Find a proper balance between working on the business vs in the business. As a startup founder you are always torn between building and delivering here and now but also thinking and planning ahead to make sure that the company will still be there in a couple of months or years’ time. Everybody and everything needs your attention and you need to practice how to prioritize in order to balance things out as perfectly as possible. I book out days to focus solely on the company, and it really helps.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristine Angeltvedt, CEO and co-founder of Nixa.io, a startup on a global mission to disrupt traditional tech recruitment. Kristine founded Nixa.io in 2018 as a solution to a lot of the industry challenges she faced first hand when working as a tech recruiter. At only 26, she was persistent in bringing change and innovation into a billion dollar industry. Today, Kristine manages a remote team of seven people across Europe who are building tech to facilitate faster and better recruitment without compromising quality.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It started when I was studying HR for my bachelor degree and then I wrote a thesis about AI in recruitment which went viral on LinkedIn. It was 2016 and AI was the big unknown but also big news. Everyone was talking about its potential and there were major concerns about the impact of using AI particularly around the impact on jobs. Recruitment has a lot of manual tasks that can easily be automated. I spotted the benefits that AI could bring to recruitment, such as increasing speed and quality, by removing human bias. It was also very different to the usual HR theses and I could interview very senior managers from large Nordic companies as a result to ask about their expectations and experience. I’ve always been curious about disrupting the established way of doing things and I could see the HR industry was ripe for change. I took a shot at writing something that no one had written before and it opened a lot of doors for me.
Once my thesis had gone viral, I was headhunted by Tor Daneshmand and Jørgen Iversen and joined them at First Engineers, their recruitment company in Oslo. From the start, I knew I wanted more for myself and Tor and Jørgen could see that as well. They had a concept for the future of recruitment, and I developed it and took the lead on what became Nixa.io.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When we started Nixa.io, we worked closely with a similar company from Poland who were also looking to change up how engineers and developers were being recruited. They were originally developers themselves, but had turned to recruitment after experiencing first-hand how broken this industry is in today’s market. We had similar thoughts about being disruptive and making a platform to ease recruitment.
The collaboration lasted for about a year until it became clear we had different visions for how the platform should look and operate. They were originally engineers and very focused on building great tech from day one, so that we would have a complete product to test in the market from the start. To their credit, they went really deep into the details and built a lot of high-quality stuff. We trusted their approach but after some time it became clear that going so deep into product development early on was causing a lot of unnecessary bottlenecks.
For example, we ended up building a technical pre-qualification part that required candidates to spend twice the amount of time that we were aiming for. Our user research had shown that software engineers were frustrated with the amount of time that they normally have to put into technical assessment during recruitment processes, and we wanted our platform to reduce the time effort substantially for candidates.
When seeing that we ended up building something that increased the effort instead of decreasing it, we understood that something had to change. After going back and forth, we understood that we wanted different things. We wanted to test the market at scale with a simple minimum viable product (MVP) before building the full-scale product, but they wanted to build great tech from day one. So, in the end we decided to part ways on good terms.
Lessons learned from this were really interesting for me. I realized that there is a time to build a product, but it isn’t in the beginning. We need to test the market first to understand what problems to solve, how to solve them, and most importantly, whether anyone would be willing to pay for the product in the end.
After we went separate ways, we went back to our mission and vision and started to build a simple MVP that we could use to test the concept with clients in the market. We took our MVP to market after just 200 hours of development and brought in a lot of well-known companies to test it. With a simple MVP, we were able to adapt and change the product/service delivery according to continuous feedback and testing results.
Nixa.io was built with our client and candidate community, and it works. This year we plan to build the full-scale product on top of the MVP and the data we have gathered and scale-up our business. Meanwhile, we’ve placed candidates in fantastic roles across the globe, and we couldn’t have done that without changing our initial relationship.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was a young recruiter, I accidentally sent an in-depth client brief to a major recruiter of a large global organization. I was so embarrassed and was sure I was going to be fired, but the recruiter was very understanding about the mistake. We built a good relationship. They explained how much time and effort was required to source, interview and hire someone, why they used recruitment agencies and how they felt about recruitment as a whole. They had gone through a period of mis-hires which had impacted significantly on the business, and generally there was a sense of frustration about new hires. It was eye-opening to see the experience from the other side, and I learnt a lot about client expectations and difficulties with hiring. They were a great connection to make at that early stage of my career.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The hardest part of this journey has always been to establish a connection with new clients, getting them to put trust in us, get them to test the platform themselves to see what is possible and to understand the value add that we are able to offer them.
The sales part was challenging for me to start with. I was coming into a well-established industry with no name, no long track record. I hadn’t worked for Facebook or Google or any well-known company. I didn’t have a network and I had to start totally from scratch. There have been times I wanted to give up, because you feel like a nobody. You’re in one of the biggest markets there is, and it’s very male-dominated. Although a lot of women work in recruitment, the industry is led by men.
I started to reach out to companies with a cold email just to introduce us and convince them to put their trust in me and what we were trying to do by disrupting the industry. In the beginning, I probably sent out hundreds of emails and only got a handful of replies back. But then I started to really put effort into the research part, to make sure that we were targeting the right person in the right company, with the right messaging. Once I did this, I started to experience a bunch of replies and we started to onboard new clients immediately.
My first success was with one of the biggest remote companies in the world. They’re a US unicorn company and I was shocked to even get a reply from them. Turned out that I managed to reach the right person, pin point their challenges and convince them that our platform would be a huge value add for their team. Once we signed them, I got all the confidence I needed to continue to push through hundreds of negative replies just to experience wins like this. When working in sales, the wins get a lot bigger and the rest just fades into the background as you focus on the next target. Nixa.io has grown from strength to strength as a result of our thorough and targeted business development approach.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Two people have helped me get to where I am today, Tor Daneshmand and Jørgen Iversen. I was working at First Engineers as I finished my Master’s degree and told them that I wanted more from recruitment, and for myself. It was hard to see how I could continue working in traditional recruitment with the knowledge I had about AI and machine learning and the potential for their use.
Tor and Jørgen had the idea for a recruitment platform and I was able to work with them on developing the concept further into a tangible idea. I was curious and they gave me the fundamentals and help to get started. They had previous experience founding a company and growing it into a market, they had industry experience and a huge network that they openly shared with me. I had to figure out most of it myself, but they have always been there as the most important support. They also gave me the courage to keep moving by trusting that I was the right person to nurture and develop this concept.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I abide by the idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, especially as the founder of a startup. There is so much to learn along the way. I have made mistakes, but I have gained so much knowledge since starting Nixa.io, not only in tech but in running a company. I’m excited for Nixa.io’s future and I truly believe that we will become the most preferred platform to hire remote software engineers in the world. We have the tech, we have the know-how and most importantly, we have great people working with us.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
At Nixa.io, we are on a global mission to change both how and where companies recruit technical talent. In fact, we want to flip the whole traditional model of recruitment. It doesn’t fit the needs of innovative and fast-growing businesses today. We are on a mission to solve two of the most common challenges of tech recruitment, the unequal distribution of talent, and the increasing time to hire across the globe.
Companies are struggling to attract enough qualified talent for their open roles, and most companies are forced to start sourcing candidates on their own. This is a time consuming and frustrating job for companies that are growing fast and need recurrent access to qualified talent. In addition to this, companies spend on average five months hiring a software engineer. That’s a long wait to get someone in and it affects every part of the business, especially smaller ones. Without software engineers, they can’t build the product, they can’t enter new markets, can’t grow the company. Everything hinges on having the right people in place.
Nixa.io is solving these challenges by introducing an automated and self-service recruitment platform that enables a permanent remote hire in two weeks.
Nixa.io is an innovative curated job platform connecting companies with software engineers who are actively searching for permanent remote opportunities. Our technology makes it possible to reduce the time to hire down to 2 weeks only. We offer companies access to pre-vetted talents within 48 hours and facilitates a permanent hire faster than any competitor. We specialize in remote hiring to fill permanent needs, which is totally unique in Europe today. We’ve built everything on top of AI and machine learning to predict better hires, reduce human biases and to automate the time-consuming parts of the recruitment process.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Nixa.io is flipping the traditional recruitment model, making it faster and better, and without compromising the quality.
We can offer high-quality candidates because of our thorough and AI driven pre-qualification process. Through testing, we’ve been able to find the perfect balance between automation and manual work. If you automate too much, you’ll end up with a platform like Upwork where everybody can join, and the quality of candidates drops. But if you, on the other hand, have a too manual process and don’t utilize automation to its full potential, you end up as a digital recruitment agency, not a platform. Using automation to make recruitment faster and easier, without compromising quality is the key and we have it right. Our candidates are great and we can deliver, fast. We can ensure a quality hire within two weeks.
We take pride in how we bring in and assess candidates, ensuring its objective, so that biases are removed. We have already received a lot of feedback from our clients that the candidates that we offer hold a much higher quality than candidates coming from other recruitment platforms. We take pride in how we bring in and assess candidates, ensuring its objective so that biases are removed. We’ve had a 100% success rate on all hires that have been made through the platform. Meaning that the candidate hired has stayed with the company for 12 months or more.
One of the first candidates that we hired back in 2019 is still with the company, will hit the two-year mark in April 2021, and has been promoted to Lead Front-End Developer. That’s something we are really proud of and something that proves that we are doing something right!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The AI part of Nixa.io is really exciting. We started early adding big amounts of data into our algorithm to train it to create great matches and we’ll use the upcoming time to train it to make even better matches and predictions. We collect data from every possible point of our product and business, and the better and bigger volume we have, the better matches we make.
This year, we are moving out of the testing phase and entering a scale-up phase to really put Nixa.io on the map. We’ll be launching the full Nixa.io platform to the world, and I’m so proud of our team and everything we have achieved together with companies and candidates so far.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
There are not enough female founders and there are not enough women in tech. People should be confident to take that chance and go for it. Things are changing though, and I’ve seen a lot of growth in these areas in the past couple of years so I’m hopeful the future will look very different to now. Nordic countries don’t have many female founders at all. It gets annoying when people say to me ‘you’re Norwegian, you’re a woman, you’re in recruitment, investors will love you’ because it negates everything I’m working for. It shouldn’t come down to my gender but what I’m actually achieving. I’m unique and that’s not necessarily always a good thing.
It’s good that more people are talking about female founders but we need to create the environment where women can become founders of tech companies. We need more places to support women, lift us up, share our successes and lessons learnt. We need role models to look up to and give us inspiration. Changing working environments by adding flexibility will help women manage family and career better.
More companies are thinking about diversity and adding women to their board and senior management, and it’s great, it gives women the chance to show what they can do. Women have a different way of doing things, and their ways are successful too. There are lots of different ways of working and looking at things, and increasing diversity can forge new paths and ideas.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I think that women in tech, especially in higher positions, still have to face the expectations that they will start a family and so will leave or require flexibility for their family. I feel that women are not getting prioritized because senior managers don’t think that women are able to balance both family and career. They are not getting top positions in tech because of families and the need for maternity leave. I think women are still being underestimated in terms of how much they can do and how extremely resourceful they are.
Women haven’t had enough years building up experience in tech so it’s still very dominated by men. Women leading men can be considered strange by some tech companies. We aren’t all about feelings and emotions and taking care of others, we get on and do the work that needs to be done.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Hire really great people who are smarter than you, who have diverse backgrounds and industry knowledge.
Get people in place who really understand the pain points of the clients that you’re trying to prospect for. For example, at Nixa.io we hire recruiters as sales reps because they know the industry inside and out. They will be able to tailor the message and create trust with clients from day one, because they understand their needs and the problems they are experiencing first-hand.
I know it makes me successful as I am a recruiter. I don’t have to do a sales pitch; I can present their challenges and they appreciate someone who understands what they need.
It will boost sales and grow the company.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
As mentioned above, get industry professionals into sales roles and train them as needs be. There’s also something to be said for identifying personality traits in your sales team and using these to maximise their potential. There are traits that have been proven to be more successful than others for a salesperson and we use them when employing new members of our team.
- highly engaged
- relationship driven
- well prepared
You should also manage your sales team towards objectives that they can identify with and that will help guide their everyday decisions. Build a sales team that focuses on creating relationships and that genuinely feels a responsibility for their clients/accounts, that really want to help them and that will go that extra mile to make it happen. I guess quality over quantity is always a good thing to remember when working with sales.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Start by doing proper research about your prospective company. How does it look in terms of size, location, and in our case, what positions are they looking to fill at the moment. And more. Delve deep to understand what challenges they are facing. Use these challenges as an opener to connect with them. For example, I’ve been following your company for a while and see that you’ve been looking to fill a couple of software engineering roles for some time now. I assume you’re struggling to attract enough qualified candidates, as most other tech companies are recruiting these days. Have you considered using any platform to help you access more qualified candidates? With Nixa.io, you can get unlimited access to pre-qualified candidates and ensure a quality hire in just two weeks.
Then focus on building a relationship to them by showing how you can solve their problems and how fast you can add value to their business.
We’ve seen a vast difference in those cases where we’ve been able to build relationships or what we like to call ‘partnerships’, and where we haven’t. Nurture your connections and work closely with them. Look at them as partners who are co-creating your product/service with you, and keep that feedback loop going to ensure that you are constantly solving their problems. It gets them engaged and they feel they have part ownership of Nixa.io.
It will also help boost your sales. We’ve seen a 50% re-buy rate from clients because they’ve been so happy with the service and the relationship. This is of course hard to do at scale, but seeing clients as partners should be a guiding principle and something I hope we can maintain as we keep going.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Not a strategy, but a useful tactic: Always book the next meeting with the client as the current meeting finishes. That way it’s in the calendar and you don’t have to chase them for dates. Also, be proactive in follow-ups. Prepare and send over material in advance and use meetings to clarify or negotiate terms.
- Align expectations early on so that you know how they work, how they want to communicate with you (email, Slack, phone), what they want you to provide, etc.
- Although the deal is signed and the sale is closed, keep your “sales hat” on. Clients need to be nurtured throughout the whole process. Continue to listen to their needs, their pain points, their suggested solutions. Gather feedback and utilize it to build better services and increase retention rate.
- When you’re in an early stage, don’t be afraid to test the product with early users. Have them interact with it and provide you with valuable feedback. Keep building the product on top of real-time data that you gather from clients and let the clients take ownership of that process.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
At this point in time for us, it’s all about building relationships with our clients. We’re still early in our journey and know we have a way to go as we scale-up. I have plans in place to make sure we still offer a great service as we grow and take on more candidates and more clients.
Having clients as partners means we can regularly check-in with them to see how things are going, if they have any feedback for us, and if they’re needs and wants change over time. We are proactive to make sure that we stay their platform of choice when hiring and to make it as hard for them as possible to leave for another platform. Finding new service providers is time consuming, as is bringing real value out of them.
Finding new service providers is time-consuming, as is bringing them onboard and getting them up to speed. Which is why we will be curious and considerate with our partners.
Another piece of advice to reduce churn is also to identify the most crucial parts of your business and take ownership of them. Make sure that you own the data or the part of the process that is crucial for your service delivery and build your product around that. This way, it will be hard for clients to leave for other competitors as you are the leader of that specific thing or process in the market. This could be anything from a database, legal agreements, payment processing etc.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Find a proper balance between working on the business vs in the business. As a startup founder you are always torn between building and delivering here and now but also thinking and planning ahead to make sure that the company will still be there in a couple of months or years’ time. Everybody and everything needs your attention and you need to practise how to prioritize in order to balance things out as perfectly as possible. I book out days to focus solely on the company, and it really helps.
- You don’t need a full-scale product to test the market and start making money. We decided to be a bit untraditional as a startup and wanted to test the market properly before we made a bigger investment in building the tech. A typical mistake for startups is to start building the product based on their own assumptions of use or need, without actually having data to confirm it. We went out in the market with basically nothing, sold from a Powerpoint presentation, then built a very simple MVP and now we have more than 10 paying clients around the world. This has given us the chance to gather valuable insight and data from the market so that we can build a product that fits the market need, instead of finding a market that fits our product.
- You need a proper network of experts and mentors around you. As a startup founder you are constantly wearing multiple hats and you are the person responsible for making critical decisions within business areas that are far out of your area of expertise or experience. In order to ask the right questions, put your team on the right track and make the best decisions (for both now and the future), the best way to success is to consult with a close network of people that have been through the same journey, similar situations or that have expertise within a specific area. As a founder you will also go through tough periods, and it is always nice to blow out some steam to others that knows what you are going through and that can help you get back on track. I’m lucky to have Tor and Jørgen supporting and advising me. Their previous founder experience has been invaluable in starting and growing Nixa.io.
- Embrace transparency and vulnerability towards your team, investors, network etc. In order to get people onboard and to believe as strongly as you do in the company’s vision, you need to promote transparency and don’t be afraid to show people that you don’t know the answer to things. You also need to show people that you are capable of making mistakes and show them how mistakes can be turned into valuable insight and learning. Running a startup is all about trial and error — and you empower your team to make mistakes and learn from them by leading as an example. Each week we have a team meeting where we discuss what has and hasn’t worked out for us so we can learn from each other, understand why a mistake was made and how to make it better. As a manager and CEO, I also make sure to share what mistakes I have made and what I learned from them so that the team can see how I strive to improve everyday decision making to ensure that we reach our common vision and objectives.
- Your vision is the most important thing, and make sure your team knows and understands it. This is a reason behind everything that you do and the ultimate objective to guide your team and make your powerful together. The vision should be clearly stated and reflected in every objective and key result you work towards. Having a clear vision, will help you focus the team on how to get there and guide their everyday decision making. Our vision is reinforced through our culture and work. We have regular meetings for OKR reviews which helps everybody reflect and remind themselves about “why we are doing this”.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We’re already leading a movement with our mission to democratize work across the globe by reducing boundaries and biases. I truly believe that there is a huge potential in utilizing a global workforce and that the movement of remote work, will bring huge benefits to both individuals, companies and the global economy. It also goes hand in hand with some of the UN sustainable development goals such as decent work and economic growth, less urbanization and gender equality.
Otherwise, I’m passionate about the environment and would love to start a movement to train people into better waste management. We need to get better at recycling and reusing in every country — we can’t continue to live like this, it’s destroying our world minute by minute.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Michelle Obama, without a doubt. She is so much more than a President’s wife; Michelle has shown us what can be done when a woman is in a position of power. She is articulate, intelligent and highly educated, and she has inspired and encouraged so many people (including women) to stand up and create change. I have so many questions for her!
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!