Only the Best

Only The Best
Why Startups Should Recruit Aggressively from College and Why Most of Them Don’t

Prior to joining Bain Capital Ventures, I spent 8 years at Trilogy which was founded by Joe Liemandt, a Stanford dropout and brilliant entrepreneur. I first met Joe in 1988 when he and I and a few others worked on a startup (pre-Trilogy) during my sophomore year and his junior year at Stanford.

While Trilogy was a very successful company (it scaled to $300M in revenue), most people don’t know much about the company because Joe kept it private and decided to not sell or take it public. However, anyone who was a CS or Engineering Major in college in the mid to late 90s knows Trilogy because of its legendary college recruiting process, dubbed “only the best”. Whether it was the BMW giveaways on campus, the weekends in Vegas or at Joe’s cabin in Deer Valley, or the raucous “sell weekends” on 6th street in Austin, the Trilogy campus recruiting program was nothing short of memorable.

Joe was a big believer in only hiring “Kids”. At Trilogy’s peak, we hired more than 300 college kids into a company of less than 1000 people total. Because of the heavy focus on college hiring, the average age of the company was less than 25 years old and we had very few “adults” or experienced hires. The benefits of hiring from college are pretty obvious, but Trilogy took it to an extreme and at such scale it was a competitive advantage for the company.

Why College Kids Rock

No sense of impossible
Recruits straight out of college have no experience and as a result, they have no idea what is possible or impossible. They can look at any problem with a fresh perspective and bring unvarnished and unjaded creativity and sheer force of will to a challenge. I recall a time when our head of marketing and PR, Krista, who was a couple years out of Stanford, was asked by Joe to get Trilogy on the cover of Forbes Magazine. She didn’t respond with all the “rational” reasons why this was a silly goal, why it wasn’t do-able, or why the press is fickle. Instead, she made it happen. Four months after agreeing to the goal, she got Trilogy on the front cover of Forbes. It became the stuff of folklore and legend at Trilogy and reinforced Joe’s belief in The Kids.

Crazy work ethic
Trilogy’s college recruits had no life outside of Trilogy. They didn’t have commitments at home, they didn’t have mortgages, they didn’t have any obligations. As a result, the Trilogy recruits were regularly there at work past midnight – in fact, many of them enjoyed it – this was the life they loved and were used to in college (staying up all night working on some code) – now they were getting paid to do the same thing with smart people around them. Not all of these hours were necessarily highly productive, but the work ethic was ridiculous.

Out of the Box Thinkers
Some of Trilogy’s best ideas and innovations came from our college hires. They were smart and talented. They just graduated from college- a fantastic environment where people are encouraged to study across disciplines, where they are thrown in dorms with people from all walks of life, and they spend four plus years absorbing ideas, debating the meaning of life, and trying to improve the state of the world. They are taught to question authority and take nothing at face value. Contrast that with a typical corporate environment, even that of a medium to large tech company, where teams are more functionalized, roles are more specialized, and decisions are more hierarchical. The Trilogy Kids, while inexperienced, were not sullied by traditional corporate process or thinking. They still had the mindset one has in college when they arrived. This perspective and approach led to amazing innovation at Trilogy, including pcOrder, which spun off and became a $1B market cap company. Other new products like our marketing configurator or commission applications generated over $100 million of revenue. Entire new geographies, like our European division was launched and run by a Trilogy college hire.

Insanely strong culture
Every great startup that becomes an iconic company has a strong company culture. This company culture is what sustains a startup during difficult times and is what is celebrated during times of success. College recruits are a big contributor to company culture. These recruits come from campus environments where every Saturday they paint their faces and wear their school colors….environments where they cheer on ridiculous mascots like a dancing tree or a blue devil. College kids love the rituals and symbols that come with being part of a freshman class or dorm or college organization. These same rituals at Trilogy were celebrated with amazing intensity whether it was the friday party on the patio, the weekend vegas trips, or the toga party at the Hawaii retreat. Could you imagine how different a college football game would be if there were no college students in the stands and only the alums and boosters? This is what Trilogy would have been like without the college hires. Our culture would not have been nearly the same.

Why don’t more startups recruit from college at scale?
These are all obvious benefits of hiring from college. Big tech companies in the 90s like Microsoft were heavily focused on college recruiting. Similarly, the big tech companies of this era, Google and Facebook, aggressively recruit from college. Many startups may target a local college for a handful of hires or look to add 1-2 folks from the alma mater of the founder. However, very few startups recruit from college at scale the way Trilogy did it in the 90s. Why is that?

Cost, Time, Resources
On campus recruiting is expensive and time consuming. College fairs and college recruiting events are big ticket items. It can cost over $20,000 to participate in a formal job fair or similar event. In addition, the cost of flights and interviews on campus add up quickly. Now multiply this by 5 or 10 campuses and you quickly have a $500k investment to recruit from college, which makes a scaled campus recruiting program prohibitive. Plus, college recruiting requires an enormous investment of time – info sessions, on campus interviews, sell weekends, and new hire training typically involve a team of dedicated individuals plus significant time from the founders who already have too much on their plate.

However, most of our startup founders wish they could hire more engineers directly from college. And all of our founders, especially those in NYC and the Valley, feel that technical hiring is their number one challenge right now.

 

About Ajay Agarwal

Hi - I'm Ajay and this is my personal blog. I am a partner with Bain Capital Ventures where I focus on early stage investing. Previously, I was with Trilogy Software in Austin, TX. I live in Palo Alto, CA with my wife and three kids.
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6 Responses to Only the Best

  1. Great post Ajay! BCV’s College Recruiting Manifesto, a la Jerry Maguire… Job applicants, even if you don’t get that reference you can still apply ;)

  2. Himanshu says:

    Too good.. This made me think about the old Trilogy days :)

  3. Ajay,

    Thank you for sharing insights regarding the power on culture and productivity of focused college recruiting strategies. As my career has taken me to other “great” software companies, such as i2 Technologies, Microsoft, etc., the TU 95 experience and dynamics only increase in appreciation over time.
    All the best,
    Richard

  4. Right on Ajay! One other great benefit is that if you create the right culture all of those recent grads tell their friends who are still in school that they have to come work here. Talk about recruiting leverage.

  5. Great article Ajay.
    It was really an amazing experience to see what a team of young people was able to achieve at Trilogy. There is something to be said about what’s possible when you are not bogged down by old school dogmas of clouded by how things are traditionally done (or not done.) Although I was one of the few non-college recruits, I was completely bought into the spirit of doing the impossible as crazy as it might seem at the time. I saw the results first hand as we grew my little sales commission product initiative from zero to close to $50M in sales in three years. What a ride!!!
    Jens Tellefsen, Trilogy class of 1996

  6. Rudhir Patil says:

    Great insight. Just to add on, one can reduced cost (time/money) of the hire process via appropriate lead curation. Companies like interviewstreet.com are great in this space. Employment is a market where both buyers/sellers are complaining i.e. employers & job seekers. Employers complain about not getting quality candidates & hence seek experienced candidates and job seekers claim that resumes go into black holes. The resumes primarily end up in black holes primarily because most ATSs still lead to flooding. Also often people hire based on referrals rather than merit. In my opinion ATS and linkedin qualify resumes/profiles rather than candidates which is a critical flaw. In my opinion lead curation & tracking is a big open market begging for innovation in many consumer verticals such as employment, dating, start-up funding, school admissions, events etc.

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