Interview: Phil Blaydes @ Talentful

How did Talentful get started?

We started in mid 2015. Chris and I had both worked in agencies as well as in house (Phil at Mind Candy, Forward 3D and Thought Machine; Chris at Shazam and Audible). We were both contractors on day rates, but still delivering value compared to agencies working on placement fees. We asked ourselves: why is no one doing this as a business?

It wasn’t long before we started a relationship with Balderton Capital, who introduced us to our first deep learning client, and started a twelve month engagement with Zopa. Now we’re only two and a half years in, but we’ve served 102 clients and grown to a team of 40.

How did you grow headcount so fast?

We’ve hired almost everyone directly - we practice what we preach. We hired our own internal recruiter when we got to 15 people, and have been very lucky to attract so many people from personal networks. Now that Sophie Amato has joined as Senior People and Culture Manager, we’re increasingly values led in our own hiring. That said, we look for values add, not values fit, so personality wise there’s a lot of variety.

What are your values?

Focus, Grit, Partner, Action and Candour. We worked with Kim Stringer to do pulse sessions and tried to include as many people as possible, as we were very conscious not to have a top down approach. We wanted to codify the values we already had, rather than come up with something new. There were differences in opinion, but it wasn’t too hard to boil down to these five values. We’ve tried to stay humble as founders, and we work with a number of external advisors to support us - in addition to Kim, we have an executive coach - Viv Taylor, and Kevin Blair (VP Global Talent at IBM) as a mentor/non-exec.

Who gets coached?

Everyone that has a management role has a coach. Most recruitment companies just give their top biller a management role, without giving people the training and support. We want to make sure that we support people as they take on more responsibility, so managers get a two hour coaching session each month.

We’re actually spending 2-3% of revenue on coaching and developing people. It’s a significant investment, of course, but we’ve doubled productivity - in terms of number of hires made, per person, for clients - over the past 12 months. So there's huge value to clients as well as our employees.

What else are you doing to develop people?

We have the Talentful Academy, which every new joiner goes through to ensure complete standardisation of knowledge across the business. This is predominantly delivered by Sophie, but lots of people across the business share their specialist knowledge. This helps to form networks across the company and is great for the tutors’ personal development.

Everyone thinking about a management role in the business goes through the Talentful Management Academy. There are nine modules in total, covering everything from difficult conversations to understanding and motivating their team. So people get a mix of classroom training and coaching as they move up the organisation.

We also do a lot of “micro training” - individuals take responsibility for putting together modules on a fairly informal basis. They’ll just send out a message on Slack about the session they are running, and anyone interested can join.

Finally, we have weekly lunch and learns, which everyone is obligated to do at some point. These could be on anything: a challenge overcome, an issue with a client, or something we’ve learned from our clients - recently we had one on the anti-capitalist culture of the multi-billion dollar, Riot Games.

What are the main talent issues you see startups having?

We’re starting to see a trend away from people valuing share options highly. People are starting to recognise the chance of a big payout is small, and don’t want to take the risk and a lower salary for that. Larger companies are also starting to catch up - they are working on interesting tech stacks and big problems.

You need to have a very good interview process as a startup to counteract that, and really sell the opportunity. This has to be a 50:50 process where the candidate is sold as much as assessed - the interview process itself is the best way for candidates to assess what the company is like and whether it’s well run. All too often we see startups with unrealistic expectations about how much people are willing to work, and how devoted they are to someone else’s vision.

Ultimately, if you’re growing fast then you need someone senior who is championing the recruiting process. It’s very, very simple. There’s a massive variation in time to hiring across the industry, and whilst employer branding makes a slight difference, it’s no substitute for someone at the top making sure recruitment gets the attention it needs. This has to be the focus of the whole company - making time in people’s diaries, ensuring there’s good feedback, and generally running a tight process.

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