“It’s a lifestyle decision, a different path. There are great parts of it and really challenging parts of it. If you look at probability, it’s not going to be the most lucrative and it’s not gonna be the easiest. But you’re doing it because you cannot not start a company.” – Ben Sesser
The Oppy is reconnecting with some prominent NYU Stern alumni with our ‘Graduate’ series. Each month, we’ll interview notable alum that have made an impact on their community and industry.
This month, we’re bringing you the story of NYU alumnus Ben Sesser (‘12), co-founder and CEO of the startup BrightHire. BrightHire is a new kind of interview platform used by the world’s fastest growing companies to confidently scale amazing teams and hire more equitably. Read on to learn more about Ben’s story and insights into taking an entrepreneurial path.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with an icebreaker question. What’s the worst interview experience you’ve ever had?
I was trying to start a company pretty much my entire time at Stern, but I needed to take an internship between the first and second year to, you know, pay my rent. I recruited on the fly – I hadn’t recruited all semester – and ended up landing an interview at a notable investment bank. I was interviewing with somebody at the firm and they asked me what I guess is a somewhat common question, “Why shouldn’t I hire you?”
I tried to give one of those canned answers where you spin yourself in a positive light. He listened and said, “That’s not a good answer, why shouldn’t I hire you?” I gave a different version of the positive spin interview answer and he said, “Yeah, that’s not actually a reason I wouldn’t hire you, why shouldn’t I hire you?” This went back and forth ten times at which point I was like, “What can I tell you that will get me out of this death loop of questions?”
Perhaps, “I don’t want to work for someone like you” would have done the trick?
Yeah, that would have been a better answer.
Give our readers an overview of your background and your journey to founding BrightHire.
I have a fairly diverse background and can safely call myself a generalist. I started out working on a corporate strategy team doing product and corporate development – a little finance, a little strategy, a little product. Then I went into the world of early stage companies, where I was lucky to be able to wear a lot of hats in the roles that I had. In my last company before BrightHire, I joined a 15 person startup and my skill set was a relatively good fit. I was running finance, legal, ops, HR and sales at various points in time. The job in that environment is to push the ball forward and grow the company until you’re not necessarily the right fit to do something anymore and the company’s at a stage where the resources exist to bring in somebody to take over. I started with five hats and then slowly took them off, one at a time.
As for my journey to BrightHire, my interest in what people mean for companies and what careers mean for people goes back pretty far. I was an undergraduate Labor Relations major and then the first company I worked at was a big global consultancy with a flagship practice around human capital. So it’s always sort of been the back of my mind.
I also had the opportunity to grow my previous company from about 15 people to well past 100. Companies live and die based on the talent in their organizations. There’s nothing more important to a startup. The pace of the company is so fast and everyone’s responsible for so much to drive things forward. Having run so many different functions, I noticed that there’s this enormous gap between how every other important process in a business runs in terms of discipline, data, collaboration and structure compared to the hiring process.
If you believe that people are the most important ingredient to the future success of a company, the hiring process is how you build that team. Yet, there’s this massive disconnect between this idea and reality. That was the kernel for what we’re building at BrightHire. Having looked at the technology in this space for a long time, nearly all of it was focused at the top of the funnel, how to find a needle in a haystack and attract people to the hiring process. But nothing helps companies improve the hiring process – that is, to make better, more equitable and faster decisions.
Also, the hiring process is incredibly inconsistent, subjective and disconnected. Every other part of business is being subject to change in fundamental ways with technology. People still are the most important ingredient to the future success of every company, and yet the process by which we build that team and select those people is still the same as it was 50 years ago. We’re using memories, vague recollections and pen and paper to make these incredibly important decisions on a daily basis. It was hard for me to envision a future without this innovation.
Was there a moment or a story when the idea came to you, like an epiphany? Or was it simply the culmination of the experiences you’ve described so far?
An important moment is when I realized that the best person I hired at my previous company almost didn’t get hired. The crux of the negative feedback during her final panel was that one of the evaluators didn’t think she was a culture fit. Thankfully, we ended up overruling it and she was unbelievable for our company, a total rockstar. The idea that the best hire we made of 150 people could be so close to not having that opportunity because of something so subjective is crazy. It’s a good reminder that there are problems with the way this process works. It locks a lot of great people out of the right opportunities and it’s a big loss for organizations.
So that was step one, realizing that this can’t be how decisions get made around future talent. And then the second part of it was that there’s all of this technology out there and it doesn’t continue into the heart of the process. There was something missing. My cofounder connected the problem with the solution. Technology exists in other parts of business that are human and conversationally driven, it’s not impossible to do. This technology drives outcomes by transforming the visibility, collaboration and the excellence of those areas. So, it’s hard to envision technology not getting applied to the hiring process in this way as well. Once we landed on that insight, it seemed very obvious to us at the time.
How old is BrightHire? You started the company relatively recently, right?
Yeah, we’re about 18 – 20 months old.
Can you talk to us about how it’s going from both an internal and an external market perspective?
It’s been a whirlwind, as it is for every startup. In the course of 12 months, we went from a prototype to general availability, grew our team to 12 and are now working with a bunch of fantastic organizations. We’re fortunate to have been able to do this in the first place, and to have made a few good initial decisions.
In a startup, timing has a lot to do with success to a huge degree, which is obvious in hindsight, but when you go into it you don’t necessarily fully appreciate the magnitude of the role it will play. For us, the timing has been hugely beneficial. How teams work together has changed dramatically in the past year, in a way that is really aligned to our product. We are interjecting technology into communications – capturing them, facilitating collaboration asynchronously and doing a whole bunch of things that help distributed teams work well together.
Our product also helps companies build a more equitable way to hire based on evidence, structure and consistency in the process. That’s been in our DNA from day one, and the conversation around diversity has elevated pretty dramatically within companies in the past year. If companies want to achieve their goals, they have to create representative organizations. One piece to the puzzle is a less subjective hiring process.
You are a new CEO. What is it like running the ship?!
I’ve been lucky enough to work very closely with a few founders for many years prior to this so that’s certainly been helpful for simple pattern recognition – how to put one foot in front of the other, what to do when, what really needs to be prioritized and what matters. I’ve benefited a lot from learning and failing with them.
Obviously it’s different when you are wearing the final decision hat. I’m making hard decisions about what to do, what not to do and what matters – and owning them. That’s the biggest difference. There is a lot of uncertainty, tough trade offs and prioritization because there are a million things that you want to do. You have to be pretty intentional about what gets prioritized otherwise you can make a pretty big mistake. Speed is everything, if you lose a month that’s like an eternity. I’m also lucky that I have a cofounder that I’ve known for nearly 30 years. We put our heads together on a lot of things.
Ok – time for our “rapid fire” questions:
– Favorite professor at NYU? Damodaran. I love how he boiled things down into the most elemental terms to think about value in an organization. I found it really fascinating.
– When you have the best ideas? 7:30am – 8:30am in the morning
– What’s one thing you can’t do now that you want to learn? How to play an instrument really well, either the ukulele or the piano.
– What are you reading/watching/listening to right now? I’ve been reading a lot of books about famous historical explorers and journeys, like one about the Whaleship Essex, which is the inspiration behind Moby Dick, and another one about Theodore Roosevelt and his journey down through South America. I think it’s apropos that I’m reading about all of these people overcoming impossible odds. If someone can get shipwrecked on Antarctica in 1911 and get home, I can figure this out, you know?!
There’s definitely a metaphor there.
– What’s the cause you’re passionate about? Equal opportunity to education and career mobility.
– If you can meet anyone alive or dead, who would it be? That’s a hard one. There’s nobody I can think of that I’ve been waiting my whole life to meet. For example, I like Bruce Springsteen but do I really care if I meet him in person? Maybe not…
– Who is the most important person in your life? I can’t say one – it’s my wife and my son.
Our final questions are Stern-related. How do you think your time at Stern influenced where you are today?
There’s a zero percent chance that I’d be doing what I am doing today if I didn’t go to Stern. Everything leads to everything else. When I was at NYU, I had the opportunity to meet people and get certain experiences that led to the things that I did immediately after. Specifically, a connection that I made during the program led to my first job at a startup. Besides the people, it’s the location and opportunities that came from the program and New York City more broadly that had the largest influence.
What advice would you give to fellow MBAs from Stern who want to start their own company?
It’s a lifestyle decision, a different path. There are great parts of it and really challenging parts of it. If you look at probability, it’s not going to be the most lucrative and it’s not gonna be the easiest. But you’re doing it because you cannot not start a company, because you know you want to be a builder and you want to be your own boss. Or maybe it’s a cause that you’re just not going to let die or a problem you have to solve.
Secondarily, I would say that whatever problem you’re solving with your company, you should be really passionate about it. If you’re not, you’re not going to make it through the ups and downs. I’ve worked at startups I was interested in but not passionate about. I realized that my customer cared more about the problem than I did. That was a problem. I didn’t have the same level of motivation to get through the really tough times like I do now. I feel incredibly passionate about BrightHire and I know that if, on the other end of it, we’re successful, we’re going to have transformed the world in very important ways that go beyond just our business.
Well, we are rooting for you. Good luck and thank you for sharing your advice with Sternies who may be thinking about starting their own businesses.