This week, I spoke with Luke Mocke who is the co-founder and CEO of Fairstream, a virtual events platform that helps companies recruit and hire candidates from diverse communities. Luke was selling talent solutions at LinkedIn when he began to brainstorm ways to bridge the gap between companies that wanted a more diverse workforce and the people interested in working for those companies. They launched the initial product in December 2019 as a mentorship platform, but struggled to gain traction. Then the pandemic hit and they were forced to try new ideas, one of which was a virtual career fair for underrepresented people in tech. The first career fair event went viral and they had tons of great feedback from companies. This inspired them to drop the mentorship model and shift their product to a virtual career events platform, which has been growing steadily ever since.
In our conversation, Luke talks about:
My questions are in bold; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. Can you give me a quick overview of how Fairstream started?
Luke Mocke: The idea came about when I was at LinkedIn. I was originally involved in recruiting at LinkedIn and then began selling their talent solutions. As I was selling the recruiting products I kept hearing from clients that they struggled to attract underrepresented talent, specifically underrepresented in tech, so LGBTQ candidates, women, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and veterans. I started brainstorming with my future co-founder how we could bridge the gap between these communities and the tech companies and we came up with a couple of ideas. The primary idea that we went with was that mentoring was going to connect these groups and bridge the gap. I knew nothing about that venture world so I was presenting our idea and company to friends that were at growth equity firms, the complete wrong group of people to raise a seed round from. Eventually I got connected to a two-year accelerator program. They heard us, liked our idea, and accepted us.
So in December 2019, we had a small MVP, but not much traction and now we had the hard decision: do we leave our jobs at LinkedIn and Workday to join this accelerator full time? We decided to take the plunge and immediately got to work building out the MVP and getting our initial sales. But with those first sales, we quickly found out that our mentoring idea wasn't the quickest way to connect talent from underrepresented communities to these companies, so we ended up pivoting.
I do want to hear about the pivot because that's always fascinating to learn about, but before we do, can you explain a bit more about the initial mentoring concept? How exactly did the initial product work?
LM: The mentoring product was a B2B play. We would go to recruiting teams at companies and say, “guess what? Your main source of recruiting is referrals, but the referrals that you have right now all look like the employees that you have.” Companies could use our platform, have their employees create profiles, and we’d connect them with members of these communities for them to mentor, and ultimately refer for roles. You’re 15 times more likely to land a job if you have a mentor. So that was the idea, have these companies get a bunch of mentors on the platform. We would push candidates to those mentors and they would end up landing jobs.
Got it. So what made you realize that this iteration of the product wasn’t the best one? Did you have initial traction goals that you weren’t able to hit or was it something else?
LM: We had some goals, but at the end of the day, we were just looking to make some initial sales. We did make a few deals, but they were based off of our relationships and people generally liking the concept and wanting to attract underrepresented talent. The feedback that we got from those clients, as well as from our advisors and the wider community, was that our process just took too long. When a company is looking to make a hire, they don't want to wait four or five months to go through a mentoring process to eventually hire someone. They especially don’t want to wait when it's experienced talent and they have an open role. So we started to think about how we could speed up the process and get direct access between candidates, hiring managers, and recruiters.
Then the pandemic hit as we were thinking through ideas. We decided to run a virtual career fair because we needed more mentors and candidates on our platform. We put together the fair and it went viral, as you can imagine, because everyone was trying to help each other out during the pandemic. There were over five thousand people that signed up. The event was an incredible success. We heard a lot of great feedback from employers. One employer said they had 150 people at their information session, 50 converted to applicants and within two weeks they had made the hires that they had been looking for. That’s when the light bulbs went off in our head. Virtual events could be the answer to how to give direct access to talent and make the hires really fast.
In my experience career fairs are lots of booths and long lines of people waiting to have a short two minute 1:1 conversation with a prospective employer. How did you make a career fair work in a virtual format?
LM: Yeah, we had to hustle because we only had three weeks to organize it. It’s one of those fun founding stories that we'll always hold dear. We created a website with a registration link where people put in their name and email. There was also an agenda so people could see which companies would be there. On the day of the event, you could visit the site and click on different sessions in that agenda. Each session would link out to a different GoTo meeting room, where an employer would present a little bit about the company, the culture, their open roles, and then run a Q&A afterwards. When the meeting was done, you would jump back to the agenda, click on the next session that you wanted to attend, and be linked to another GoTo meeting. We didn't have a job board at that first event, but we had a page that listed all of the jobs that were being recruited for. We also had some general sessions that shared best practices for job seekers, like resume tips, LinkedIn tips, and personal branding advice. We had some amazing influencers come and share their advice, like how to land a job without applying online. Also we had some inspirational speakers. The Iron Cowboy came through and spoke about his experience running fifty Ironmans in 50 states in 50 days. That was pretty inspiring. Finally, we had a virtual D.J. top the event off which was pretty sweet.
That sounds like a great event. So did you pivot and focus on your current model from then on?
LM: No, we didn’t really pivot fully until August. The goal of that first event in April was just to get more mentors and mentees on the platform. Obviously a light bulb started to go off and we announced another event planned for August with the same format. But between April and August we were trying to decide if we should switch and focus on events. Eventually, come August, we decided that we were going to pivot.
It seems like COVID and the shift to virtual work helped you make that pivot quicker, because otherwise you may have struggled on the mentorship path. Do you agree with that?
LM: Yeah, honestly, I don't think we'd be around if it wasn't for COVID. There were a bunch of things that happened that accelerated our growth. We even qualified for PBP money. Also the focus on diversity and inclusion this year, along with the virtual shift that everyone has had to make.
I do want to touch on how companies changing their priorities related to inclusion have impacted your company, but before we do that, can you walk me through your current business model?
LM: So we're a marketplace at the core. One side of the marketplace are employers and the other are underrepresented communities. Employers can use our platform to host their own event. Our software takes the place of Eventbrite, Zoom, and their job board so experience is all in one place. It’s a much better candidate experience. Employers can also attend the monthly events that we put on with various underrepresented communities in tech. We're not doing a consumer play in the traditional way, instead we're going through organizations that these folks belong to. So organizations like Latinas in Tech, Blacks in Technology, or Techqueria. These types of organizations have a large number of people gathering on a regular basis for career help and development. We go directly to them and work with them to host and attend events on our platform.
What have you found to be the most effective way at acquiring the employer side of the marketplace?
LM: B2B sales, same same kind of thing that I was doing at LinkedIn. We use LinkedIn for prospecting and connecting with folks. We also send some email campaigns. Since the team is from Workday and LinkedIn, we already have really good contacts in the HR world. We've leveraged those contacts to get some of our initial deals done and get off the ground.
In the past year a lot of companies have increased their priorities related to inclusion, how has your team and product strategy evolved over the past year?
LM: We’ve certainly seen some inbound activity from companies, but the way that it's changed our process the most is that because companies care about this more there's a new point of contact for us at these organizations. So we're typically working through the chief diversity officer or head of inclusion & diversity. It’s helpful to have a central figure and a single point of contact in these organizations who then interface with the recruiting team, the leadership team, the marketing team and so on.
Can you tell me more about how the product has evolved and where you see it going in 2022 and beyond?
LM: So I'll tell you where we started. When we started with mentoring there was a dashboard that allowed companies to see everyone who was being mentored in their organization. We kept that original functionality so now companies can see everyone that viewed their event, attended their session, or applied for a job from the event. It’s essentially the marketing funnel for the recruiting team. The second thing that we build out is this really cool analytics and insights piece where companies can now see the race, ethnicity, gender and veteran status of their pipeline for the first time ever. Those questions are never asked especially during the courting phase of recruiting and certainly not when you're applying for a job. Also they’re often not even collected when you actually become an employee for a company. So it's information that we're giving these companies to help them make strategic decisions around what events they create and attend in the future.
The other thing that we’ve added to our product, as I mentioned earlier, is the ability for companies to create and host their own events. That’s been a big one for us. We also built in a job board so that everything can be hosted in one place and candidates don’t have to switch between platforms. Recently we added the ability to message all of the candidates at an upcoming event with one click. This is super helpful for companies to have that direct connection. Instead of messaging everyone one by one, they can send a message to everyone, remind them about the upcoming session and build some excitement for it.
In terms of what’s coming next, we’ve gotten feedback from clients that as their pipelines grow, it becomes harder and harder to filter through the candidates and find the ones that they want to move on to next steps. So we're building filters so they can more easily find, say a sales person in Seattle that has five to ten years of experience. The other side we are focusing on is the experience side. So the funnel from a person being invited to an event to the event day itself. So we’re investing in automated email reminders and things to keep them engaged throughout that life cycle. We want to reduce the amount of manual work that companies have to do to get people to their events.
Taking a step back, a lot of entrepreneurs struggle in that first year as they try to find product market fit and the buzz from the launch has worn off. How did you manage to stay motivated and focused after the excitement of the initial launch?
LM: Well, I got a lot of things wrong, like we got our whole business model wrong. But the one thing that we got right was setting the expectations for how long it would be a real grind for. I had told my wife before we started this that for eight months, it's going to be pedal to the metal. I'm going to be working nights and it's going to be really hard. But the caveat was the, I believe if we really put in the hard yards and front load our work effort, that after eight months, we would have some sort of product market fit and we'd have an idea of where things were going and I'd be able to spend a little bit more time at home. That it would be less burnout inducing. And that rang true for us. We started in January and then in August, that's when we began that pivot and things started to get a whole lot better. But, yeah, between January and August, it was just pedal to the metal, anxiety, stress, sleepless nights, and the worst health I've ever had. But I got through it and now that we're on the other side, I'm working the normal hours and I'm kind of doing a little bit better on the exercise portion of it.
I like the idea of time boxing that effort, that seems much more sustainable if you have an end in sight. So was the plan that if you didn’t find product market fit in 8 months you’d walk away from the idea?
LM: No, I was planning for a longer time horizon. The way that I saw the whole experience of being an entrepreneur, was that it was going to be a real life MBA for me. I gave myself two years to give this thing a go and I also set some milestones. The really hard work would be at the beginning and I guessed that would be the first 8 months. I also had a milestone for the first year which was to generate revenue on a regular basis and to have a product that we can actually move forward with.
I think you mentioned raising a seed round pre-COVID, but I’m not sure if you’ve raised since then, but if you have, can you tell me how raising money has changed due to the pandemic?
LM: I don’t know if it’s changed. I mean, it still sucks. So that hasn't changed. I mean, it's a process. It takes time, right? The market is really hot right now so we're thinking about going to raise again. Fortunately, we've closed some really good enterprise deals so we have a lot of momentum. We raised that initial pre-seed round to get us going and since then have been operating on our own revenue.
One more question. What’s your advice to that first time entrepreneur that is just starting their journey?
LM: If you're an entrepreneur, you have some sort of tendency towards being creative...you want to create something. My advice is don't get lost in that. Follow the revenue. Create the idea of what you want to do and then find revenue first. Then build on your revenue. I had a friend that had a bunch of ideas but didn’t know which one to pursue. I said to him, go out and close a deal with one of the ideas. You’ll get real feedback on which one is good or not based on if you can actually close the deal and somebody is willing to pay you. Then go from there. That really rang true for us.
The second piece of advice is to be aware that like for eight to 12 months, it's going to be crazy and you're going to have to give up nights and weekends and all of these different things. Be willing to do that. If you put in those hard yards and you push past it, there are some really good things that await you on the other side.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Where can people go to learn more about you and your business?