LivingSocial moves past layoffs

In a capital city known for its politicians, lobbyists and government bureaucrats, LivingSocial stands out, with its tech start-up vibe and cool-factor ambitions. The company was founded in 2007 as “Hungry Machine.” After a couple of app ventures and acquisitions, it morphed into what is now known as LivingSocial, with more than 4,500 employees worldwide. The first deal was featured on July 26, 2009, with the D.C. restaurant Zengo.

LivingSocial’s vice president of human resources, Carol Mahoney, spoke to The Hill about what it takes to work at the company, how LivingSocial pushed past a round of layoffs and the need for tech talent.

Q. How does LivingSocial evaluate applicants?
A. We do have a rigorous interview process, and in that process of course we’re looking to see if people have the right skills and qualifications to fit our roles. We’re looking mainly for salespeople and engineering professionals, so there’s every specific skill set that we’re homing in on. In addition, we’re looking for people that fit our values, so in addition to looking at their skills and qualifications, we also take a look at how they do their work and how it fits in with serving our customers.

Q. A couple of years back, Business Insider described the hiring process at LivingSocial like “going on American Idol.” Is that an accurate description? How has that changed?
A. I would say that it’s changed. It’s definitely not true. When a candidate comes in we want them to feel relaxed and comfortable, so that they can show off their skills and qualifications and tell us who they are.

Q. LivingSocial went through very public layoffs this past November. Where do things stand now?
A. We’re doing very well. And if you kind of just back up a minute, at the end of 2012, compared to the end of 2011, our revenues actually doubled, so many companies would be envious of that kind of result. However, our expenses grew a little too quickly and we needed to take a hard look at the money that was going out, so we cut expenses and some of that expense included, unfortunately, employees.

Q. How has the hiring strategy changed as a result of the layoffs?
A. Actually, I don’t think our hiring strategy has changed. Honestly, it has not changed.

Q. Have any of the types of positions shifted?
A. No, It’s sales and engineering. It’s always been sales and engineering. When I got hired here in May, my boss told me, “your job is to make sure that we hire salespeople and engineers” and today my job is to make sure we hire salespeople and engineers. ... We have about 150 or so positions open right now. We filled about 80 last month, so the pace is about equal to what it was last year at this time ... roughly a year ago.

Q. How do you keep up morale after a round of layoffs?
A. We are lucky that we have a pretty strong culture. We do have lots of fun things that still go on. Obviously when you go through a layoff, it does put a strain on the organization, but we continue to come together as an organization and we do things still like — we had a holiday party, we just made the holiday party a little less opulent. We had it right here on the floor, pizza and kegs. We did it a little more low key. We ran to the White House, got kicked out, actually, but to do the Harlem Shake, about a month ago. We found out that you’re not supposed to do that without a license ... you should have seen, 50 of us, all dressed in these really outlandish costumes, and we showed up and the guy in H.R. was there to film it, and boy did we learn about the Secret Service.

Q. Where does your applicant pool come from?
A. Keep in mind that our positions, especially in sales, are everywhere, so anywhere that LivingSocial sells to the local community, we have people. That’s about maybe 30, 40 percent of our people are distributed based on where we do business and being close to their customers. For the D.C. roles, we almost entirely recruit from this area. There are roles where we don’t find enough applicants and we may hire someone, but we don’t typically re-locate them here.

Q. What’s the LivingSocial Sales Academy for employees?
A. The Sales Academy was specifically designed for people who may not have a lot of sales experience. Many of them have graduated with a degree in sales from the university, but may not have a lot of sales experience ... and what we do is we put them through a pretty intensive and comprehensive program, so that they can supercharge their performance and be promoted a lot quicker.

Q. How beneficial is the formal training compared to on-the-job?
A. It’s amazing. It is just amazing. ... They perform better, they earn better, they’re happier. They really understand LivingSocial better, because they’ve had sort of an incubation period.

Q. Does LivingSocial offer any other formal in-house training?
A. We have had tech training in the past. We don’t have anything going at this second. ... With the shortage of tech talent, everywhere, not just in the D.C. metro area, but in general, what we found was that there just wasn’t enough supply to meet our demand, so the goal was to go out and find hungry, smart, capable, high-potential individuals that wanted an opportunity to learn how to code, and we called that Hungry Academy.

Q. How hard is it to find people with the engineering skills you need?
A. It is hard everywhere. It’s no harder here than it is in California. In California there’s more developers, but there’s more opportunities, so you’re competing more, so it’s hard everywhere. I mean, it’s a great position [for the employee] to be in. That’s what I’m really, really anxious to see ... there’s a whole sea of people that need to choose coding as a career. ... I’m very passionate about attracting people into that area of study and work.