The next appearance of the unorthodox “Big Top” job fair intends to live up to its name – it’s scheduled to be held under a tent in downtown Durham.
“We’re trying to up the crazy a notch,” said Chris Heivly, founder and organizer of the series of job fairs with the formal name “Tech Jobs Under the Big Top.” But the cognoscenti just refer to it as Big Top.
Heivly, who also is a managing director at Durham business accelerator The Startup Factory, previously has held five Big Top events in the Triangle that he calls “reverse job fairs.”
Instead of job candidates lining up to impress prospective employers, Big Top lines up tech employers who each get three minutes to make a sales pitch to job seekers.
The Big Top fairs also strive for a casual atmosphere designed to sweep away the angst that job seekers experience at a typical job fair. So, in keeping with the Big Top theme, they feature jugglers and acrobats, and refreshments such as hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn and beer.
“It’s supposed to feel circusy, which makes everyone smile,” Heivly said.
Bronto Software, a Durham email marketing firm, has participated in all the Big Tops and has signed on for the next one, which is scheduled for April 9.
“It’s not your father’s or your grandfather’s job fair,” said Bronto co-founder and CEO Joe Colopy. “It attracts the kind of people we are interested in, people who are looking for something a little bit different.”
Bronto has been expanding rapidly and expects more of the same this year. The company currently has 191 employees and expects to add another 65 this year.
“It’s easy to find people,” Colopy said. “It’s hard to find good people, and really hard to find great people that fit our culture.”
Colopy estimated that Bronto hires one person for every 100 resumes it reviews. The company has hired employees it encountered at past Big Tops, but Colopy hasn’t kept count of how many.
Previous Big Tops were held at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, each of which attracted a capacity crowd of 350 job seekers. But this year Heivly expects to be able to accommodate 400 to 450 people by moving to an empty lot at the corner of Main and Corcoran streets.
Hence the tent.
Heivly anticipates 10 tech companies will present at the April 9 fair, ranging in size from 10 employees to a few hundred.
“I try to bring a diversity of companies,” he said.
In addition to Bronto, companies that have signed up so far include Automated Insights, Netsertive, The Royalty Exchange, Sageworks, Smashing Boxes and Validic.
Job seekers can attend for free but must register in advance. Companies pay $1,000 to $5,000 to participate, depending on their size.
Heivly was inspired to create the Big Top fairs after regularly fielding calls from local tech companies asking whether he could recommend a good software developer, a first-class marketing executive, etc.
The reverse aspect was designed to reflect the realities of the tech job market.
“In the tech space, the leverage is really with the job seeker and not the employer anymore,” Heivly said. “Even a half-decent software developer gets to pick where they go, as opposed to hoping for an offer.”
Big Tops are designed to be portable, and Heivly’s Big Top is proving to be as well. The Big Top went to St. Louis in February and attracted 250 job seekers, which was “all the event space could hold,” Heivly said.
He’s anticipating a second Big Top in St. Louis and a third in another city later this year.