Entrepreneur 101: Dorm Room to the Board Room

These GMU students built a successful company from the ground up, and it’s bringing jobs to college grads across the region.

Co-founder and co-CEO Brandon Labman and intern-turned-full-time staff member Grace Lim at the Herndon-area offices of ROCS. (Photo: Jennifer van der Kleut/Patch)
Co-founder and co-CEO Brandon Labman and intern-turned-full-time staff member Grace Lim at the Herndon-area offices of ROCS. (Photo: Jennifer van der Kleut/Patch)

A nonprofit’s search for a few extra hands 10 years ago has turned into a booming D.C.- area business for two college buddies. 

Together, they’re helping companies find fresh faces and helping students find their first job.

Herndon-based ROCS, or Responsible Outgoing College Students, started out with a simple referral.

Co-founders Brandon Labman and Tom Moore were freshmen at George Mason University. Labman was studying marketing and Moore was studying politics. They were volunteering together on a nonprofit campaign lobbying for senior citizens when the staff asked if they could refer any friends who might want to help out.

Labman and Moore ended up recruiting between 30 and 40 hardworking students to help the campaign.

The experience sparked an idea in the two friends: they could start their own project that matched organizations and businesses with the perfect college students and grads that matched their needs.

What $400 Turned Into

ROCS has now been going strong for 10 years, though Labman said, “We still feel like a start-up.”

In the beginning, Labman said he and Moore managed to scrape together $400 between the two of them to get their idea off the ground, and accepted no outside money.

They started out by simply cold-calling businesses in the area from the phone book, asking them if they had any entry-level staffing needs. They started off small, doing a bang-up job on their first few recruits, and soon word began to spread that they offered a valuable service.

Labman said, the organic nature of how ROCS began has helped them to continue to grow, in a smart way.

“We were college students. We didn’t have a lot of pressure, or a lot of bills to pay, because we were still in school, and working out of our dorm room,” he said. “There was no pressure to grow too quickly.”

Matching Student Recruits and Companies

ROCS specializes in new, entry-level, raw talent.

“It can be tough for a company to determine if someone’s good, when they don’t have any experience,” Labman said. For most of their recruits, a job through ROCS is their first job out of college—the first substantial notch on their resume.

For that reason, the top qualities ROCS looks for are “hunger, talent, and motivation,” said Grace Lim, a former intern at ROCS who just graduated from GMU in December and is now transitioning to a full-time staff position at the firm.

ROCS can refer someone for a job as small as a paid internship or a temporary contract position to see if he or she is a good fit for the company’s needs and culture.

“Sometimes the company just wants to kick the tires, and try someone out,” Labman said. “So, they can start temporarily on an hourly basis, and maybe transition to a full-time position later if it’s working out well.”

How ROCS Finds Their Candidates

ROCS primarily serves companies in the D.C. Metro area, and finds most of their student recruits at local universities like George Mason University, James Madison University, University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. However, in the past, they have managed to attract students from all over the country who are looking to break into a career in the D.C. area.

Lim said, a big way ROCS finds new student recruits is through university job fairs.

“We’ll walk away from a job fair with tons of resumes and applications,” she said.

Labman said one of the biggest fields they tend to work with, and the field they get the most demand for from D.C.-area companies, is in information technology.

“We also do a lot in accounting, engineering, marketing, sales, and business administration,” Labman said.

Naturally, being located in the D.C. area, they also get a lot of demand for candidates who can easily get security clearances. ROCS can also pre-screen candidates to make sure there are no red flags that would prevent them from getting a government security clearance.

“We’ll take care of most of that for the client, making sure the candidate is 'clearable,' and getting them their drug tests and background checks,” he said. “Because all of that is a big investment for a company—getting through all those clearance checks.”

ROCS also demands professionalism from the students they work with. Labman said the first clue as to whether or not a student is top-notch referral material is the quality of their e-mail.

“[Learning how to write a professional e-mail] is just about the best crash course you can get as far as learning how to communicate with companies,” he said.

Labman said the ROCS staff also makes sure to meet in person with every client they work with, to get a real feel for the company and its style and culture, and also to meet in person with every student for practice interviews.

“Our rule is, the student can’t be even a minute late [when they come in to meet with us],” he said. “If they are, we send them home and tell them they’re welcome to e-mail us and try again another time.”

In other words, ROCS not only pre-screens the students for their compatibility with a company’s needs, they also give them the proper coaching they need to put their best foot forward and land the job.

Lim said learning about ROCS has been a dream come true for her, and though she studied sports communications and management with a concentration in journalism at GMU, she plans to stay on with ROCS.

“I love it here,” she said.

Labman said a business like ROCS is not something he ever could have imagined himself doing back when he started as a student at GMU—but it is the type of future for himself that he always envisioned.

“Looking back 10 to 20 years, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be doing this, but I would have hoped I’d have started something like this,” he said. “I’ve always been attracted to entrepreneurship, and always thought I wanted to start some sort of business or company of my own.”

It was all based on a need they saw out there for local college students, that they imagined they could help fill.

And fill it, they are.

Visit www.rocsstaffing.com.


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