Finding Your People: A Unique Hiring Approach from a Foldable Kayak Maker

When you hear about a company that builds foldable kayaks, your first thought probably isn’t, “Neat, how do they hire people?” However, in conversations with other entrepreneurs, we’ve learned that our approach to hiring is like our product – handmade and wildly different from the norm.

Businesses tend to use job boards and request the ‘ole resume plus cover letter because that is how it’s been done for decades. My cofounders and I found an approach that fits better with our fun-loving group of makers and doers. Let’s talk through it and extrapolate some takeaways for your hiring process.

It Starts with Needs

Since Oru Kayak launched in 2012, finding people who share our culture, values, and passion has been a priority. We’re creative, hands-on people who love the outdoors and want to help people connect with nature. Our hiring process emerged organically from that mission.

Early on, hiring was a process of discovering what we needed. Some companies know how their organization will evolve. A tech company, for instance, might start with engineers, add customer support, and then hire marketers and salespeople once they have traction. When you make foldable kayaks, there’s no preset path. It’s more like paddling on open ocean than in a river.

Our dialogue around hiring worked in stages like this: Our kayaks are ready for market. OK, how do we get them to people? Let’s hire someone experienced in fulfillment. Our next design requires welding. OK, let’s find someone who’s skilled in welding. The finances are getting overwhelming for us. OK, who could we hire that would enjoy handling that?

Rather than build our company like a Lego set with orderly instructions, we let new opportunities and challenges set the course. The act of advertising and receiving submissions also took an unusual path, which I’ll talk about next.

Word-of-Mouth and Forms

Rather than rely on job boards, we decided to advertise positions through word-of-mouth. I’d ghostwrite a post for the team, and we’d all push it to our social media channels. That generated plenty of leads and saved money. But, where would we collect information? And what did we want to know about candidates?

None of us had coding backgrounds, but we wanted to collect job applications on our website. So, we created our applications using JotForm and embedded the forms on our careers page.

We explored new formats and ways of gathering information about candidates. For example, we added this box to our forms: “Favorite video on YouTube (optional).” We recognized that our cultural fit – outdoorsy makers and doers – wouldn’t necessarily write the best resumes and cover letters of all time. It seemed limiting to pick interviewees based on who can cherry-pick and present life achievements best on one piece of paper. That wasn’t one of our needs.

A YouTube video could express emotions and creative taste in a way no resume or cover letter would. When our team tried this exercise, my co-founder Anton Willis and I both shared the same video, Dark Side Of The Lens. That coincidence suggested that YouTube videos could be a good indicator of cultural fit. Since then, we’ve tested all kinds of questions to unveil the invisible traits of job applicants (more on those questions soon).

After the candidates submit their applications, we take relatively standard next steps.

We do a phone call first, then an in-person individual interview, and then an in-person chat with the whole team (not easy to schedule). By that third interview, we know who’s a fit.

Why a Form?

The beauty of word-of-mouth is that we bring applicants straight to our website. We chose a form over alternatives, in part, because we wanted people to spend time on our website and get the flavor. Sure, we could have listed a jobs@orukayak email address and listed the submission requirements. That’s just not visceral enough to us..

Because the forms are easily customizable, they have given us space to experiment. Rather than use the YouTube question on every application, we can be playful with requests like:

  • Favorite advertisement
  • Upload an image
  • Take a picture of your favorite vegetable and upload it
  • Write a blurb between 5 and 1,000 words about ____.
  • Favorite trail
  • Biggest adventure
  • Favorite kayak
  • Favorite outdoor sport

And so on. Too often, job applications discourage people from sharing what makes an individual who he or she is. Our experimental forms invited more vulnerability and self-disclosure.

Also, we find that bringing candidates to our website versus a job board is an advantage beyond saving money. Not to brag, but I think we have a nice-looking website with a video that gives viewers an unmistakable impression of what we are about. WhateverBoard.something wouldn’t and couldn’t deliver that experience. Headhunters certainly wouldn’t transmit the laid back, relaxed persona we value.

Make it Your Own

Part of Oru Kayak’s culture is to do things ourselves. We’ve built our own tradeshow booths. We revamped our own office, an old auto-body shop. We construct our own site projects and manufacture our own kayaks. Building our own job application process was in line with our identity. We need makers and doers, so that translates into how we do everything.

Here’s the takeaway: Ask, what is the nature of your company? What values, quirk, mission, or belief separates it from any other on the planet? Whatever that “it” is, find a way to transmit and invite it in your hiring process.

You can think of this approach to hiring with a radio station analogy. When you turn the dial from 103.1 to 103.5, maybe you’re switching from 70s rock to electronic dance music. They’re totally different yet only 0.4 megahertz apart! When your hiring process is the same as everyone else’s with the same-sounding job descriptions, requirements, and forms, you’re broadcasting the same signal and same music to the world.

How would applicants know what makes you different? How would they know why to apply to your company versus thousands of others? Sometimes, a small turn of the dial can transform the message you send to candidates.

Whether you make foldable kayaks or something not even remotely similar, we probably share a common desire: To work with people who bring out the best in us. I hope this exploration into Oru Kayak’s hiring process helps you find those people.

Roberto Gutierrez is co-founder & CCO at Oru Kayak.  Previously a kayak guide turned professional surf kayaker turned Ph.D., Roberto loves both teaching and water.

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