How Do You Build a Startup with an “A” team in India?


This post is by LinkedIn influencer Shabnam Aggarwal, Founder and CEO of KleverKid

VC gurus often talk about how difficult startup hiring is, but unless they built a startup back when they were a nobody, I doubt they truly understand how difficult it really is. Especially in India. Given how often we take advice from VCs, I wanted to dig deeper to see if I could draw any comparisons between the two.

I think a good metric stick to determine how hard something is is to look at the funnel to success. Basically that means you take the “top” of the funnel, in a VC’s case that’s the number of potential deals they look at, in a CEO’s case it’s how many resumes you look at, and put it in the denominator. Then you look at the “bottom” of the funnel, in a VC’s case that’s the number of companies they actually invest in, in a CEO’s case it’s how many people they actually hire, and put it in the numerator.

A VC named Nic Brisbourne recently published a post about his “dealflow” which comes to a .25% conversion rate from top of funnel to bottom. In order to succeed with that conversion rate, most VCs would have to source 30–40 leads/week to close 4–5 deals/year.

In my startup’s case, the conversion rate from the number of resumes I look at to the number of hires I’ve made is 1.3% (this should be higher in better educated markets, but India’s graduate quality is comparatively poor). In order to grow to the average 1 year team size of 15 teammates, that means a typical startup needs to look at 22 resumes/week to close 15 hires/year in year 1.

Conversion rates change according to the size of the deal or complexity of the role and there are always many more steps within and beyond the funnel that require time and effort and consideration. Regardless, just looking at 22 resumes/week is a mammoth task for a scrappy startup who’s trying to build something amazing that customers will pay for at the same time.

When I first had the idea for my startup, I desperately needed to bring someone in who would complement my geekiness with some marketing and sales expertise. One of the people in my funnel submitted an amazing resume and displayed strong theoretical knowledge of how to grow a new e-commerce / marketplace website through SEO and content marketing.

Upon deeper digging, I found he had copied a well known marketing guru’s e-book and masqueraded it as his own. I still hired him, convinced he had made an error in judgement in a moment of desperation. I was wrong and I ended up firing him within 3 weeks.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand and affect education in India, so every time I meet a bad hire I feel like the system has failed that person and I’ve personally failed them as well. At this point I’ve successfully brought the bottom of our funnel from 1 to 18, and each and every person I work with truly wants to work here AFAIK, so here are my pro-tips:

1. Hiring is like dating: swiping right on a friend of a friend is always easier than some random Joe The Plumber.

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Spend as much time as possible building a strong recruitment funnel that generates leads through your existing team and network. Incentivize your network to work for you with intangible thank-you’s, the same way you’d give your bestie a toast at your wedding for introducing you to your brand spanking new spouse.

2. Hiring requires a 6th sense: Not to see dead people…you have to go with your intuition about someone, not just their paper creds.

I’m a strong believer that someone’s culture and values are immediately evident when you meet them. You can see it in the way they treat the waiter, in the way they respond to a critical question, and in the way they handle uncertainty. Especially in a place like India where taking the short cut or employing Daddy’s connections to get out of a sticky situation have few repercussions, you can just tell if you can trust someone off the bat. And if this is someone you’d want to be stuck in a 2 hour car ride with…

3. Hiring is like Mario Brothers: There should be levels and it should get harder and harder to get to Peach the princess.

When we started hiring, we would meet someone once and try to decide yay or nay for the sake of brevity and simplicity. Our gut intuition wasn’t very honed back then and we would have tons of unanswered questions about the hire. Often we’d err on “yay” because we didn’t want to lose someone who might be good. Try to set up a standard set of questions, assignments, and teammates any role should be required to complete before you get to the final decision on them.

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4. Hiring is fucking hard: you will fail.

No matter how helpful your network, how strong your intuition, nor how perfect your process is, you will still fail. There is no silver bullet and there is no way to ensure everything and everyone is aligned. At times you’ll hire someone you’d love to spend 2 hours in a car with, but doesn’t fit the immediate needs of the company. Other times you’ll hire someone who everyone hates, but is the most productive person in the office. It can be exhausting, overwhelming, and more frustrating than fundraising.

Especially when you get spam resumes from someone who forgot to BCC everyone, or resumes that start with “Respected Sir/Maam” (P.S. If you’re looking for a job at a startup, do a little research and show you know a bit about who you’re reaching out to! It goes a long way.)

All in all, hiring is hard and arduous and riddled with failure, but bringing together an amazing group of people that are excited to spend 10–12 hours/day with one another is an incredible success in and of itself.

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