Allan Grant is lucky that Matt Mickiewicz is a convivial dude.
It was more than two years ago at a conference of start-up founders and investors when Grant walked up to Mickiewicz, the founder of crowdsourced-graphic-design site 99designs, and said, "Hey, I'm the guy who hacked 99Designs. You banned me from your site."
No punches were thrown. No backs turned. As Grant explains, Mickiewicz's response was a smile, a handshake, and an apology. "That was a cool growth hack," he said. "I'm sorry we had to ban you."
Conversation flowed easily for the pair. They had plenty in common. Combined, they'd started six companies, and had been doing so from young ages (today both are 30 years old). They stayed in touch, and within a year, they met up at a pub and curry house in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood for a drink with Douglas Feirstein, another serial entrepreneur.
There, they drew out a variation of Grant's hack and molded it into an idea they now believe could shake up the tech-talent recruitment world and shape the future of job search.
The Hack That Started It All
During college, Grant founded a web-development company called Webmasters. He admired Mickiewicz's innovative company 99designs, for which Mickiewicz was named to Inc.'s 2011 30 Under 30 list of entrepreneurs.
Using 99designs usually entails uploading a design brief for what you're seeking, be it a new business-card design or a social-media page background. The seeker sets a price, and opens up the work to a community of designers, who can submit their work, hoping to be selected and paid. Grant decided to, well, optimize his experience using the 99designs community to create a logo for a new project.
"I thought maybe I could get better designers to participate in my contests if I could message the best designers and invite them to my contest directly," Grant says.
He explains that he wrote a scraper code to extract information on individual designers in the 99designs community and ran an algorithm to determine which designers had won the greatest percentage of contests they'd participated in, to find the most desirable designers. Using a messaging system and the scraper, he mass-messaged the best designers saying he loved their work and would like them to participate in his contest. It worked.
"As soon as my contest would go live, I'd have hundreds of fantastic designs, despite that the price wasn't as high as other contests," Grant says.
This isn't what got him banned. "I crossed the line afterward," Grant says.
As Mickiewicz tells it, later, he discovered that Grant had also used his scrape to extract email addresses for 99designs participants and send them promotional information about the new company he was working on, an e-commerce social-referral start-up called Curebit.
"I think we first discovered what he'd done when he had sent 10,000 emails to our designers," Mickiewicz says. Grant was on Mickiewicz's radar, certainly, but he was also promptly banned from his website.
Fast forward to April of last year, over drinks at Kennedy's, the North Beach Irish pub.
They began talking about the biggest problem on their minds, hiring technical talent. Grant had just returned from a developer conference, where he struck out at finding new hires for Curebit. "We were talking about how the best people don't even respond to emails, because developers are approached so often and in the wrong ways. So we started to think: How do we get the best people to respond?"
Feirstein, best known for founding uSell.com, a technology-resale site, and LiveOps.com, a crowdsourced call-center company, had built a community of 20,000 independent agents into a massive "at home" call-center. He certainly knew something about communications and large-scale human resources. Mickiewicz had mastered online auctions. Grant knew how to appeal to developers.
An idea took shape around listing not jobs online, but listing the extraordinarily in-demand talent themselves--putting individual developers up for auction. That way, the three decided, each rock-star programmer would be presented with specific employment offers, and counter-offers, and be able to make decisions about what they wanted to pursue before jumping through the hoops being contacted by a recruiting firm sometimes entails.
"We started to imagine what the uSell.com headlines would say: 'Facebook Engineers Put Themselves Up For Auction,' or 'Google Engineers Sells to the Highest Bidder,'" Grant says. "We decided that we could build this in a weekend."
It actually took roughly three weekends over the course of a few months for Feirstein, Grant, and Mickiewicz to build the site DeveloperAuction.com, which they recently rechristened as Hired.com. Far more time went into courting the first developers to list themselves on the site.
The scrape-plus-mass-email strategy wouldn't work this time. Instead, the company wrote individual notes by hand to the top developers at Facebook and Google imploring them to sign up. Those who did have been sent black-car services for transportation to interviews, gifts for any weddings or births that happened in their families along the way, and, should a job offer be accepted, a bottle of Dom Perignon.
"We really try to make it an experiential offering rather then the kind of date-and-run model that has infiltrated the industry over the past 60 years," Mickiewicz says.
'Holy Crap. This Is a Business'
By December of last year, the site had more than $30 million in job offers on the site. "That's when we said, 'Holy crap. This is a business,'" Grant says.
Today, Hired itself employs 27 people, has set up more than $700 million in job offers, and the founders say the company is profitable. Earlier this year, it raised $2.7 million in venture funding from Crosslink Capital, Google Ventures, NEA, Sherpa Ventures, SoftTech, and Step Partners. Companies hiring tech talent on the site include Yahoo, Pinterest, eBay, and Twitter, and nearly 600 others.
The model differs from that of traditional recruitment agencies not only in form. It also changes the cost structure for employers as they hire: They have the option of either paying Hired 15 percent of the new hire's first-year salary, or paying a "placement" cost of 1 percent of the hire's annual salary per month, for up to 24 months.
Mickiewicz says the placement option is different from other recruiting services, because it accounts for potential turnover, rather than fleeing from it. "Importantly for a fast-growing company, if they're hiring, say, five people in a single month, they could save $100,000 plus in invoices and recruitment fees under the traditional model," he says.
"It's definitely been the fastest-growing business I've ever been involved with," Mickiewicz says. And that's saying something.