Ayan Kishore, Mona Abdel-Halim, Paul Sutcliffe: Resunate.com
People do things for non-obvious reasons. Careerimp is an example of a for-profit company that grew from roots in the non-profit social innovation world. The company’s CEO and founder, Ayan Kishore, went from trying to tackle some of the world’s greatest labor issues as a non-profit initiative to solving a simple and prevalent problem – the lack of technology to help job seekers in the tedious process of applying for jobs. Oh, there is lots of competition providing solutions, but they all focus on the employer. True to his roots of cheering for the small guy who is unemployed and in need of help, Ayan wanted to use his technical prowess to help those that need help the most – people seeking jobs.
Ayan stumbled upon the idea for Resunate because he kept seeing a common theme relating to unemployment while he was working on People’s Labs, a now-defunct initiative that was started by a few Carnegie Mellon students who wanted to do what they could to help the world through technology. It happens all the time that one idea spawns another; and that’s exactly what happened.
Ayan saw the need for a resume optimizer because people apply to a variety of jobs, each time needing to tweak their resume for a specific position. Ayan knew that he could build a solution to make this process smarter and easier. But he needed help.
Building the team. Armed with a masters from CMU in Human Computer Interaction (2009), Ayan recruited his two co-founders, Mona Abdel-Halim and Paul Sutcliffe. Recruiting Mona was easy, he tells me: “She was part of CMU, getting two masters, one in business [Tepper MBA] and one in public policy [Heinz MSPPM]. Even though she had a number of opportunities, Mona really wanted something where she could make a difference. She has similar goals as me. And, with her MBA, I figured that she knew a whole lot of stuff about the business side of things where I was weakest.”
Mona was part of a large student team working on the project, although she was the only one that was serious about doing this upon graduation. By the time she got her dual degrees in May, 2010, Mona was part of the Careerimp founding team.
Mona used to be a scientist in Biochemistry. She did a lot of public affairs work, including an internship at the UN. She got interested in venture philanthropy and realized the connection to entrepreneurship. When she met Ayan, she recognized a kindred spirit and she really wanted to sink her teeth into a viable venture that also provided some social benefit.
Paul’s story is different. Paul answered the call for engineering help. Ayan had analyzed the languages that they could use at the core of Resunate. He posted an ad to Ruby groups and Paul wrote him an email saying, “I’ve done a few projects but I am old.” Ayan replied, “Age not a problem.”
At 59, Paul is no newcomer to entrepreneurship or to building software. But the most unusual thing about Paul is that he has a masters in Divinity and is an Anglican priest. “I wrote my first computer program in 1968; it was 40 feet of paper tape! Then I worked at a small company for a while, and then I went to Westinghouse. I’ve been there, done that over and over,” Paul tells me. “But I love the world of startups and I believe that I can add a lot of value because I really know how to build software products,” he continues.
Getting going. Early in 2010, the team ensconced themselves in Project Olympus’ student incubator space, and began to build, test, and validate the need. That summer, the startup was accepted into AlphaLab which, like other incubator programs, provides seed funding ($25,000) and mentorship. They were able to hire more developers and focus on their most critical issues. As Ayan describes, “We did a lot of business exploration in terms of customers and business model. The AlphaLab advisors helped us think this through.”
They struggled with understanding their target customers. Ayan articulates the question they asked: “Should we go after recruiters, universities, companies? How could we reach the job seeker?”
The problem that Resunate solves is that “job seekers have appropriate skills for different jobs but they don’t know how to present those skills for a particular position,” Mona explains. “And employers don’t help job seekers; they become frustrated when they get presented with information they don’t care about or if they can’t find the right information,” Ayan adds.
AlphaLab presented the team with the opportunity of figuring out an answer to a fundamental business question that Mona focused on: “How can we be profitable while still providing job services for seekers who lack resources because they are unemployed?”
The team decided to hit the channels where seekers get advice – career centers. “And those organizations became our channel to market,” Ayan explains. They set up an alpha test among local career centers in Pittsburgh, and forged ahead.
The team grappled with deciding between branding the company name, Careerimp, vs. the product, Resunate. They determined that it was far more important to have their audience – customers – recall the product name.
Building the business. Mona explains what they are doing with the product, “In many ways we are reversing the analytics that job boards and employers have. We offer that level of analysis to job seekers. That results in job seekers making smarter decisions about how to position themselves, yielding more appropriate career matches.” She continues, “It’s funny, but when you think about job seeking, it isn’t really about making a resume, it’s about presenting the skills that are most appropriate for a job.”
Although the career space is super crowded, other companies have not focused on creating tools for job seekers. Ayan explains, “There are lots of resume tools and services but no quantitative approach to making resumes better. And it’s expensive to buy help in creating a resume. It can be thousands of dollars. And that’s only for a single resume. No one has provided a solution that helps tailor a resume for a particular job.” Until now, that is.
The team was able to raise a small seed round through an angel that “believes in us and in the need,” Ayan tells me. They were able to use that money to double the size of full-time employees (now 5 plus several interns). The team plans to raise a proper series A early next year. And they have the runway to get there.
This week they are launching their version 1.5 of Resunate. As of mid-August, they also started on-boarding university career centers, and they continue to add customers as Mona focuses more on sales.
Resunate has found a niche in business schools Mona tells me, “One thing that we do that nobody else does is that we code individual templates – ‘Templates That Matter.’ These are not run-of-the-mill templates but are formats that business schools spend years perfecting to embody their identify. As we work with new schools, we help them perfect their resumes even more, making sure they’re easy to scan into resume databases. Then we code the templates in Resunate so it’s a matter of clicking a button for their students to automatically format their professional experiences. Schools, especially business schools, love that.”
Resunate today. With an initial business model of providing the product to university career centers, the Resunate team offers annual subscriptions giving each enrolled student a premium Resunate account to help them build smarter resumes for any job.
But some of their advisors thought that model was not scalable, and that with a huge job seeker base out there the product could target individual job seekers. Today, Resunate is garnering paying customers from both sides. The focus is clearly on getting users more than earning revenues.
Challenges. Like all startups, Resunate has significant issues to overcome:
- Competition. While the career space is big, the competition is fierce and well entrenched. The first question that the Resunate team always gets asked is “What about Monster? How are you different?” The team spent the last year mapping out the career space and how their offering differs from others. But even uniqueness is not enough to combat the noise that is out there. Where they are today is that they have figured out a niche in the job application process. The Resunate team thinks that they have a technological advance of a couple of years. But they know that new resume tools are coming out. It’s exciting but scary – can they beat the big guys with their Resunate tool?
- Technology differentiation. Similarly, technology is common in the career space, so how could Resunate differentiate itself? Ayan tells me, “The reason that there are not a lot of technology solutions focused on the job seeker is probably because there was no business model in the past. How were you going to monetize job seekers?” That is still an issue for Resunate until they have enough customer feedback to validate their model.
- Focus. This is always an issue. The Resunate team feels stretched so thin that they know they are having trouble creating value. It’s very easy to get distracted.
- Business model and getting to market. Enough said, we all face this – all the time.
- Pace. For Ayan, the toughest challenge has been pacing the company. He cites the experiences of being incubated from Project Olympus to AlphaLab, and then being on your own. He tells me, “It is hard to figure out how fast we should be moving vs. what we can actually achieve.” And he concludes, “Making peace with that is my biggest challenge personally and professionally.”
Thankfully, from a technology perspective, there haven’t been major hurdles for Resunate. Paul the engineer made his career in Westinghouse being a technology problem solver. As he states, “There is always a back door to a problem. I learned to never succumb to brute force, insurmountable problems.”
Parting thoughts. Why did these particular three choose the entrepreneurial path?
- Mona gives me her reason: “I like to come up with ideas and to start something. But it was finally time to focus and I wanted to take something from start to finish and get that satisfaction. Entrepreneurship allows me to do everything that I wanted to do – it is the diversity that I need to keep energized.”
- Paul tells me, “First of all at my age I get to choose who I work with. Secondly, I take great enjoyment in starting things. So I start things with great people.”
- For Ayan, before grad school he worked for a consulting company and he had a negative reaction to the job because the motivations were wrongly lined up: “You work crazy hours. Your entire company is like that with thousands of people, but they are all working for someone else. What you do may not have any value because it may not be accepted by the client. That’s not very motivating. When I came to grad school I wanted to find something motivating. Something socially oriented to line up motivations correctly. And that’s why I am doing Resunate”
Go, Resunate, we’re ready to help!