Exit Stories: Ryan O’Donnell On How EmployUS Survived Covid Hiring Freezes

This week’s Exit Stories features guest Ryan O’Donnell—NC State grad, EmployUS co-founder and World Record Holder. The latter was for collecting a record 559,885 pounds of food in 18 hours for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina while he was in high school at the North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics in Durham.

After catching the startup bug in college by co-founding Pennies 4 Progress, which rounded up transaction totals to donate to charity, O’Donnell saw a need for more streamlined referral services in his post-grad job as a recruiter. So just a couple years after graduating, O’Donnell founded EmployUS alongside Bronto alumnus Matt Cotter and longtime Manpower Group president Jeff Stocks. They sought to build a product that helped companies find better employees through referrals.

They led EmployUS through its 2021 acquisition by fellow hiring leader Hireology, where O’Donnell serves today as a Group Product Manager.

Here are three key takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Strive to be great at one thing, not mediocre at many: EmployUS had competitors in the hiring field. But their referral focus filled a niche, and that is what got customers’ attention. Granted, this meant they couldn’t fill the recruiting needs of companies who weren’t interested in referrals, but the companies who were interested saw EmployUS’s unique value over competitors. Kevin and Ryan both highly value becoming an industry leader in your specific niche. (16:12)
  • When in doubt, give it out: Given that its audience of companies mainly hired hourly workers, EmployUS was hit hard by the Covid pandemic. As companies enforced hiring freezes, EmployUS’s revenue dropped by half in just one quarter. EmployUS considered closing up shop, but instead, they worked out an unlikely strategy that ended up paying off big: they gave away referrals to essential businesses for free. By the time the economy had recovered, EmployUS was making twice as much as it was at the beginning of 2020. (18:45)
  • Keep your company data clean and consolidated and do it early: O’Donnell got this advice early on in EmployUS’s journey, and he said it became essential when his lean team needed the nuts and bolts necessary for an acquisition. Keeping data in one place helped O’Donnell avoid the “horror stories” many startups endure when they lack good “company hygiene.” Said O’Donnell, “The level of detail that you go through in an acquisition cannot be overstated.” (31:35)

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