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Recruiting: A necessary evil for founders


Last week during the Monetery event, Albert Wenger—Managing Partner of Union Square Ventures in New York—recommended CEO’s and founders spend at least a third to half of their time recruiting and hiring.

“The number one mistake first time entrepreneurs make is they under index on how many candidates they think they need to see to fill a position,” Wegener said. “If you are a first-time entrepreneur and you are hiring for any role, the likelihood that the first or second candidate will be right, or you’ll be able to judge the right candidate is very low. For some of these positions, you need to see a dozen people to really calibrate. It takes time.”

But when Andrew Kirpalani founded Des Moines-based WorkHound, his priority was solving a problem with retention issues for truck driving companies. He had no experience hiring.

“You can read any book about startups and it will say hire slow, fire fast,” Kirpalani says. “Even though you think you know what you are doing you never do it quite right.”

Recruiting and retaining new employees is always challenging, especially in 2018 when the state of Iowa has an unemployment rate below three percent. So companies and trade organizations are taking unique approaches to attract talent.

“It’s definitely a skill,” Kirpalani says. “And most startups aren’t going to have that person until you get to a size where you are bringing people on at a regular clip to make it cost-effective.

“You just have to keep getting better and figuring out what to look for.”

Offering a startup culture

WorkHound will have seven employees at the start of April and has been as big as eight. Kirpalani says there are two ways to he’s gone about hiring: Personal connections/introductions or Angel List, a national job board for people interested in working for startup companies.

“We are looking for a person who has a body of employment that shows us they can learn new things,” Kirpalani explains. “You think every company is kind of a pattern or machines, but each machine is built differently. So nobody comes in with the exact experience you need, I need to know people can learn and do new things.”

Kirpalani said WorkHound believes in the “Tour of Duty” concept and that permanent employment is dying.

“The company has to meet its goals sure but part of getting the best out of them is supporting them in their goals and what they are trying to do,” Kirpalani said. “We believe that every transaction should be mutually beneficial. We should get good value out of the employee and the employee should get good value out of their experience.”

He explained that WorkHound offers each new employee a salary that is as close to market value as can be, health insurance options and some equity into the company.

“We live by transparency, trust over rules,” Kirpalani says. “We share those values when we are recruiting them and try to live up to them. The idea is we want to be honest and if this does well you will get a cherry on the sundae.”

Incentive packages

After raising an $8 million venture round last summer, Higher Learning Technologies is actively looking to hire between 10 and 15 people this year and co-founder Adam Keune said their recruiting strategy is aided by grandparents.

He says it can be tough to hire students straight out of college because they tend to leave the state. But with Iowa’s education system and low cost of living, Higher Learning Technologies has been able to attract folks from Chicago and St. Louis to Iowa City who are starting a family.

“What we’ve found is, somebody who went to school or has family in Iowa, they moved away to a bigger city and now they are ready to start a family,” Keune says. “Some of the best recruiting aids for us is grandparents.”

He says to help, Higher Learning Technologies offers a paid gym membership and cell phone plan for all employees. And flexible with work hours.

“I want to be able to trust people and let them do their thing, versus butt in seat time,” Keune says.

Keune said he had, “Absolutely no” hiring experience when Higher Learning Technologies started and would lean on his sales and marketing experience as he interviewed for new employees.

“It was something we had to learn on the fly,” Keune says.”Instead of pitching somebody for an investment, you are pitching them on why us and why Iowa. It really does come down to finding little things to convince people that Iowa is a great place to be.”

And when Iowa is ranked as the best state in the country, it doesn’t hurt the argument.

“We are not in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do,” Keune says. That compounding effect when you get more and more of that national credibility. So people when they look us up on Google, we’ve got this great scene, real tech companies, quality of life is good. You aren’t moving here for the weather but getting people out there and being Iowa proponents is a big thing.”

Recruiting human capital

To help their member companies, the Technology Association of Iowa is working on recruiting “human capital” to Iowa.

The idea originated a few years ago between Brian Waller, President of the Technology Association of Iowa and Geoff Wood, founder of Gravitate. A website was created to allow someone who grew up in Iowa and moved away or some who worked in Iowa and moved away, to “place their pin” to share their location.

“For three years we were collecting pins in the database and hired a social media firm out of Sioux City to do some really precision marketing to get people to place their pins,” Waller explains.

Earlier this year, the Technology Association of Iowa launched the Iowan Project and partnered with Shift Interactive to update the website and mobile app.

So far, over 1,500 pins have been placed.

To utilize that data, the Technology Association of Iowa—along with representatives from the Greater Des Moines Partnership, City of West Des Moines and the Iowa Economic Development Authority—are hosting two meetups in Denver and Chicago in an effort to recruit Iowans back to Iowa.

“We wanted to focus on areas dense with Iowa expats but that was also a reasonable geographic distance that they would consider moving back,” Waller said. “Our job is to create a connection and a communication with these Iowa expats and tell that technology story. So people have a better opportunity to recruit and hire people because we’ve made enough noise about the industry here.”

Waller said they will go to Denver in May and Chicago in October. He said these recruiting trips won’t simply be giving former Iowans a shirt and have them walk away. It will be more of a cocktail hour and dinner.

“We know this global war for talent is a national problem, so it’s not unique to Iowa,” Waller says. “We know this isn’t a silver bullet but we really feel we can have a creative solution, through technology and telling our story to the people who already love this state.”

Waller said he wasn’t sure of any other state agency or entity around the country doing any recruitment of human capital.

But he says a former Iowa governor used to.

“I’ve heard—and this predates me—but Governor Vilsack during his administration used to do this on behalf of the state of Iowa where they would go visit San Francisco and meet with former Iowans,” Waller says. “The governor would tell the Iowa story.”

Recruiting: A necessary evil for founders | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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