grading. I’d love to hear, what was the circumstance that led you two together? I mean clearly, that meeting, I think, had a pretty profound impact on what you would do later in life, ie. now, and have been doing for the past six, seven years. Tell us about that meeting with Brad, and how that impacted you.
Yes, around 2005, 2006 we — I was now at a Hot Topic Media. We had a dating advice business. We sold e-books, and audio and video programs to single men who want to be more successful at romance, with women in particular. Great business, we all worked from home. It was run by, eventually, it was the CEO, the founder, and thae brilliant guy who thought up the concept of double your dating, and David DeAngelo. Those were a couple of the brands for Hot Topic Media. This guy, Eben Pagan– Eben is short Ebenezer– and parents were hippies, by the way, from Eugene, Oregon. Awesome guy, smartest marketing guy I know. We all got together, and decided to go out and study under who we heard was the smartest person about hiring that we could find. This, of course, was Brad Smart. He wrote the book Top Grading, and he’s really famous for coaching Jack Welch of GE. Jack Welch admitted that the batting average at GE, when he was there was something like 250 or something. It was like one in four hires were considered a good hire, a year later. Astonishing number, right? Only one and four.
Jack Welch credits Brad Smart in Top Grading for getting that up to – I think, they’re up to around 850 or something, maybe 85%. Basically, if the hires were considered really good after a year. Yes, we talked to Eben was really persuasive. I think he cut the check for it all, and he basically — Couple of the guys pulled money too, but he said, “We have one condition, Brad. You have to teach us directly, personally.” Brad said, “Well, no, no. I’ve got a coaching staff now.” He does the whole program. His son was involved, and he wrote the book. What is it? What’s the name of Brad Smart’s sons book? I’ll have to look it up as we go into it. Another great book on hiring. Eben stood firm and say, “No, no. We got to have you, Brad.” As far as I know, it’s the last time Brad directly taught at this level. We went to Chicago, and we hung out, and we had meals with him and everything over a couple days.
Brad told me two things that really stuck out about hiring, which I think everyone should know. He said, “Number one is most hires are mistakes.” Like Jack Welch said, in general he found 50% to 75% of hires were mistakes at Corporate America. A year later, the hiring manager said, “I wish I hadn’t hired them.” That person, and then the cost of that miss hire, as Brad Smart would say, was anywhere in the neighborhood of five or six to 20 times that person’s salary depending on the type of job. I remember at the time I was hiring an engineer, and I think it was around 13 or 15 X, Brad was saying that, that would be the cost. Basically, what Brad was saying to me over lunch was, “Hey, Rob. If you’re like Jack Welch and everyone else, you’re going to screw this engineer hire- You’re going to screwed up. You’re going to make a mistake, and it’s going to cost your enterprise around 13 times that first– that engineer’s salary.”
I was doing the math in my head, 80k a year, so this will be a million dollar mistake that Brad Smart, the hiring guru, is telling me I’m about to make. That astonishes a lot of people, but the cost of the miss hire has to do with the fact that most hiring managers like me don’t figure it out after a year. It takes them three or four years. The C player as Brad calls them as opposed to an A player, B, and C players. They can be infectious and they could take your A players- – and literally influence them to leave your company. Now you’re losing an A-player. You, of course, have to pay the salary of the person. That could take a few years to figure out and then maybe severance and opportunity cost, and all these other things. He’s documented all this, he’s a total hiring nerd and I say that as a compliment. He nerds out on this stuff as I enjoy doing, and I think you do too. I started to look at hiring as, “Wow. A million dollar transaction, if you screw it up.” Then I did the math of what if you did a great hire? It turns out that if your next hundred hires- If you want to be at the SMP 500 level and you’re hiring, let’s just say a hundred people. I know that’s a lot.
Maybe, some of you listeners haven’t hired as many but I’m just going to pick that. Of your next hundred hires, your best hire, the one best of the next hundred, on average is going to generate $30 million plus per year for you in revenue. The next two or three are going to generate in the $2 million a year in revenue. These are averages. I’m generalizing. It’s different by industry but I’m giving you the overall for the SMP 500. Then most are going to be average which these days is around 450k a year in revenue, and then you’re going to have a minority that are just sub par and you need those folks. They may just be office managers and other folks who don’t have an impact on revenue.
You make a mistake, it can cost you a million. You do a good hire really well and it could generate tens of millions a year for you.
Not to minimize the Hot Topic Media but clearly, there’s this media thread that’s throughout your career up until this point. Then this meeting with Brad and this sort of Wall Street type view of how big of a financial impact the right and wrong hires have on an organization. Is this what then gets under your skin and leads to wow? The hiring function and I’ve long argued that hiring is so not a human resources function. It’s a marketing function.
Talent attraction and talent acquisition is marketing. It is not human resources. That’s probably a conversation for another time but is this what then leads you to the conclusion of wow?
Yes. You nailed it. Basically what it came down to was when now I think of a hire as a million-dollar transaction and you only get to — most people don’t get to make too many of those in their lives. If you’re lucky enough to afford a home for a million bucks, that might be one. Boy college education, tuition is getting up there but it’s not at that level. Most people don’t get a chance to acquire a company in their lives. Reframing a hire towards a million-dollar transaction- and as you said, it’s more marketing than HR. This is a huge thing that’s broken in the recruiting and hiring process, which is I believe in archetypes and personality types and tendencies.
We’re all unique individuals on this planet but you have to organize us into tendencies of what we’re good at and boy, the person who is a classic human resource person who might write the employee handbook, might set up the benefits program and so forth. That is a very different person than the person who needs to attract and engage the best talent in the world. Which is more of a marketing person as you brought up. Marketing and sales person. In Myers Briggs Personality Types —
they would be very, very different. For instance, you might find an ISTJ is a good HR person because they’re introverted, they’re detail-oriented, they’re logical and they’re a judger, they get things done kind of fast. Whereas if you wanted a good marketer or salesperson, you might want the [laughs] in some cases, the exact opposite which, for instance, might be an ENFP which would be an outgoing, intuitive person, feeler, who connects with others and wings it, surfer riding the wave, a good marketer and salesperson.
I’m oversimplifying and generalizing here because there’s 16 Myers-Briggs types. A classic HR person and a classic recruiter, totally different people, different jobs. Yet often times, one is doing the other’s job. For instance, HR people are writing job descriptions when they don’t know how to write persuasive copy, nor should they? That’s not their talent.
Ongig, let’s talk about it. Let’s plug it here a little bit because this is a need. This is an opportunity the world needs. I think about having spent a good chunk of my time in this talent attraction, talent acquisition, culture employment space. I remember fondly running into all of these different applicant tracking systems that enterprise-size organizations have really come to rely on and frankly in some cases, almost serve now as an Achilles heel for being able to do the right things that can attract the right people.
The structure and the way some of these legacy systems have been built is very much aligned to the archetype of that more traditional ISTJ profile that you shared and the introverted, process driven, get things done behind the scenes. Which is absolutely a need but is not the type of front-end that people expect in what the experience needs to be to really get a message out and tell a story to the right people at the right time and the right place.
I find it fascinating given the complexity of some of these systems, how you’ve been able to provide a front-end, storytelling, marketing-based solution to integrate with this legacy infrastructure that so many big, big companies rely on.
Yes. Once again, you nailed it. Really- and we didn’t know this, and I didn’t know this when I launched Ongig which is that most employers have this applicant tracking system, ATS. It really originated from the need to track candidates; track their gender, track their race for compliance reasons. For instance, if you’re an employer and you’re working with the government, you have certain compliance you have to meet.
If you’re an employer and you are going to go public, there are certain compliance you need. Basically, these applicant tracking systems serve that world. That’s going back 15 years or so when they really originated. They also happen to be generating the job description, the job rec. That is what many employers use to then attract candidates. They put that up on their website.
Basically, the problem with it- there’s a number of them. One problem is that the ATS companies, take Taleo is largest. Others include SuccessFactors. IBM’s got Kenexa BrassRing. Here in Silicon Valley, Jobvite is big. Greenhouse and Lever and SmartRecruiters now are the hot new guys taking away a bunch of market share from the others. Basically, these legacy ATS systems, they’re designed to track candidates not to attract candidates.
Earlier in the conversation, you had said something to the effect of, this is marketing, the candidate is now really the consumer. It’s a candidate’s world. It is now a candidate’s world. There are six million plus job openings every month. It is a war for talent. Most people coming out of school, students coming out of school are thinking about either joining Google, and Facebook, and Uber. By the way, even though they’re all tainted, the young folks still think Uber is awesome [laughs]. Even though they are having all these troubles with gender bias and other things and the CEO had to leave, their crushing it. They came out as the top employer brand for young folks, so students today are either wanting to join those hot big tech forward companies or they want to build one, themselves. This is the toughest point in my lifetime ever to attract a top talent and so do you really want this legacy ATS software generating just a bunch of text, that by the way, might have been written by who knows, at your company, like folks just copy and paste it. Is that really what you want to do for this million-dollar transaction that is a hire? That was the birth of Ongig. We basically integrate with ATS. We allow you to add all of your branding, your logo, your header and footer, your color scheme.
Your marketing team came up with a logo and the color scheme of your business, go leverage it on your job description pages. Those are ads. You need to give the personality of your company there. That’s just on branding alone. Then we add light media, whether it’s a video or a picture directly to your job description. All this is drag and drop. If you want to add chat between your job owner, like your hiring manager or your recruiter so that the candidate sees the name and picture of the person who they would talk to about the job. That might be useful.
I call that by the way– all this is based on beliefs. One of my beliefs is you –and it’s based on psychology including a commitment in theory, which is that our job, Ongig’s job is to attract the right talent, the candidate to look at your job page and then look at it for a while. Really sit with it and so we measure time on page. This ATS generate pages could be as little as two or three seconds, five or ten twenty seconds on a page, that candidate spends. When a candidate looks at an Ongig generated job description, they’re there for a minute and a half, two, three, four, five, six minutes, five or ten x what they had previously. That’s called well– what I say is the supports commitment theory which is that the more you commit time as a candidate and start to envision working for this company. You’re now looking at the brand, the video, maybe the pictures. You see who the recruiter is, the hiring manager admin. Might that be the person I work with, what are they like? I’ll ask them a question, now I’m waiting for an answer. That’s commitment theory. Now, they’re starting to get hooked and that’s our job, attract them, then engage them and then you guys close them. You guys, meaning the employers.
Well, I think it’s great what you’re doing and the world absolutely needs it. The more information companies today can provide and give that realistic preview of who the company is, what they stand for, the types of people that fit. The types that don’t, what the job actually looks like you know the more interactive it can be. The less noise, the more the right people can apply and the wrong ones will be repelled and that’s a good thing. I guess, just on a foot note here, my message to all the companies out there that are attached to their ATS, regardless of who it is to Rob’s point. Go visit your site, pretend you’re a candidate, and ask yourself is that a job you would apply to. Knowing what you know about the company and what’s being represented on the career page. Use that as a great litmus test.
Brian, one thing I want to underscore that you just said which is the part about repelling and some people call it self-selection. Boy if everyone listening can learn this one thing, this one marketing rule, you will crush most of your competition. That is that you’ve got to alienate the none prospects. That’s the most important rule in marketing, in my view. Which means that if you try to appeal to everyone, you’re going to appeal to no one. This is a world where there are tons of other companies that specialize in different things. You got to accept the fact that for instance, only 10% of people who come to your career site even apply and that’s okay. You don’t want the other 90%. You’ve got to really be yourself, show your uniqueness, and if you’re doing good work then you’re going to find the right candidate doing it that way. You want the bad candidates to keep on walking.
In recruiting, this is even more important than in the regular world of consumers. Which is, because you don’t want someone getting through to the interview stage and wasting your team’s time to only find out then about your purpose in values. Or what your office looks like or who your teams really like because then you’ve just wasted that extra time.
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