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Large companies have always had the edge when it comes to recruiting-their substantial budgets allow them to find new employees near and far. But the Internet is leveling that playing field, offering new ways for up-and-coming entrepreneurs to promote their businesses to job candidates. Today, even the smallest company can ad-vertise jobs on a Web site, go to recruiting sites such as Monster.com to post job openings or use mailing lists to get the word out. "For smaller businesses, the Net has decreased the barriers [to recruiting] and put them at the starting gate with larger employers," says Steve Pollock, 38, co-founder and president of WetFeet.com, a privately held, 5-year-old online provider of company, industry and career information in San Francisco.
Not only is the Net making it easier for small companies to promote job openings to Web-savvy job seekers, it's also speeding entrepreneurs toward the day when they can interview in real-time over the Net. The increasing power of computers, along with the growing availability of faster and cheaper high-speed Internet connections, will let entrepreneurs use live streaming video-digitally transmitted pictures that can be seen over a computer-to "meet" and weed out job applicants.
"In the very near future, phoning in for an interview over the computer will be commonplace," says Ken Ramberg, 35, co-founder of JOBTRACK.COM, an Internet-based service in Los Angeles that connects college graduates on campuses nationwide with potential employers through job listings. "[Online interviewing] will be a major benefit to small employers," he says, "who, in the past, have been limited by money and a local pool of employees."
Now You See It
For many entrepreneurs, posting jobs and sifting through the resulting resumes is only half the battle. Assuming you find prom-ising applicants, you still have to set up interviews. But what if, thanks to the Net, you're getting resumes from Portland, Maine, and you're in Portland, Oregon? Such situations have happened to Tena Hoke, 40, president and co-founder of EASE Software, a 10-year-old software engineering company in Beaverton, Oregon, thanks to a job link on its Web site. "We've gotten resumes from ev-erywhere-Canada, Russia, the UK and all over the U.S.," Hoke says. "At first, I was amazed, but now it's run-of-the-mill. We usually send out a canned response [to long-distance applicants] because it's too much of a problem to connect."
For budget-minded entrepreneurs, streaming video will let you interview potential employees in real time when face-to-face meetings are too challenging or expensive. With streaming video, both parties "dial in" to the same Internet connection so they can see and hear each other during the interview. Some software programs, like Microsoft's NetMeeting, even let both sides share resumes and other documents on-screen.
Another advantage: Online interviewing puts a face to a voice, and might even help determine whether it's worth the trouble to meet the candidate up close. "Streaming video would give us the opportunity to look at several candidates over the span of one hour, saving time, and, maybe in the long run, some money," says Steve Bradley, 37, CEO of RAC Solutions, a Bethesda, Maryland, company that provides customized com-puting services. He hasn't used streaming video for interviews yet because he still tends to recruit locally, but he's excited about its potential as his company expands. "Resumes and phone interviews alone don't do it for me," he says. "I need to see the person. Streaming video could be an added tool, a way to expedite the process."
The technology for streaming video has been around for a few years, but its market is small because most Internet connections are still too slow to support the large amount of digital information being sent and received. Today, people using slower Internet connections get grainy, slow video that lags behind the audio. This can be difficult for some people to handle. "The participants end up communicating via the audio," says Rick Pittson, product manager of Viewcast, a Dallas company that designs, manufactures and markets high-quality, standards-based video commu-nications solutions for businesses.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill MBA student Shannon Smith, 30, got some experience with online interviewing when she was on a European exchange program to the Netherlands in the fall of 1999. While there, she applied over the Net for jobs with various U.S. companies. She ended up doing preliminary interviews with some larger employers, live and online from videoconferencing facilities at her host school. Smith found the experience disjointed because the pictures and sound were out of synch. "I couldn't even look at [the interviewer] or I wouldn't hear the question," she says. "But at the same time, it was neat to see who I was talking to. The tech-nology is slow right now, but it will improve."
Ken Auer, 37, CEO of RoleModel Software Inc., a software company in Holly Springs, North Carolina, says that meeting someone via live video would be cheaper than flying the applicant out to interview, and could be useful if the person needs to do something that can't be done over the phone, like making a presentation on a white board. But Auer says he'll wait for the technology to improve. He adds that he'd never hire someone on the spot solely on the basis of an online video interview. "I'm not against [online interviewing]," he says, "but I'd need that face-to-face time before hiring, to let the person be around the others in the company beforehand."
If you think streaming video might eventually work for your business, here's what you'll need to get started: Internet access, conferencing software, a microphone, speakers and a video camera. The good news is, most of the hardware necessary is fairly inexpensive. Video cameras for computer use cost as little as $50, and microphones are even cheaper. Buying a headset with a built-in microphone is a good investment, because that will eliminate audio distortions. And the faster your computer and Internet connection, the better your experience with digital video will be.
There are a bunch of software options out there, the most well-known being Microsoft's NetMeeting (which comes bundled with Windows) and White Pine Software's CU-SeeMe (available for both Mac and PC). But be aware of compatibility issues, because some programs only work when the other party uses certain types of software. So ask a sales rep what the person at the other end of the connection needs to have in order to conference with you.
If setting up your own system sounds like a hassle, there are other options. With visitalk.com, PC customers are assigned free personal com-munications numbers-essentially Internet phone numbers-which are listed in a directory on the site. Members can connect to others via streaming video, voice mail or e-mail using NetMeeting or CU-SeeMe. "Videoconferencing is going to the Web," insists visitalk.com's Anne Price. "This is an option that small businesses didn't have before."
And finally, there are places that will set up your streaming-video meeting for you. Kinko's and Sprint have teamed up to provide packages with joint video-conferencing and streaming video-check out www.sprint.com/icc for details. But keep in mind that at least for now, this option tends to cost more than investing in your own system.
If you decide to dive headlong into digital video either now or later, be aware that the technology itself requires some advance planning and that going live online will create a whole new dynamic. Here are some tips for getting the most out of the experience:
- Use TV-friendly interviewers. Make sure the people conducting the interviews are comfortable being on camera. Remember, they are representing your company, and you don't want them to look distracted or upset in front of potential employees, who may already be nervous. To help, give interviewers some practice in front of a video camera and have others offer constructive criticism.
- Always have a backup plan. Make sure there's a phone nearby or you can access e-mail fairly quickly to contact the party on the other end if your connection fails. Right now, chances are, you'll have problems with the connection. (Smith's ex-perience as an interviewee is that getting connected to begin with is often the hardest part.) Make sure that prior to the interview, you figure out how you'll quickly reconnect if the line goes down. Knowing what to do if things disintegrate can alleviate stress on both sides of the screen.
- Streaming what? Video interviewing is still relatively new, and many job seekers may never have heard of it (much less experienced it). Don't be surprised if interviewees aren't familiar with this type of technology and be prepared to acquaint them with the process. By planning ahead, you'll feel more comfortable-which will help you make your initial recruiting decisions. Plus, planning ahead will surely save you some time and money down the line.