Could acqui-hiring work outside the tech space?

The basic concept of “acqui-hiring” is pretty simple — as more tech talent (primarily that’s the industry where this happens) opts for start-ups over bigger companies, the bigger companies find it harder to acquire talent the conventional way (i.e. recruiting and sourcing). So … they simply acquire the smaller company and lock the engineers / research and development / content / mobile / eta al people into 2-4 year contracts. Yahoo is doing this right now: since 2012 when Marissa Mayer took over, they’ve acquired 26 companies. Only about 4-5 of those, most notably Tumblr, are still operating as stand-alone companies. Most have been merged in with Yahoo as a whole, and then there’s this:

By necessity, many bigger companies are recruiting by simply buying the smaller companies that employ the talent they need and lock the engineers in to multi-year contracts (Yahoo, for instance, signs “purchased” employees to agreements lasting two to four years).

Similar to what I wrote above: you buy the company and, essentially, you buy the employees too.

In a way, this makes a lot of sense and can benefit both sides. Employees can go and chase that start-up environment for a while, and then once there’s a user base and utility for what they put their heart and sweat into, they get swept up in a place that can probably pay them more. Employers can avoid the many pitfalls of conventional hiring and get their talent from an organization that’s already been proving itself. Win-win, right?

Because the talent strategy process can be a bit of a wreck, one wonders — could this roll up to industries beyond tech, where it’s more common? Sure, on surface, it could: let’s say a company like Proctor and Gamble acquires a smaller analytics company because it wants some of their talent. Bam, that’s an acqui-hire.

Part of the problem in this domain is how people think about hiring. I’ve talked about this before, but here’s something more powerful from Harvard Business Review on the same topic:

Ironically, many marketers don’t think of recruiting as a marketing challenge. Instead, they think of it as an HR issue. But acquiring and retaining talent is really no different than acquiring and retaining customers.

Most marketers would never think to execute a customer acquisition strategy without a clear value proposition, segmentation, pricing, collateral, sales enablement, metrics, and brand. Yet when it comes to talent acquisition, we forget these marketing basics.

This perturbs me to no end sometimes (not very often, but sometimes). Everyone who works in HR in most companies would say, “Oh, we don’t deal with marketing except to hire them.” Marketers would say, “We don’t deal with HR except to get on-boarded and learn about benefits and compensation from them.” But in reality, they’re somewhat in the same space — storytelling, or “brand ambassadors,” or whatever you want to call it. People should work together on hiring — because at core, hiring is all about (a) what is the brand’s story and work and (b) how do we determine who fits into that — as opposed to silo’ing the whole thing. Remember: your products make the money, sure (in most business models), but your people make the products better. Hence, your people are more important than your products and processes, even if that’s hard to conceptualize from a managerial standpoint.

I think acqui-hiring could work more outside of tech, especially with the advent of “Big Data” as a thing (established companies need people who are better at the data side). You see that with marketing and advertising “small shops” being bought up here and there — same with content. LinkedIn just bought a start-up to help with their content side — that’s important for them, as people need a reason to be on the site aside from looking for jobs or looking to fill jobs (although their content strategy has unintended consequences too).

Regardless, with the way the hiring process is semi-broken right now, more verticals and industries should be thinking about acqui-hiring. If you have the money and can find a small shop in your space that fills a need, get after it. There will be challenges around organizational culture and melding a “start-up vibe” with a “corporate vibe,” sure — but those can be ironed out in time, and it might be worth it to get the right people you need in-house based off what they’ve already proven. That’s better than the current resume model. 


Ted Bauer