Vahan's virtual assistant piggybacks on WhatsApp to help recruit blue-collar workers


Bengaluru -based Vahan lets job-seekers and blue-collar workers chat with its AI-driven virtual assistant on WhatsApp in local languages, and get access to job opportunities. 

Madhav Krishna started Vahan in 2016 with one idea: building a virtual English teacher on WhatsApp to help Indian youth increase their employability potential. But when things didn’t progress the way he had envisioned, he decided to pivot to a WhatsApp-based virtual assistant that helps companies hire frontline workers and lets job-seekers access opportunities. 

The Bengaluru-based company has built an AI-driven virtual assistant integrated with WhatsApp that helps companies automate workforce engagement, and offers blue-collar workers access to job opportunities, knowledge, and information to improve employability along with services such as loans and insurance. 

“They access our product simply by chatting with our AI-driven virtual assistant on messaging apps like WhatsApp. No separate app download is required. Being available on WhatsApp helps reduce the barrier to entry, and maximises user adoption and engagement,” Madhav says. 

A graduate of Columbia University, Madhav has been entrenched in New York and Bay Area's startup ecosystem. He worked for several startups like Jetsetter, which was acquired by TripAdvisor. 

When he started Vahan, Mohammed, a friend who had worked at Google and Apple’s Siri had a similar vision, joined him as an advisor. When Mohammed’s startup shut down two years ago, he joined Vahan full time as Co-Founder and Head of Product.

Co-Founders of Vahan Mohammad and Madhav

Why did they pivot? 

In the initial days, the co-founders started selling the product to vocational training institutes. They quickly realised most institutes were not interested in improving the quality of their training programmes, and were looking to cut costs to increase their margins. 

Most institutes were dependent on long-term grants that are renewed every two years. “Our sales cycles became 9-12 months long, which is not viable for any startup looking to build a fast-growing business,” Madhav says. 

A year ago, the team was introduced to the team of Uber through one of their vocational training partners. Their conversations with Uber led them to realise that the key problem the ride-hailing app had was training drivers at scale. 

On speaking with other companies that employ a large, geographically distributed frontline workforce, they realised all faced the problem of training their workforce at scale. “We broadened the definition of our product to be a virtual trainer on WhatsApp, one that was customisable to an employer’s training needs,” Madhav says.

The common challenges 

Most companies employ trainers who travel to remote locations to run classroom-based programmes. This involves a lot of overheads and is not very effective. 

“High-growth companies like Zomato and Swiggy, which are trying to grow by 50-60 percent by the end of 2018, need to recruit tens of thousands of delivery boys every month,” Madhav says. 

The attrition rate in large frontline teams is high, close to 75 percent annually. Yet most companies have aggressive growth targets, necessitating recruitment of high volumes of workers constantly. 

Most recruitment is done manually through unscalable processes, which is what Vahan aims to change with its virtual assistant that automates the top of the funnel of the recruitment process.

How does it work?

Vahan specialises in high volume recruitment of delivery personnel for companies in the on-demand and ecommerce space. To apply for a job, a candidate simply needs to send a “hi” message to the company’s WhatsApp number

The virtual assistant qualifies the candidate, answers their questions, and even schedules an interview. The team has built Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology to understand what users type, especially to monitor a mix of two languages like English and Hindi. 

For this, the team built a separate consumer product that was able to act as a mousetrap for generating millions of Hinglish chat messages per month as a solution to this problem.

The virtual assistant can be aligned to fit employers' communication, recruitment, and training needs. A web-based dashboard lets employers to track data for business intelligence.

Madhav says the product has gained a lot of traction over the last few months and that the team has signed on customers such as Domino’s Pizza, Dunzo and Cure.Fit

The numbers and future

“Our growth has accelerated significantly over the last few months. We transacted over 22 million messages through our system and are now engaging 100,000 job seekers every month,” Madhav says. 

The team uses different pricing models —they either charge companies up to Rs 10 to contact a candidate or up to Rs 50 per qualified lead.

Vahan is funded by marquee angel investors such as Gokul Rajaram, who built AdSense at Google; Vir Kashyap, Co-Founder of Babajob; and Mekin Maheshwari, former Head of Engineering at Flipkart. Stanford University’s alumni fund Spike Ventures has also backed Vahan.

“Once we have dominated the delivery space, we will start scaling horizontally across industries like transportation (taxis), BFSI and retail. Our goal is to hit 5 million monthly active users in the next 18 months,” Madhav says.