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PitchMe’s Dina Bayasanova on Tackling Bias in the Future of Work

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds, raised funding, and are now leading successful companies.


Dina Bayasonova was tired of seeing the right employees not make it into the right jobs. She saw skilled candidates try and fail to get a job (including herself) with the traditional CV-driven process, while employers floundered when seeking the talent they needed. 

“It was quite challenging for me to find a role via traditional CV, and I actually never did,” Bayasonova recalls. That was years before she founded PitchMe in 2017, a skills-based talent  marketplace, to try and solve the problem of recruitment bias once and for all. Her vision? A hiring process without CVs, where candidates are screened anonymously and matched to jobs based on skills and just about nothing else.

As PitchMe secured a $1.2 million seed round led by New York-based Starta Ventures, we asked Bayasonova to reflect on the journey that’s led her to this point and her dreams for the future (of work).

 

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I didn’t know that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I always knew I wanted to do things in a different way to what I had been told. I started my career in traditional companies, in oil and gas. Then I understood that I liked being the owner of processes. 

Seeing that your particular idea or product had a direct impact on people awoke a curiosity. Entrepreneurs in my personal view are people who are curious, those who are able to solve a bigger problem with a pretty simple tool, and those who are driven by making a change. Logically, my personal motivations and my way of doing things, made me an entrepreneur.

 

Q: When did you identify an issue with the way employers find candidates?

My co-founders and I have been through the recruitment process from different angles. Initially, I was a candidate, then an employer myself. But I knew from the first moment I was looking for a job that there is definitely something wrong with the overall process. I’m a career shifter myself, with a nonlinear career story. It was quite challenging for me to find a role via traditional CV, and I actually never did. None of my co-founders did either.

When I was chair of the Young Professional Network Committee of the Energy Institute, which helped people start a career in oil and gas, big employers like BP and Shell approached us to help them find recruits. We ran a survey of over 400 employers and 600 candidates, each talking about what problems they experienced during the hiring process. We found three major challenges faced in recruitment:

  1. People nowadays are acquiring skills, knowledge and experience in a nonlinear way. It’s not about traditional education and employment, but about online education, freelance work and professional projects. And it was really hard to emphasize everything you wanted to showcase in the format of an A4 paper. People are nonlinear, and it’s impossible to reflect what you want to reflect in a linear CV.
  2. Businesses are not hiring for long-term engagement like they did before. They’re hiring people to solve business problems. If a business problem occurred, it means that the solution was required yesterday, but it would take 8-12 weeks to make a hire. We realized businesses need faster solutions without compromising on the quality of candidates.
  3. People often don’t know what kind of work they’re looking for, and employers don’t know exactly what type of candidates they’re looking for. CV writing is an art, and these often don’t match with exactly what employers think they want.

Those are the three problems that PitchMe is looking to solve right now. First, to present a full spectrum of the candidate’s skills. Second, doing really good quality matching, assessing the candidate’s full skills–not just the tools they need to know but their fit for the work culture and team. And last but not least, accompanying the candidates with upskilling opportunities.

 

Q: How is PitchMe fostering a more inclusive work environment and ensuring opportunity for people with diverse experiences?

We match candidates to employers anonymously. We want employers to focus on the core, which is skills, and nothing else. We do this using a “SmartMe” profile, which is a multilayered profiling of soft skills and personal skills; this is what we demonstrate first, leaving behind nationality, years of experience, etc.

We have quite a few success stories. We asked employers using our service to give us a profile of the person they expect to see based solely on their SmartMe profile. They usually envisioned the candidate as being someone with five-plus years of real business experience, and usually male. In one example, we were extremely pleased to see that the employer was genuinely surprised that instead of seeing a white male walk into the interview, a 22-year-old woman entered the room, and was more competent than many other candidates. If she hadn’t been able to demonstrate her skill set first–if she had been screened by CV–she would have never ended up in front of the employer.

 

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your own company structure?

We don’t hire people via CVs, we always use the platform. We promote diversity and inclusion in our team, which includes a very interesting mix of backgrounds, genders and nationalities, Proving to ourselves that this culture and strategy of focusing on the core–skills–is doing a lot for the company overall. We learn a lot from each other, and hire junior people–it doesn’t matter how many years of experience they have, we are just looking at the overall attitude and ability to learn. We are brand advocates.

 

Q: How did you network, find communities and make the connections you needed to succeed?

I had an existing network  around tech and investment from previous careers, even though it had nothing to do with the startup world. Asking my existing network to introduce me to people, attending events and being proactive was probably the most successful approach. 

Also posting social media requests and shout-outs to friends and friends of friends–that’s how you actually expand your network. I came across a few communities like Startup Grind, Slush and Web summit, as well as dedicated Slack and Telegraph channels. And attending lots of international conferences and events.

 

Q: How did you connect with VCs? Can you describe your process of raising your seed round?

Our pre-seed funding round was back in 2018, and we’re thrilled to announce that we just closed a $1.2 million seed round led by Starta Ventures, our first investor from two years ago. We are also supported by the U.K. family-office and number of angel investors.

Investors are a community, and you need an introduction, not a random connection. Get introduced by someone the investor trusts–a founder in their portfolio or a fellow investor they’ve invested with. That’s a pretty safe win. However, it took me quite a while to identify a formula.

For this particular round, I reached out to 425 investors. That meant emailing, LinkedIn messaging, and jumping on calls. There’s no magic stick. In order to gain confidence from investors, you need to show them proof of confidence in the idea, or traction. If you’re at an early stage and can’t show traction, investors are looking at your team; you need founders with complementary skill sets to show investors you can deliver. If you have traction and early market penetration, you need to show sustainable and predictable growth. We’re not talking about revenue in the hundreds of thousands from year one, but growing your revenue month to month.

As a founder, you know your product, area and customers like no one else does: You need to transfer the confidence that you know your audience and market like the palm of your hand, and that investors should trust you with their money. 

 

Q: What are the biggest lessons you learned from raising your first round of seed funding?

That it is going to take a lot more time than expected.

One lesson is to adapt your fundraising and business strategy easily. The main struggle of the CEO or person fundraising is running the business and fundraising at the same time, so you need to find a balance. Either have someone you can trust running the business, or someone you can split the workload with.

Another is to develop your confidence to the level where hundreds of “nos” will not bring you down. It’s hard to hear no a couple of times a day from different investors; even though you’re driven by vision and ambition, on a personal level it’s really challenging. Trying to be more pragmatic, less emotional, and turning every no into a potential opportunity in the future is an art.

 

Q: How did you know you were choosing the right investors? What have they brought to the company?

Many founders–especially in my network–think investors choose the project, that it’s a one-way game because investors are the ones making the decision, but actually, no. As a founder you need to think about the long-term strategy. What business are you building; a VC-backed scale up that may be fundraising every second year? Or, is this a one time strategic investment. From my experience, not many founders actually know why they’re fundraising before going on the market.

If you are going to be raising a few rounds, you need strategic investors who will back you a few times more. It’s about building a community for co-investing in the future, and for guiding your business development strategy. On the other hand, if you’re doing a one-time raise to develop tech, especially as a deep- or high-tech company, it’s totally different. You need a professional investor in your particular field who will be patient and understand why you need five years to do R&D. 

In our case, we knew we were doing a scale-up business and that it wasn’t going to be our last round, so we looked for investors with experience in the sector. Right now we’re funded by a mix of people, funds and private investors, not all of them with experience in HR tech or future of work projects, but who understand our mission, our bigger vision.

When choosing investors, we always discuss how they can help us in our journey, to see if their vision is aligned with our future. And we have said a couple of nos when we saw investors who would be pretty hands-on and probably ask us to pivot. But for those whom we have on board right now, it’s like a marriage. Investors should be people you can call at any time of day or night, and are able to share even personal struggles and personal doubts.

 

Q: What are you going to use the new funds for?

This round is going to help us sustain the growth we’re experiencing right now, and continue to spend on R&D and tech development.

 

Q: How has your professional background prepared you to deal with investors?

I’ve been on the other side of these deals as a professional investor myself, which has helped me learn how investors think. I am stress resistant and don’t take nos personally, as I know that investors are saying no to projects, not to people. 

My advantage is that I have a strong financial background: I’m strong at risk modelling, risk analytics and mitigation, so my business modelling and plans have been optimistically realistic. Because a main red flag for investors is receiving extremely optimistic, but highly unachievable, plans they need to know the founder is a realistic person.

 

Q: What is your advice for other female founders at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys?

First, forget you are a female founder; you are the founder of a business, entering a professional world where a founder is gender neutral. 

Second, believe–really believe–in what you are doing, and be prepared that some of the people around you are going to be challenging you every single moment. This is especially true when you are actively fundraising. So be prepared to justify your decisions, strategy and vision with numbers or proof. 

Third, be prepared to hear no. Women are often more sensitive A-players and overachievers. Think of every no as an opportunity to turn it into a ‘yes’ later. Surround yourself with highly supportive co-founders, advisers, or friends. Talking through your ups and downs is very important.

 

Q: Do you have any thoughts/advice for employers in the current climate?

Be open-minded because the world has changed, and it will never be the same. So be open about the talent you are looking for and the people you bring on board. Plenty of professionals are shifters from non-obvious backgrounds; their experience can bring fantastic value to the business’ culture and team.

Equip yourself with tools that can help you support the right talent in the changed work environment. And not just recruitment automation tools, but those that will be able to give the full spectrum of the personal skills of your potential candidates.

 

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as the founder of your own company?

Your team is everything. Your co-founding team is the first key to your success, then the team you build is your main driving force. Reaching your goal is not about money or investments, customers and users. Yes, you can achieve that eventually, but the team that is next to you is the number one priority for every founder.

 

Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success?

Hard work and being a visionary. Being a visionary is a leadership skill, as I’m able to drive my team despite ups and downs. I’m able to communicate the vision, why we are doing it and where we are going. 

 

Q: Any thoughts/advice for job seekers in the current climate?

Before entering a job market, assess who you are in this market as well as your full spectrum of professional and personal skills. Making an employment decision fast and accepting any job just because you need it is not the right solution; it could go wrong during the trial period, and then you’d be back in the market within a short time. 

Build your CV and professional websites as a story. Talk about what you have learned, what you’re most proud of, and what you can bring to your next role. Be very honest: first with yourself then with your next employer. You never know what particular thing might change a no to a yes.

Be proactive, make sure there’s enough online proof of you as a professional, across platforms. If you’ve abandoned your LinkedIn, work on it. Employers are looking for credible people, and if you’re not articulating that credibility through available channels it’s highly likely you won’t be shortlisted.

Last, take the opportunity of today’s crisis into an opportunity to change your career, your professional future.


Dina Bayasanova


Dina Bayasanova CEO and Co-founder of PitchMe, a skills-based talent marketplace for career development and job search. PitchMe presents job profiles anonymously to let candidates’ skills and expertise do the talking, creating a fairer hiring process.

Read more on from Dina about hiring during and after the pandemic on Crunchbase.