Belong is a predictive hiring platform to discover and engage high-impact talent through data science and predictive analytics.
Always be prepared. Do your research about the person and company you’re meeting. With this journalism 101 rule, I walked into the office of Belong, which recently raised its Series B funding from Sequoia Capital. Confident with the data and research done, I wasn’t prepared for a soft-spoken man to dig out references of a simple Facebook post made two years ago within five minutes into the conversation.
Like any other startup, the rooms were filled with bean bags, people with headphones and quotes from fantasy and fan fiction. After a small tour of the company, the founder of Belong, a 2010 BITS Pilani graduate, Vijay Sharma walked into a small conference room, a stark contrast to an office buzzing with activity and people. And then he cast a spell with his mastery of data.
But bringing out forgotten and hidden information apparently is Vijay’s modus operandi. Tarun Davda, Managing Director, Matrix Partners, an early customer and now an investor in Belong, says that his first meeting with Vijay and his team was unlike any other pitch meeting he’s had. Though Tarun was acquainted with Vijay since his Exotel days, and knew his ability to be super connected, he wasn’t prepared for what would happen at the meeting.
Vijay walked into one of Matrix’s meeting rooms without a laptop or a presentation and said instead he would share bits of information on every investor present, and this information would be known only to the said investor. Everyone was stumped to get the right answer and were left pondering how this man discovered these facts. Tarun adds,
“It was data and information that each one of us had left on the internet and Belong’s algorithms had found it relevant enough to pick. And that was the product he was building to scale for millions. He didn’t talk about disrupting the recruitment industry. He just said–I want to build Belong to help people find more meaning in their lives by being part of a company where they truly belong. After that live demo and statement little mattered because he was walking the talk.”
There are enough and more murmurs by HR consultants over Belong and Vijay's uncanny skill and knack of finding the right people and getting information nobody has. Vijay has a laser sharp focus, is extremely driven and passionate, all of which is hidden behind an unassuming demeanour.
When congratulated about the recent funding the team has raised, Vijay nonchalantly smiles and says it is great to have like-minded investors on board but funding hasn’t been a milestone for Belong. “Everything that we do is towards one purpose and one goal, ensuring that the relationships people build at work are true and meaningful. And people find companies where they truly Belong,” he says.
Belong helps companies discover and engage high-impact talent through data science and predictive analytics. Its search and recommendation technology analyses millions of profiles across social, internet, and public sources to help companies discover potential candidates who best fit their culture and skills requirements, while gaining verified insights into whether they are passively open to new opportunities.
All of this is automated through AI and machine learning today. But when Belong first started, the founders did all of this manually. They did things that didn’t scale, because it was their learning curve and it helped in building the product.
Of the 60 parameters that they had started with, 40 were validated and added to the algorithm. The process is an on-going one. The company was initially called DataEmo. In the beginning, when they were building the algorithm, the team had decided not to sell for three months. Vijay states that they wanted to make sure that the product could truly scale. People would ask, ‘As a startup, don’t you have to survive?’ But Vijay says his ambitions were big from day one and just survival wasn’t the goal.
As the premise was–apart from the hard skills, it is the soft skills that matter. It was this focus on soft skills that got Vijay to build a value document quite like Jerry Maguire’s ‘Mission Statement.’
The value document and sheet was possibly one of the first things that the company built, even before their business plan and model. Tarun adds that the earliest discussions the Matrix team had with Belong was on the values that the company would be built on.
Vijay’s premise was simple: if the investors were on-board they had to be in completely and for that they would need to understand why Vijay behaves and acts in a particular way and what his decisions mean. He felt it was important to align with the values framework. Tarun adds,
“I haven’t seen somebody as young as Vijay talk about values. In the Indian startup ecosystem there are few young entrepreneurs who talk about the values that the company is going to be built on. And it just wasn’t us, he did the same thing during Sequoia’s round as well.”
One of the values at Belong is–‘Be better than yesterday’. A little restless now, Vijay wants to explain a point what he believes the startup world is missing and not focusing on–the softer aspects of growth and not just number crunching and scale. After two years and working with companies like Amazon, Thoughworks, Ola, Cisco, Tavant Technologies, Postman, and Directi, Vijay feels that the journey has just begun.
“This has caused all of us to become crazy learning machines and it is also painful,” insists Vijay. He emphasises that they want to build an institution that outlives them and continues to thrive. “One of my mentors told me when you build an institution, it is going to be tougher, slower, there isn’t going to be immediate growth and you’re focusing on all soft things first and it is going to be painful because the world always wants hard results. But it will happen in due time,” says Vijay.
Abhinav Asthana, CEO and Co-founder of Postman, adds that Belong has been their go-to-talent platform for over a year now. He says, “We have made offers for highly complex roles in about 10-14 days on the platform. It's, in fact, one of the few solutions that combines high quality candidates with low time-to-fill ratios for our recruiting team.”
Recruitment is broken. According to a 2015 KPMG report, the recruitment industry was at $1 billion. And yet, less than 10 percent of this has been captured by any structured organised player. Tarun adds that Naukri had disclosed their revenues at $70 million.
Of all the revenues that recruitment firms made close to $100 million and the remaining $900 million is still run by unorganised players. “Everyone follows a KBC styled fastest-finger first approach. Generally you are hiring from a pool of misfit candidates,” adds Tarun.
If two companies A and B are looking for a product manager, where most recruitment firms would use the spray and pray technique of sending several resumes with fitting profiles, Belong would possibly send five to 10, with a higher hit rate.
And the reason, according to HR consultants who have used Belong, is that the candidates are sent mails with a personal touch and not a common copy paste job with a job description. “The focus is on the culture fit, a product manager for company A and company B cannot be the same kind of person but two different people,” says an HR professional.
Founded in 2014, Belong claims to have doubled the number of mid-market and enterprise customers and grown over 411 percent year on year in the number of offers generated through its platform. The focus is in finding details and connections about a person that would possibly help in ensuring that he or she lasts a longer time in an organisation.
While it all sounds great and exciting, the fact that there are algorithms that creep and crawl all through data and information that you would’ve put out in the digital world is scary. And it raises several questions on whether information and data is safe and secure. When asked, Vijay answers, “We take the data only from most social media platforms. It is data that people choose to share publically and not information that is not shared publically or is secret.”
Since 2010, Vijay has been a part of the startup ecosystem in some way or the other. It was when his mentor, Founder of Sattva, a for-profit social enterprise, advised him to actually do something that was significant in the startup world, that Vijay joined Practo during its early days. Not wanting to startup immediately, Vijay then began working with Practo. “I was finally doing something worthwhile,” he jokes.
It was at Practo that Vijay got a rough idea of recruitment. He began with posting jobs in Practo’s career page. “But the candidates that came in weren’t the kind who would raise the bar or be a part of Practo’s vision that had attracted me. The agencies weren’t helping startups then,” adds Vijay. Frustrated one night, Vijay ended up googling who the best marketer in India was, which gave him a hit of a blog that had names of 10 people.
He just shot emails to all of them saying Practo was looking for someone to lead marketing. No one replied. These were the marketing heads of Dabur, Asian Paints, and the top corporates. “I was thinking that if I can get a phone call with them, then I can convince them to join,” says Vijay.
Wanting to solicit a response from them, Vijay began to read up and google more about each of the people. He ended up reaching the 100th page. It is like what Tarun states–“Someone like Vijay just doesn’t give up. He has made this his life’s mission.”
In his mad-scientist like research, he found that four of them had said in a magazine interview that once they retire they would like to give back to society through healthcare and education. That was the hook Vijay was looking for. Using those very interviews, Vijay wrote back to them and said, look this is the exact problem we are solving. This time, his hit rate was 100 percent. Explaining the difference Vijay says,
“It was a light bulb moment for me. It wasn’t that they replied, it was what got them to reply. It was the fact that in this email I had hit a more personal note and touched a chord. We are human beings at the end of the day and not ‘resources.’ If you treat people right they will respond. And that was my biggest takeaway–human beings are being treated like resources and that’s when I began hiring differently. I would go online and find as much information on people and try to understand who they are as people before making them an offer they cannot refuse.”
After a year in Practo, Vijay moved to Exotel. It was here that Vijay spent 40 to 50 percent of his time at hiring, again here he would try and find people who would ‘belong’ at Exotel. It was from here that he got the idea that he liked the recruitment and people space. But he still hadn’t started his own firm. His ‘moment’ came when he got into a rather tough conversation with his mother.
“My mother called me and asked me why I hadn’t tweeted about Exotel in a while. Ironically it was one of the parameters I would look at to determine if an employee was satisfied in his current job or was looking to shift. If the tweets dropped, one of the reasons could be disengagement. It was one of patterns I noticed. And it was a pattern my mother noticed with me online. It made me think and realise that I might be slightly disengaged. My mother then gave me one advice, she said, “If you think of doing something stupid then focus on something where you’ll spend a lot of time on and be happy doing and are good at. I remember wanting to cut the call, because like a mother’s knack, mine had me by the neck.”
But it was a valuable piece of advice. So when Vijay went back and looked at what he had left online. He realised that most of him was about hiring and culture. So towards the end of 2014, Vijay started Belong with his friends from BITS Saiteja Veera, Sudheendra Chilappagari, and Rishabh Kaul.
Even then, Vijay had a list of 72 people whom he relentlessly chased to get on board.
“I am still hunting them, I haven’t let go. Some joined one year later, some joined two years later but luckily Sudheendra was scared and excited enough to co-found the company with me. Saiteja and Rishabh joined later as co-founders,” says Vijay.
But the ecosystem support was there. Ola and Practo were early customers. It was during these very early days that even Tarun first tried Belong. Every person Tarun would look for in Linkedin, he would find Vijay to be a common friend.
“He seemed one of the most connected people in the startup ecosystem. I found him to be astute in figuring out which person would fit perfectly for which role. It showed great insight and maturity to be able to separate a person’s background from their fit for a particular role,” adds Tarun.
In their early days, Belong helped Matrix place several people for their portfolio companies. Tarun couldn’t help but wonder how Vijay managed this and why was he into something as simple as a recruitment agency. But simple recruitment wasn’t what Vijay was doing.
With its algorithms, Belong aims to give the best information to both parties, and leaves the decision to the decision maker. “You never push someone into a relationship or a marriage. Similarly, pushing someone into a company or hiring wrong is sacrilegious,” believes Vijay. The idea is to create trust and transparency in people who do not know each other. At present, Belong has 80-85 people and is looking to have a team of over 120 people.
“People talk about culture and they talk about tribes and belongingness. People work with people and at the end of the day, life is about relationships. I think human beings are just trying to find a set of tribe with whom they can belong. When you understand that, matching becomes easier and simpler. Matching happens at a cultural level, skills are learnable, and nothing stops one from learning skills. But things like who you are, what your values are, are deeper.”