HRExaminer Radio

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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Josh Tolan, CEO, Spark Hire
Episode: 156
Air Date: March 2, 2016



Josh Tolan is the CEO of Spark Hire, a video interviewing solution used by 3,000 organizations across the globe. Spark Hire launched in 2012 and has facilitated video interviews in over 100 countries. Josh’s goal is to empower teams of all sizes to successfully adopt video recruiting as a way to better engage everyone involved in the hiring process.

Since Spark Hire’s launch, Josh has become an influential member of the HR and recruiting technology community. He shares his knowledge and thought leadership on recruiting and careers as a contributor on a wide range of outlets including Mashable, FastCompany, The Huffington Post,,, TechCrunch, and more. In 2015, Josh and the Spark Hire team launched The Recruiting Reel which is quickly gaining momentum as a highly actionable video series.

To learn more about Josh and Spark Hire, head over to and follow Spark Hire on Twitter @sparkhire


Audio MP3





Begin transcript

John Sumser: Good Morning and welcome to HR examiner Radio, I’m your host John Sumser and we are coming to you live from beautiful downtown Occidental California. Today we’re going to be talking with Josh Tolan who is the CEO of Spark  Hire, Josh how are you?


Josh Tolan: I’m doing great John how are you?


John Sumser: I’m fantastic, so let’s sort of do this by the numbers, will you take a moment and introduce yourself to the audience?


Josh Tolan: Sure, sure, so as you said I’m the CEO of Spark  Hire. We are a fast growing video interviewing company out of Chicago. Currently about 3,000 customers in 50 plus countries and continuing to grow very, very fast and expand the product and do a lot of cool things.


John Sumser: Tell me a little bit more about your history, you were once a baseball player weren’t you?


Josh Tolan: Yeah, yeah, so I played baseball all my life from a couple years old all the way through college. Really shaped the person I am today. I was actually just talking to somebody about this the other day, because I went on a vacation earlier this winter and it’s really funny how nothing has changed over my life. When I was a baseball player and I would go on vacation with my family, I would actually take an entire extra suitcase and I would fill it with workout equipment like, I kid you not. I would take medicine balls, I would take mini hurdles, I would take the agility ladders. I would take a bucket of baseballs, a bat I would do all this.


I would pack it in a duffle bag and I would take it wherever we would go on our vacation and when we would actually get there I would actually find a destination where I could practice baseball and make sure that I was keeping up with my workouts while I was still on vacation with my family. I think it’s funny because really nothing has changed because when people would ask me, “Oh how was your vacation?” I really just call it going out of town because I really just pack my bags the same way, but now instead of baseball equipment it’s work equipment. I just can’t seem to get a way and I can’t seem to get enough of it. Yeah, baseball has been something that has really shaped the type of person I am, you know and a lot of the way I approach business.


John Sumser: That’s great, so this thing about not being able to separate work and personal life. I think lots and lots of us have that. Maybe that’s just the way it is for most people now. I know in the world where people live inside email it’s like that. You are always at work and you are always in your personal life. Do you think the Spark  Hire video product helps address that kind of information overload thing?


Josh Tolan: Yeah, yeah, I think so, I mean, you know, especially when you’re talking about asynchronous interviews and being able to eliminate a lot of the administration layer that comes with interviewing. Taking that a lot off people’s plates leaves time for other things, whether that’s high pay off activity that they can focus on during the work day or in the evening, not being as worried about their interview schedule, lining up phone interviews for the next day. Because interviews are coning in at all hours of the night, I think it gives them more flexibility and takes a lot of that administration layer off. Which frees up some time and hopefully people can find a little bit more balance with that extra time.


John Sumser: It must be kind of crazy these days to actually be a recruiter don’t you think? The notion inbound is coming in your direction 24 hours a day and relentlessly, it’s kind of a frightening picture.


Josh Tolan: Yeah, I mean I think the modern recruiter is so much different these days. I mean really, and you hear everybody talk about it now, the modern recruiter must be a marketer, they must be a sales person, they must have some really good administration capabilities, but you know I think the modern recruiter is a jack of all trades, a Swiss army knife. That really if they want to be successful they have to have a lot of these good qualities that people in other professions possess, because there’s so much involved in an effective recruiting strategy now that it requires all these skill sets.


John Sumser: Yes, it’s quite an amazing change. One of the things I was struck by as we were preparing for this call is over the years, for most video interviewing companies, the question is are you a video company or are you an interviewing company? I would say that almost everybody has moved in the direction of we’re an interviewing company. I believe  you guys are drawing the conclusion that you’re a video company.


Josh Tolan: Yeah, yeah, I would have, if we were talking maybe 6, 12 months ago, I might have immediately told you we’re an interviewing company. That’s what we do, we help companies solve challenges within the interview process. We 100% do, absolutely and that’s a big focus everyday is solving the problems that our customers face within the interview process. Over time our customers have enlightened us to so many different ways that they are using video throughout the process and some of those way are very apparent to us.


Like we should build a feature that helps them accomplish this easier, do it at scale and do it in a repeatable framework. Some of those thing that they expose us to might not be as apparent and the customer doesn’t even know what they’re enlightening us to, but it gives us ideas for ways to expand the product and really become more of an engagement platform versus just a video interviewing solution. I think in 2016, 2017 and beyond that’s really where Spark Hire is going to be expanding. Finding ways where we can insert ourselves into other areas of the recruitment lifecycle where we can help recruiting teams engage. Whether it’s their candidates, or on the agency side, whether it’s their clients as well. Engage all these people, do it in a repeatable framework and do it at scale so new people can come right in, use the software and be successful in their day to day work flows.


John Sumser: The mindset that necessary to see a customer using the tool that you’ve designed in a way different then you intended is a really hard mindset to maintain. Because it starts with the customers doing it wrong. It always stat with the customers doing it wrong. When you think when the customers doing it wrong, it’s impossible to see that thing as an innovation. It always looks like a problem you need to fix rather than a feature you need to incorporate. It’s not a bug it’s a feature, is the change that you’re trying to do. How do you keep that alive in your team? I think that’s a really hard thing to manage in any sort of a technical company.


Josh Tolan: Well, I think there’s different things. I think some people will look at, you know, people aren’t using the tool properly or for what it’s intended to do, but I think our whole team had kind of had a different mindset. Where we think it’s cool. We think it’s cool when people hack our software to use it in a different way then it’s intend. Because it opens our eyes to value that people are seeing in the engine the technology engine that we’re building more so than some of the use cases that we’ve kind of pushed down people’s throats. “This is how you’re supposed to use Spark  Hire.”


It’s really, we take it as motivation and our team embraces that. We like to see when customers come up with these use cases. We saw one the other day where the customer was using it for a way we hadn’t seen many do it in their type of industry. We pulled it right up on the projector. I went right out to our developers, we had a quick, during our quick scrub meeting I was like, “Guys we have to pull this up on the projector, I’ve got to show you what this customer is doing, this is super cool.” We don’t know if a lot of customers are ding it this way but this could be marketed and this message can be sold to so many companies as a benefit that we have to explore this avenue a little bit.


Obviously there’s a balance of keeping your focus on what you’re working on and shifting which ever way the wind blows ans which ever way the customer is using the product. It just opens your eyes to different ways that people are viewing your product and I think at the very least you have to listen to it. We pay a lot of attention, I pay an extreme amount of attention to what customers are saying and what prospects are saying. We have processes in place that help me keep up on all that type of stuff.


It’s tremendously helpful for me as we think abut the vision of the product, where the company is growing. Also, the way that we message the product to prospects and to customers. It’s just very important to listen, I think that’s the most important take away. Is just listen, Listen to the customers, listen to the prospects, listen to how they’re perceiving your product and it might help you sell more. I think that’s the important take away.


John Sumser: Yeah, I hear you but I also encounter lots and lots of people who experience this thing as “Those idiots, they’ll never get it right.” This is a pretty successful company so I think that what you’re doing is somewhat unique, it’s intelligible, it’s understandable but I think it’s really hard to get it right. I believe it’s one of the coolest things I’ve heard all week.


Josh Tolan: Thank you, appreciate it.


John Sumser: Tell us what it’s like to grow a company. You have gone from how many employees to how many employees over the last year or give me a percentage if you can’t talk numbers.


Josh Tolan: Yeah, yeah, so we’re about 30 employees now, so I want to say john, the last time that you and I talked we were closer to low 20’s, 20 people. We’re at about 3,000 customers right now and expanding into different countries all around the world. The company’s really growing, since the last time we talked as well, we have a lot more integration partners, so we’re doing a lot of really good and as far as growing a company it’s exciting. This is the fun part, I love what I do everyday because we’re in a position where we have a solid product, we have a great foundation of people within our office and so we’re at a point where we can put systems in place and we can try new strategies. We can implement different things, see their impact in our business and make a decision whether to double down or whether to scrap it.


We’re at a point where we can try thing and things we implement actually make an impact on the business next month or 6 months down the road or whatever it is. Its a supper fun time to be in a position where you’ve kind of identified that product market fit and now it’s all about growth and it’s figuring it out. How you’re going to get more customers, how you’re going to get more market share, how you’re going to get the word out. This is just a super exciting time for us.


John Sumser: When you add people at that pace, you’ve grown by say 50% net new hires and there’s some level of attrition so you might be growing faster in terms of new names to the organization than 50%. Lot of things change when you grow that fast, every new player makes. Particularly at this size, every new player on the team adds a level of complexity to the team that changes the way the company feels. How do you navigate all the changes?


Josh Tolan: It does, we’re still relatively small, I mean the jump from 20 to 25, 25 to close to 30 isn’t an extreme amount, for us, at least with the systems and things that we’ve put in place. I think the way that we’ve navigated is we’ve really put a strong focus on putting systems and putting frameworks and putting playbooks in place, so when we bring new people in they can contribute right away.


I’ll give you an example, as we were growing our customer success team and we were bringing new people in, we really didn’t have many like playbooks ans systems and “Do this in this situation and do that in that situation and this is how we work with customers who are experiencing this. This is how we work with customers who are experiencing that.” We didn’t have many of those systems and frameworks in place and the communication touch points that are associated with them and the challenge was that when we would bring people in. They weren’t really too sure what to do so it caused a lot of paralysis by over analysis of what they were supposed to do in their day to day work flow.


They overall knew what their goals were or knew what their key objectives were and know what their KPI’s were. From a like a work flow standpoint they weren’t as efficient as they could be right away because we didn’t have these frameworks in place. What we did is we just put a lot of emphasis on building these systems and building these frameworks so we could sit a new person down and once they’re done with their product training and training on the company and competitors. Everything that’s important for them to know what they’re talking about when they’re on the phone. They could sit in and get adjusted to a work flow super quickly and start contributing immediately.


What we’ve seen is people are able to contribute a lot quicker when we bring them on. Those are some of the things we’ve learned in growing and adding new employees. We have these things in place, when you sit a new person down, you want them to be able to contribute and get you that return on investment as quickly as you possibly can. Those are just some of the things that we started putting in place here at Spark Hire that’s helped a lot, both with new employees and existing ones.


John Sumser: That’s a very disciplined approach to organizational development. I know plenty of really big, really successful organizations that don’t have this level of, I’ll say control, but what I really mean is understanding. This level of understanding about how the core parts of the business works and this desire to institutionalize the way that the core business works so you build repeatable processes. It’s quite a sophisticated things that you’re doing. Where did you pick up your management skills?


Josh Tolan: Well, I think the other thing to point out is it’s pretty fluid right? It’s something that at 15 employees we put a system in place, that system still not the same at 25 or we put in a new system that works for 25, 30 people, but it’s not working, it’s not getting the result that we want it to with our customer or prospects or whichever department that’s implemented in. I think the other thing that you’ve got to keep in mind is that you have to be fluid, you have to be lean and you have to be able to adapt very quickly. We adapt our processes all the time and we’re constantly fine tuning them.


I think that with the way I’ve learned is honestly reading a lot. Watching what other companies have done, learning from other companies that I follow. Searing from experts in all different spaces, marketing, sales, customer success, just learning what works well in organizations and trying to decipher that and figure out, “Okay, how can we apply these theoretical principles to Spark Hire.” Because the same thing, the same strategy that company XYZ does and they do really well is not going to work at Spark Hire. Because our demographics and the types of customers that we’re serving and the industry that we’re in is completely different. I feel like we know our customers and we know our space and we know who we are very well, so it helps us adapt some of these strategies that we’ve seen other companies implement and make them so they can work in our favor.


Another thing is just looking at … I draw a lot of inspiration from cross-department knowledge. Something that may be working really well in marketing or sales and is helping us be very successful in those objectives, in those areas. We look at how we can apply those principles to another department, let’s say like customer success. Figure out how we can adapt those strategies and some of the things that are working from a theoretical perspective to a different department, obviously in a different use case. Building out these frameworks along these same principles is what’s helped us really put some key things in place that has helped out employees grow in their roles and be very successful at what they’re doing.


John Sumser: Let’s now just do the fundamental thing. What is Spark Hire and what are you trying to get done with the company?


Josh Tolan: Yeah, sure so we are an video interviewing platform, so I thin what’s really cool about the space we’re playing in and the category we’re playing in. You know, I know we talked earlier in the call about all these areas where we can expand the product and other things that we’re constantly looking at and we’re constantly thinking about. You know we have to be, because we always have to be innovating and always have to be improving our product and looking for additional opportunities for us to grow in the market.


We’re still hyper focused on our video interviewing platform because there’s still so much opportunity to grow. I think you’d be amazed, we go to probably I would say, I don’t know, 12 to 15 trade shows, conferences, events throughout the year. You’d be amazed at how many people, the first question out of their mouth when they hear about a video interview platform ins, “Well what is the difference from Skype?” Or maybe they haven’t even heard of a video interviewing platform before.


I think there’s still so much that this market, this category, there’s still so much room for maturity that we’re still very focused on the development of the video interviewing platform. Building the tools around it to help out customers be more successful at the goals they set out to achieve with video interviewing. That’s really still, still our core competency. It’s still our core focus is the just the continued development of that platform.


John Sumser: That’s fantastic, tell me the story of how the company got started.


Josh Tolan: Sure, I was leading marketing for a company, a lead generation firm essentially. We grew from 3 or 4 employees to 150 employees in like 18 months, it was insane hyper growth. We grew so quickly and the challenge was we didn’t have an internal recruiting function, it just exploded so quick that we ended up in a situation where the owners of the company were the ones going through the resumes, reading the resumes. Scheduling the phone interviews, doing the in person interviews. The problem was, one, that first and foremost the owners were doing it.


The big problem was the amount of time that was spent … A big part of the growth was for a call center and the amount of time that was spent going through a few 100 resumes that would be submitted for a single call center see that opened up. Going through that, not being really able to differentiate each candidate, you know, one candidate from the next. Then the administrative layer of scheduling phone interviews with a subset of those few 100 applicants. Doing the actual phone interviews for 20 to 30 minutes. Only to like somebody, bring them into your office and then realize that they’re not going to be a good fit once you sit down to that in-person interview.


What ended up happening is we’re wasting so much time in the hiring process, so much valuable time because it was coming from the owners where I said, “Guys, what if we just had people when they applied, we’d go through the resumes and the candidates that we liked. We just ask them to answer a few questions on video? Now you guys don’t have to schedule the phone interviews, do 30 minute phone interview conversations. You could collect the video responses, review the candidates, get a general sense of their answers to the interview questions that you would have asked over the phone , but you would gain a sense of how they present themselves, their professionalism, their candor, everything that’s really important and some thing you can’t pick up on until an in-person interview and then let’s make a better decision about which candidates we end up bringing in. Maybe instead of doing 10 to 15 in-person interviews, we’re now down to 5 to 7. We’re cutting that number in half but also only investing time and effort into the best candidates.”


That’s kind of how the idea for Spark Hire came abut. Then we kind of went in this direction where, originally when we launched I wanted us to be like this video job board where people could apply with a video resume and then on top of that after they had applied and the recruiting team screens the resume they could then submit questions for the candidate to answer on video. I had this original vision of being a little bit more broad then even what we are today, but a few months down the road after launching as that video type job board we pivoted and really just focusing on video interviewing.


John Sumser: Tell me what video isn’t good for?


Josh Tolan: What it isn’t good for, I believe it’s [crosstalk 00:21:38]


John Sumser: Yeah, yeah.


Josh Tolan: I’m a video guy. I’m a video guy. Yeah you’re asking the wrong guy. [crosstalk 00:21:46]


John Sumser: You’ve been hitting the ball so well today, I though I’d see if I could get one by you there.


Josh Tolan: Yeah, no I think, I think, there’s certain applications or certain ways that people … I think video is so telling and so revealing that I fell that it can be used for so many different applications, but I think that if you don’t have a defined strategy of how you want to implement it or if a defined strategy isn’t going to be a good fit for your use case, you’re not going to have success with it. I think there’s some times when we see customers and they have this mindset or this certain expectation of how it’s going to work within their process.


From our knowledge and from our insight of what we’ve seen with a lot of customers. We’ve seen just about every strategy implemented. In general we know what works and what you might not get the best result in and sometimes customers surprise us, but we know there’s some strategies that won’t work as well as others. I think in general there’s just good applications of video everywhere. We have people ask us all the time, “What positions is this best for? What industries are you seeing this work well in?”


I like to say we’re video interviewing generalists, because we really work with companies of all sizes and all different industries and they’re recruiting for all different positions. Some work well, some work better than others but you’d be surprised by some of the positions that people are recruiting for and using video as part of that recruiting process. It definitely surprised me, I could never have imagined some of these use case that we’re seeing when we started the company a few years ago.


John Sumser: Give me a couple of examples.


Josh Tolan: Sure, so when we originally started the company, we thought it would be mainly like positions like what we had. Call center sales type positions, marketing positions customer service, like customer facing positions. We did see a lot of that early on but we’ve seen a lot of adoption in blue collar space. We have a lot of like construction and manufacturing staffing companies.


John Sumser: Really? Really?


Josh Tolan: Yeah, and so people are like, a lot of times, you know, if we’re at a conference and I’m speaking to someone they’re like, “Oh, I could see this being really good for some of our professional roles but in the blue collar space, maybe not so much.” We’ve seen it really adopted across the board. I’ve seen companies, cleaning companies, nanny companies use this. I guess those are somewhat customer facing, but those are just like industries and space that we would have never though of trying to sell into. Organically we’ve got customers popping up that have come across our product, identified how it could help their business, signed up and had success. We would have never even imagined that some of these customers like this would be with us but they are so it’s been pretty cool, pretty enlightening.


John Sumser: Does mobile matter in those hourly customer facing positions?


Josh Tolan: Absolutely, mobile is huge. Mobile is really big, a lot of candidates are doing the interviews right from their mobile phones. A lot of people have computers with webcams at home, but there are still some people who don’t. I think the biggest this is that candidates are on the go, they’re not always at home in front of the computer that has the webcam so mobile is huge. Especially for candidates that want to get the interview done quickly and for companies that want to get the interviews submitted quickly. The accessibility of being able to interview right from your phone or tablet or whatever device you have in your pocket or bag while your on the go is huge. Candidates are doing interviews in their car, they’re doing it when they’re walking down the street.


I mean seriously, people are doing it while they’re on the go, I think that’s really important, especially since today it’s so competitive, to get talent, you want, you know speed is obviously a big thing so the quicker people can interview, the quicker you can review that interview and get back to them and advance them to the next step the better. Sometimes the administration layer, like with the phone interview, you’re trying to schedule it, you could lose a whole day of going back and forth trying to schedule a phone interview, something pops up you cannot meet. What’s nice about video interviewing and the asynchronous nature of the one-way interview in particular is people can do it on their own time. They can do it on the go, they can do it on a lunch break, they can do it really from where ever they’re at and that’s where mobile had really come in. It’s really just made it that much more accessible and that  much more convenient and that much more quicker.


John Sumser: Fantastic Josh, so  as usual our time together has whipped by, what should have I asked you and what do you think you’d like the listeners to take away?


Josh Tolan: Sure, I think one of the things that we talked a little bit about as we were preparing for this call but we ran out of time that we really didn’t get some time to get to is the integrations we’ve been able to roll out here at Spark Hire. We, since the last time I was on the show, I was telling you I think we have 20 plus integration partners now, when the last time we had zero. I think we’ve really identified the importance for us to play nicely with other systems and it’s served us really well in the customer acquisitions but also in the customer success stand point. Because people are able to use us with their existing systems.


I think that’s something we’re going to continue to see more and more. More of the standardization of the integration process and I think you’re also starting to see more applications like ours that are really API driven. Our web and mobile application and the API that shoots for integration. Everything is API driven and so it makes integration smooth as butter, it’s really quick to get done and I know that’s a little technical and something we can talk about in more detail, but I think that’s going be something we’re going to start to see in recruiting technology in general. There’s a lot more API driven apps that is going to enable a lot more apps and services to be connected and to enable recruiting teams to do their jobs a lot more effectively then they ever could before. I think that’s just something to keep an eye on and I think it’s something that if a buyer is going to to the market and looking at different recruiting software, it’s something that they should be asking is, if the vendor has a strong emphasis on a well documented and solid API that allows for smooth integrations.


John Sumser: Fantastic Josh, so would you take a moment and reintroduce yourself, and tell people how to get a hold of you.


Josh Tolan: Sure, yeah, once again Josh Tolan CEO of Spark Hire, our website is I am pretty much always available. I think anybody that knows me can attest to that. I will respond to emails super late at night, super early in the morning. I’m pretty crazy like that. The best way to get in touch with me is to email me I’m, that’s typically the best way to get in touch with me but you can also connect with me on LinkedIn and I’d love to sync up with everyone in the audience.


John Sumser: Thanks so much Josh, Thanks for taking the time to be here, you’ve been listening to HR Examiner Radio, I’m John Sumser, and we’ve been talking with Josh Tolan. Thanks for listening in and have a great day.

End transcript

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