Apna, a LinkedIn for blue-collar workers, recently raised $100M at a $1.1B valuation from Tiger Global and Sequoia Capital with $0 in revenue. Their platform has garnered over sixteen million users and facilitates eighteen million interviews every month.
With the exasperation of the job market due to COVID-19, Apna has truly become the backbone of the Indian workforce with over 150,000 businesses harnessing its cutting-edge technology to augment their workforce.
In an interview with founder Nirmit Parikh, we learned how the company achieved such a remarkable feat in a mere 15 months.
At his previous startup, Parikh discovered the challenges of hiring blue-collar workers. They have limited education and are primarily hired through haphazard local networks, leading to high unemployment and attrition. While many companies had attempted to develop employment discovery platforms to bridge this gap, most blue-collar workers are destitute and affording the internet was a far-fetched dream.
However, in 2016, Reliance Industries launched an inexpensive nation-wide cellular network, democratizing access to the internet. As expected, numerous companies, including Zippia and TopHire, created job discovery platforms but failed to generate traction.
Parikh decided to approach the problem-user first. Knowing that the professionals who developed these platforms were unaware of the challenges blue-collar workers face, he went undercover as a factory worker at a mill in his home town of Ahmedabad, India. After spending weeks, he determined that factory workers wanted more than a job discovery platform. They were lonely, isolated, and oblivious of career opportunities, often employed in the same roles with the same meager salaries for their entire lives.
Equipped with this revelation, he set out to build a platform that would facilitate user interaction and increase access to professional opportunities.
But on his days undercover as a factory worker, he also understood that many blue-collars feel intimidated using such platforms. They’re scared of interacting with professionals due to their lack of knowledge of the English language.
So Apna added small touches to ease the interaction between blue-collar workers and employers. They created a non-formalized approach to job searching with interactive virtual business cards instead of tedious resumes. Further, they adopted colloquial languages like “some-English” or a blend of local languages and English, nurturing an inclusive environment for blue-collar workers. They also fostered vertical communities so blue-collar workers feel welcome and can collaborate with one another to reach their personal and professional goals.
As Parikh notably said in our interview,
In just a few months after launch, Apna went viral with hundreds of thousands of daily active users. Unlike traditional job discovery apps that one would only use a few times a year while looking for a job, Apna’s community was now the backbone of social connection for India’s blue-collar workforce.
Parikh advises budding entrepreneurs, “When you see a problem in your community, lean into it. Don’t just research, instead meet your users, understand the challenges they face, desires, and potential. And then rapidly adapt your strategy towards that direction.”
As Parikh was getting started, he noted that one of the reasons few marketplace startups succeed is due to unprepared stakeholders. In our interview, he provided an analogy to Uber. If the Uber app was launched across the globe and drivers were not yet available in a location, riders in that location would be irritated, criticize Uber, and therefore ruin its reputation.
The Apna team decided to launch city by city to ensure that there are enough users and hiring employers. Today, the company has calibrated a playbook that incorporates local nuances to launch in new cities and drive more than 10,000 interviews in each city within a week.
The application is live in 28 cities and Parikh hopes to launch in over 300 cities by the end of the year. They’re also beta-testing their platform in the United Arab Emirates and the United States and are anticipating launch in early 2022.
But the question revolves around why are eminent venture capital firms including Sequoia Capital and Tiger Global trusting a platform that makes no revenue. Parikh says, “It’s because of the potential that lies ahead.”
When you build a product with sticky-user love, it opens doors to a plethora of business models. The company is focusing on developing it’s micro-skilling platform that enables blue-collar workers to learn new skills to unlock a path towards a more rewarding future.
Parikh has huge aspirations including reaching billions of people over the next couple years and reducing global poverty. And while this may seem ludicrous, the company’s 125x growth over the past year sure makes it promising.