This startup wants all your job interviews to begin via text message

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When you first start using Canvas, it’s easy to imagine what could go wrong.

“OK so has anyone ever been drunk, and they think they’re texting their friend but they accidentally text the recruiter instead?”

That’s me, asking Canvas CEO Aman Brar what seems like the first question every millennial will have about his text-based interviewing platform. Brar assures me this has never happened. “It’s just like how someone knows to text their mom differently than they text their buddy,” he says. I nod, as though I’ve never accidentally drunk-texted my mom. 

Brar co-founded Canvas in October, after seven years at Apparatus, a software company based in Indianapolis, Indiana, which sold to Virtusa—an even larger IT company in Massachusetts—for $34.2 million in 2015. His fellow founders are former Apparatus colleagues Kelly Lavin (chief talent officer) and Jared Adam (COO). An Indiana native, gregarious and fond of jeans and bright polo shirts, Brar is hardly the portrait of the Silicon Valley pitchman. But his company has no smaller goal than overhauling the way companies find talent.

“Hiring was our life,” Brar says of recruiting at Apparatus, where he was president. “We were just never satisfied or happy with it. It felt unscalable. This notion of ‘OK we’re picking up the phone and calling someone to screen them’—it’s just not with the times anymore.”

An active candidate list in Canvas’ iPhone app.
An active candidate list in Canvas’ iPhone app.
Image: Canvas

Canvas offers an alternative: text. Instead of setting up a screener phone call with a job candidate, recruiters use Canvas to reach out to applicants, who receive those pings as text messages and reply accordingly. (Standard text rates apply, and international candidates receive texts from local numbers.) The platform lets recruiters store custom screening questions and resources (like branding materials or benefits information), and machine learning suggests things for them to ask or share. When a candidate is moved to the next stage in the process—something old-timey like a phone call or IRL interview—Canvas stores notes from the screener, as well as a shareable transcript of the text convo.

An explanatory video on Canvas’ website—a version of which applicants are pointed to in the first text—shows a young blonde woman, tapping out responses to queries like “How would other people describe your leadership style?” while crossing a busy street, and later sipping a cappuccino. Although Canvas has had some unexpected interest—its first client was a recruiting agency for manufacturers—it’s clear their target market is millennials.

Because no one hates phone calls more than millennials. In a 2014 Gallup poll, more than two-thirds of US 18- to 29-year-olds said they sent and received text messages “a lot” the previous day, compared with 50% for phone calls. In the UK, 25% of people who own smartphones don’t use them to make calls. And while global cellphone voice traffic has grown steadily, data traffic has exploded.

This shift, combined with the popularity of email and Slack, has already had an impact on phones in the workplace. In 2015, more than half of JPMorgan employees offered to get rid of voicemail (saving the company more than $3 million a year). When Coca-Cola did the same, 94% of employees volunteered.

“If every aspect of our life—booking a hotel, talking to colleagues, meeting our spouse—can be initiated with a text-based conversation,” says Brar, “why would talent be immune?”

Recruiters can add private feedback to candidates’ responses.
Recruiters can add private feedback to candidates’ responses.
Image: Canvas

Always Be Chatting

In addition to writing groundbreaking posts about animal farts and Steve Harvey emails, I am also the editor of Quartz’s Talent Lab, which means I’m involved in most editorial hiring. This, combined with my coveted millennial status, makes me Canvas’ target audience. It doesn’t hurt that I’m intrigued by the idea of texting job candidates questions like “What GIF best represents you?” or “Describe your interests in three to seven emojis.”

As software goes, Canvas could not be easier to use. The interface is reminiscent of Slack—color scheme included—and active candidates appear as chat conversations on the left-hand side. Questions are easy to access, as are documents and resources. The iPhone app (launched June 13 along with an Android app and the desktop version) is equally intuitive. It’s easy to see how texting applicants, logistically speaking, could soon feel natural. (Although, much to my chagrin, GIFs don’t work yet.)

Emotionally, it’s a different hurdle. When setting up interviews, I usually reach out via email and suggest dates and times for a phone call. With Canvas, the first outreach is a text, and the goal is to get enough information out of that exchange to know whether to move forward. The millennial blonde with the cappuccino may be glamorous and on the go, but the recruiter needs to be focused and present, if not on one person then at least on Canvas itself. In a workday already dominated by chat—Slack, Twitter, DMs, Gchats, texts from people I actually know—adding another real-time interaction feels both second-nature and incredibly intimidating.

At 11am on a Tuesday, I take my first shot: “Hi Jane [actual name withheld], this is Kira Bindrim, Talent Lab Editor at Quartz. I came across your application for our Obsessions Editor, and while we’ve filled that position I’d love to consider you for other opportunities at Quartz. I’d like to learn more about you over text to start? You can learn more here:”

Four minutes later, Jane hasn’t responded. I remember Brar’s suggestion that I follow up immediately with a question. “I know it’s a little weird; experimenting with a new tool,” I message Jane. “But when you can: Why do you want to work at Quartz?”

A half hour later, Jane hasn’t answered. But “John”—an applicant for a different open position—has. His emojis are 🤖🤔📈☕️📚.

Crazy like a fox

When Brar visits the Quartz office to show me a Canvas demo, he has two of the startup’s five employees in tow. Canvas is currently operating on $1.7 million in funding from angel investors, and already has paying clients (though it won’t tell me how many). Its talent leadership advisory board includes OpenTable talent VP (and former Airbnb head of talent) Scott Day, as well as Huntbridge founder (and former SpaceX VP of HR) Jeff Perkins. Canvas’ cost for clients, which depends on the number of recruiters using it, can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per month.

There’s a certain logic to Brar’s proposition: Screener interviews, like blind dates, are time-consuming. Maybe it would be more efficient, and relevant, to follow where the millennials lead, and take those early conversations to chat. But there are also some issues with this approach: Texting someone you don’t know feels a little invasive, and knowing whether someone can have an adult conversation with their mouth is something I like to establish early.

But here’s what Canvas does offer: It’s fun. Once you get past the social anxiety of texting recruits, it’s easy to see how the platform would be useful during initial outreach for an open position. Via text, conversations also lose some of the formality that comes with email, which is nice if you’re a company that prefers to judge people on their chillest selves. Does Canvas accomplish everything a phone interview does? No. Could it take over the entirety of hiring anytime soon? No. But it’s just so crazy it might work.

Which is all to say that Canvas may be the first player in the text-interviewing space, but it’s unlikely to be the last. “After literally decades of absolutely no change in interviewing, during the last five years, we have seen numerous innovative new approaches to interviewing,” John Sullivan, a Silicon Valley HR guru and professor of management at San Francisco State, wrote on his blog last year. “Initially, text-interviewing might sound crazy, but it has several advantages over most interview approaches.”

Holding on to that lead time will push Canvas to keep iterating, and many of its imminent updates—like masking to hide candidate names, and scheduled messages for people in different time zones—will help address some of the nuances of modern recruitment. Most important, I am assured that one day soon there will be the ability to send GIFs.