HR tech

Skill Scout shoots reality TV to optimize recruiting

A NEW POINT OF VIEW: Skill Scout founders Elena Valentine (left) and Abby Cheesman focus their cameras on the reality of today’s jobs, to bring more aligned candidates to jobs in manufacturing and more. Video helps candidates understand job responsibilities in a visual, tangible way, Valentine says. 


CHICAGO—When scouting for talent in the digital age, it’s best to get a visual.

Skill Scout, founded by Elena Valentine and Abby Cheesman in 2014, stakes its claim in the market as the “YouTube of the workplace,” by using video to show real workplaces, and putting new opportunities in front of job seekers who may not realize how valuable their skills are.

For Valentine and Cheesman, former design researchers from Gravity Tank, the idea came from a consulting project, aiming to connect young people to employment. “It was a big challenge,” Valentine says, “with 7 million young adults not in school or in the work force. The question was, how do we connect them to meaningful pathways to employment?

“There were a few things we saw (through the project) that dramatically changed my life,” Valentine remembers. “One is that we were immersing ourselves among some of the most talented young people we’d ever met, but because their resumes didn’t look good, because they’d never left their neighborhoods, they were lacking really important exposure to jobs and careers.”

And two, she says, “We needed to collect these stories to really understand: How do we turn their needs and experiences into insight that we can actually design on?”

Skill Scout addresses the disconnect between traditional employers and a new generation of visually driven, digital-savvy potential employees.

After talking with hundreds of companies, “equally struggling to hire and retain talent, we saw that there was a system that was inherently broken in how companies and candidates miss each other,” Valentine tells FoundersWire in an interview at WeWork Kinzie.

Job descriptions don’t adequately show what the job is like. Resumes don’t nail candidates’ skills. So that was the information gap Skill Scout set out to change. The best solution was storytelling through video, Valentine says, “to really help companies communicate their jobs in a way that broadened the talent, and in turn, give candidates a way to self-screen in or self-screen out.”

“We are bringing the art of storytelling into the hiring process,” she says.

Evolving with the expectations and changing behaviors of a modern work force, the Skill Scout team wanted to prove using video to showcase jobs—what the day-to-day really looked like—would bring in more knowledgeable candidates who would be a good fit. “We captured candidates who had seen a video of a job, and they could talk about the position in a much more tangible way, so that the company was hiring faster and keeping that hire longer, because they could experience their possible position in a different way, ahead of time,” she says.

Skill Scout targeted the manufacturing industry first, because “Manufacturers have incredible stories to tell,” Valentine says. “Video lends itself well to the kind of tangibility of manufacturers, and more importantly, there is a kind of pride they take in their work. You wouldn’t believe the kind of culture that some of these manufacturers have.”

She mentions a local manufacturer that has built a state-of-the-art gym and brings in a trainer twice a week for employees. “He’s not the Google or the Facebook of the world. He’s just an amazing tool and die maker in the middle of Melrose Park, Illinois, but has been hiring and mentoring high school kids in his community for the past 15 to 20 years. Who’s telling that story?”

She finds deep satisfaction in the manufacturers’ pride. “We’d be there (shooting video) for three hours, because these guys would take us to every nook and cranny of their shop, just showcasing. That passion has kept us in the game.”

Skill Scout also has expanded beyond factory behind-the-scenes, adding visuals to job postings for other industries—but the problem they solve doesn’t change, she says.

“The challenges of hiring are universal. There’s retention, there’s the time it takes to hire, attraction, cultural fit. The true future of work is something none of us can predict because the jobs that will exist for our children aren’t even around yet,” she says. “But they will have to know how to solve problems in this overarching way.”

Employer clients can hire Skill Scout pros to shoot and produce job videos, or they can use the do-it-yourself app that puts an employer’s own workers behind the camera to show off their jobs.

Valentine says video technology is integral to Skill Scout’s growth strategy. “How candidates connect to the world of work—that is looking very different. Virtual and augmented reality are going to be the future of this.”

She says Skill Scout’s next offering is going to be an immersive, 360-degree job experience. “It’s about getting that true POV. There’s a ton of new mediums, as a result of changing generations, that are just changing how we connect to the world of work, how we learn about work. And we’re going to change how we frame it.”

No matter what disruption occurs, Valentine hopes one big change will equalize the future work force.

“I’d like to think it will no longer be about where you’ve come from and what school you’ve gone to,” she says. “It’s going to be about: Can you actually do the work?”

#workspacethoughts is an ongoing series made possible by WeWork, featuring the diverse founders building their companies in the Chicago area. WeWork provides workspaces designed for fresh ideas, organic networking and month-to-month flexibility.

Second time is better for BetterSkills founder

Entrepreneur Tanya Bakalov, above center, celebrates her 2016 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award with her fellow Boston-based winners last spring. FOUNDERSWIRE PHOTO

Female Founder of the Week (FFoW) is a celebration of the Boston-connected women who are building businesses that drive change around the world. Tanya Bakalov, serial entrepreneur and founder of BetterSkills, takes this week’s honors for taking on the multifaceted economic problem of understanding, nurturing and retaining the modern work force


BOSTON—Entrepreneurship gets easier the second time around, but only if you develop better skills, says serial founder Tanya Bakalov.

This Ernst & Young 2016 entrepreneur of the year started her journey at 23, building a company called SevOne—now one of the biggest startups to ever emerge from the Delaware ecosystem.

“Back that many years ago, ‘startup’ was almost a dirty word. Nobody did a startup, especially not women,” she says. “There was just not an ecosystem that you could tap into.”

Bakalov had come from Bulgaria at 18 to go to the University of Delaware, and graduated with a degree in accounting. “So I thought I was going to be an auditor for all of my life, a CPA. I never thought I was going to be in a startup of any kind.”

She started her career with Deloitte and was working as a consultant and an auditor for Fortune 500 companies. Her husband, also a U of Delaware graduate, was a computer scientist working for a bank when he came up with the idea for SevOne. It wasn’t long before he convinced her to come on board as the salesperson.

“I said, I don’t know anything, I’ve never sold anything in my life. I’m an auditor,” she says, laughing. “But I took the plunge and both of us were like, ‘Well, it’s eat what you kill.’

“You have to make the first sale, you have to make everything happen,” she says. “Little by little, we started getting a few clients, to the point where we started going and pitching to VCs.”

The fund-raising process was not easy, Bakalov remembers, for two young, newlywed entrepreneurs with no experience and no network. “They didn’t take us seriously, even when we had the clients, not at all—because we were young, and married, and immigrants … citizens, but immigrants. They were worried about, ‘Well, are these two people going to survive? If we put our money into this, what’s going to happen?’”

It took time, she says, but they finally got their first funding from Osage Venture Partners, based out of Philadelphia. Over the next 10 years, SevOne went from zero to $90 million in revenue, sold $400 million worth of software to customers all over the world, and expanded the company to more than 500 people.

“I think we’ve been on Inc. 500 as a fastest growth company for five or six years in a row,” she says.

Then the couple sold the majority of the company to Bain Capital here in Boston, where there is still a significant presence, she says.

But something fascinating happened on the way to $90 million in revenue: Bakalov got another idea.

“The idea for BetterSkills was really a combination of a few things I saw, first at Deloitte. You start there right out of college, and it’s an incredible amount of learning that you have to do. You’re surrounded by mentorship, surrounded with different kinds of companies that you serve, and work with different teams,” she says. “You have to have experience in a lot of different areas to be good at what you do.”

Compare that with a traditional company that functions in departments and silos. Bakalov says work can be tracked, but only using many disparate systems.

“So if I’m tracking my training myself, no one else knew what kind of classes I took. My co-workers didn’t know if or when I passed my CPA, didn’t know how many courses I went through, didn’t know who my mentor was, they didn’t know what projects I was doing,” she explains.

“So it was harder for the next project: How would the manager know who you are and what you’re actually doing to grow yourself? How are you going to be competent, how are you going to grow into a senior consultant, manager, senior manager?”

She mapped it all out, and then considered the data that arose from SevOne’s growth. Starting around what she calls the “magic number” of 100 employees and a second office, “all communication and everything that you had known about the people that you worked with went away. So now you’re relying on other people to come in and do those interviews for you and hire the next person.”

The candidate who comes in will be interviewed by three or four people, Bakalov says, “and then at that point, their resume gets chucked in the trash can. The person starts in two weeks, and nobody knows who this person is. How awkward is that? And they know nothing about the people who work around them. Where did they work before? Maybe I went to school with somebody. Or maybe I have common interests. Is there a way I can see that?”

Or maybe you need an employee with a particular skill, like the ability to use a new software that didn’t exist three years ago. “It’s much more important to expose workers to the right set of skills,” Bakalov says. “We don’t want to just put them all in a room and say, “OK, now teach my hundred developers Java.” Maybe half of the people are already experts in Java. Where’s the information about that? Now I’m wasting their time putting them into training they don’t need, and they’re bored, they’re not learning anything. And I’m wasting my money.”

BetterSkills, fresh off a $1 million seed round backed by Bain, is a talent development and analytics platform that solves the problem of how to really know and nurture a company’s work force. It is in beta with a number of clients, slated to launch fully in spring. “What happens after two years is you stagnate, they don’t promote you or they don’t give you a clear path where you really want to go, and so you just leap to another company,” Bakalov says. “You say, ‘They’re not invested in me, so I’m not invested in them.’ But managers don’t have access to the information they need.

“That’s what I’m doing: bringing together the whole of information about an employee, to help people know who’s working for them, and so HR can be a partner in that,” she says.

When the process succeeds, Bakalov says, teams work cohesively, job frustration levels go down, retention levels go up. “And that’s what companies like to see. By making this available through BetterSkills, it’s going to transform work cultures,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, what type of industry you are in, you are paying for people,” she says. “If you think you can get those people to be engaged, to really feel what you are doing, to feel like they’re part of the team and the company cares about them, they will give back much more.”

Having already built a successful company, Bakalov says there still aren’t any short cuts. “Because of all of the years of experience and having access to capital, I’ve shaved two to three years off what SevOne had to go through in its initial stages. Things do happen faster.

“I think it’s just knowing what’s going to happen next, or knowing what are the things I need to do,” she says. The second time around, she just knows better.

Startup fail: when student debt collides with funding


With entrepreneurship on the rise and the cost of launching a company the lowest in history, there are only a few barriers to entry left.

But one factor is becoming a substantial and ever-increasing hurdle: Student debt.

“This is a systemic issue,” says Laurel Taylor, founder of Future Fuel, a platform connecting job-seekers with employers willing to contribute to lowering employees’ student loan debt. With millennials poised to become the majority in the American work force by the end of the decade, their plans are driven by pain rather than purpose. “These people are living it, if you’re 25 and up you have an acute awareness of the problem. It’s in direct correlation with the pain they’re feeling.”

That pain comes in the form of paying an average monthly bill of $400 when student loan payments come due after graduation. It also counts cost in graduates’ ability to choose a future—including entrepreneurship.

“It’s a loss of freedom,” Taylor says. “If you’re coming out of school with student loans, you don’t really have the luxury to pursue entrepreneurship. If your peers are graduating without debt, they have the luxury of choice. Those graduating without debt are in a terrific position to take chances and follow their passion.”

One of the hallmarks of early-stage startup life is accepting a loss of income, to invest in what you’re building. “If you have student loans, entrepreneurship is a very unlikely path until you can get into a situation economically where you have more flexibility,” Taylor, who recently spoke at the White House about the student debt crisis, says.

American students are saddled with more loans than ever, signaling disruption in higher education—one that already has a significant impact on the innovation economy. Currently drawing $1.3 trillion in collective debt among 44 million borrowers and counting, school loans are dangerous business—and no longer necessarily a requirement, according to Todd Weaver, Strategies for College.

“I’m always saying, this isn’t about getting in (to college), it’s about getting out. (The debt) is something they’re not even thinking about. The teenage mind hasn’t fully developed until age 25, 26, so the students I work with, even a week ahead is too far away. For them to consider outcomes (after college) is beyond their scope, but it’s terribly important for them to think about.”

He says he sees parents allowing students to choose schools at 5x the cost, simply because they’re afraid to say no, despite the future financial risk. “There’s this mind-set in society, particularly in Greater Boston, to push our students to go to four-year colleges. (They think) If I don’t go, am I going to miss out? Is my child going to miss out?,” Weaver says.

“But they have to think, how much better off are they going to be if they start putting away money at the age of 22? They’re going to be significantly better off than if they wait,” he says.

A remarkable rise in entrepreneurship has occurred at the university level, with thousands of schools offering concentrations through their business programs and incubators. There are even nonprofits such as the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship introducing startup principles to middle school and high school students from under-resourced school districts as a means of increasing graduation rates.

Students come out of school believing startup life is a viable career choice—“but let’s be honest, entrepreneurship is a privilege,” says Taylor.

So what happens when student loans collide with the already-challenging fund-raising process?

The student loan paradigm is based on making an investment in the future, says Jane Mason, managing director at Novus Capital Group. “But being in that kind of debt means you don’t have the freedom of options. You can’t go start a business with loan payments unless you have parents or some sort of angel (to support you).”

It’s not easy, Mason says, and the funding process sometimes comes down to confidence and how far founders are willing to go. “That’s what sorts out who’s going to make it from who just thinks this is a sexy concept,” Mason says.

She notes that investors in a startup are not contributing personal income to the founder—only investing in the business. “No one is going to give you money to pay your personal bills to go start a company. Investors are contributing capital to the business, not you personally. It really does limit your options,” Mason says.

Even approaching a bank for a line of credit becomes less realistic with the specter of student loans in the picture.

“I have sat down with people looking for loans, and I said, ‘I’m going to hurt you more than I can help you if I say yes right now,’ ” Mason says. “They needed to bootstrap. If you’re going for a traditional loan, it is a mark against you because what’s your capacity if the business fails? You’re already overextended.”

According to Kaufman Foundation research, in each month of 2015, more than 550,000 adults across the country became new-business owners. The rate of white founders starting new businesses dropped 16.4 percent, from 77.1 percent in 1996 to 60.7 percent from 1996 to 2015, while black entrepreneurship increased by .5 percent and Latino business-building increased by an impressive 10.8 percent in the same time frame.

Compare that with the estimated 20.5 million students ages 18-25 who were enrolled in U.S. universities in 2016. Of those, 55 percent were women. And one-third were first-generation attendees, a disproportionate number of whom were Hispanic and African-American, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Although men and women take out student loans in similar proportion, the gender pay gap makes repayment significantly more difficult for women, who are statistically more likely to earn a lower salary and may pay 8 percent or more of their total income toward debt. This also hits minorities—especially female minorities who make even less in salary than their caucasian counterparts—particularly hard, translating into a lack of disposable income, especially in the early earning years, which has been shown to drive entrepreneurship and support travel, property ownership and other markers of financial security. Add in the fact that only 2 percent to 6 percent of female-founded companies earn VC funding and you create an oblique line to startup monoculture.

“The design of Future Fuel is to empower users to get out of debt in three to five years, rather than right now, where the average time to get out of debt is 17 to 20 years,” Taylor says. This means entrepreneurship returns as possibility for all, rather than counting out of the innovation economy the 70 percent of the population that graduates with debt.

“The direct implication there is that student debt does limit our ability to innovate. Being able to build a business and create jobs—that is the American Dream,” Taylor says. “There are huge implications for this kind of debt. That’s why we need to talk about it.”