While startups are slowly on their way to become mainstream in the Indian economy, they come with their own sets of challenges when it comes to talent acquisition and retention. Unlike established companies, startups deal with a lot of ambiguity in their initial years in all spheres. And that is something the HR function also needs to be comfortable with, believes Seema Vijay Singh, the Chief Human Resources Officer of online home rental network NestAway Technologies.
With over 16+ years of experience in the Human Resources industry, Seema has worked with established organizations such as Alcatel Lucent to well-funded startups like Amazon and InMobi. However, it is her experience with NestAway Technologies that she counts as a true blue experience with a startup from scratch.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Seema speaks about what does the HR function need to be prepared for when working with startups and the talent challenges of this nascent industry.
You have worked in HR with various startups such as Amazon, InMobi, and now NestAway. What has been your experience in working with startups?
My first experience was a startup was when I started working with InMobi, which had already completed 10 years of existence. Prior to that, I have been part of larger organizations. So my true blue experience with a real startup would be my stint with NestAway technologies.
At InMobi, I got a chance to interact with a lot of startups as InMobi used to bootstrap a lot of startups by giving them space in the office. So moving away from Amazon to InMobi was a part of my motivation to become a part of the Indian startup ecosystem.
Before InMobi, I was one of the core members who worked with the inception of Amazon India. What happened in the process was that I saw how to create a business from nothing. It was a big learning process for me as I drove initiatives which impacted a lot of people (the seller community) in India. That was a huge motivation for me and pushed me into a direction as to what can I do for the Indian startup ecosystem. I am very impressed by this ecosystem and how people have become job creators than job takers.
What are the kind of challenges you faced while hiring talent for a nascent industry like yours?
If you look at real estate the world over, it’s hard and real estate in India is specifically harder. Lack of structure in this space has led to a lot of real-time complexities that need to be solved. For this very reason, it is also a huge business opportunity. While the earlier VC investments made in the space were massive, it did not see any significant traction. That’s the reason why don’t we have any big names as yet. In a lot of ways, NestAway is a market leader as it was the first company that has seen success in this area.
As far as the challenge in hiring is concerned, the fact that we are a technology startup trying to solve a real human problem with technology makes us attract talent that is driven by the same purpose. We get a significant outreach from LinkedIn who want to solve this problem. As Indians, we are used to solving non-linear problems, which is an exciting opportunity for many.
The only disadvantage is that with so many startups in the tech space, at times it becomes difficult to differentiate one from the other.
When that kind of clutter happens, the challenge is how you actually create that value proposition for people interested in solving real-time problems. So we have to engage with such people constantly. In fact, technology hiring is one of our most complex hirings for this very reason.
The fact that real estate as an area has been around and not seen too much of success makes the technology talent look for other areas such as fintech or energy or insurance.
As far as our hiring strategy is concerned, we are very open to hiring people from different industries as they bring in a new perspective. We are solving a lot of unknown problems through the work we are doing. It’s only the collective wisdom of a very diverse pool of talent that will help us solve this problem.
How do you think the HR function in a startup needs to be versus that in traditional organizations to build a competitive advantage?
One thing that is very obvious is that startups operate with a significant amount of ambiguity. This ambiguity is not a cliché as several resources are available to large companies that are not available to startups.
So an HR’s ability to work with that kind of ambiguity is the biggest defining factor for an HR in a startup.
You need to get absolutely comfortable with it and then enable an organization in that level of ambiguity. That is your defining success factor.
Startups are prone to high attrition rates. What are some of the best practices put in place by NestAway for engaging and retaining employees?
Honestly, I have not found the attrition rate in startups to be any different from the industry averages of even large organizations.
If people do not have a purpose, and if you are not treating them right, attrition is bound to happen.
Purpose is very important, more so if you have a millennial workforce. If people have a sense of purpose and feel they are solving for something and learning in the process, they will be happy working for you. So giving them a sense of purpose and treating them right are the only two requirements to retain talent.
Attrition levels industry wise are high in India for good talent, as there is a huge amount of innovation happening in the tech world. This creates more opportunities for people to move and it does not mean only for the wrong reasons. So if you ask what I do to retain people, my only answer is to create a valuable purpose for them and make them feel that this is a fair place to work in.
What are the core values or competencies you look for while hiring an employee for a startup?
When you look at competencies while hiring for a startup, one important thing to look for is the ability to work with ambiguity. The second thing to look for is tenacity-not letting go, not dropping things event amidst failure. The third thing to look for is problem-solving.
In a lot of large companies, a lot of work is method based as you do not want people to keep on changing the process. In a startup, you have to have people who look at a problem and can figure out how to solve it.
The values we value at NestAway are think ahead, act like you own it, frugality (do more with less), team spirit, putting ourselves in the shoes of the customer, and bias for action (drive result). These are values that we have created to move in the right direction.