This conversation was facilitated by Jonaki Mehta, the first Job Portraits team member besides cofounders Miki and Jackson, as part of her interview process in 2016. It was all very meta.
What is Job Portraits, in a nutshell?
Miki: We use storytelling to help high-growth companies hire more effectively. Our approach is to put ourselves in the candidate’s position—to be their stand-in and advocate—and to help our clients see how they can improve the candidate’s experience.
In our early days we flirted with being a startup ourselves, but eventually decided on the agency model. In the agency world, we fall under the categories of “employer branding” and “talent marketing,” but we don’t love either of those phrases. We think the most important thing we do is tell real stories about real people. That helps companies find candidates they want to work with — and, in turn, because the companies are honest, candidates get excited about working with them, too.
What do you make for your clients?
Jackson: We make stories that explore their cultural practices, work environment, and the people the candidate might sit next to if they took the job. Beyond the stories themselves, our work might include brand development, marketing strategy, and social media, and we’ll usually get in the weeds with recruiters to make sure the material is being used well.
Miki: In the same way that a company designing an app might start with user experience research, we do candidate experience research. For some of the companies we work with, we put their current hiring assets in front of real candidates and interview them to find out what they’re thinking. We figure out how candidates research the company, what their assumptions are, and what information they can and can’t find to help them decide to apply.
Jackson: We take a holistic approach. We work with people like heads of talents and recruiters, as well as team members, to understand all their needs. This helps us get a well-rounded view of the opportunity, and what it’d be like to work on the team, before we turn that information into stories.
How do candidates respond?
Jackson: It’s such a pleasure for candidates to get treated like humans, because job searching usually feels so transactional and cold. We think a lot about archetypes. If we had to pick one for Job Portraits, it would be the Mentor. We see our role as helping companies discover their culture, or at least the role their culture plays in making candidates feel welcome.
A lot of our clients use recruiting tools that start with data. We start with the human element. We believe you need both if you’re going to hire effectively.
Why can’t companies write these stories on their own? What do they pay you for?
Miki: As a third party, it’s easier for us to ask tougher questions like “What’s hard about your job?” or “What disagreements have you faced and how did you deal with them?” And those answers are important. We know that candidates tune out as soon as they feel they’re being sold to, so our job is to foster a sense of trust and advocate for honesty throughout the process.
Jackson: Trust is also key with our clients. We sign non-disclosure agreements to help them feel comfortable being really honest with us, and we let them review our stories before they’re published. Coming from a journalism background, we know some folks probably judge us as company shills. But because we come from a candidate advocacy perspective and have gained trust with the clients, we’re able to push for transparency from the inside. We show them why it’s valuable. What’s cool to us is that, because of the access we have, our stories often reveal more about companies than straight journalism would.
Miki: When clients work with us, two things happen. One is obvious — candidates get more information. The second is more subtle. Because we’re asking clients to think out loud about their work, they often realize things that hadn’t occurred to them before. It’s usually positive, like, “Wow, I forgot how much I’ve learned here.” We refer to this as “making the invisible, visible” and it’s something we’re very aware of, even if it’s not what we lead with when we pitch new clients.
Jackson: Asking questions and listening can be a transformational act in itself.
Miki: Another interesting aspect of being outsiders is that people explain things to us in more detail. If you’re doing an interview internally, people will say things like, “You know what I mean,” because they don’t want to make a colleague feel stupid by explaining something basic to them. With us, people don’t assume we know anything — plus we never mind asking “stupid” questions.
When did you start Job Portraits and what “moment” is it in now?
Jackson: We started Job Portraits in early 2014. Our most popular type of story, the “team profile,” began as a hack for me to talk to startups I was interested in working with. (Beyond our journalism work, I have a product development background and Miki used to be a marketing consultant.)
I think we’ve worked with more than 40 teams now, so we’ve learned a ton about hiring, employer branding, and candidate needs. Recently, we started offering long-term, high-touch engagements that make use of our full spectrum of knowledge.
So in a lot of ways, this moment is about evolving from a product provider to a full-service creative agency. As we offer bigger projects and longer engagements, we need a larger team to handle the work. We’ve got a bunch of companies interested in our services, and a long list of past clients we hope would be happy to hear from us, but we don’t have the bandwidth for all that. It’s time to grow.
Speaking of growth, people have lots of ideas about what it’s like to work at a startup. How would you describe the pace and culture at Job Portraits?
Jackson: So, let me define a few terms. At least in the Bay Area, “startup” describes a company that uses external funding to grow very quickly. They take big risks to try to solve big problems and, because of that, they have a relatively high failure rate. A very smart guy named Joel Spolsky calls these “get-big-fast companies.” They’re very different from a coffee shop or laundromat, which Joel refers to as “organic growth” companies.
Miki: In Silicon Valley, “get-big-fast” usually means the company cares more about growth and traction than revenue — at least to start. Everywhere else in the world, the opposite is true — 99.9 percent of companies are “organic growth.” They make a product or provide a service and someone pays them for it. Then they reinvest some of that money in the business to fuel more modest growth. This is what we do.
Jackson: Right — we’re not a startup ourselves. But the twist is our clients are, so we do need to both understand them and work at their pace. Luckily, that’s in our bones. Miki and I had a company before Job Portraits that followed the get-big-fast model, so we know how product teams think and are familiar with all the incentives at play.
Where is Job Portraits headed next?
Miki: Jackson and I have always been fascinated by culture — we think of ourselves as amateur anthropologists and are deeply interested in human relationships. It’s been really wonderful to explore company cultures and share that with candidates, but next, we’d like to start influencing the culture in addition to documenting it.
The best recruiters at a company are its employees. If they’re happy, they’re going to pull in great people from their networks and serve as ambassadors for candidates they meet. You can tell whatever story you want, but if a candidate’s experience in an interview or an employee’s experience at work doesn’t line up with that story, you’re doing more damage than good.
When we’re doing research and discovery with our clients, we find great things, but we also see the challenges. I think, for example, that diversity and inclusion is something companies struggle with across the board. There are already consultants doing amazing work in those spaces, and currently, we refer customers to them or partner with them, in addition to helping tell stories that highlight diversity. We’d love to explore how our stories can help drive internal changes that will improve retention as well as recruiting.
What’s the value of collaboration in your work, especially as you grow the team?
Jackson: Collaboration helps you align each team member’s personal goals with our company wide goals. We’re big believers in intrinsic motivation, so that’s key.
Miki: I’m the one who probably struggles with collaboration the most, to be really honest, because I have more of a tendency toward control than Jackson. Collaboration always sounds like a great idea, but most people aren’t honest about the sacrifices it requires, and one of those sacrifices is obviously losing some control.
It’s easy to get stuck thinking, “I’m the only one who really knows what our clients need.” But I know that’s just my ego talking. When I let go of that, our collaborators bring in great ideas I never would’ve thought of, and that gets me excited all over again about what we could create. Work becomes more fun and less stressful.
Recently it’s been helpful to think of Job Portraits as this entity that lives outside of Jackson or me. It has its own life cycle and energy, and we are in service to it and what it wants to become. And right now, it seems clear it wants more collaborators.
Starting a company from scratch is a big risk. How do you think about failure? Do you encourage risk taking among your teammates?
Miki: Yeah, risk taking is definitely encouraged. It has to be because, when you’re a small, early-stage company, everything is a risk. Our goal is to take healthy risks. That starts with a clear mission and vision, so we know how an experiment could move us toward our goals.
And we care about the journey. If simply running the experiment will fulfill us on a personal level, we gain something from it even if it “fails.” No one should ever be embarrassed about an experiment not working out.
Jackson: We want to create an environment where everyone on our team feels empowered to run with an idea. If someone has an idea for a service offering, for instance, so long as it serves our mission and vision, we’re likely to say “go for it!” and let them really own that project.
To get this far, you must have also had some successes. How are those recognized?
Miki: We have daily and weekly check-ins, both of which include recognizing each other’s work and to celebrate “wins.” It’s really easy to get fixated on the big things that you haven’t yet accomplished. To keep yourself sane, it’s important to remember what you are accomplishing. Even just looking at the tasks we accomplished yesterday — which we do every morning — is a way to celebrate success.
Another thing that’s important to us, just in life generally, is saying “thank you.” I mean, all the time, for really tiny things. Recognizing the people around you and the work they do is so huge — we’ve tried to make it a regular practice so it almost becomes an automatic reflex.
How can team members expect to be supported at Job Portraits?
Miki: For me, two specific things come to mind. First, our job is to help our clients create a great experience for candidates and employees alike, so we obviously care a lot about doing the same for our own team.
Second, we think carefully about defining roles, even between the two of us. We try to be very clear about who owns what, what information we’re going to communicate, how often, and to whom. That will obviously extend to anyone else we work with.
Also, even though we’re small, Jackson is a total process geek — in the best way — so we already have a lot of structure in place. For instance, we regularly record decisions and things we’ve learned, which go into our internal wiki, along with things like email templates, production how-tos, and elevator pitches. We knew we’d eventually want to grow our team, so we’ve made sure the most important information isn’t trapped in our heads.
Jackson: Plus we obviously love to talk, and between the two of us, we have backgrounds in a pretty wide range of topics. So we can offer a lot of practical advice gained from those experiences — working with dozens of startups, running our own businesses, working with creatives, and more. We also host and attend a lot of community events, so if someone is interested in exploring a topic, even if it seems to have nothing to do with Job Portraits, we may have resources to share.
What qualities do you look for in potential team members?
Jackson: One that I’ve recognized recently is confidence. Our work often involves pushing our clients, and we are always challenging each other. It’s not aggressive, but you have to be confident enough to ask hard questions or admit you don’t know something. We’re wary of requiring specific skills, because our skills are constantly evolving, but we’ve found that if you trust yourself first, you’ll learn new skills more easily.
Miki: I just want to clarify that we’re not saying you have to have been born confident. That’s Jackson’s situation, but you might be more like me — I’ve done years of personal work to get to a place where I trust my decision-making and am comfortable defending it. What we do know is, right now, we are a small enough team that we don’t have the bandwidth to coach people into confidence.
Another important quality is self-awareness. We want our team members to know their strengths and weaknesses and recognize how their actions affect situations. Closely tied to that is empathy and compassion. Are you able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Do you listen for what’s underneath what people say? Can you give someone the benefit of the doubt?
Not surprisingly, we’re also looking for people with excellent communication skills. That doesn’t mean you have to be an amazing extemporaneous speaker or that you’re necessarily a fast emailer, but it does mean you care deeply about the way information is conveyed.
Jackson:Last but not least, we’re looking for insatiable curiosity. Someone who is eager to learn, who doesn’t just take things at face value, who wants to dig into the deeper reason something is the way it is. That’s really the core of what we do.