How I Built a Recruiting Company Around Values

Jerel Cain applied his startup recruiting chops to a hot real estate market.
Jerel Cain applied his startup recruiting chops to a hot real estate market. Photography by Idara Ekpoh.

TalentWoo founder Jerel Cain knew how to hire people. Hiring the right people is something he had to learn while scaling his booming business.

Jerel Cain, 53, spent the aughts bouncing around Silicon Valley, building out IT teams and recruiting processes at various startups looking to hire. When he moved to the Phoenix area, he realized he could do the same for a fast-growing industry there: real estate. In 2011, he founded TalentWoo, a recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) company that helps real estate organizations find, attract, and hire talent quickly to scale their operations. TalentWoo operated pretty much as a one-man show until an influx of business during the pandemic led Cain to hire more than 30 people. As it would turn out, hiring was the easy part for him. Hiring the right people, ironically, proved to be more difficult. –As told to Brit Morse

I had built a career in California as an independent consultant, growing high-tech Silicon Valley startups. Many of them went public or got acquired, making the founders rich and leaving me with great contacts and success stories, but no financial wealth. So I moved to Gilbert, Arizona–a place I’d never been to or heard of, but found listed in what many reports called the fastest-growing county in America at the time–to buy an affordable home for my family and invest in real estate. I took a job recruiting for a home builder in 2004, and things went well until the housing crisis in 2008, when I was laid off.

Because of the cyclical nature of the economy, I couldn’t reliably depend on any company for a paycheck. I had two young children at the time, and I would have done whatever I needed to do to provide for my family, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and offer my recruiting skills to real estate firms.

To test the idea, I planned to meet with potential clients and present my recruiting methods to 30 companies in 30 days. By the fifth presentation, I had my first big gig–building out five departments for American Homes 4 Rent, a real estate investment trust with operations in 41 markets–and an invoice for $119,000. I had to hire eight recruiters to do the work. For years, AMH was my only client and TalentWoo was doing about a million a year in revenue.

The pandemic housing boom brought an influx of business overnight. In 2021, we landed Zillow as a client and pretty soon I could no longer handle the workload with just contractors. The 20-plus contractors who were working for me I hired on as full-time employees. I needed managers, and I assumed those same people who had assisted me for years could easily take those roles. I was wrong. They had been independent contractors for a reason; many of them didn’t quite understand how to work as part of a team. Instead of collaborating, some people were vying for various positions within the company and playing political games; instead of being encouraging, these new managers were putting others down. I had to let people go, and it was excruciating because those were people who’d done really good work.

I signed up for this program called Elite Entrepreneurs here in Arizona, a program that provides the leadership coaching and management workshops needed to grow a company from $1 million to $10 million. That’s where I first learned about company values, and how to assess people for those values. We did more than $5 million in revenue last year, and I’ve now learned that finding people is easy. Helping them work together is much more difficult.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect several factual discrepancies.