In this episode of the Sourcing Industry Landscape, Dawn Tiura interviews Michael Kearns. Mike Kearns is the Vice President of Enterprise Strategy at Toptal, an on-demand freelance talent procurement network. As the procurement of high-skilled workers becomes more competitive in the global market, Kearns tells SIG CEO Dawn Tiura, CSP, the steps that companies can take in procuring and managing talent to lower overhead costs and drive more efficient business outcomes.
Dawn Tiura: Hi, this is Dawn Tiura from SIG, and I am so excited to introduce you to Michael Kearns. He's the Vice President of Enterprise Strategy at Toptal. Michael, thank you for joining me today.
Michael Kearns: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
Dawn Tiura: Glad to have you. So, let's do a little bit...let's go over some personal things. First, let's jump into the business. You live in Denver, is that correct?
Michael Kearns: I do. In the city of Denver.
Dawn Tiura: And you've been with Toptal for how long now?
Michael Kearns: A little bit over a year. I joined in August of 2016.
Dawn Tiura: Oh great. Okay, so I know you've got two young kids, you moved from San Francisco to Denver about 14 years ago, but you've been in the services industry for about the last 20 years, which I think makes you a very interesting person. Let's talk about your journey through the services industry, if you don't mind.
Michael Kearns: Oh that's be great. So, I started my career with, well, then Andersen Consulting, but now Accenture, as a Management Consultant. So advising clients, working on large-scale projects and programs. I actually had the good fortune of while I was there helping start up Accenture's business process outsourcing unit, which was new way for companies to engage firms like Accenture to wholly outsource business process areas. And it was brand new at the time, and Accenture's approach where one organization served multiple clients was very new and very innovative. And that was a great experience for me to both work on large-scale outsourcing deals, but also work with highly global teams and a global client base.
Michael Kearns: From there, I started as a partner with a company called Solemn Consulting, and that was where we were really building a consulting firm from the ground up. And we had a very interesting model, kind of the opposite of the global teams that I was working at with Accenture, where we had local markets with locally focused consultants. So, no travel, no remote, purely locally focused. And through that experience I really started to get interested in different ways to build teams. Because what we did out of the gate with Solemn was we provided consulting firm level talent so people who used to work at the big, global consultancies...but we provide them directly through expert matching at reasonable cost with very low overhead.
Michael Kearns: And clients love that model cause they love getting this elite talent, and they love the flexibility. And as we grew our business with Solemn, it would become more of an integrated consultancy. I always looked at our original model and thought that there was really something to it. And as I started to look at developments in technology, and some of the trends around remote work and global collaboration, and of course the gig economy where companies like Uber and Instacart et cetera—I realized there's tremendous opportunity to pursue new ways to build teams. And that's not just for clients or organizations to find talent, but frankly, for talent to find opportunity. And as a result, I started my own company actually in a space competitive to Toptal, and got introduced to the co-founders of Toptal, Breanden and Taso, and ended up joining them. And that's...here I am today.
Dawn Tiura: So, they said it was better to have you join the team than sort of compete with you it sounds like.
Michael Kearns: Yeah, I'd like to think so. But I also think it's—they had built an amazing organization over the course of about six and a half years with just incredible global talent base, and I thought, from my own perspective, I could either take that journey myself and build something similar, or use what they have already created as a springboard to the next thing. And honestly, with what they've built, it was a pretty easy choice. And one in hindsight that was a good one.
Dawn Tiura: So not all of our listeners know about Toptal, or maybe they assume they know. But you're not a normal MSP or a staffing firm, so can you compare and differentiate that for me?
Michael Kearns: Absolutely. So, just for context, Toptal is an on-demand talent platform. We provide organizations around the world with the very best software engineering, design and finance talent. And why we're different or how we're different is...I'll compare us to some of the different types of organizations you typically see in the staffing industry.
Michael Kearns: So first, we're not an MSP because we provide talent, but we don't manage spend and we're not a category manager or anything like that. So, we actually provide talent to engage with clients. We don't manage the talent programs of others. And in terms of staffing firms, I think the difference between Toptal and a staffing firm really centers around the talent that we have in our networks. So, all of our talent is actually pre-vetted; they go through incredibly rigorous screening before they're allowed into our community that allows us to know with absolute certainty that every single person we have is of the highest capability. We screen hundreds of thousands of the people a year, and less than 3% are allowed in our network. So, it's incredibly exclusive and it's hard to get into. And we couple that with expert-driven matching.
Michael Kearns: So when a client comes to us with a need...so let's just say they come to us with a need for a software engineer, they actually speak to a software engineer. They don't talk to a recruiter or salesperson, so we actually use domain experts to place exactly the right person into an engagement for a client. So it allows us to do it very quickly, very efficiently and very effectively. So typically, for us, our average time to find a candidate is 24 hours. We typically provide less than one candidate per opportunity; 1.9 to be exact. And 98% of the time, the talent we place gets through the no-risk trial that we provide where a client can work with the person for up to two weeks, and if they're not happy, they don't pay. 98% of the talent goes through that trial—so it's a very focused, targeted, efficient way to place talent within an organization. And frankly, a lot of our vetting and placement is more akin to a consulting firm than a staffing firm.
Michael Kearns: And then of course what we're known for-
Dawn Tiura: You said that they will use this talent and try them out for two weeks, and if they're not happy, they don't pay?
Michael Kearns: That's right. So, depending on the duration of the engagement, the client gets up to two weeks to work with the talent and frankly for the talent to work with the client, and if the client's not happy, they don't pay. And they're free to either use a totally different provider or we will obviously find them another candidate, taking into account their feedback and that they want us to pay for that, that first engagement. And as I mentioned, 98% of the time the talent we place makes it through the trial and the client's very, very happy. And they continue on.
Dawn Tiura: So unlike Upworks where it's one to one, and one an Upworks person and they're hiring one at a time, and you can hire as many as you want, Upworks people aren't vetted in this regard. So is that your huge differentiator? Or can you actually provide talent for an entire enterprise through your platform?
Michael Kearns: So we can provide individual talent, we can provide teams of folks. No matter what we provide, whether it's a whole team, individual folks, whether it's a 100 people or one person—they all come with the same level of service, the same vetting and the same curated batching. And that's really...our focus is to provide organizations with the very best talent, with as little friction as possible as quickly as possible. And that's really what we focus on, and part of that has to be that we know the talent up front. We can't just have a directory of people that we don't know in depth. So we have to get to know the talent, what's important to them, their skill levels. Then we also need to understand the client's challenge. And that's the way we're able to make such effective, efficient matches so quickly.
Dawn Tiura: That's amazing. So, services wasn't on anyone's radar ten years ago, fifteen years ago. So it suddenly is such a huge category, and then talent itself such a huge category. Where do you see this industry moving? Where do you think the future is?
Michael Kearns: I think that much like 100 years ago, often times factories had their own power source because distributed electricity wasn't reliable. And at some point, it wasn't possible. Then obviously now, today, that's never the case.
Michael Kearns: Not that long ago, companies used to buy and install software because software in the cloud wasn't possible or wasn't trusted. And even more recently, companies used to have their own server infrastructure, because this idea of infrastructure as a service wasn't available. What happened in each of those cases is companies made a lot of fixed and flexible investments, because there weren't more flexible, efficient, nimble alternatives. And I actually think we're seeing something similar with talent.
Michael Kearns: So, there's this idea of...some people call it the human cloud, some people call it liquid talent...but there's this idea of building teams on-demand and organizations focusing on work not as static organizations doing work, but nimble, agile project teams assembling to drive a specific outcome and then disassembling when that work is done. And we think that not only is that an organizational dynamic that's going to continue to gain momentum, but with that, this idea of talent on demand where you can now flexibly build teams with exactly the right talent, exactly when you need it—that wasn't possible even five years ago. There's a lot of different reasons why that's now possible, but we think, certainly I think, that as organizations strive to be more nimble and more agile and build project teams to drive outcomes, this idea of being able to pull from virtual talent pulls and build those teams quickly, effectively and exactly as you need them, when you need them is only going to increase.
Michael Kearns: And what we want to do as an organization, and I think as an industry, is remove as much friction as possible from the system that provides talent to organizations where they can literally use Toptal or whoever as a virtual bench. So rather than, "Who do we have who is an employee with these skill sets?" And go through that. And then if we don't have the person, then maybe I go to a staffing firm, maybe I hire a consultancy. Move from that to this world where we're building teams on demand. And organizations like Toptal serve as a virtual bench, just like Amazon works as a virtual technology infrastructure capacity for companies where when they need more, they can get it. When they need something different, they can get it. And it's all incredibly quick; incredibly efficient; incredibly easy.
Dawn Tiura: Oh, this is interesting. So what kind of talent do you provide? Is this designers? Is it software developers? What kind of talent?
Michael Kearns: So right now we focus in three areas. Software engineering, and that means a lot of things. Things like DevOps, custom software engineering, data science, analytics, et cetera; Design; and finance professionals. So those are the three areas that we focus on right now.
Dawn Tiura: And you see that expanding into other areas as the company continues to grow?
Michael Kearns: Absolutely. So, we have a roadmap for the next several years to allow many other capabilities. For us, quality is the most important thing so we're very deliberate about not just which capabilities we choose to roll out next, but also the vetting process that we put in place to make sure that the next capability we roll out has talent with the same level of capability and skill as all of our current capabilities. So it's really important to us to get the vetting and the screening and the sourcing of talent right. And to do it globally, we have talent in over 100 countries. So to get that right for every capability takes a lot of work and we take the quality of that seriously. So we're very deliberate about rolling them out.
Dawn Tiura: That's amazing. So you guys have staff in over 100 countries that you can draw on? Or talent, I should say.
Michael Kearns: We do. So we have talent in over 100 countries and staff around the world that works within the talent communities every day. We put on over 400 events in country around the world every year. So generally speaking, in any given day, today included, there's likely one or two Toptal events somewhere in the world that we're putting on. And it's not just to market Toptal, it's really to engage our community whether they're part of the Toptal community or the broader talent community. We want to be a helpful, engaged part of the local communities. Right? The local software development communities, the local design communities, the local finance communities. And I think that is, for us, one of the ways we're able to track the best talent is because we're engaged in those communities with the best talent.
Dawn Tiura: What a great model.
Dawn Tiura: So Micheal, if we were going to leave the listeners with one take away, what would you have wanted them to learn from you today? Besides what a great model you have a Toptal.
Michael Kearns: The key takeaway I would like people to leave with is that there's tremendous power in this idea of on demand talent. This idea that you can draw upon a virtual bench of talent to drive your business and your organization forward. There's tremendous pressure on business leaders today, from their shareholders, competitors to get things done more quickly and to evolve the organization more quickly. And that requires talent. And that requires highly-skilled, specialized talent. And they don't have the time to wait two months, three months, six months for someone to be hired; or two or three months to find someone through normal, contingent pathways. They really need those folks now, and they need those folks to be right.
Michael Kearns: Because the cost of having the wrong person...there's ramp-up time, there's switching time. The cost of having the wrong person is very, very high. And this idea of on-demand talent where you can get exactly the right person at exactly the right time I think is tremendously powerful. But it takes a new way of looking at both how you look at talent providers, but also how you look at building teams. And as organizations move more towards project-based team building and outcome-based team building, this idea of bringing in talent from the outside to build teams on demand is only going to become more and more prevalent. And I think it will be a key differentiator for leading organizations. I think that the ability to assemble, lead and drive blended teams sourced from lots of different places effectively is going to be a core competency of leading organizations in the future. And I think it's critical that any organization that's looking at how they engage and procure and assess outside talent looks at those programs with that end in mind.
Dawn Tiura: And I agree. I'd rather pay for a rockstar than save some money and get a mediocre person. So I think you're right. It has to be the value that you're getting versus the price you're paying for the talent.
Michael Kearns: That's absolutely right, and we see it every day. And we hear about it from hiring managers every day that they know that an elite person can be...a lot of people say 10 times as effective. I mean, even if it's twice as effective, that's still a huge, incremental risk. And the cost of having the wrong person is tremendously high.
Dawn Tiura: Oh, I agree. I think that's fantastic.
Dawn Tiura: So with that, I think we're out of time today. But Michael, I want to welcome you to the podcast series. And hopefully I can check back with you in about a year and see just how your journey's going and I'm wishing you a prosperous new year. For you and Toptal. It's been a pleasure getting to know you today.
Michael Kearns: Well thank you very much. It's been a pleasure speaking with you, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. I appreciate it.
Dawn Tiura: Well, great. Okay, with that folks we are done with today's podcast, but please check in again. Have a great day everybody. Buh-bye.