2013 - 2017
Wirkn came across my desk while I was leading the mobile project team at Kinetic Cafe. The founder, Francois Jobin (former head of HR at Aldo Group) had come to Kinetic looking for a team who could bring his vision to life. That vision being, to transcend the current recruitment landscape from its current archaic state into a marketplace for consumers of work. Francois wanted to create the next generation's Pass-to-work -- side note, the original name of Wirkn was actually Passwork.
As with any new product intake at Kinetic, our team sat down with Wirkn's founders to provide product insight and define the project deliverables. In these sessions, Kinetic had a habit of pushing the limits for feature scope to ensure they closed the contract and client. Regularly it became my responsibility to figure out how to build these over-scoped projects in a timeframe that rarely made sense. But that's consulting -- Right?!
Francois vision was a big one, but at its core, it was most important to him that Wirkn be a mobile first platform. As he put it, "we were serving the mobile generation". 🚀
Because Wirkn was geared to be a recruitment marketplace, the app needed to support features for both hiring managers and job seekers (candidates). To accomplish this we ended up architecting the project such that any code unique to either the candidate or manager experience was abstracted into a separate folder structure which inherited from the universal code at the root of the project. Some of the unique elements include colours, assets and any functionality that was specific to either candidate or manager users.
Okay, so enough of the boring stuff -- you're wondering how many features we decided to ram into this sucker. IMO, too many features, but at the time, my opinion was exactly that; my own opinion. In this scenario, I was a consultant, I provided my recommendation to keep the feature set light, but I wasn't the one making the final decision.
The MVP version of Wirkn (which I fondly referred to as Frankenstein’s monster) provided a "rich" feature set to say the least. I've broken it down into the hiring manager and candidates experiences below.
We pushed this early beta version to the AppStore in Nov. 2014 and to the delight of the founders it amassed 100,000+ downloads and ~30,000 accounts over the course of that year. We continued making refinements as the year moved forward, but gaining traction proved challenging as answering the questions "what exactly does Wirkn do" was next to impossible...
Regardless, not a bad first crack at the can, but at this point it was clear there was a great deal of refinement and distillation needed if Wirkn was going to make it into the big leagues of HR tech.
So, what did I take away from year one?
Building native mobile applications is expensive & slow.
If you try to jam too many features into an app, especially one that is just emerging on the market, people might get excited at first but simply won't take the time to learn how to use it.
If you build it, they may come, but if the values not there, they won't stick around.
A mobile app should be like a really good TV controller. It should do one thing really well, it should highlight the most important feature(s) and it shouldn't try to be to many things at the same time.
Wirkn was at a pivotal moment. The founding team had spent their existing capital deriving a beta version of the product and in the process had learned a plethora of critical lessons. Lessons about what it takes to start a startup, what goes into creating a mobile app, how to work with a remote team and more. After the end of the first year many startup founders face the same tough question, should you call it quits, or do you get legitimate quick and raise your first round -- Wirkn decided on the latter.
With the help of Kinetic's existing relationships, the team reached out to Derek Szeto, former CEO of Red Flag Deals (RFD), and offered him the opportunity to take on the role of CEO. Not only was Derek a seasoned CEO, he was also walking away from a recent acquisition of RFD by Yellow Pages Group. Derek brought credibility to the Wirkn team and experience in building startups. In addition to Derek, Wirkn brought on a COO, a VP Engineering and hired its own internal development team. With the new team on board, Wirkn was able to raise $1,400,000 in an initial seed round and was ready to move forward.
Wirkn and Kinetic had worked out a fairly deep, equity based relationship that went beyond a simple consulting gig. As Wirkn was making this transition, I found myself being offered the opportunity to leave Kinetic and lead the product team at Wirkn. It was decision time... I was invested in the product and the team and Wirkn was in the process of becoming a self sustaining entity that wouldn't need the assistance of Kinetic Cafe any longer. I should note that Wirkn wasn't the only project I was invested in at Kinetic. I was also driving project teams for a handful of other up and coming platforms which you can read about here (see. SpaTime, Alfred, Flight Network & Wallettwist).
In the end, while I was humbled by the offer, I decided that Kinetic Cafe was the better fit for me at the time. I waved goodbye to Wirkn and moved my focus back onto my other projects.
Time out, hold up -- Is this where our story ends? Well, while part of me wishes it was, no, this was not the end...
I continued to support the team as they transitioned, but I had made the decision to remain in the consulting world with Kinetic. Getting back to work on short term projects was nice, but I wasn't able to really get into "the zone" with any of them. I went about working this way for about three months until one day, I received an in-person visit from Anthony Chan the current COO at Wirkn.
Anthony took me out for lunch that day and explained that since I'd walked away from the product, things were at a bit of a stalemate. The team had spent a substantial share of its raise on the new team and on online advertisements to promote the product, but hadn't gained ground. I'll should note here that there were two main reasons I’d walked away from the product:
I wasn't satisfied with the result of the past years engineering efforts. The founding team had, against my recommendation, decided on saving costs by farming out much of the product development to an external, overseas consultant. I did not feel confident in Wirkn's scalability.
I felt the founders had bitten off more than it could manage from a feature perspective; Wirkn was trying to do too much. Despite a strong design and UX pattern, the feature set remained overwhelming. Users didn’t understand the value of the product and for Wirkn to be able to sustainably grow, it needed to first hone in on one core competency, make that thing awesome and drop the rest of the feature set (until it made sense to bring them back).
One thing lead to another and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in a room with the founding team discussing how we would rewrite the product and simplify the feature set. We concluded we would focus on small business recruitment. The product would feature a refined candidate profile, a simpler approach to job postings and removed all extraneous features (shift manager, instant messaging, ratings, reviews, etc.).
Okay, cool, I was in... I left Kinetic in mid 2015 and officially joined Wirkn as Head of Product.
I had been given a hard deadline to deliver the update by October 2015. Why October you ask? -- This is when the hiring rush begins for the Christmas season (the largest retail season of the year in North America).
To accomplish our goal we decided to redesign our existing iOS and Android applications and to transition hiring manager's to a new web application. Based on the product data we had collected over the past year and a half in addition to the in-person interviews we’d conducted, we identified that while candidates felt comfortable creating their Wirkn profiles on their mobile phone, manager's needed a more robust tool set to be able to effectively review applications and mobile wasn't going to cut it.
As I mentioned earlier, going with a native app wasn't the right decision, but again it came down to team competency. We had a hard deadline, 2 experienced native developers and ramping up on a new JS framework wasn't in the cards.
We stripped Wirkn down to only the core data resources: users (roles of candidate or manager), jobs and applications. The mobile app guided candidates through the application process and allowed them to filter and search local jobs. The hiring manager platform provided those users with the ability to post and manage job listings and move applicants through their recruitment pipeline. On September 28th, we launched the new application.
Over the next few months we refined the experience and eventually released a feature called "Rich Brand Experiences". The feature was driven by a new relationships that were forming between Wirkn and a handful of mall groups. The malls wanted a way to be able to feature the brands they hosted in their physicals spaces and our operations team needed a way to intrigue potential brand clients to invest in Wirkn. Despite some initial pushback from management, the release of brand pages ended up being a critical turning point in Wirkn's history.
The pages helped unknown brands become more accessible to candidates by offering information about what it was like to work at each unique brand and the brand pages themselves added new depth to Wirkn's value proposition. Malls were excited about the opportunity, brands were starting to take notice and the future seemed bright.
Wirkn now consisted of users, jobs, brands and applications.
It was also at this time that we received a call from the product team at Kik (North America's largest instant messaging platform 400mm downloads). They were in the process of rolling out a new API platform for chat bots. The bots themselves leveraged Kik's new open API to provide users with chat based, "dumb AI" which was capable of messaging back and forth. Kik liked what we were doing at Wirkn and thought that we were a great fit for the pilot program.
Side note, even while writing this, I'm still not convinced that chat bots belong in the Wirkn model, but I do understand that AI is the future of technology and bots have presented themselves as one the first massively consumable platform which could take us there.
So after establishing an project outline and a budget, I was off to create the first of what would become many versions of the Wirkn Bot. One of the foundational requirements that Kik gave us was that we should be able to serve jobs to anyone within North America. This presented us with a fairly large challenge to overcome as Wirkn was only active in Ontario, Montreal and New York at that time. There was that and, oh yeah, I had no ideas how to build a chat bot... 🙈🙈🙈
Using the new connection we had established with Kik we reached out to some of the largest players in the recruitment industry to see if they would be open to a three way partnership between Kik, themselves and Wirkn. For privacy reasons, I won't name company names, but suffice to say the top three players we spoke with made up more than 80% of online job board traffic. We ended up moving forward with one of those three players to create our first version of the Wirkn Bot.
The bot itself took users through a Q&A style personality quiz and used the information collected to recommend local job opportunities. Seems pretty straightforward right?! The bot itself was pretty simple, but the technology going on behind the scenes which ensure all of the platforms played nicely was massively overwhelming and had sucked up all team resources just to maintain it. The good news was that we were seeing upwards of 25,000 new chatters each day, but the challenge was that those chatters weren't becoming Wirkn account holders.
We identified very quickly that trying to transition users from a chat experience directly into downloading our mobile application (where they would actually create their Wirkn account) wasn't going to be a viable option. The bot experience itself was seeing awesome conversion. 80% of users completed the entire personality test, but the transition to mobile was less than 1%. We decided we would build a web app that would be consumed within the in-chat, mobile browser!
Some words of wisdom:
Don't use beta software if you don't have the resources to support and debug it...
Don't use a language that has to transpile unless you absolutely have to…
Side tangent over, back to the bot... On the surface, the bot seemed awesome. There was a huge opportunity to reach millions of chatters and Kik had agreed to drive 1 million users to our bot experience at no cost to us. Behind the scenes however, we were indirectly paying the price. My entire development team was on feature lock-down. We were stuck in a cyclical maintenance pattern trying to support the new bot and web services. We had also accepted financial assistance from Kik to help pay for the initial development costs and in doing so, established a formal obligation to support and advance the bot experience. On the other side of things we had a growing list of feature requests from our mall and brand partners -- enterprise readiness was becoming a hard requirement. To add insult to injury, in the heat of this spiral, we also decided it was time part ways with our current CTO. There was no replacement in sight, so it became my responsibility to manage entire product lifecycle (ideation through design and engineering). As you might imagine, I had reached a bit of a breaking point and needed to do something quick if I was going to pull this sinking ship out of the water.
In January 2016, I reached out to my brother, a seasoned development manager. After some convincing, he agreed to join the team as our VP Architecture. Jamie had arrived right in the nick of time. Within a few months he was able to mitigate much of our growing technical debt, support the chaos of our integration with the job board partner, hire an experienced dev-ops manager (brought on to reform our testing and deployment strategy) and even found time to begin development on a critical new feature for a scalable, RSS style, data feed.
The feeds service helped to improve an on-going battle between product and sales. Our sales team was selling the promise of an existing candidate pool within Wirkn, but the product wasn't able to drive the quantity of traffic that our clients we being led to believe they would receive from this system. So instead of paying to driving un-targeted downloads of Wirkn via online-ads, the feeds service gave us the ability to create a new, targeted traffic source from outside of the AppStore & bot experiences. Mores specifically, our jobs were converted into an XML feed which could be syndicated onto partner job sites. The sites would display our job data and redirect the candidate traffic back into our mobile application (ex. A hiring manager could posts a job on Wirkn and that job would be published on both Wirkn's mobile app as well as on 30+ job board including Indeed, Monster & Kijiji, etc.). To ensure the feeds service converted effectively on mobile we also employed Branch.io deeplinks which made it possible to transition candidates from the job board website, through the AppStore and directly into the pertaining job page on the Wirkn mobile application where they could finish their application.
The feeds service had proven to be a powerful platform expansion. It was working so well in fact that 95% of our net new traffic was feed driven. Unfortunately, no dramatic win comes without some sort of caveat; syndication was about to become hella expensive. Initially, we had been syndicating jobs onto these recruitment sites at little to no expense to us, the largest of which indeed (making up ~70% of Wirkn's traffic). We were seeing 1000+ new sign ups each day and things just getting started. Unfortunately, right around the time we had really established our syndication program, many of the sites that we had been publishing our job onto decided to get wise and began charging for referred traffic. In retrospect, we should have seen that coming, but very quickly we were paying upwards of $0.30/click with no guarantee of a conversion. Feeds went from a service that had the potential to rapidly accelerate Wirkn’s growth to the thing that would bankrupt the company if we didn't adjust.
At this point in time, we were giving Wirkn away for free to many of our active managers in an effort to encourage brands to adopt our software in a chain-wide rollout and therefore no payment system had been put in place to be able to push these cost back onto individual hiring managers. Those brand clients that were paying for Wirkn had signed longer term fixed cost contracts which we weren't in a position to adjust.
Despite our challenges, Wirkn really had evolved into a solid platform and product market fit was imminent. Those candidates who had signed up were voicing their preference for Wirkn over the traditional application process and manager's found massive value in Wirkn when we could provide them with a reasonable volume of candidate traffic. Without a sustainable solution for our feeds however, we wouldn't be able to uphold our promise of a self sustaining candidate pool and without that we would lose our existing clients.
It was early Q2 2016, we had grown the Wirkn team to 25 core members (including the founders, myself, a sales, marketing and operations team, a designer, five engineers and eight engineering co-op students). **Side note time. Our engineer to co-op ratio was way off. IMO, you should never exceed one co-op student per two core team members. Co-op students need supervision and mentorship, that's not going to be possible and things will fall through the cracks when this ratio is off.
On the surface, things looked good, but underneath we were burning resources like wildfire, and the team had built itself into an unsustainable model. Continuing to push the product forward was making less and less sense by the day.
So, what do you do? Well, you fire everyone, drop your current client roster and take a break of course! Unfortunately, I'm not joking this time... I'll touch on a bit of a serious note here and say that this was probably the shittiest part of my career to date. I've never felt like such an asshat and I've promised myself that if I ever arrive in a situation like that again, I too will be leaving. Anyways, moving on...
When the smoke cleared we were left with myself, the founders, our sales and operations manager and three developers. Our CEO, gone. Our marketing team, gone. The vast majority of our product team, gone and moral was down the shitter. Things were sour for a while, but the downtime gave us the opportunity to catch our breath and transition our model towards a more sustainable future without burning through the rest of our remaining capital. Over the course of the summer, we made the transition away from our candidate pool promise and instead positioned Wirkn and our roadmap to become best damn enterprise recruitment tool on the market.
If we were going to deliver on this objective, we would first need to derive an extension of the existing platform that was interesting enough to get our foot in the door with the enterprise clients that we desperately needed to buy into the Wirkn solution. It would need to provide enough immediate value that the brands would be willing to drive traffic to Wirkn on their own volition.
By taking this time to stop developing new features, we had the opportunity to research the enterprise marketplace and define four critical realizations.
Existing applicant tracking systems sucked and while many brands had come to rely on them, there was room for a pre-screening solution that lived between job advertisements and candidates entering an ATS.
In many cases, brands are not effectively taking advantage of their websites as a channel to advertise job opportunities. This was counter intuitive to candidate behaviour; candidates would visit brand sites first when seeking out employment and then move onto online job boards.
Malls are in decline and are desperate to reinvigorate their relevance. One of the main drivers for young people to visit a mall is to find a job or work a shift at their existing employer.
To be able to effectively scale the platform, we would need to re-architect our data model with Malls and Brands in mind.
We started by creating a web prototype of a our rich brand experiences. The page itself showcased a filtered list of jobs for each brand, information about the brand, an introduction video and could be customized to meet any required branding specifications (ex. https://jobs.wirkn.com/aldo). Brands loved them. In only a month after release, we found that some of our brands had even replaced their website's career section with a link to their Wirkn brand page. We were on to something, but the existing technology needed to be replaced.
Four months and many sleepless nights later, it was November 2016 and the upgraded platform was ready. We had rebuilt and re-architected the entire Wirkn solution with enterprise readiness in mind (web, mobile and bot). We had an awesome value prop to bring to malls and brands and many of them were already using it. I'm over simplifying here, but after 3 years working with these players, it wasn't about what we thought they wanted anymore, it was about building what they had identified as a real need and our team had delivered.
So here we are, wrapping up the end of 2016 with 20 new enterprise contracts coming to a signature. This next year looks promising, but you can be sure I'll update you here as we hone in our goal & continue to revolutionize the HR tech marketplace.