How I Made It: Ian Siegel employs artificial intelligence to disrupt the job recruitment industry
Ian Siegel, 45, is chief executive of Santa Monica-based ZipRecruiter, the company he co-founded in 2010 to disrupt the recruitment and hiring industry. Since then, more than 1.5 million businesses and more than 430 million job seekers have used the online employment marketplace, according to the company. ZipRecruiter has nearly 1,000 employees, a quarter of whom are engineers.
Studying sociology, psychology and English at Oberlin College wasn’t the waste of time that Siegel feared it might be once he started a career in business.
“If you think of psychology as the individual, sociology as society and social psychology as the study of small group dynamics, I was already identifying the opinion leader, the emotional leader, early on in my career. I was breaking down every group into the categories I studied while I was in college, and it actually was really helpful,” Siegel said.
The Los Angeles native held executive-level positions at six different companies over 15 years. In hindsight, he sees the connective tissue that inspired ZipRecruiter.
“I had to do my own recruiting,” Siegel said, “posting positions to different job boards, each with a different mechanism. For years I was saying, ‘This is crazy. Why isn’t there a magic button I can push and send the same job to all the different job boards and bring all the candidates onto one list, just make it easy and efficient to hire somebody?’”
Siegel was suffering massive guilt at one of those early jobs, managing a technology team on an interim basis for a West Hollywood firm called Citysearch from 1996 to 1998. He actually apologized to his team for being so unqualified, having studied only non-tech subjects in college.
“They told me I was the best manager they ever had, because I listened,” Siegel said. “People didn’t need me to be an engineer. They needed me to be clear about the problem I wanted solved, and they needed the autonomy and the resources to go do it the way they wanted to do it.”
“Listen more than you talk,” Siegel said of his approach. “Describe the problem we’re trying to solve, describe what success looks like, and then keep listening, because your job is not to do all the work, your job is not to figure out the optimal solution, your job is to create space for all the smart people that you’ve hired to go work on that problem.”
‘Build the solution’
“I pulled together three friends. Two of them were engineers, one a designer,” Siegel said. “The four of us worked at my kitchen table at night and on weekends, and we built the first version of ZipRecruiter, and literally the day we launched it, it was like a rocket ship, like right out of the gate, product market fit.”
Siegel had three co-founders who were essential to the start-up days, he said. Ward Poulos had worked with Siegel “at three different companies. When I was mulling on this idea, he was the first person I talked to.” Will Redd “was an engineer that we had both worked with at companies in the past.” Software wizard Joe Edmonds rounded out the group.
“We were really aligned in terms of approach and personality, so it was very easy to work together,” Siegel said. All three are still with the company.
ZipRecruiter found that fast growth creates its own problems, Siegel said. “It’s always difficult to scale fast,” he said. “Things always break. There’s this cliche saying that the person that’s right for a 10-person company isn’t right for a 100-person company, the person that’s right for a 100-person company isn’t right for a 1,000-person company, and it’s absolutely true.”
“As we grew, we literally cherry-picked the top 5% of talent that we had worked with across multiple businesses,” Siegel said, “and then we got all their No. 1 referenced friends as well. We have a development office in Israel staffed with some of the best data scientists in the world doing R&D for us. It’s high-level algorithmic work. We’re just applying it to the job category.”
Embracing AI talent
Many companies are stumbling as they attempt to embrace artificial intelligence and harness it to their business models. Siegel said AI has given his company a built-in advantage by more quickly extracting data from resumes and more efficiently generating likely matches.
“We’re ZipRecruiter. We think we’re literally the easiest way to hire, so when we need to add all these bodies, all this expertise, we can eat our own dog food, because we have hired most of the people who work at ZipRecruiter, through ZipRecruiter, so that was probably our ace in the hole.”
Siegel has been married to his wife, Rochelle, for 18 years. They have a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. To clear his mind, Siegel prefers running to meditation, and he loves to read. “I’m fascinated by entrepreneurs telling their true truths, not the gilded PR-ready, ‘we were awesome from the beginning’ stories. I love the stories from the trenches. The ugly way that soup got made. I just find it reassuring, and it reminds me that it’s not easy for anyone.”
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