There’s a revolution underway. Deep within the Auckland Viaduct lurks the beginnings of our own tiny Silicon Valley. At GridAKL, more than 50 startups, in industries as diverse as medicine, robotics and augmented reality, are running the entrepreneurial gauntlet looking to build a high-growth business – or at least a get a second funding round.
In On the Grid, a sponsored series with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), we tell their stories. In this, the third instalment, recruitment revolutionaries Weirdly.
If your average CV is anything to go by, New Zealand is a nation of team players with great time management, a good work ethic, a willingness to learn and an optimistic, self-reliant attitude. Just like everywhere else on Earth. Because aside from a list of qualifications, what else does a CV really tell an employer? That their potential employee owns a thesaurus, and knows synonyms for “good”? What about their values, their ambitions, the reason they want a job or the direction they’re heading in life? Enter Weirdly.
Weirdly is a piece of HR tech which puts culture and value alignment at the beginning of the recruitment process, rather than at the end. Through a series of bespoke questionnaires, Weirdly filters employees by purpose and alignment, rather than simply qualifications. Thus employers find staff who actually want to be at work, who are happy and fulfilled. The end result: more profits, happier workplaces and better retention of every companies most valuable asset – good people.
Or at least that’s co-founder Dale Clareburt’s theory, and with two decades of traditional recruitment experience, as well as a burgeoning portfolio of Weirdly clients, including Jucy Rentals and Air New Zealand, it’s a theory founded in practical success.
The Spinoff: The recruitment process is nothing new – people have been getting jobs for a long time. How did you identify an opening in the market for your product?
Dale Clareburt: I have 20 years in traditional recruitment, particularly in agency recruitment. What myself and the founder team found when we looked at it was that the whole recruitment process is broken. As it stands, a candidate applies for a job and the organisation looks at their CV, then puts them through this really rigorous process before they know anything about the employee. They haven’t spoken to them, they don’t know if they want the job, they don’t know if all the criteria has been met. They use that data to start screening. What we realised is that’s the problem: the process is broken. It’s dumb and it hasn’t been changed in 25 years, or 50 years or whatever.
A lot of the businesses that we were working with were telling us that getting the right person is really important, that getting the right culture fit is as important, if not more important, than the skills and experience. They would tell us “we would rather have someone who only had about 60% of the skills and experience but was 100% a culture fit than the other way around,” because it destroys their business, it destroys their team, it reduces productivity and it’s not fun.
Was that something that you were moving towards in your role in traditional recruitment as well, were you trying to offer a boutique experience?
I worked for a large recruitment agency that’s quite traditional, and then I started up my own. It’s only small, and I still have it today – I want to be really cautious of using ‘I’ all the time, because there is a team of us at Weirdly – but my background is in that area.
I was working with small New Zealand businesses, and the reason I left the big business was because I was finding that it was all about market share and margin and driving down costs. But the lower the cost, the harder it is to deliver a really good quality service and so the personality and the customisable approach just disappears. I removed myself from that, went into businesses and learned all about them. I would immerse myself in there, hang out with them, find out what the culture means, and ask questions of a cross-section of people. You know, don’t just ask the hiring manager, don’t just ask the recruiter, ask the people who are in those roles. I was doing this process naturally.
The first customer we ever had was Jucy Rentals. Tim Alpe said “why can you fit people to my business, when sometimes I get it wrong?” I said “I’ve been doing this forever, like 20 years, and I know how to match people.” Because I ask them these kinds of questions, ones that aren’t related to the job. I can assess someone’s skill level and experience really rapidly, but finding out who they really are – getting them to take their interview uniform off and to be their true and authentic self, which is ultimately what all these organisations want – takes different kinds of questions.
It’s funny you say that, because I find with interviewing in a journalistic capacity, you have to get past these initial media prepared statements, particularly with athletes and people that are primed for interviewing, and then you get the actual person. The traditional recruitment process doesn’t cater to that at all. Nobody is more guarded than someone in a job interview.
Writing a CV, and we forget this as recruiters, is a black hole of time. You pay someone $500-$1000 to write your CV, it looks the same as everyone else, and they just all say the same stuff. There’s nothing that makes you pop out, and we don’t give people the opportunity to do that because we keep asking the same stuff. Weirdly changes that.
How did you initially design your questionnaire?
Businesses were telling us there was this problem in recruitment and I was solving it in a manual way with my experience. I was thinking “How can we get that experience into something that’s a product?”. I met these really great people, two of the other founders, at a digital innovation agency [and they] didn’t know anything about recruitment. And so, having that objectivity and that way of looking at the problem, they were able to solve it and turn it into a product. We worked with survey experts, got information on how best to ask questions, how many questions were on every page and that kind of stuff, but equally we used my experience and started there. Since then we’ve developed data science and got organisations’ psychologists involved, but we started with that 20 years of experience and knowing the right answers.
The questions that you ask aren’t traditional recruitment questions. Were you taking input from fields like psychology and so on?
That and experience. You would have heard over the years about companies like Google that ask some quite crazy questions, and those questions are things like ‘Why is an orange orange?” or “How many golf balls are sold in the state of Arizona?” The thing is not what the right answer is, but how they come to that answer and what their thought process is and what their reaction is to being asked that question. Not all those organisations use those sort of questions, ours are a bit different to that, but there is experience involved.
And mainly it’s volume. I’ve interviewed tens and tens of thousands of people and I’ve learned what works. I’ve learned how to ask questions to get people to be themselves.
How many iterations did you go through before you decided on a formula that was the most efficient?
We do bespoke questionnaires, so we have a subset that has been tested. We’ve got about 75 questions that have been tested, that are around key attributes that people can use off the shelf, but by far and above that we go into organisations and create bespoke ones. We do that by finding out what their values are, what those values look like as behaviours – what does good look like? – so what we’re looking for when we create these questions is that we want people to really show us their uniqueness.
A lot of people have similar values. They use the same words, like “don’t be a dick” or “honesty” or “courage” but what that feels like, and what they mean by that, is different in every organisation. That’s why we’re called Weirdly, because we’re about finding that weirdness and matching it with somebody else’s.
So we go through that process, workshop it, and from there we’re able to develop questions.
How do you teach yourself to ask better questions? People might use the same words but the feeling is different, their values don’t align exactly.
The reason they pay us to do this service for them is that they recognise that they have a challenge that they are wanting to solve, or a culture value they want to emphasise, or they want to compete in the talent shortage market that’s out there, and they’re looking for a product to help them do that. Our product is a competitive advantage.
What challenges did you face in convincing businesses to utilise your product rather than a traditional recruitment company?
Our challenges were that we were additional to the process originally. We weren’t replacing it, so if they had a budget, this was additional to that. If they had a process that was taking them this much time, we were adding a little bit initially. Then what happens over time is that we then save them time and money in other areas. If you spend a little more time and effort at the front end, you save all this time later. You get better retention rates, you get people who get up to speed and fit into your business faster so you get increased productivity. Once we had those case studies we were able to use that to sell and get us past those challenges.
It seems as though it’s a service perfect for a smaller startup where culture is so essential. Did you find it more difficult to convince larger clients like Air New Zealand, who employ thousands of people, and already have these giant cogs in motion?
What’s been really interesting is that we’ve ended up pivoting. We love working with SMEs and startups – it’s really fun, you can see our business effecting change a lot faster. With Air New Zealand and companies like them, it’s just a longer sales process. They understand the need, and their reasons aren’t just about getting the right culture in, although that’s one of them, but it’s about improving the candidate experience. A company like them attracts thousands of CVs a year, and it’s a desirable brand and it’s high performance, so what we need to help them to do is to make sure that the people they’re getting in are aligned with their values. They know that they need to do that, and it’s just about fitting into their sales cycle. That’s been the difference. What we’ve found with SMEs and startups if that they often don’t actually have the money.
Female founders and CEOs in the start-up space are are much more rare than male. Does being a woman inform the way you conduct your business, marketing or strategy?
Half of our four founders are women, and recruitment and HR is a female-dominated industry. That’s what my background was, and only since I’ve started in the tech space have I realised that it’s actually the complete opposite. From a marketing perspective, there have been a lot of advantages because there’s a push for diversity in New Zealand, as well as countries all around the world, wanting to increase the number of women in top positions. In specific industries like tech we’ve got an advantage because of that.
But as far as our marketing and so on, I don’t know. Initially I hadn’t felt what it’s like to be a minority in an environment or industry, I’d always been on the other side. In the last few years, and especially the last six months, it’s become more and more evident to me as we continue to grow and get into bigger circles and into a bigger ecosystem that I realise that we are unusual in the way that we’re set up. There are a lot of investment, VC’s and investors, that are particularly wanting to invest in companies with female founders. The timing has been really good for us to leverage that.
Aside from ticking diversity boxes, are there advantages that you bring to the table in terms of organisational ability?
I don’t know, is that saying that men and women have different skill sets?
Not necessarily, but maybe experiences you’ve had in your previous line of work has informed the way you conduct yourself.
Yea, I don’t know if that’s just because I’m a female though. I used to be the COO for a large recruitment agency in New Zealand, and all the skills and experience I’ve had in that space certainly helps me. Also I’m considered mature to be in a start-up; my team is not quite as old as I am. But it has really helped with credibility. When you go into meetings and large corporate organisations, it’s really beneficial to come in with the kind of experience I’ve had running businesses. I can feel their pain because I’ve had it, and I think that sometimes startups find that if they haven’t had that experience or depth of experience it can be hard to go in and sell to other businesses.
The word “startup” typically connotes a young dude in Chuck Taylors in a basement. Do you find an advantage in subverting that stereotype?
I do. I do. The only time when I feel like I don’t… that we stand out a little in that respect, is when I’m in the ecosystem, when I’m attending events with other startups and entrepreneurs. But I think New Zealand is lucky. I’ve gone all over the world travelling as a startup and New Zealand interestingly enough has quite a mature startup age here. But really I don’t think about it that much.
Speaking of the environment, how has utilising a space like GridAKL informed the direction you’ve taken? Has it impacted the product, your marketing, sales strategies?
It’s impacted heaps. The reason we came into this environment is that when you’re starting on your own it’s… we were in this other office which was with one other business, and it was very quiet. We’re a startup, so we need to be doing everything, growing rapidly in every way. We need to develop, immediately, a sales department, a marketing department, a product department, customer service. It’s not like you can do one thing and grow from there. You need to be in an environment that can support that.
Plus for me, I’m a sales person, an extreme extrovert. I speak and I need to get all my energy from that. Sitting in an environment with just developers wasn’t working for me.
I can’t imagine why.
They were just like “oh my god, you’re messing with my flow!’”But then we came in here, and what happens when you’re in a startup is that you’re learning everything. You’ve never done any of it before. You think you have, but you haven’t. So being immersed in an environment like this, where people are either just ahead or just behind you, or experiencing exactly the same phase of business that you’re in is so valuable. That’s what this environment has offered us. To be fair, we’re incredibly collaborative and we look for help, but we also give help. And that’s why I talk about the people behind us. We can also help and give them advice. It’s crazy when you think, you’ve been doing this for two and a half years and you have enough knowledge to help someone who’s only a year in. And then you’ve got people who are just a year ahead of you and they’ve made mistakes or have tips that can help you go that much faster. In an environment on your own, you don’t have any of that.
How does that effect your attitude in regards to coming into work?
When I used to work at a recruitment agency we all had to wear suits, and we all had to carry clipboards, and it’s just a joke. I was very successful and I was very lucky, but we would be walking up and down Queen Street like storm troopers, with our heels and we all had to dress up and all of that, and that was hard. You come in to this environment, and some people wear suits because they’re meeting a client, but some people are wearing caps, some people are wearing jandals Some people don’t even wear shoes. There’s life and dogs and we’ve got all sorts of gear. It’s happening, and it feels like an ecosystem as opposed to one business with one culture and one set of values.
That’s advantageous in the sense that your product also fits into an ecosystem.
It does. There are lots of people here who could even be potential customers of ours. BizDojo are a customer, for example. You get to be in an ecosystem and a community where they can give you feedback and you can do something about that. The barrier you can get between a customer and myself is removed, because we’re sitting right next to each other. They can say “oh this didn’t work, you can tweak your product this way,” and that feedback is really great. We’ve had a number of people use those services.
Where do you see Weirdly two and a half years from now?
We’ll be in at least two different markets – we’re in the process of pushing into the States, we started in January. The intention is that I’ll be transferring there next year. We’re in a raise right now, trying to raise money in New Zealand, which is super challenging.
There’s not a lot of it here, right?
I think there is a lot of money here. It’s just the attitude towards that money, but if you can find the right people there’s some magic money here. But finding those people is super, super hard. The understanding of angel investment in New Zealand is not the same as overseas. You need to take more risks, and as a result of that, there’s a little bit of lost opportunity and people like us have to look to get money overseas, and that means that growth and opportunity is going to happen outside of New Zealand.
But in two and half years we’ll be in the States and one other market. Australia we’re bypassing because it’s been slow – there’s slow decision making and it’s quite late to adopt new technology – but we’ve got some big stuff. It’ll probably be Europe, the UK. Everyone is talking to us about Asia but our obvious problem there is language. We’re going for English-speaking countries first.
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How has your own hiring process changed?
We absolutely use our product to do all of our recruitment. We had so much fun creating our own quiz, and that’s the wonderful thing about it. We can say we’re using it, and of course we are, I hope everyone uses their own tools, but the thing is that it’s actually made a difference. It’s actually been really cool for people who don’t have a recruitment background to learn about what the impact, what the value is of our own product.
The product is a cooler way of doing something that I used to do manually. It’s taken quite a few steps further. We had our product manager, our product founder, he looked back at some of the questions [one of our] employees had answered, and it makes so much sense to him now. That employee is actually like the way his quiz indicated he is.
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The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.