Backed by Matrix Partners and Blume Ventures, Belong.co is building a Saas-based hiring solution for companies to recruit middle to senior management professionals in engineering, product, design and data sciences.
A typical interview with a startup founder which takes about 40 minutes came to a close in less than 20 minutes, thanks to Vijay Sharma’s tactful and crisp responses to a dozen questions posed to him about his maiden venture, Belong.co. He has no five-year plans. In fact, he doesn’t even have a one-year plan for his business; for he believes that the company might far exceed any targets he might quote for the story. Instead, he suggests, “Ask me what my 20-year vision is and I can tell you clearly.”
“Every organisation today needs people, people who are passionate about what they are doing. Twenty years from now, we want to participate in a lot of people’s lives and help them belong”
What’s the fuss about yet another startup founded in the hiring space? I ask. And pat comes the reply, “We don’t compete with companies like Hiree. Neither do we compete with Naukri or Monster. We sell Saas-based solutions to companies based on their hiring requirements.” To explain it better, Belong.co operates in the niche space of enabling companies to identify talent in the mid-senior level segment, and its solutions are customised based on various parameters such as the number of open job positions, the level of the job vacancy, the nature of job and more. For example, if a company wants to hire a technical architect, the Saas solution will pose a set of questions to the hiring manager to identify the nature of work and, with the aid of data and algorithms, suggest potential candidate profiles that can ‘belong’ to the company’s role. “These are typically people who are far into their career and don’t openly share their resume on public portals. Instead, when companies approach them, they consider applying for a position,” explains Sharma.
Currently working with the likes of Snapdeal, Zivame, Ola, Urban Ladder, Directi, Freshdesk and more, the company operates on a revenue model which takes a commission on every job closed, depending on the level of customisation required. Its customer acquisition strategy was quite straightforward. It didn’t set a target of signing 100 clients on board. “Instead, we decided to strike the first five to six deals, prove our model and then move on to the rest.” While this approach proved effective with four companies, it turned unsuccessful with the other two which Sharma points were opportunities that led them to improvise their model further. Of course, Sharma’s prior network in the startup ecosystem also bagged him a few clients who, in his words, trusted him to return the money if the task couldn’t be completed.
The Back Story
With an Honours degree in Chemistry (of all things, he says) from Birla Institute of Technology & Science(BITS), Sharma worked with the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) for a year before joining Practo, an online platform to find and book healthcare appointments, to lead its sales and marketing efforts. “I joined when Practo was still an eight to nine-member team and apart from sales, I also managed hiring. I manually used to search for profiles which could be suitable for roles within the company,” he recalls. Safe to say, those were the origins of his idea which later germinated into a venture in future. Following Practo, he worked with Exotel, a cloud telephony service provider for a couple of years. “That’s when I began stalking Sudheendra Chilappagari (currently, co-founder of Belong.co),” he chuckles and adds, “I asked him to join as an intern. Eventually he started managing hiring and brought in a lot of automation into the process.” The duo founded Belong.co in July 2014 in Bengaluru, which today is a 75-member team with 40 of its employees hired through Belong itself. “Having applied through our site, they were passionate about what we were building. Others were hired through references,” he notes.
Where’s the money at?
A year after founding, in June 2015, the company attracted a Series A round of US $5 million led by Matrix Partners, followed by Blume Ventures, redBus co-founder Phanindra Sama, Sierra Atlantic’s Raju Reddy and Snapdeal co-founders, Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal. The funds, Sharma points out, will be primarily channelised towards hiring and technology. “One of the biggest lessons I learnt from my investors was that as the CEO, you will always own the role of building the culture of the organisation. My investors said that the culture will be a reflection of you and you can’t find someone to take over. Three months after resisting that ideology, I realised it is true,” he candidly admits.
Sharma and Chilappagari have put several culture-related practices in place to ensure that their employees’ views are given due attention. “I typically spend an hour a month with my immediate counterparts and two hours a month with the second-in-line employees to make sure I hear them out,” says Sharma. This apart, the team has also put several practices in place such as an email transparency program, wherein everybody can read everybody’s emails. “Every time I’m sending an email, a bunch of teams are always BCCed to make them feel like they’re closer to the decisions I’m taking,” he adds. Another practice is Walk The Talk. “Since I stay just 2.5kms away, I walk home and every time an employee wants to discuss an issue with me, we talk it over in a 30-minute walk,” he shares.
While Belong.co initially focussed its hiring efforts towards the product and engineering segment, going forward, it also plans to open its niche to the design and data sciences segment. Scrapping all one-year and five-year plans for the company, Sharma shares his 20-year vision. “Every organisation today needs people, people who are passionate about what they are doing. Twenty years from now, we want to be a part of people’s lives and help them belong. Maybe then, SpaceX (rocket launches) will happen faster,” he quips and signs off.
Key learning from his investors
“The culture is always going to be a reflection of the CEO and you can’t find someone to take over that role.”