721 “Cups of Coffee” in Six Months, with Kelaca CEO Keith Langbo

Keith Langbo just celebrated the 8th anniversary of his talent acquisition firm Kelaca, and today Keith talks about recruiting and finding the right talent, especially in our work-from-home environment today.  But what’s remarkable about Keith is that 8 years ago, Keith and his family decided to move down from Michigan to Raleigh, a place where they didn’t know a single soul.  Keith set a goal of having 600 cups of coffee in the first six months to meet people and grow his business – and he ended up far exceeding that goal and planting the seeds for his company’s success.


Donald Thompson: Hey everyone, welcome to the Donald Thompson Podcast!

My guest today is my friend Keith Langbo, CEO of Kelaca (pronounced KELL-i-kuh), which is a Talent Acquisition and Advisory Firm.  I brought him on to have a conversation about recruiting and finding the right talent, especially in our work-from-home environment today. From my experience as a business leader, every company is 4 or 5 employees away – from taking that next step, from growing to a million dollars, from overtaking a competitor in market share.  But they have to be the right employees, and Keith today gives us some amazing nuggets on finding them and creating an environment where an employee wants to stay long-term.

We’ll get to that. But to begin the conversation, I ask Keith how Kelaca got started, and what’s remarkable is that when he and his family moved down to Raleigh from Michigan, they knew absolutely no one.

Keith Langbo: But I wanted the experience of truly starting something from scratch. I had had the good fortune of opening about 10 or so offices with my last company, but I was never the guy on the ground.

I was always the one that would fly in for key meetings or fly in to meet the team or things like that. And then fly out and spend my day or two in the office there. But I wanted the opportunity to see if I can actually do it from ground zero. So one of the many criteria and why we chose Raleigh, it was because I did not know a single person here.

In fact, The first group of people I met when I moved to the area, you were a part of because we went out at a YPO, Young Presidents Organization dinner. That was my first attempt to try to get out and meet some people.

So I, through YPO, through LinkedIn, through alumni connections, whatever connections I could find over LinkedIn. I went out and just started to test the market, engage in market research.

Where were the gaps? Where were the opportunities? What were my beliefs in terms of what I thought I wanted to do, and how did they align with this market in this region? And so I was fortunate to meet great people like yourself and other wonderful people. And I had set this goal of doing 600 coffees in my first six months, 25 a week.

And by the way, I ended up at 721, not all coffees and certainly not all caffeinated thankfully. I learned quickly I had to go to decaf for tea or something different. Otherwise I never slept. So every time I met somebody, I would charge to try to turn that into two or three other meetings, just the network and to get to know the area. Because at the end of the day, the Triangle, while a big city, it’s about a three contact market, you know, within three degrees of separation, I think you can start to circle around pretty quickly. And so my 721 coffees as it ended up  were really my opportunity to start from ground zero.

So we moved down and decided for some silly reason to build a house. I thought that’s what was right for the family, but of course houses never get built on time. So we ended up bouncing from hotel to hotel and trying to use up points, trying not to spend a lot of money. And so my kids are starting a new school, we’re sharing small hotel rooms.

And so I would go down literally the hotel lobby’s lounges in order to start Kelaca. And that’s where I would sit on my laptop and LinkedIn and try to network and even hired my first internal employee while I was still living in a Fairfield Inn over in Brier Creek.

Donald Thompson: That’s awesome.

Keith Langbo: Her first week of training, we did in the Fairfield Inn lobby, which was kind of nice because they had free breakfast.

So we could sit there and have breakfast together and do our training. Cause we literally didn’t – no office, nothing, and thankfully the house eventually finished and I got the family settled and we went and got office space and did all that stuff. And so I feel so fortunate that we chose the right market  to get started.

And that it was a transient market where they were open to someone coming from the outside, trying to start something new, trying to do something different. I guess I’ve got to give gratitude to those 721 people.

Donald Thompson: Yeah. I think, I was talking to, friend of mine, Joe Colopy that ran Bronto to great success and now doing some things and we were talking about building a business and building his startup in Raleigh, North Carolina. And he said some of those similar things, right.

A great place to raise a family, but also so a great place to launch a venture.  The Triangle, the one thing that we can do better is to tell those stories more impactfully and highlight those stories of that Southern hospitality but still that drive to create great careers, great companies, great places to work.

And so I appreciate you saying that because as we all grow our local economy, that’s more opportunity for all of us. So that’s great. We’re all in there swinging together. And I think that’s a nice fabric. One of the things that I wanted to ask you about is when you think about phrases like talent acquisition, and every business has a term that we’re trying to push away from. In my case in marketing, people will ask Well Don, why are you different than any other agency? Right? And in my case, I’ll ask you, How are you different than traditional recruiters?

What makes your talent acquisition advisory? How do you look at the landscape differently? How do you treat your clients differently that makes you guys special and unique?

Keith Langbo: Right. I’m a little biased. So one of the gaps that I believe existed when we started this eight years ago, and I’ll say it’s evolved quite a bit over the eight years in terms of what makes us different. But I always felt like there was a gap between the kind of top echelon or the executive search firms or executive placement firms, the Korn Ferry’s of the world and so on that had this incredible vetting process. They had this incredible kind of white glove service with their customers and they’re able to charge a premium rate for it and their process and where they kind of fit and filled the gaps in the market to this large group of staffing, recruiting companies that sort of fill the bottom half of that  space that had really been commoditized quite frankly over the years, whether it was the incoming of, of the job boards in the early 2000s, like Monster and CareerBuilder or the incoming of LinkedIn in 2004, the industry became so commoditized over the years, it was constantly a horse race or a rat race about how fast could we hire kids out of college, teach them how to match keywords on a resume to keywords in the job description, and then play the numbers game and throw as many resumes over the walls we could. And that’s what it was. That’s what I built in my last company and we did quite well with that.

But it had become this just pure rat race of hire the kids out of college and pour a mean glass of Kool-Aid and get him to drink the Kool-Aid fast, drive the metrics, be hyper disciplined about those performance metrics. And if you do that, you’re going to eventually learn enough here and play the volume play. But I’ve found that this gap was missing between what those companies were doing, which was the higher volume, quick turn, staffing recruiting sort of thing, and these executive search firms.

And so the idea of Keleca was, why can’t we have relationships or partnerships with our clients like the Korn Ferry’s of the world? Why can’t we get behind the curtains and be a strategic partner? And then at the same time, why can’t we treat the candidates, our product, if you will, like people instead of a product? Why can’t we build that same sort of rapport and relationship and respect and follow the simple golden rule or a platinum rule, whatever you want to say. And so there was this opportunity to develop relationships and partnerships with the clients at the top end while treating candidates like people and filling this, I call it the top quadrant, if you will, or top quarter of the space. I want to be compared in terms of our service and our offerings and our consultative nature with our clients, with the Korn Ferrys of the world, but yet we find ourselves competing against a lot of these staffing recruiting companies.

So our focus, 100% has been around redefining the recruiting experience from the client’s standpoint, the hiring companies to the candidate standpoint, and then also in our internal culture. And so anytime someone says, Why are you successful? What differentiates you?

The first thing to say is our people. Our internal people first and foremost. By design, we do not hire people from the recruiting industry. By design we only hire people who don’t  have recruiting experience. So our people is a big part, our process is the next part. In order to compete at that Korn Ferry or executive search level, we had to create a process that was more thorough than just a resume matching and more thorough than just skillset matching. We had to look at culture of companies. We had to look at values of companies. And how did that align with the candidate versus the client? We had to get strategic with our clients and talk to them about workforce planning and workforce assessments to understand what they have versus what they’re going to need and those skill gap analysis and those – so we can start to be a little bit more proactive in our recruting versus reactive.

And then lastly, to really make this a good talent acquisition process, we can’t just give the candidates a great experience during the talent acquisition part. I think a lot of companies fall short because we spend so much time trying to recruit and attract and bring in the best candidates. But then we bring them in for their first day and we have them fill out paperwork and we put them into these boring training sessions.

And so we spend a lot of time with our clients trying to throw up quite frankly, throw a party on day one so that as a new person comes in,   right out of the gates, they’re engaged. Right out of the gates, they’re seeing, Wow. Let alone one night when they go home and their family members, their spouse asks them about their day, they don’t say, Well I filled out paperwork, and I learned where the bathroom was, and I logged in my machine, whatever it is, they talk about the fun that they had, the excitement that they had, the fact they walked in and maybe they got some, you know, some swag or something on their desk, or a new shirt or something, or whatever it may be, and that they had a big party, a big lunch, a big celebration.

So we we’ve spent a lot of time with our clients on the onboarding function in trying to start that engagement off the right way, because quite frankly, a lot of candidates I read at one point, I think 30% or so of candidates make up their mind in the first week, whether or not this is someplace I see myself longterm.

We spend so much time trying to recruit them. But then we shoot ourselves in the foot quite often the first week.

Donald Thompson: Oh man. That is a powerful statistic, right? From a leadership perspective as I hear that as I grow companies and on boards, 30% of people make that longterm decision in the first week.

Keith Langbo: First week.

Donald Thompson: We treat everybody the same in that first week, which is typically pretty poorly, right?  Because the people that they need the most to show them their job are usually the busiest.

Keith Langbo: That’s right.

Donald Thompson: And that means that unless you intentionally make that onboarding, hyper-critical, you’re going to leave that new person to kind of fend for themselves for the first couple of weeks.

Keith Langbo: That’s exactly right.

Donald Thompson: How do you – so that’s a habit. I just described a habit that we’ve got to work on at walk West and many leaders that I’ve talked to. How do you change the leader’s approach to onboarding, something that I’m habitually not doing well. How do you get me to think about it differently?

Keith Langbo: We talk about it all the time. We measure it all the time. We use NPS surveys or any sort of surveying method to say, how is that experience? It’s all about the employee experience. Through the talent acquisition functions or through the recruiting stages, how’s their experience? How do they feel about it through the onboarding experience? Do their 30, 60, 90 day check in points.

It’s gotta be about the experience. Millennials take so much junk right now for, you know, their job hoppiness or whatever, whatever you want to call it.

But it’s not just Millennials. It’s anybody. Everyone wants a good experience. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger, they want to be a part of a greater purpose and they want to enjoy going to work. And I think too often, we don’t take the time to really focus on that. We tend to focus on where the money’s coming from, which is not always from our entry level hires or from our new marriage.

It’s coming from the seasoned ones. And yes, they need love too. But we’ve got to take care of those people out of the gates.

Donald Thompson: I will use a specific example of your ability to do that. So one of our senior designers, Chris Bunn works for Walk West. And I mentioned, I had your name on a whiteboard in my office because we had talked briefly and I said, this is a relationship that I didn’t maintain the way that I wanted it to, we met eight years ago, kind of lost touch, maybe saw each other in LinkedIn.

Keith Langbo: We’ve been both being a little busy.

Donald Thompson: But I said, you know what? I really want to strengthen this relationship in the next year. So I had it on my white board and I had a circle around it and Chris came into the office, and he said, Hey how do you know Keith? And so I talked to him a little bit about how we had connected and he said, well, let me tell you something though. I worked with Keith and they help place me in a, in an opportunity a few years ago. And they treated me like I was the most important customer, every interaction that I had with them.

And I’ll never forget how they made me feel. And that was a real time testimonial from somebody that had no reason to say it. He is he just being him, we’re talking and just really exemplifies how, when we treat people well, that power of recommendation that good seed we put in the ground, that’s part of the reason that you guys have been successful and, and you’re living what you’re talking about. I think that’s, that’s amazing.

Keith Langbo: Thank you for that feedback. And thank you to Chris. I remember Chris started at that time and he was relatively new to the space, I think on the user experience and user design space, UX stuff. Just incredible now to hear that story so many years later. This isn’t rocket science. We’re all people.

Donald Thompson:  No, that’s powerful. Now let’s pivot a little bit and talk about like you’ve with hundreds of customers, thousands of potential prospects and different things. So you have a really good pulse and perspective of the business environment that we’re playing in. And we’re all dealing in really unchartered waters here in this pandemic and this recession and all these different things we’re facing.

What are some things you’re seeing in the marketplace, both challenging and then silver lining. If you, if you see any and how do we, how do we chart a path forward as an economy?

Keith Langbo: It’s a tough question. And I’ll be the first to say, I don’t know. I think some great companies, some companies really handled this well on the talent acquisition side, in that initial hiring freeze, panic, fearful moments in March and April.

A lot of companies said, hold off, we don’t know what to do. I saw some great companies say, forget that, we’re driving forward, we’re going to do video interviews. We’re going to do whatever we need to do to make things happen and we’re going to snatch great talent. We’re going to go and recruit, identify, recruit, and track some great talent in while we can.

So we saw a lot companies, especially in the technical side of space, do a lot of hiring during that while everyone else was fearful and not knowing what to do and kind of sitting on their hands. We saw some great companies really pick up and hire, especially on the tech side, we’re seeing that come out across the board where most companies are comfortable hiring tech talent.

They’re still remote, which is a lot easier things to do is we’re seeing literally, since may has started, we’ve seen a 10 fold increase of the number of job orders. The number of hires. People are starting. We’ve had multiple people start this week. We have multiple people lined up to start next week.

And so companies have certainly started to accept it. They’re moving forward. They’re finding their path, even if they don’t know their path, they’ve just said, We’re going to make it happen. And we’re going to go. We’re going to do whatever it takes and we’ll figure it out as we go sort of thing.

Donald Thompson: Right. I mean, and then quite frankly, there’s only so much time that you can be for those of us that are dream chasers and pushing the envelope and growing companies that you can sit still and let things happen to you. And I think that more broadly, I think as a country, people are getting that same kind of appetite and saying, what can we do with the cards that we’re dealt? And that’s really the entrepreneurial spirit in general, because you don’t always get to choose and determine the cards that you have.

You gotta win with the cards that you got. One of the things as a leader, I always like to ask successful people. What do you read? Who do you listen to? Where does some of the sources of information that teach you and motivate you as you stay on that learning journey that you’re on?

Keith Langbo: I read, I listen nonstop. I was thinking ahead for this little bit and thinking what were some things that we really did, and I always have to give prompts out to Gino Wickman in his book, Traction. I’m a big fan of the entrepreneurial operating system or EOS. A lifesaver for us and a good friend Walt Brown introduced us to that eight years ago when we moved here.

So Gino Wickman, continue to read, I should say Audible, listen to all of his books. Now more recently, 2014 picked up Mike Michalowicz Profit First, which was a great book and another kind of business concept of, rather than sales minus expenses equals profit, it’s sales minus profit equals expenses. And let’s learn how to manage it a little bit.

And it’s just been a life changing thing as an entrepreneur that is constantly kicking the profit can down the road. So let’s reinvest, reinvest. But at some point you have to have profit, it drives the business, right. But where I learn so much has been my networking groups. You know, I think of you and I had coffee and the things I pick up from our conversations – or I’m part of a, what’s called a spark group, a small group of business owners that typically meets once a month. You know, now it’s been zoom calls, but a part of another North Carolina executive round table, which has been wonderful in terms of our speakers that we bring in and experts in their fields. But it’s in talking to these other business owners, these other entrepreneurs or groups like YPO.  That’s where, I mean, everything. I think it’s just listening to their ideas and taking little tidbits. I’ve got another group which is called T-TAP or the Triangle Talent Executives Forum. And it’s a group of 25 talent executives from all the companies in the area. And in hearing their tidbits and their experiences, their best practices, their failures, their struggles, whatever it is, that’s where I really find most interesting.

I think it’s interesting. Since the quarantine I’ve added a new source. Around lunchtime every day, I go out on a walk with my kids, my 14 year old and my 13 year old. I’ve always tried to engage them in the business. Right. And talk to them about what’s going on in our good bad and ugly. And I think they get it. I’m not sure if they really want to hear it, they get it. But there’s been something since I’ve been home in the last ten weeks of going out and doing this walk and just talk about, Here’s this struggle or here’s what’s going on, or, Hey, I’ve got an employee that is an extrovert, and they’re having a tough time being at home right now. And this is really getting to them. And to hear a 14 year old or a 13 year old, their out of the box ideas and their thoughts.

It’s my new source of wisdom. Not wisdom it’s my new source of life. Of creative ideas and the ideas they think it’s just fascinating. So I’ll tell a quick story about, we had an employee that’s an extrovert and struggling, having a tough time, right? Extroverts are around and they can’t get out and we’re not planning a return to work I’m assuming, because we don’t need to. We can stay at home and be safe and help keep the curve flat. My children suggested that, well, why don’t we go and drop some stuff off at the house and maybe we can stand outside and talk to him outside of the house. You know what? We can do that once during the day, or why don’t we go there a couple of times and really surprise them.

So earlier this week we went and we dropped off breakfast at 7AM and sat outside and had a quick conversation. And then we took lunch later in the day and at night took a couple bottles of wine and sat outside and just engaged with them. And you could just see this employee’s morale just kind of boost and take a jump up. And it was my kids. It wasn’t a business club. It wasn’t a new concept.

It was my kids saying, Hey, go be human.

Donald Thompson: What a great idea. And I’m taking notes as we talk and we can implement some of the best concepts or things you can do or things where you hear a new insight that you can action on tomorrow.

Keith Langbo: That’s right.

Donald Thompson: The key that you just  said it, I’ll  just repeat it, is just be human.

Like what would you want in that situation? You can’t fix everyone’s problem. But you can let people know that they’re supported and that they’re cared about. And that’s something quite frankly, over the last 10 years, I’ve become much more aware of personally as a leader and work to improve, right? Like when you’re in that first grind that you think it’s all about the work and then every problem is more work.

And that moves you forward, but it’s so inefficient, right? It’s short-lived versus as I’ve matured as a leader I’ve certainly tried to adopt more of the characteristics that you’re describing and have figured out you can still have high standards. And have a hell of a time at work and have fun. You can still have high standards and really create that caring environment.

And it just takes a little while to really believe that you can do both.

Keith Langbo: I think if you lead with the servant leadership mentality and the empathy, the caring that will, we will often as leaders be surprised by the standards that people bring to themselves and what they’re willing to do and aiming to do if you just show a little heart, right? With my employees, with my kids, I don’t need to put tougher expectations or tougher goals on them. You just need to show them that we’re going to be here to support them every step of the way. And if they reach high, they can achieve great things. And then I’m going to get out of their way and continue to support.

And I think that the right people are gonna drive themselves even higher things that we can ever push or ask them to do if we give them the path and the tools and support to do it.

Donald Thompson: Love it. Let me give you some space Keith. I’ve asked the questions and I’ve enjoyed chatting with you in a sincere way, have enjoyed reconnecting with you and what you’re doing.

What would you like to share with our folks like about your company, about how to connect with you about the nonprofit that you care about? Let me give you some space just to talk about some things that you care about that you feel strongly about.

Keith Langbo: Well, I appreciate that. Um, I care about stuff that’s going to help our businesses get back to it and whatever that new normal is, right.

Our businesses can get there. our people can get there and we can start to get closer someday. Shaking hands again. I guess companies need to go through some sort of workforce assessment. We had a client come in the other day and say, we have this, this is now months ago. They were talking about this wonderful receptionist they had on their team.

And now that they’re all being forced to work from home and not being in the office, they were thinking, what are we going to do with this receptionist? Are we going to lay this person off or what are we going to do? And our advice to them, let’s go through and understand what skills she has, what are her interests, and let’s go through and try to figure out what she could bring to the table.

Then let’s look at the rest of the company. There’s opportunity to either add value to a existing project or add value to someone else that’s trying to grow in those skills or things like that. Let’s look at the big picture. They’re trying to figure out where we can leverage these people in different ways.

And so I think it’s a good opportunity to take stock and reprioritize if you will. Again, you hear the stories of some of these companies that have pivoted during this time and, and doing incredible things. Whether it be for our frontline workers are doing incredible things for their employees or for whatever it may be.

I think companies have that opportunity and they’re taking stock, reassess or perhaps assess for the first time, what they really have and how we can figure it all out. So we can leverage people in better ways because that receptionist in this case, incredible employee and great culture alignment, great value alignment.

You know, they needed that person on the team, we just needed to figure out how to leverage them during this unique time and perhaps moving forward as well. How often a receptionist is going to be the norm anymore.

Donald Thompson: That’s right.

Keith Langbo: We don’t know. And so we need to, we need to pivot and adapt. That’s something I think is important.

We’re doing a lot of work right now with companies and doing those workforce assessments to try to figure that out. A good friend has helped build some technology, allows us to kind of build an interactive org chart that’s pretty neat and nice. And so that’s been a good opportunity. I think that’s a good opportunity for companies right now to look at it.

Yeah, I do want to talk about a nonprofit. Two nonprofits, one is called Neighbor to Neighbor. Once you’re familiar with Neighbor to Neighbor, it’s down basically the South central side of Raleigh, and they’re tied to the community around them, literally they’re helping the parents, the kids, they’ve got an incredible mentorship program where professionals can go in and be mentors to younger elementary aged kids and do their math homework with them or whatever it may be. And I think that  Neighbor to Neighbor is an incredible organization. We’ve been fortunate that many of the, just about everybody had Kelaca at some point has been involved as a mentor or as some sort of opportunity to engage Neighbor to Neighbor.

Last one is a group called the Sidekick Foundation. I’m part of a wonderful martial arts studio. Although we haven’t been doing a whole lot of martial arts recently and they have their nonprofit group called the Sidekick Foundation. Every year, we do an event called the Mad Dash, kind of like Amazing Race on TV.

Kind of like the Amazing Race where you run to something and then you have to work through a problem or do something as a team. And then you run to the next thing and you do an option for a problem. And they’re completely silly obstacles and problems.And it’s not really a big physical test.

Maybe, maybe you run three, four miles or something over the span of this race but it’s a quarter mile, do something silly, another quarter mile, do something silly. But the great thing about this group is that every year all teams can raise money to be a part of the Mad Dash, and the money goes to different causes, but just a couple of years ago, we raised enough money to buy a new bus for the Wake County Boys and Girls Club. The year after that, we raised a bunch of money to support the Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Group. And it’s not huge money, but what I love about this is it’s this – it’s a lot of fun it’s the Mad Dash, right? And so you can bring a team – teams of I think up to four people. So it’s not that making that multiple teams, Kelaca had two teams last year, hoping to have three teams this coming year. And it’s just a great opportunity to get out there as a team, do something fun, a little bit of outside activities, silly, but then raise money for just incredible organizations. And so I’m a big, big fan of Mad Dash, I would love to talk to them about it.

Donald Thompson: Well, that is phenomenal. That’s our time for today, Keith.

Thank you very much. Thank you for the time with us.

Keith Langbo: Thank you all. I appreciate the opportunity. Stay safe, stay sane.

Donald Thompson: That was Keith Langbo, founder and CEO of Kelaca. If you’re an employer looking for the right recruiting firm, or an employee looking for the next job, be sure to visit Kelaca.com.

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The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit Earfluence.com.

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