Interview by:
Martin Burns

Anil Dharni is a serial-entrepreneur, and the founder of Sense, a San Francisco-based automated recruitment talent engagement and communication platform backed by Accel, Google Ventures, Avataar Venture Partners, and Khosla Ventures. He's an angel investor, mentor at 500 Startups, with 4 exits under his belt.

Sense began as a solution for high-volume staffing firms, and is now expanding into enterprise-level corporate recruitment. We caught up with Anil recently to talk about the move, what inspired him to develop the company in the first place, and his advice for people who are itching to scratch their entrepreneurial bug.

I always find it interesting to understand the why behind a company - why was it created, what problem is it solving? Could you talk to us about Sense in that context?

After creating and investing in multiple successful startups, the consistent underlying theme has been that it’s less about the products companies build or the markets they go after, and more about the people they hire. It’s my core belief that as a company, “You are who you hire.”

With that mantra in mind, I founded Sense. In the past decade, we’ve seen a shift in the workforce dynamic; candidates have more options and subsequently more power than ever before. Happy candidates lead to higher job completion, redeployment, referrals, all things that impact a company’s bottom line. And yet, recruiters and hiring teams are still stuck in the dark ages when it comes to creating the ultimate candidate experience. I want to create a world where recruiters and Talent Acquisition leaders are loved by the candidates they serve. 

Today, we have over 400 customers and serve the entire gamut of the labor market from Light Industrial, Commercial, Admin/Clerical, Logistics/Warehousing hiring to IT/Finance/Legal/Marketing and Healthcare. The hiring problems companies face are multi-dimensional:

  • Rapid change in demographics; over 50% of the US workforce are now Millennials or GenZers
  • Job seekers would rather have a conversation with a recruiting chatbot than a recruiter
  • Over 60% of job seekers abandon the job application process
  • Over 80% of applicants get ghosted and never hear back from the company
  • 80% of companies believe they don’t hire the right people
  • 25% of employees quit within the first 6 months and, in certain industries, the turnover is higher than 100%

The bottom line is, companies are struggling in a massive way to retain and engage with employees. Sense solves this problem by enabling personalized engagement at scale, delivering candidate care and building loyalty with a platform solution that companies can easily manage.  

How has Sense evolved since its founding - have you adapted your approach/ product direction as a result? How did that change (if it happened) go, and what drove it in the first place?

In the very beginning, we sold to Employee Experience and Contractor Care teams at companies that did high volume hiring and struggled with high attrition rates and turnover. With Sense, they designed talent touch points that created a delightful candidate experience and also gave them feedback on job satisfaction. The data from these check-ins allowed our customers to identify issues early on, and leveraged happy talent to build brand loyalty and trust through referrals and online reviews. 

In the next phase of Sense, we’re helping our customers bring the power of personalized and relevant post-hire experiences to the pre-hire process (top of the funnel). We worked with recruiters/sourcers/coordinators to study their current workflows; through our research, we’ve developed a deep understanding of how they connected with candidates, areas where they were drowning in data entry, and aspects where they truly delivered value. We also realized that most existing solutions were single mode (email) while the recruiters’ workflows are multi-touch - email, text, voice, LinkedIn Mails, etc.   

Today, Sense is the only AI-powered talent lifecycle engagement platform in the marketplace. There are companies that sell one piece of the puzzle - like vendors who do email automation or conversational recruiting chatbots or referrals or recruiting automation. However, our customers don't want to deal with the headache of working with disparate technologies, figuring out integrations between apps, dealing with different customer success, and implementation teams. Sense brings all these together in a single omni-channel conversational platform that enables teams to focus on the truly human elements of hiring and automating the rest. 

We’re in some interesting times. Has the pandemic affected your strategy, eliminated and/ or created business opportunities?

It’s been fascinating - we went from record employment where companies were struggling to find candidates in nearly every industry, to sudden massive unemployment at a scale we’ve never seen before. Both Corporate and Staffing companies were impacted to various degrees, depending on the industry. Hiring in industries like hospitality, retail, etc. plummeted while hiring in warehousing, logistics, and essential healthcare rose dramatically. Some of our staffing customers lost 40-60% of all job orders between the second week of March and the end of April 2020. Internally, as hiring stalled, our customers cancelled their RPO contracts, laid off employees or put part of their recruiters/sourcers/coordinators on furlough.

As hiring returned, recruiting teams are a lot more focused around digital transformation and the adoption of technology to help them do more with a reduced staff. For now, the focus has switched dramatically from the candidate experience to driving efficiencies and automating core HR workflows. We are seeing a huge influx of applicants for each job so there’s a lot of noise in the talent acquisition front. For Sense, it meant working with our customers to make sure they could respond effectively to the market changes with a smaller staff. While we saw 30% of our pipeline disappear by April, the prospects that stayed were committed to digitally transforming their recruiting practices.

Despite the volatility that the pandemic caused, Sense kept adding customers, especially companies in the healthcare industry. In fact, Q4 2020 was the best quarter in our company’s history. We’ve also had amazing product innovation momentum with the launch of our Recruiting Chatbot and Referrals products. With hiring back in full swing and the need for digital transformation, we have strong tailwinds behind us to make 2021 an incredible year for Sense. 

You’re moving into some new markets, offering your solutions to high-volume recruiting after building business for staffing agencies. How’s that going? Have you shifted your marketing and product strategy significantly as a result?

It’s been a gratifying journey to go from agencies to broadening our go-to-market in the Corporate world. Regardless of the industry, in a high volume hiring environment, most customers face the same problems. It’s hard to find high quality candidates, it’s hard to engage with them at scale, and it’s hard to personalize experiences. Moreover, companies are looking to improve the productivity of their hiring teams and move them away from spending time on mundane, repetitive tasks. This is the exact reason why the Sense solution is resonating within hiring teams across agencies and Corporates.

Post-covid, our marketing and product strategy has focused more on our buyer’s current needs of improving efficiencies and reducing time-to-hire while still maintaining the best candidate experience. The signal to noise ratio has shot up as companies are now inundated with candidates applying for positions and unfortunately the vast number of them are unqualified. As an example, we launched our conversational recruiting chatbot that’s able to engage with nearly all applicants in real-time, 24x7 and can quickly sift for the right applicants and bring them into the active pipeline. It’s been a game changer in high volume hiring industries.  

Our conversational bot engages with 3x more candidates now while maintaining a 96% candidate satisfaction score. Moreover, this has been transformative in terms of shortening the time to hire by over 50%.

Without naming names (unless you want to), what sorts of companies do you compete with?

As you are aware, there are so many HRTech companies now that it’s hard to list players we compete with. Our vision is to look at the complete hiring funnel and see how we can best match candidates to jobs that they are going to love and succeed at. We are stitching together a solution that’s bespoke to an organization’s culture and values, rather than force fitting a technology that unnecessarily changes how hiring teams work. 

There are companies that solve just one piece of our offerings like Engagement, Communication, Recruiting Chatbots, 2-way Text Messaging, and Referrals. But we don’t see anyone trying to develop a single System of Engagement that can turbocharge the CRM or the ATS which typically is a “graveyard” of inactive/stale candidates.  

You’ve got a Sloan MBA from MIT - one of the most entrepreneur-productive MBA programs on the planet - and Sense isn’t your first start-up. You seem to have a taste for it. What advice would you give to the recruiter reading this that’s been thinking about building a technology business?

There’s a lot of similarities between recruiters and entrepreneurs. The best entrepreneurs display the following three traits:

  • Rejection and hearing “No” constantly - Similar to entrepreneurship, the best recruiters learn to live with constant rejection. But, it’s the constant rejection that fuels the desire to get better and prove to yourself that you have what it takes to win. In a candidate-driven world, recruiters need to stand out and prove to the candidates they are focused on building a long-term relationship and looking out for the candidate’s career aspirations. 
  • Storytelling ability - Similar to great entrepreneurs, recruiters need to tell a good story in order to attract and convince candidates to consider roles at their company. The best recruiters create the human connection with a candidate, not only about the job itself, but also around the impact the candidate will make on the company’s vision. 
  • Grit - Great entrepreneurs and recruiters are in it for the long haul. Through passion and perseverance they are able to go through challenges and the ups and downs of the day-to-day work. This grit is the key to their success. The best ones have a belief deep down that no matter the obstacles, they will end up succeeding and making a huge impact in people’s lives.