The Full Stack Business Model for Talent?

Paul Breloff
4 min readMay 9, 2017

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I am very excited about the current popularity of the term “full stack,” the zeitgeist of which was captured by John Herrman’s recent New York Times’s article on “the stack” as the flavor-of-the-moment tech metaphor for understanding everything. The author noted that the term refers to a set of software that works together to accomplish something, but has expanded to comfortably roll off the tongues of a diverse range of non-techies in such contexts as diet (a “supplement stack”), leadership (a “talent stack”), and public policy (the “India stack” — though I suppose that’s still kind of techie). I will admit, I’m a gleeful offender, though I mostly still use the term in boring, as-intended phrases like “full stack engineer” and in sentences like, “Gosh, we’re having a hard time finding awesome full stack engineers, do you know any in Hyderabad?” (Seriously; do you know any?)

All this full stack talk has made me think about the full stack business model — distinct from a full stack tech solution or full stack platform — which happens to be what we’re building at Shortlist. In this context, full stack connotes something akin to “vertically integrated,” owning the full (in this case) recruiting value chain from job description to source to shortlist. But it also means that we act as a company’s outsourced full tech stack, bringing the “best of” a robust talent tech stack to companies so that they don’t have to go figure it all out on their own.

How does this concept play out at Shortlist?

We work with companies to deeply understand the role (and which competencies will drive success), build a candidate pool through a diverse range of channels, and most importantly, narrow down large candidate pools from many to few using a mix of sophisticated software and thoughtful human touch.

This is a bit unusual for a tech company, and earns us the occasional accusation of being a “service company,” an insult in VC/tech parlance on par with egg-throwing in a French election (Marine Le Pen, you deserved it!). It’s true that most companies in the talent tech world are obsessed with being a purely tech solution that picks one thing (video interviews, gamified assessments, social media search) and slots neatly into a company’s HR tech stack, playing nicely with the jumble of HRIS, CRM, ATS, social search, and other stuff revving the engine of sophisticated Fortune 500 HR teams around the world. If you’re a startup selling to a big company with a sophisticated talent value chain, there’s a darn good case to be made to specialize and focus, optimize the heck out of your corner of heaven, integrate promiscuously, and wait for someone to buy you.

Unfortunately, I think this is a challenging strategy for a company building a tech solution for talent issues in emerging markets, because it’s not what the market wants or is ready for.

Across industries, I’ve seen many companies fail trying to tackle just one part of a value chain, and I’ve seen how the success stories realized they needed to figure out the entire thing to succeed. We saw this in microfinance, as the success stories in India of the early/mid 2000s grew by owning the entire product and distribution value chain for financial services. We saw this in household solar products, as the success stories in East Africa of the late 2000s/early 2010s grew by owning the complete manufacturing to packaging to sales/distribution value chain, many times extending into after-sales service as well. And we’re seeing it even today as e-commerce businesses figure out new ways of solving last mile delivery and payments in order to grow their businesses.

We think it’s a similar case when it comes to talent and recruiting, albeit with less distribution and more of a tech dimension. SMEs with 1,000 or fewer employees will rarely have “talent tech stacks,” and frankly will rarely have any HR-focused software capable of integrating with cutting edge tech tools.

And when it comes time for SMEs to hire and grow, they don’t want to go out hunting for software, doing demos, comparing features and prices, negotiating contracts, waiting out tech integrations, training employees on how to use it, weathering complaints about how “the old way was better,” and praying the new tech actually works and generates ROI to write home about. No way!

When SMEs need to hire and grow, they want people, not software: they want to talk to people who understand their needs and they want to be given candidates who are great, ready to be interviewed, and ready to get to work. It’s not that these companies are opposed to software and tech — not at all! — they’d just rather someone else figure that out, so they can get back to their core business.

At Shortlist, we figure that out. We build technology that makes the human touch more efficient and effective, while not expecting it to replace humans altogether (yet). And we build for the full value chain, knowing most SMEs in particular want partners to solve their whole problem, not just part of it.

At least that’s what we always wished existed as we’ve built companies as founders, managers and investors in India and Kenya over the years.

So here’s to the full stack business model! (And here’s to full stack engineers, too, who should come talk to us if they’re in Hyderabad and ready to build something awesome.)

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Paul Breloff

CEO at Shortlist (www.shortlist.net). Founder and former MD of Accion Venture Lab. On a mission to unlock professional potential.