By Joe Procopio
Last night, a guy apologized to me for being between jobs.
It wasn’t the first time, far from it, but having spent the last too many years of my career either working at, working with, or starting a startup, I’ve been “between jobs.” I’ve had all the wrong factors conspire to bring about the worst news at the worst time and been left to ponder what the frivolity I was supposed to do next. Yeah, I’ve been there.
But dude, don’t ever apologize for being unemployed, especially in this economy and especially when you’re taking a chance on doing something potentially extraordinary.
Between a Job and a Hard Place
The reason I bring up the apology is to highlight the way Chris Heivly turned the notion of a job fair on its head on Tuesday night at the aptly-named Tech Jobs Under the Big Top event in Bay 7.
The atmosphere was exactly what you’d imagine at an event with such a preposterous name, down to the straw and peanut shells on the floor. There were hot dogs to eat, beer and soda to drink, popcorn and cotton candy, jugglers, stilt-walkers, and red-and-white fabric draped in such a way as to recall a giant tent.
It was well done and charmingly cool — an atmosphere dutifully and subtly created to derail any sort of awkwardness on the part of the job-seeker.
But then you have to remember the context.
Life In and Out of the Cube
I’ve also worked on the corporate side. And I didn’t hate it. I’ve never been one of those punks with a chip on my shoulder trying to stick it to the man by starting my own company. Clarification: I am that kind of punk, but not about work or money. I have three kids and common sense. I’ll stick it to the man by listening to loud hard rock like every other suburb kid my age.
But again, I understand how that environment can elicit an apologetic response when one is forcibly removed from it.
Turns out, the guy had spent 20+ years at what had been a solid corporation, made it through more than a few waves of cutbacks and reductions-in-force, until finally his turn came and with little more than a thanks-for-everything, he was set out to begin his new, unsolicited journey.
In the startup world. This happens all the time. Basically you get up and bust your butt every day to make sure it doesn’t happen by the time you go back to bed.
You get used to that.
So Where Do You See Us In Five Years?
Heivly also turned the tables on the process. The companies involved were all startups at various stages, and they had to pay to be a part of it and they had to bring real, full-time jobs to the table. In all, 15 startups with 85+ open positions participated.
The startups also had to pitch to the job-seekers, rather than the other way around.
Full disclosure: I was there for StatSheet, a Durham-based sports media startup. And we kicked off a series of three-minute on-stage pitches to the job-seekers, telling them who we were, what we did, what the day-to-day was like, and what we were looking for. Ours included a video, as about half of the rest did. Others brought slides. All were compelling.
James Avery from pre-funded ad-delivery product company Adzerk used the Startup Guys viral video and a swear to get a huge and poignant laugh. On the other end of the spectrum, handset-maker HTC (I know, right?) had a top-quality video presentation that underlined their… bigness.
Doug Kaufman from deeper-than-analytics company SpringMetrics used subliminal messages to get the point across. Tobi Walter from financial-organizer Shoeboxed went for the brass ring with a live video feed. And energy device-maker PlotWatt took advantage of the three minutes to make a serious and very provocative pitch.
All Your Networking In One Place
If anything could have been different, we wished for more time for general networking with the job seekers to introduce ourselves in such a relaxed atmosphere, which is probably the best way to make some of those initial fit determinations. As a rule though, we were told (and they were told) to hold off on the serious networking until the end of the pitches, as a matter of respect and to make it fair.
But there was another, maybe unexpected reason to hold off. As everyone filed in at the beginning of the evening, I noticed a general stiffness among the crowd – lots of arms crossed, lots of blank stares. And again, I get it. There were 250 people registered for the event, and another 250 on a wait list. There was a line outside the door.
This was serious business, even if it was presented as exactly the opposite.
Vertical Circus Tents
When the presentations were finished and everyone had eaten and (hopefully) had a beer to get the rest of that edge off, the startup folks were sent off to three tents – one for general business roles, one for sales and marketing roles, and one for technology roles.
We then talked one-on-one with whomever walked up and we answered any and every question they had about the company, the position, the day-to-day, anything we didn’t make crystal in a goofy 90-second video.
This was also very helpful, in terms of linking up with the people with the right skills who now had an inkling of whether there was a fit on their side. I stopped counting at 20 people, most of whom I wanted to talk to again.
But Did It Work?
I think I just answered that.
My colleagues also got a stack of resumes, business cards, and follow-up emails. Having since spoken to a few of the other startups involved, that success seems to have happened across the board.
So in the end it was an interesting experiment but one definitely built on more than a wild hypothesis. It speaks to the very nature of the startup world itself. Do things differently, disrupt, stand out, and at the end of the day you should have something very valuable.
Chris wrapped up by asking people to complete a survey, and that the results might determine whether or not there should be another one. I don’t think he needed the survey. It’s anecdotal, of course, but as things were winding down, I spotted the apology guy leaving Bay 7, smiling, and telling his buddy, “This was the most fun job fair I’ve ever been to.”
When have you ever heard that?
Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for sports media startup StatSheet. He also owns consulting firm Intrepid Company and creative network Intrepid Media and runs the startup social ExitEvent. Joe can be reached via Twitter @jproco or via joeprocopio.com.