[Editor’s Note: This story is part of a “Where Are They Now” series on startups named to NC TECH’s annual Top 10 Startups To Watch list from 2014 to the present. You can find the main story here. There are also six other feature stories on startups from the NC TECH lists that are no longer active standalone companies: Organic Transit (2014 list); Tiger Eye Sensor (2015); Tourpedo (2015); Forecast Health (2016); Cultivate (2017); and myBeeHyve (2018).]
In 2016, Cary-based EmployUs had just launched its first real product, raised some funding and brought onboard its first few dozen customers, of which the vast majority were in the Triangle. It was also the year NC TECH honored EmployUs as one of its Top 10 Startups To Watch.
“Back then our product was, I think someone called us ‘Uber for recruiting,’” EmployUs CEO and Co-Founder Ryan O’Donnell said. “Because anyone could make money helping their friends get jobs.”
Much has changed since then. Acquired by Chicago-based Hireology in 2021, EmployUs might no longer exist as a standalone company, but its technology is still impacting the ways that employers manage their referrals. And, of course, the acquisition meant a nice financial return for early investors and the founders.
The acquisition by Hireology poured gasoline—in a good way—on what EmployUs was able to build, according to O’Donnell. He now serves as Group Product Manager of EmployUs at Hireology, which employs around 200 people across the United States and is looking to hire even more.
The Roots of EmployUS
After building a startup while at NC State—Pennies 4 Progress was an app that enabled fundraising for your favorite causes—O’Donnell’s first post-college job was as a recruiter. He quickly figured out that recruiting was the best way to hire, and one of the best ways to recruit was through referrals.
To aid his work, he built a tool to get more referrals, to more easily follow up on them, and to track reward for those referrals. Realizing that other recruiters might also value the tool, he launched EmployUs in 2015.
At the time, most recruiting organizations lacked tools to track employee referrals, meaning they had to informally monitor them on a spreadsheet.
“What our software does is it makes it easy for a company to really put their referral programs on autopilot,” O’Donnell said.
Before its acquisition, EmployUs had reached well over 100 clients, mostly medium to large employers across multiple industries. But there came a point when EmployUs needed to scale, and O’Donnell and his team debated what the next step should be.
While EmployUs originally was that ‘Uber for recruiting’ platform, they realized most companies needed to focus more on improving their internal employee referral programs. By 2021, with the world one year into a pandemic that had dramatically changed hiring and the workplace, Hireology seemed a perfect partner with its thousands of customers on the front lines in retail, healthcare, hospitality and more.
O’Donnell saw the acquisition by Hireology as a way to continue scaling EmployUs’s vision to help companies get the best hires and for job seekers to land their dream jobs.
“The need for talent among their customers is just huge,” O’Donnell said. “They’re going through a really hard time right now, and our solution really helps them bridge that gap.”
Through the acquisition and his entire business journey, O’Donnell said he learned the importance of building the right team. His own comprised of Co-Founders Jeff Stocks and Matt Cotter, who came from Durham-based Bronto. Post-acquisition, O’Donnell has taken to coaching and supporting other founders throughout their journeys.
One piece of advice O’Donnell would like to impart to other founders is the need to hear from your customers first-hand.
“Listen to your customers and talk to them early and often,” O’Donnell said. “The times when EmployUs grew the most, we were always intensely focused on talking to our customers, figuring out exactly what their problems are and then figuring out a solution around that.”
As opposed to coming to clients with a new shiny object, understand their pain points first, O’Donnell said.
At the end of the day, O’Donnell said, the startup world is all about perseverance. While many founders may be looking for a quick exit or external validation like a big round of funding, focusing on growth through the obstacles is essential.
“Don’t get too distracted by all the hype and the glamour around startup life,” O’Donnell said. “It’s really tough. You’ll go through really high highs and really low lows.”
Covid was a prime example, O’Donnell said.
“I think the founders who stuck it out and were able to persevere and take matters into their own hands were the ones who through the pandemic were able to grow,” he said.