November 23, 2021
7
 min read
Founder Story

How Maren Kate Turned Connecting People with Opportunities Into a Scalable Talent Marketplace

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The post originally appeared on MikeWilner.com. It was republished with permission.

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Maren Kate shares her experience building Avra Talent, a company that makes it easy for startups to scale their hiring. With the help of On Deck, Maren took her business from a boutique agency to a profitable community-driven marketplace that empowers remote companies to find and hire the right people.

Investor's note

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Remote-first companies are becoming the norm, but building distributed-by-design teams is still an enigma for many businesses.

Founded in 2018 by Maren Kate, Avra Talent is an exclusive network of top Talent Professionals™ helping remote-friendly companies fill open roles, create recruiting processes, and build world-class talent teams.

Having flipped from a boutique recruitment agency to a scalable marketplace and raised a round of capital from a strategic investor over the summer, Avra is already profitable, with no plans to raise again. Instead, Maren and her team are focusing on building a sustainable, location-agnostic business.

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A lifetime of entrepreneurship

Maren’s entrepreneurial spirit has been unstoppable since childhood, when she and her little brother would sell mints out of their room or try to turn their yard into a farmstand. Her first profitable business was during college, when she started selling gemstone jewelry on eBay. Maren realized that she could make more from her eBay shop than she did working several part-time jobs at once. She took advantage of the freedom and flexibility of working on an online business, and never looked back.

Senior year of college, Maren dropped out with two classes to go before graduation. “My career advisor was like, that's insane. But I just had this sense that I'd rather put my time and energy into working on my own businesses and ideas.” 

She launched a social media marketing and website agency, where she began to learn how working with people in different parts of the country, or even the world, allowed for building high-performing teams optimized for different skills and specialties. She landed a particularly notable client in the History Channel’s Pawn Stars and built up their website and social media before they launched, using her assembled team. 

Being exposed to the potential of harnessing remote connections for an online business encouraged Maren to launch her first startup that aimed to bring people and opportunities together remotely: Zirtual, a company that connects people with skilled virtual assistants. When Zirtual made a difficult exit, it was time for Maren to take on board another significant life lesson.

“It was a hard experience because we had to lay a lot of people off, we got pretty burned by our VCs, and I made every newbie mistake in the book. I always used to be really hard on myself for any failure, or not knowing what I didn't know. I assumed everyone else in the world knew what to do and were doing the right things.”

When she was doing a post-mortem for Zirtual to figure out what lessons from the experience she could apply to the next steps of her entrepreneurial journey, Maren realized that one of the skill sets she needed to level up was hiring for key roles. 

“That was something that I had not been good at with our executive team. When it came to bringing on a head of operations, head of finance, or product engineers, I just didn't know what I didn't know.” 

After Zirtual, Maren was ready to learn from leaders at a successful, established company, so she joined the meditation and sleep app Calm as interim COO. The Calm founders’ response when she shared her previous hiring challenges was “Nobody knows how to do that!” This triggered a mindset shift in Maren. 

Maren realized her struggles with Zirtual were not unique — most early-stage companies place a heavy emphasis on product and growth, but may not be as strategic with how they approach hiring. Armed with this realization, she was ready to take what she had learned and launch Avra to help startups hire the best people, regardless of where they were in the world.

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Joining On Deck to scale Avra

When Avra first started, it was a boutique recruitment agency with enough demand from the market to maintain a small team. There is, however, only so much impact even a successful agency can have on the hiring ecosystem, and Maren wanted to do more. In all of her ventures, she had consistently found ways of bringing people together across distances to work towards a common goal. But she hadn’t yet figured out how to do that at scale.

On her quest to take Avra from an agency to a scalable business, Maren found that while she needed product and growth knowledge to do so, she didn’t have the skills to excel there. More specifically — she didn’t even quite understand what true skill could look like in those areas. That’s what led her to join the 5th cohort of the On Deck Founder Fellowship.

A spanner flew into the works when COVID-19 hit in 2020, the global job market reeled, and Avra came to a relative standstill. As harrowing as that moment was, its timing, coinciding with participating in On Deck, allowed Maren the space and time to soak up what the Fellowship had to offer. And then, the job market adjusted and everyone started hiring remotely. Business exploded, further deepening Maren’s need for, and interest in, On Deck’s resources that would empower her to scale Avra.

“The sessions that were taught by other founders and Fellows were the most engaging. There were a few people that talked about what growth marketing is all about. It was eye opening — I had never organized my sales and revenue machine that way. I felt I should have already known that just from being in the tech ecosystem, but sometimes you have to be in a certain place for those blinds to lift from your eyes. And then things click.”

Maren also joined the On Deck No-Code Fellowship, an 8-week program for ambitious builders without coding experience. Despite being, in her own words, “the worst person when it comes to code,” Maren found immense value in talking to people with knowledge she lacked and seeing what was possible. In addition to the skillset she was able to build to scale her business, it was the community aspect of On Deck that proved particularly impactful.

She even found an interim COO for Avra at On Deck, when she was asking around to see if anyone in the community could help her think through what that role might look like at that stage in the company’s life cycle. 

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Looking ahead

Having reflected and reiterated on their growth plans with support from On Deck, Avra now aims to scale the supply side of its marketplace. 

“We have a dedicated recruiting team that plugs in and acts like a startup’s interim talent team. We also have a more direct marketplace where someone says, hey, I just need a technical recruiter to help me do outbound, or to screen these candidates. And then we connect them directly with one of our Talent Professionals™ who has that background. It's a simple model, but it's proven really effective on both sides.”

What Maren and her team are building is a thoroughly vetted marketplace of skilled professionals, but at its heart, Avra identifies people’s unique skills and leverages them to create a human-driven community that’s much bigger than the sum of its parts. That aspect of Avra was largely inspired by On Deck’s approach to community-building.

“I took that and iterated on the marketplace, creating a community-driven marketplace at Avra. When you're part of this marketplace, we're going to give you job opportunities, but we're also going to share our wiki and our processes with you. When you have a question, you bubble that up to the community.” 

Avra’s true value lies in the way it answers an unmet need to address the people-side of startups — something that tends to get forgotten in the scramble for the next big product or growth milestone. The cost of a bad hire can be astronomical for a business, and not just in a literal, monetary sense. The effect of hiring the wrong people on team morale and productivity can be crippling.

“We tend to over-index on engineering, tech, and design. But we forget that at the end of the day, the most innovative companies out there, even if they make every product mistake in the book, if they can hire and retain great people, they'll eventually iterate their way to success.”
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