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When Karson Humiston was nearing graduation from St. Lawrence University, she attended a cannabis trade show in Denver. Jobs were on her mind; what kinds were available, what were their requirements. And in talking to the vendors there, she learned that cannabis companies have trouble filling open positions. Why? Because traditional job boards wouldn’t run their ads and recruiting firms wouldn’t take their business.
“A lightbulb went off in my head,” she says. Humiston happened to be uniquely positioned to solve the problem. At the time, she was running a company out of her dorm room that booked travel for students — and she’d researched their career aspirations. “I had a big network of students and recent grads looking for jobs in the cannabis industry,” she says.
So that night, Humiston decided to seize the opportunity. She created a company named Gradujuana — a name, she figured, that would perfectly broadcast the service she could provide. Then, after school ended, she moved into a Denver hotel and gave herself two months to find clients.
Nobody returned her calls. Confused, she asked around and found out why. People didn’t take a company named Gradujuana seriously.
Humiston had inadvertently stumbled into a common, early startup problem: picking a name that communicated the wrong thing. She’d wanted it to be fun — but that doesn’t work in an industry where careers are on the line. Its specificity also boxed her in. Staffing services thrive on placing high-paid executives, not entry-level workers. But no CEO from Big Pharma was going to return a call from Gradujuana, and no cannabis company would trust it to place a CEO. “I would reach out and say, ‘Hey, we’re Gradujuana, a full-service recruiting agency,’ and the company would say, ‘We don’t need any recent grads,’ ” she says.
Humiston wasn’t sure what to do, so she hired a marketing agency and went in for a brainstorming session. The team threw around cannabis-themed names like Cannext and Higher High. “About an hour into the meeting, I remember thinking, Wow, this isn’t going well. All these names are terrible,” Humiston recalls. “Then someone threw out the idea of doing something around the word catch, since we were catching top talent.”
It felt like a revelation: The company name didn’t have to play off cannabis.
Soon the team was searching for the word catch in other languages, and ended up landing on Vangst, which is “catch” in Dutch. Humiston is part Dutch, and she liked the word as soon as she heard it.
The name didn’t immediately win people over, though. “The initial reaction from my clients wasn’t great,” Humiston admits. They wondered why she didn’t choose a name that incorporated the idea of cannabis — an especially frustrating reaction after all that she’d gone through. But now people took her calls. And so, Humiston was finally able to get to work — placing executives, earning money, and growing her reputation. “Once clients realized we weren’t just placing interns and recent graduates, we immediately started picking up clients who had previously rejected us,” she says.
Growth has been steady ever since. Vangst now employs more than 60 people and has placed 10,000-plus candidates in cannabis-related jobs. And, she says, she now sees the name as a path to scalability. “If we want to pivot into other industries, we’re not pigeonholed,” she says. In January, for example, the company secured funding from Snoop Dogg’s venture capital fund to build Vangst Gigs, an online platform akin to Uber for those seeking temporary employment, such as bud trimmers or budtenders.
And even though Vangst isn’t as immediately playful as Gradujuana, she’s discovered she can still have fun with it. “Every time we place a candidate,” she says, “we mail them a welcome box that reads, ‘Damn, it feels good to be a Vangster.’ ”
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April 11, 2019 at 09:05AM