Episode 07 - How Companies Get and Keep Talent w/ Nick Cromydas of Hunt Club



Episode 7 - How Companies Get and Keep Talent w/ Nick Cromydas of Hunt Club


Dave Knox: 

I’m your host, Dave Knox, and this is Predicting the Turn.  A show that helps business leaders meet their industries inevitable disruption head on. 


Welcome to another edition of Predicting the Turn.  Today I’m excited to welcome my good friend Nick Cromydas, who is the CEO founder of Hunt Club.


Nick, welcome to the show.


Nick Cromydas:  Thanks for having me.  Always a pleasure. 


Dave Knox:  Awesome.  Let’s talk to you a little bit more about your background.  You’ve packed a lot into the last decade from varsity college athlete, to management consultant, to venture capitalist, into startup founder.  Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about that path and what led you to today, running Hunt Club?


Nick Cromydas:  It’s a very non-linear path that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  So happy to unpack it.  I graduated in the 2009 right during the peak for the recession and my whole life was tennis.  I wanted to be a professional tennis player when I graduated and when I grew up.  So what I did, was I ended up playing my first professional tournament out in (Cader) 1:05, Illinois.  I’ll never forget it and basically was there for about seven or eight days and got an actual ATP point and basically looked at my entire eight days and realized that I had spent something like $1200-1500 on the entire week of training and rackets restringing and new shoes and made about a $600 check for the entire effort.  So I quickly realized that professional tennis wasn’t a feasible route for me and so I really started thinking about what’s next.  In my first job out of school I coached the Northwestern Women’s Tennis Team.  Great experience, they were number one in the country, Big 10 Champs.  And leveraged the experience to get into consulting shortly after.  Met a bunch of great people that helped me transition from professional tennis and college tennis into actual consulting and then really through a series of building different companies and ideas and projects and getting to know you through the Brandery, had a miscellaneous path into failing a business, restarting and doing some consulting work.  Shortly after, having the pleasure of getting to build some technology for a local family office in Chicago and they really loved the idea of venture investments and startups and supporting early stage companies and I knew everybody at this point, you should let us help you do that and the whole idea kind of stemmed from there.  So, what we built today is potentially a business called New Coast Ventures is a hybrid venture studio where investment startups start our own companies and build software for big companies and small and that led us to the second company we’ve incubated, which is Hunt Club.  So, a lot, it’s a weird journey and a weird story, but it’s been fun transitioning from sports to consulting to early stage tech companies to investing back to founding.


Dave Knox:  That’s wonderful.  I love that.  It’s interesting with the college athlete, because when I look at startup founders, a lot happen to be former varsity athletes or come from the military and backgrounds of that nature.  What do you think you learned during your time really competing at that highest level of sports that has helped you at the highest level of sports that has helped you as a startup founder and as an investor as you evaluate founders and other startups?


Nick Cromydas:  I think if you look at why I think former athletes make great professionals, general in the business community and startups and venture back companies sound supported, it’s really two things it comes down to.  One, most college athletes, or most athletes really understand the concept of winning and losing on a daily basis, but coming back to compete the next day and I think that’s a really big important part of building a company, is you’re going to win a major customer, you’re going to lose a major customer, your best employee is going to leave.  You’re going to recruit an incredible person to come join and build a company.  It's really tempering the highs and lows and I think tennis is a really interesting sport for that.  You can make it to the quarterfinals in the biggest tournament, at Wimbledon, but you still got eighth place.  There’s only one winner.  So I think having that daily win and loss and understanding how to measure those ups and downs and still progress forward, I think is a huge part about what makes athletes great founders or investors or people that understand the highs and lows in business.  I think the second thing is consistency and improvement.  So, at a young age, you’re trained to continue to get better at something regardless of the results and come in and just keep working on your craft, whether it’s you missed a bunch of forehands in your last match and you lost, well then you come in and work on your forehand every day for a year.  Or, your serve isn’t really improving, you come in and work on your server.  So, I think you look at a lot of data points of what makes people successful and entrepreneurship in general, I think it’s resilience and consistency of getting back to work.


Dave Knox:  Makes total sense.  Talking about Hunt Club, that’s your latest venture and in full disclosure, it’s a company where I’m both an investor and Hunt Club also happens to be the inaugural sponsor for this show.  Can you talk to us more about Hunt Club and what inspired you really to start that business?


Nick Cromydas:  In 2014, when I was really working on new codes, what I realized is I kept referring people who got hired by executive recruiters.  It was the summer of ’14 and what happened almost with the same recruiter three or four times and a couple others where they’d reach out to me.  They’d see somebody that I was connected to on LinkedIn and they’d ask for an introduction.  And I’d say sure, you know, Tom meet Sue, Sue meet Tom and I’d shoot it off without really thinking about it and 90 days later I’d actually get an email from the person I introduced to the recruiter, saying thank you so much for that introduction, I actually would have never considered this opportunity had it not come from you, but I’m taking the job now and I’m really excited about.  And it happened multiple times and it just got to point where I started to realize, if this is a primary way, the best recruiters really kind of activate talent is really through subject matter experts, vetting and introducing people through their network, there’s no real platform or system or methodology to do that kind of at sale, so really started studying the industry and realizing that the best executive recruiters do this just really manually and then realize the worst recruiters, a lot of folks, primarily in the contingency world don’t really care about relationships.  They care about making a transaction.  So we kind of set out to build something different by using the power of the network and best relationships. 


Dave Knox:  Perfect, and that’s such a common of that inspirational story of I saw a niche and it’s what makes an entrepreneur different is a lot of people see something and have an idea, but an entrepreneur is actually going to take that idea and go say, I’m going to start a company with that.  So it’s great.  So, let’s talk about talent then and the things you discovered as you’ve started becoming an executive recruiter and learning this world of what talent is.  Why do you think talent is so important to companies both big and small as they look at this world of change that we’re facing and as they try and predict the turn?


Nick Cromydas:  Yeah, I mean it’s the most important thing, so I think one of the things we believe at in Hunt Club is there’s a clear mismatch between how important that talent is to a company versus generally the types of folks that are serving it and providing that type of service, so as large enterprise go through massive digital transformation as the next Dollar Shave Club is being born somewhere else.  Getting the right people that know how to grow and move and be adaptable at a rapid pace and speed to really keep pace with all the different things that are happening with technology transforming the world is the most important asset to the future.  So, I think traditionally when you look at a lot of larger companies and there’s a very clear and defined corporate structure and path and hierarchy and ways to grow and I think technology has thrown a wrench into all of that.  I think one of the best examples is it took decades and decades and decades for Proctor and Gamble to become a public company and Dollar Shave Club reached a billion dollar plus valuation now come in sub six years.  Getting the right type of talent in today’s world that knows how to keep pace with that change needs to be top of mind for every company, whether they’re Fortune 50 or someone starting with their budding idea.


Dave Knox:  Let’s double click on that a little bit.  We’re in a tight labor market, probably the tightest ever we’ve seen for top talent and that means the best talent is passive.  They’re not actively searching for their next role.  They’re happy probably where they are.  What has Hunt Club learned about how do you attract this top talent to leave an opportunity that they’re happy with to go take a risk on something new?


Nick Cromydas:  Really two really critical things.  The first thing is all the channels today are totally saturated.  What I mean by that is 5-7 years ago if you wanted to reach out to somebody and introduce an opportunity to them, the probability of them responding on email or via LinkedIn or whatever, text message, however you trying to get access to them.  It’s flattering to receive an opportunity.  So, people would respond.  In today’s world with getting billions of marketing messages pushed your way across all these channels, there’s so much noise that if you don’t use a real relationship, one that has trust, it’s nearly impossible to get somebody to actually listen to what you’re working on and what the opportunity might be.  So, point one is always think about leveraging best relationships to introduce opportunities.  It’s the best way to attract passive talent.  Because the truth of the matter is there’s always 5-10 people in your life that no matter what stage in your career you’re at, if they call and say I have something you should listen to, you listen.  The second thing I think is really rethinking the candidate experience.  So in the tightest labor market ever, people have a ton of options.  If you’re not rolling out the red carpet as you invite people to learn about your company, educate them on why it’s a great opportunity, really introduce them to the people driving a lot of the levers in the business, really introduce them to creating transparency and to where you’re going and really make them feel bought in to everything.  People will join.  There’s too many options out there.  There’s too many distractions out there, so you need to be somebody emotionally invested by rolling out the red carpet and creating a great candidate experience.  Two things, one leverage the best relationships to act with the talent that you want to talk to and two, really roll out the red carpet as you get them into your process. 


Dave Knox:  Love that.  So, on the flip side, the Fortune 500 is really many cases, competing to keep this talent and sometimes even attract the talent in the first place because they know they need somebody different to help them in this new world.  So, how do blue chip companies need to evolve their approach to keeping talent from going to an Amazon, a Facebook or that next great kind of Dollar Shave Club?


Nick Cromydas:  I think bluechips have two problems.  One is retaining their top talent and two is actually attracting a new class of talent to help push their business into the next generation.  And both of them are equally challenging for them.  So I think for retention perspective, companies need to introduce opportunities that are atypical and don’t have a set career path and what I mean by that is the reason why people leave Proctor and Gamble, Coca Cola, Boeing to go join the next VR, AR, Facebook, Amazon, Starship, whatever it might be, is because the opportunity to expedite their own career path and growth given the opportunities they’re given internally at a company are an order of magnitude more from a responsibility perspective based on the pace and how fast the company is growing.  So, in order for larger blue chips to really compete with the best talent of today, it’s no longer about dollars and cents.  It's about giving somebody and opportunity to achieve and understand what they’re feeling as they continue to push the threshold and limits within a company.  And not being adhered to a traditional promotion schedule of every two years.  You are stuck in an associate brand manager until you achieve X,Y and Z in two years.  And I think that’s the difference between going to fast burn company in the tech sector versus kind of being shackled to whatever traditional structure the company has, a larger company has.


Dave Knox:  That’s dead on and it is that progression, that pyramid of the outer up that’s been the life blood of those companies.  Have you seen any that are willing to take that risk yet and think about the labor market differently within the Fortune 500?


Nick Cromydas:  I’ve seen many talk about it.  I’ve seen many standup their own venture initiatives and their own venture studios.  I’ve seen many try adapt startup methodology and lean principles.  I’ve seen very very very few that I believe are doing it in a compelling way that’s actually going to impact their future.  I think some of the most interesting in my mind that come to mind immediately is if you look at what Unilever and what Kroger are doing where they’re actually acquiring large brands.  So think of Unilever acquiring Dollar Shave Club and a number of other digitally native brands and letting them continue to run as their own separate companies.  Their own separate entities, just leveraging the resources of multibillion dollar companies, public companies.  So, I think another great analogy is Kroger acquiring Home Chef, which is another Chicago startup, letting them continue to build their infrastructure and company, leveraging all of Kroger’s many assets.  So I think the ones where I’ve seen it do incredibly well are actually acquiring from the outside in and then using their infrastructure to help grow.  It’s really really difficult to build that internally and totally transform a business from the inside out at that size and scale.


Dave Knox:  Talent is a big part of Predicting the Turn.  And as we talk about talent, I wanted to mention one of our sponsors, Hunt Club.  Imagine the power of the best marketers in the world, helping you to find your next marketing leader.  That's the power of Hunt Club.  Hunt Club is a new category of talent company that powers the network of experts, connectors and business leaders to help you find the best talent.  Let's face it, recruiting hasn't changed with the times. Hunt Club is changing the recruiting game by leveraging technology, and crowdsource referrals to find you the best people possible for your company.  Stop paying job boards that don't work, or recruiting firms that recycle the same active candidates.  Partner with Hunt Club.


Dave Knox:  If we’ve got one of those big companies listening or a startup that’s thinking about where they’re going, Hunt Club is playing in this space of human capital.  So what are the big trends that you see coming in the next five years when it comes to human  capital in this whole space?


Nick Cromydas:  I think it’s a couple different things.  So, it’s one, is the type of practical skills that an elder millennial or a Gen Yer has are quite a bit different than previous generations.  So I think it’s really figuring out how to tailor make corporate structures and tailor make opportunity to those types of profiles.  So what that means specifically is the next generation wants flexibility.  They want the ability to work from anywhere.  They want the ability to do work on really meaningful problems.  They want transparency.  They want to understand what the output of those efforts look like and they want to understand how it impacts the greater company.  They’re demanding things and asking for things in ways that traditional corporate America has never seen.  So I think as companies think about really trying to create the next class of business leaders within their organization, they really need to be honest and transparent about do they have the right structure to let a top performer continue to rise through their company in an expedited path that accomplishes those things.  Otherwise, they’re going to jump to the next tech company.  I think that’s a huge trend.  I think the other trends are really thinking about leveraging technology and automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence, to amplify the skills and the work of the traditional employee in person.  You’re seeing a lot now where new types of services, new types of products are all rolling out to help turn one person to have the ability to do the work of 2-3-4.  So I think you’ll see a big trend there where if you don’t have native technology skills and understand how it works, you’re going to be left behind.


Dave Knox:  Makes sense.  Another trend that I hear talked about quite a bit lately is increasingly high growth companies and investors as well really starting to look outside of Silicon Valley and maybe the traditional hot beds of startups whether that’s to relocate or to move the company or to even just find that next destination.  Do you think this is wishful thinking for guys like us that are really champions of the Midwest, or is it something that you’re seeing first hand with the Hunt Club clients and talent?


Nick Cromydas:  No, I think it’s the reality of where the world’s moving.  I mean, granted this is biased because I’m a Chicago boy, grown and home raised and have been here pretty much my entire career, but yeah, it’ s a big trend that’s happening.  I think it’s really being driven by a couple reasons.  The first is for the first time, venture capitalists are realizing that it will have great ideas and a lot of great companies can be built off of the infrastructure that the Midwest has to offer and a lot of concepts in agriculture and construction and health care really the heartland is an incredible place to tackle those types of ideas due to access of customers.  So I think a lot of people are taking notice to that.  I think the second thing is, people on the coast are starting to realize as they’ve been there for a decade or two, that it’s really difficult to have a high quality of life.  So, you can be excited about the problems you’re working on at the company you’re at, but if you’re living in a 1400 square foot apartment with two kids and aren’t really saving anything for their college, it becomes a really difficult equation versus moving to one of the suburbs of Chicago land or moving to Cincinnati or Indianapolis where you can buy a house and start to work on some really interesting problems that are being started here.  So, I think the previous decade, we didn’t have the types of companies that could support high aptitude folks locally, and as businesses grow and as we get more capital allocated here and there’s more opportunity, I think you’ll see quite a few people start to migrate back and I think it’s going to change the dynamic of the Midwest.


Dave Knox:  Speaking of those people that are migrating back.  You and I have talked about this concept of boomerangs and some of the best talented roles that Hunt Club has placed over the years have been those boomerangs where an amazing talent comes back to the Midwest or to their home town or something of that nature.  What do you think local communities and local startup ecosystems should be doing to think about identifying and promoting an attracting those boomerangs to come back?


Nick Cromydas:  I think it’s really about two or three different things.  One is awareness.  So you talk to people in San Francisco or New York or other coastal towns about what’s available in Chicago and Cincinnati and Indi and in the greater Midwest, a lot of them don’t know that there are incredible companies being built here.  So I think phase one is just really making them aware of what’s here and what’s going on and the types of companies that are being built here and the success stories and the fundraising and all that.  So I think once you generate enough awareness then I think it’s really championing an introductory and relationship building process where you look at a lot of local funds now, they’re actually building a talent partner function to go out and create relationships with great talent that isn’t in the Midwest, so that at some point when their life gets to a threshold where they don’t want to live in that 1400, 1200 square foot apartment, they do want to work on interesting problems and come back to a place they love and know, it’s great place to do it.  So, I think really it’s continuing to build awareness and then two, like developing and pipelining relationships so that when you have the perfect opportunity for the perfect person that has roots and relationships and maybe went to college or grew up here or has in laws here or whatever it might be, you’re able to present it to them at the right moment.  So I think the more that we can do that, the more we’ll continue to foster the talent ecosystem.  


Dave Knox:  Let’s dive in a little bit more about that people side of human capital.  For the longest time, the best training for a future marketer, business leader, was to go spend 5-10 years doing what you and I did, either start in big CPG like a P&G or a General Mills or go into the consulting world with the McKenzies, the KPMGs, etc.  But, today the talent coming out of that Fortune 500 often times they’re realizing that it’s a new generation of skills that they need, things like performance marketing, and other things that maybe aren’t necessarily being taught in those traditional places.  What do you think that these leaders and future leaders of the business world, what should they be doing when they face these situations?  What can they do to prepare themselves and how do they really think about this next generation of skills that are needed?


Nick Cromydas:  I think it all comes down to really understanding the future of your business and how to hedge against either being disrupted or continuing to pen your business with acquisition to make sure you’re continuing to get digitally transparent form to really engage and find the best talent.  So what I mean by that is, if you have to provide opportunities that are as interesting as the ones that are in market that aren’t at Fortune 500 companies, so, if venture and private funding continues to grow at the rate that it does, then without those dollars become more and more opportunities where people can go join a company that’s growing multiple 100% year over year and keep getting more responsibility that a young millennial ever should based on the nature of picking the right startup or the right growth company.  Larger companies are going to have to compete with that.  In order to compete with that, they’re going to have to work off of the same thing and by offering the same thing, they’re going to have to provide talent with an environment where there are no ceilings aside from how good somebody individually is at the pace that they want to move.  So I think it’s a really tricky challenge for larger companies to think about how to transform their internal talent base when so much of it has almost fallen apathetic to what their day to day is at this point.  Where it’s very much a routine, it ’s very much a paycheck, they know exactly what the promotion schedules are.  They know exactly the politics they have to play and I think that the thing I love about fast growing venture back companies and tech companies and entrepreneurship in general is it’s just democratizing the work force.  There is no, pedigree doesn’t matter.  Sure it gives you a leg up.  You can start on second or third base if you went to Harvard Business School and have a trust fund and you can start your own company, but if you have a great idea and you have enough hustle and grit and you believe in something, there’s no reason why you can’t be a CEO of a large company one day that you build.  So I think that’s the beauty of tech entrepreneurship is it’s really kind of democratizing what someone can do versus being lumped into a traditional corporate hierarchy.  So I think, in summary, large companies need to figure out a way to provide the same type of fast paced environment that does not put a governor or ceiling on somebody in a large company.  And that’s going to allow them to attract the talent, because there’s so many interesting things about joining a big company, problems at scale, resources and infrastructure.  You just have to give people the ability to move at a speed that they can find at other places.


Dave Knox:  Yep and what about the people themselves?  So take the person that has worked 10, 15 years at that same company.  They’ve risen through the ranks but they realize that they’re ready to go try something new, but they realize that they might have a mismatch of the skills that go them to where they are today aren’t necessarily the skills that that high growth company is looking for.  What can they do to better prepare themselves for that next opportunity or to position themselves as they look at that next opportunity?


Nick Cromydas:  We have this conversation all the time with thousands and thousands and thousands of people annually across some of the biggest companies and it always comes down to a couple different things.  With obviously the access of content and information today on the internet, someone can get really skilled and intelligent in a multitude of different topics really quickly, so if you’ve been a brand marketer your entire career and you’re obsessed with performance marketing and you want to learn what to do to kind of acquire the skill set to take it to the next level, there’s millions of courses online now where you can hop in and just quickly learn.  You can spin up your own Shopify site, buy a product from Alibaba and start testing $5 a day on Facebook to see if you can drive traffic towards selling something.  So I think creating your own business to acquiring the skills that you want to learn on the side.  I think it’s an excellent way to introduce yourself to something new and something that’s really tangible and resonates well with the startup community.  I think the second thing is advisory roles.  So, where large companies sometimes haven’t moved an employee of talent at those companies haven’t moved at the speed that startups have, they do have a wealth of information on how things work at scale, how to sell into a large company, how to politically align yourself to whatever they’re getting from a strategic initiative wise.  So I think if you’ve been working at a company for 10-15 years and you have ambitions to go into something at another stage or faster paced, start really digging in, doing the work to help a lot of the venture ecosystem, the talent and the entrepreneur ecosystem succeed, and so through that, you’d be shocked at the multitude of opportunities that come your way.  I think a third really interesting way is write a small angel investment check.  Write a $5-10-15,000 check into a company locally that you believe in, that you want to support, that you think you can learn a lot from, especially to my own investing career, I think I’ve learned in order of magnitude from just supporting great entrepreneurs and getting to sit on the sidelines and cheerleading them as much as I have building.  So, I think if you’re in a larger company and you really want to figure out a way to start acquiring some of the skill sets to get out and to do something different, I think it's the more you can get some skin in the game, whether it’s personal time, learning online and testing or starting your own startup, or small business on the side to acquire those skills or come and invest and giving back into the community in which is already doing it, but the closer you’re going to map yourself to actually one of those opportunities. 


Dave Knox:  That’s perfect.  On those, the last two points of those, you and I both have a lot of coffees with people that are looking to get involved with the startup world and they want to be an advisor or they want to do an investing, but they just don’t even know where to start.  How do you advise people kind of get going in that?  Like I talk a lot about Angel List and it used to be you had to write a $25,000 check and find that company, but today you can do a syndicate and maybe do a $1000 or $2000 check to learn.  What else do you suggest, how does somebody even find out about these companies that might need their help?  How do they raise their hand and say, I want to help be an advisor?  I want to write a check and get involved.


Nick Cromydas:  I think there’s three or four different ways.  So Angel List is an awesome one.  They have a ton of the venture backed community that’s filterable by location, by industry, by product type, by business.  So, it’s an incredible resource for people to jump on and see what’s going on.  A couple other ideas, at this point, every single region or major city has an accelerator program, obviously, you think of things like Brandery, Text Stars, Y Combinator, understanding and getting involved in that ecosystem, whether as a mentor or advisor or someone that’s really trying to add value is another great way to do it.  I think the third is really canvasing the local venture capitalists and really understanding what venture capitalist or private equity funds are in that market, understanding what portfolio companies they’ve invested in and then really building relationships there to try and drive value and access and help and I think the final thing and the most important thing in my mind is actually helping, right ?  Everyone wants to play entrepreneur, for some reason it’s really sexy and it’s a fad right now.  Everyone acts like they want to add value, but actually do it.  Introduce somebody to a customer.  Right them a small check, introduce them to another investor.  Help them actually spend 5-10 hours with them actually going through and building a product road map.  Help them with their market positioning and actually have a deliverable, an output.  So I think a lot of people talk the talk.  The way that you really can get a startup founder or CEO’s attention or venture capitalist’s attention is to actually drive value in a real and deliverable way.  And I think that’s going to make you jump off the page and that’s going to help you set yourself up differently than most of the community.


Dave Knox: That’s perfect.  I love that point and something that not enough people are doing to really think about how they position what they do with it.


Nick Cromydas:  Totally.


Dave Knox:  I really enjoyed the conversation as always, it’s always great to get your mind of where the world is going, how you’re thinking about talent and startups.  If a company wants to learn more about Hunt Club or if an individual wants to become involved as part of your influence or network or anything else, how do they get in touch with you and where do they start?


Nick Cromydas:  The best way is to head out to our site at www.huntclub.com or shoot me a note at nick@huntclub.com.  I’m here to help on any angle and love conversations with people trying to drive impact, especially in the talent space. 


Dave Knox:  Awesome, well always a pleasure Nick.  Thank you and I appreciate your support for Predicting the Turn as always.


Nick Cromydas:  No, thank you Dave, you’re the best.  Thanks for having me.


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