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Sean Blagsvedt Is Helping More Than 2.8 Million Indian Job Seekers Find Jobs

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Sean Blagsvedt is the CEO of Babajob.com, which connects employers to informal sector employees in the developing world – such as delivery helpers, maids and drivers – through a combination of mobile phones, location, skill and price filtering and social connections. The site has registered over 2.8 million job seekers, added 2.5 million job positions and raised Series A funding from Vinod Khosla Impact, Gray Ghost Ventures and USAID.

Previously, Sean spent 9 years with Microsoft in the Office, Windows and Research groups. In 2004, Sean moved to Bangalore as the 3rd member of Microsoft Research India, heading the Program Management and Advanced Prototyping team, focusing on novel approaches to mobile phones and technology in emerging markets.

Prior to Microsoft, Sean worked at the White House with the Internet Policy czar, Ira Magaziner. Sean holds dual bachelor degrees in Computer Science and Public Policy from Brown University (1998). He is a TED Fellow and married to Jaaga.in founder Archana Prasad with whom they share a wonderful son, Vyom, and dog, Berlin.

 

In your own words what does your startup do?

Babajob reduces the inefficiency of hiring someone for informal, entry-level and blue-collar jobs. Previously, employers relied on personal recommendations, newspaper ads, or other sources that do not always provide qualified candidates in a timely manner. Through Babajob, they now have access to millions of potential candidates and with our proprietary matching algorithm, they can sort through them instantly.  We offer a range of premium services and support to employers that make hiring easier. We deliver relevant job information to jobseekers for free via internet (web and mobile), an Android app, SMS, and voice services. Jobseekers need only a mobile phone to register on Babajob and apply for jobs.

 

How did you come up with the idea of your startup?

While I was working at Microsoft Research in Bangalore, we had a fairly wide bunch of things that we looked at related to technology in emerging markets like India. One day, our team was presented an academic paper by Anurag Krishna. It had a very basic premise and answered a very simple question: Why do people flow in and out of poverty? What the paper found was that people get trapped in poverty due to health care related debts and people get out by getting different jobs, often through people they know.  I thought that was a very interesting insight and one that I thought possible to be digitised. Upon reading that paper, literally I said, “if we just had LinkedIn for the village we could all go home.” And so there was this germ of an idea; could we digitise all the jobs and jobseekers and make those connections visible.  That was the idea upon which babajob was based. And it was borrowing from things like Craigslist.com and LinkedIn.  That was an idea I began germinating in terms of how do I make a digital job marketplace work? How do I use phones? How do I make connections?

Babajob1

Could you walk us through the process of starting up?

I had to figure out, how do you digitize people who don’t use computers and how to get employers to tell us about their hiring needs? At MSR we had been looking at phone-based solutions and so I literally began sketching and thinking things like “Oh how would this work over SMS?”  Once I explored the use of SMS, I thought that I could make a job portal that notifies people with SMS when they get hired and had the ability for somebody who knew how to use a computer to help out somebody else that didn’t.  The problem for me was important and motivating enough that I just had to see where that idea took me. So I began working with another colleague who saw the prototype and said yes, let’s do this. I recruited my step-farther who had run a couple of software companies in the US to come out to India and then I quit my job. That was the process of starting for me. I had an idea and was super motivated and I began drilling down user interface sketches and the beginning of some initial prototypes of things that I thought might work and was basically encouraged by others to say this is worth trying and you should go for it. So eventually I got up the confidence to be able to quit my day job and say “great I’m going to do this and try to make this happen”.

 

Did you encounter any particular difficulties during startup and if so, how did you guys overcome it?

One problem is that it is always difficult to design from multiple user groups. As a market place we have employers who hire people and we have jobseekers who want jobs and within that there are many different types on both sides. I think a lot of times, the more you can simplify your assumptions about those groups and sub-groups, the easier it is to execute the idea to build something.

One of the difficulties we had was “how do you do outreach to the jobseeker population that are not traditionally digitally connected?”  That is, how do we target delivery guys, drivers, security guards and maids that are not traditionally internet users. And so, for us we have looked at a variety of different models of distribution which were a challenge for us. When we first started we worked along with skill-training NGO’s to get them to tell their clients about what we were doing. These were the people like maid associations, slum dwellers associations. We found that to be very intensive in terms of how much work it took to build relationships with those organisations. We spent 3 to 6 months building relationships with NGO’s only to find that they would sign up 200 people of which maybe only 30 of them would be engaged in the job process and only 5 would be hired. So that didn’t seem like a very good result of our effort. It also did not look very digitally scalable. But we learned that the hard way. We also looked at telephone companies as distribution partners. Especially if we go back to 2008-2009 in India, rather than the internet companies like Amazon and FlipKart, the big fish in town were these mobile VAS companies that were selling caller ringtone and cricket alerts, etc. We tried for 2 years to work with them as a distribution channel to reach jobseekers. We found that we were a bit naive to try to motivate a telephone company to do marketing on our behalf. The jobseekers that we got from this channel were not engaged and it was difficult getting any real traction with these companies.  Now we rely on traditional forms of digital marketing and press articles to attract jobseekers and employers.

 

How have you been developing your company since startup (i.e. what’s the developmental direction)?

Babajob has always been very data-driven in our approach to building the product.  We follow lean principles to quickly prototype and test changes we make to the platform.  This has allowed us to grow and improve our service, while still ensuring a quality experience for employers and jobseekers.  Since starting Babajob in 2007, we have seen exponential user growth.  Our platform is becoming more accessible and effective.  Over the past 4 months, we have rapidly expanded our staff across all areas of the business so that we are able reach millions more jobseekers and employers across the country.

 

What kind of feedback did you get for your startup so far?

Early on, we were encouraged by the board and other trusted advisors to build one visible system and focus on what is the core unit that we are selling, which helped us clarify the business. It took us 5 years to figure out the product and set of features that appeals most to employers.

 

Do you face a lot of competition in this industry?

We compete against some of the largest domestic and international job portals.  What makes Babajob different is it’s focus on entry-level, blue-collar and informal sector jobs and the ways we make opportunities accessible to aspiring jobseekers.  Our strategy is to make ourselves the best service for employers and jobseekers in the focused set of categories that we operate in, which have specific needs that other employment channels are lacking.

 

Have you developed any industry insights that you could share?

We are in constant contact with jobseekers and employers, so we have an evolving understanding of their respective pain points.

We also have a wealth of data on hiring behavior and salary trends across the job categories that are serviced on Babajob.  Users are able to see average salaries for jobs in their category and location when they are posting jobs and applying.  We can use such data to map the change in salary over time in a particular category and location. For example, we know that driver salaries in Bangalore have gone from Rs. 8300 in 2013 to close to Rs. 11400 by the end of 2014.  Given the volume of traffic we get on Babajob, we are confident that these figures are representative of trends in the industry as a whole.

 

How do you plan to stay relevant in this industry?

Babajob will become more relevant in the future as the number of mobile phone users and the number youth entering the work force in India increase.  We are developing more and better ways for jobseekers to access Babajob from their phones.  Babajob is also well suited for small and medium sized enterprises because our service is more affordable and easier to use for hiring managers than other sites. We see the number of SMEs in India increasing rapidly in the coming years and we are hoping to benefit from that growth.

Babajob Team

What is the future of the industry in your opinion?

I think the future of industry is around reliability. By reliable I mean that when people want to hire somebody they can and do so with confidence. We have seen this in other marketplaces that have really done quite well and have shaped industries. In the transportation space, the likes of Uber, Ola and others like them have used an app that has been aggregating supply and demand and then reliably matching suppliers to buyers in real time and in a manner that is transparent for both parties.  We have not yet seen that in the general employment space, especially at the lower end. I think the direction of the industry is moving towards this kind of reliability.

 

Was there anything that disappointed you initially?

When we started working with NGO’s thinking that they would be excite about helping their clients. We were not making money from the jobseekers, since we were charging the employers. When we begin to work with several of them we found that they were charging their clients to register for babajob, which was intended to be free for them. We were saying that this would help the population and they basically figured out how to make money out of it. I don’t think I should have been surprised. But, given that we had an agreement that they weren’t supposed to do that and they still did was disappointing at that time.

 

What do you think about being an entrepreneur in Asia? Is it harder or easier, why?

I think it’s different. I have never been an entrepreneur anywhere else. I also have never met an entrepreneur who said that their job was super easy. I think sometimes there are useful perspectives that you get coming from a different country. Many Indians I met had biases about traditional caste divisions and the capabilities of people at the bottom of the pyramid. The day before I came to India I went to the Seattle library, which has 200 computers.  If you go there during the day it is entirely used by homeless people. Basically this put the idea in my mind that it is not about income or even skills that creates the barriers to entry for people to use technology.  Everybody is going to use these tools, you just have to make them accessible. That was a helpful perspective and had I not been from the States and seen the very poor in America using digital systems, I don’t think I’d have been so fast to assume that it could happen here.

 

What is your opinion on Asian entrepreneurship vs Western entrepreneurship?

I do think there is a difference. In India, at least, to be successful with a mass-market product you have to consider income ranges that are much larger than most companies would consider in the States. This affects the way you conceptualize a product.  For instance, telephone companies in India are selling their product for $2 a month and being profitable, whereas similar companies are selling the same thing at $50 a month in America. If you want to build mass-market product you do have to think differently just because you have so many different literacy and income levels. You also have to create a product in the absence of the kind of reliable platforms on which businesses in America can build a business. For example, you can assume that people in America have Visa/credit cards so that if want to ask somebody to pay you can just build a web portal for them to do so. We can make that same assumption for our employers; we can’t make that assumption for our jobseekers. If you then look at the companies that have really thrived in India, they’ve figured our clever solutions to get around these challenges.  Also there are no social security numbers so you have to figure out how to approximate trust without that.

 

What is your definition of success?

Being responsible for one hundred million hires would be my definition of success. We achieved a vision that we set out to.  We made a tool that is digital and allows anyone in the working age population to be able to turn on their phone and get information about jobs that are relevant for them. Also we have made it possible for employers also to hire jobseekers digitally.

 

Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

When I moved to Bangalore in 2004 with Microsoft, I was in a 3-man group and I found it very fun to work with two other people that I really liked to grow an organisation from the three of us to about 100 people.  So I think that put the startup bug in me, in terms of wanting to repeat that process.

 

What do you think are the most important things entrepreneurs should keep in mind?

Believe in what you do with your wallet and your heart and your head. Otherwise, I think it’ll be difficult to find the motivation required for success. Find people that are as passionate and dedicated to this problem as you are. Also, recognise as an entrepreneur that your job is different; it is to set up cultural standard for your team, project the vision and to make sure you always have money in terms of sales or investment. That ends up becoming your job as an entrepreneur.

 

In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?

Hustle. All the successful entrepreneurs I know have this innate ability to carry the load and still preserve. So I think you need that.

 

Connect

Website: www.babajob.com

LinkedIn: in.linkedin.com/pub/sean-blagsvedt/0/187/920/en

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/babajob

Twitter: @babajob

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Daphne Ng, CEO of JEDTrade

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Daphne Ng is the CEO of JEDTrade, a blockchain technology company focused on trade, supply chain, and financial inclusion projects in ASEAN. She is also the Scretary-General at ACCESS and Exco. of Singapore Fintech Association

What makes you do what you do?
I was introduced to blockchain technology in 2016 after I left my corporate banking career after 10 years. It was my mentor who first got me interested in this technology, which I then went on to delve further into, on its potential applications in the lending and trade finance space – domains where I came from.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Being in the space for 2 years and actively involved in the ecosystem, I was able to bring on the projects, network and a good degree of thought leadership in this vertical. Early on in the startup journey, our team faced many challenges. And to me, the key to rising above failures are two essential factors – resilience and support. While resilience is innate, I received a lot of help be it in terms of connections or advice. ‘Nobody succeeds without help’ rings very true for me.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
From the start, I focused on my domain expertise in trade finance and the application construct of how blockchain and DLT can be applied to these use cases. Also, my strategy from the start was to build a technology company made up of 80% tech and engineers, which is also our key competitive advantage today. At the end of the day, deliverables are about strategy and execution, which includes building and leading an ‘A’ team.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I have many mentors, which includes our company advisors (all of whom are well-known in this industry) and mostly informal mentors I meet via my connections, and on various occasions and circumstances. Creating opportunities also means putting myself in the right place, at the right time. And in my case, these were mostly organic and genuine friendships formed from the initial connection.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
To me, a match in values is very important. It also takes humility to ask for help and be willing to listen to advice, which is important in order for mentorships to be successful – be it formal or informal.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I love this question! I am passionate about building strong teams and helping my people grow. I abide by the 3Rs when identifying talents: resourcefulness, resilience and right values. And then I invest in the ‘potential’ and this means giving them room to lead, make decisions and take risks.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
My support of diverse talents, skillsets and characters can be seen in the make-up of our core team – all helming specific roles and each bringing their own value to the table. We need the sum of all parts to build a great company.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
Great leaders emerge in times of failures and challenges, never abandoning the team, and always putting the team’s interests before her own. And I consciously live by these mottos every day.

Advice for others?
My advice to other entrepreneurs: be resolute and dare to be different. If you are going to follow others, then you will end up on the same path as them. No right or wrong; but I would rather chart my own path. This June, we are officially launching our blockchain project, Jupiter Chain (www.jupiterchain.tech), which have garnered much interest in the industry, even before we made it public. We believe this project is the epitome of marrying innovation with practical implementation, and we want to be the first to truly operationalize blockchain for our ecosystem projects in this region.


If you’d like to get in touch with Daphne Ng, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daphne-ng-%E9%BB%84%E7%91%9E%E7%8E%B2/

To learn more about JEDTrade, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Jace Koh, Founder of U Ventures

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Jace Koh believes cash flow is the lifeblood of your business. Understanding it will enhance your ability to run and manage your business.

What’s your story?
My name is Jace Koh and I am the Founder of U Ventures. I’ve always been inclined towards investment and entrepreneurship. I’ve played a hand in starting businesses across these industries – professional services, cloud integration, software and music. I believe that succeeding in business is tough, but that’s what makes the rewards even sweeter.

What excites you most about your industry?
Everything excites me. These are my beliefs:

  • Why is accounting important?
    The accounting department is the heart. Cash flow is like blood stream, it pumps blood to various parts of the body like cash flow is pumped to various departments and/or functions in a business. It is vital to the life and death of the business.
  • Is accounting boring?
    Accountants are artists too. They paint the numbers the way they want them to be.
  • What makes a good accountant?
    A good accountant can tell you a story about the business by looking at the numbers.
  • Why is budgeting and projection important?
    Accountants are like fortune tellers, they can predict the numbers and if you wish to understand your business and make informed decisions, feel free to speak to our friendly consultants to secure a meeting.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore, and here’s where I want to be.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore is my favourite city. We have great legal systems in place, good security and people with integrity. Most importantly, we have a government that fosters a good environment for doing business. I recently went for a cultural exchange programme in Hong Kong to learn more about their startups. I found out that the Hong Kong government generally only supports local business owners in terms of grants. They’ve recently been more lenient and changed the eligibility to include all businesses that have at least 50% local shareholding. But comparing that to Singapore, the government only requires a 30% local shareholding to obtain government support. In the early days of starting a business, all the support you can get is precious. It’s great that we have a government that understands that.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best time ever to plant a tree was 10 years ago as the tree would have grown so big to provide you with shelter and all. When is the next best time to plant a tree? It is today. Because in 10 years time, the tree would have grown big enough to provide you shelter and all.

Who inspires you?
Jack Ma. His journey to success is one of the most inspiring as it proves that with determination and great foresight, even the poorest can turn their lives around. I personally relate to his story a lot, and this is my favourite quote from him, “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I’ve faced multiple rejections throughout my business journey, and recently came across a fact on Jack Ma about how he was once rejected for 32 different jobs. It resonated very deeply and taught me the importance of tenacity, especially during tough times.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. I live a life with no regrets. Everything I do, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, happy or sad, and regardless of outcome, it’s a lesson with something to take away.

How do you unwind?
I love to pamper myself through retail therapy and going for spas. I also make a conscious effort to take time off work to have a break outside to unwind as well as to uncloud my mind. This moment of reflection from time to time helps me see more clearly on how I can improve myself.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Taiwan! Good food with no language barriers and the people are great!

Everyone in business should read this book:
I don’t really read books. Mostly, I learn from my daily life and interactions with hundreds of other business owners. To me, people tell the most interesting stories.

Shameless plug for your business:
We’re not just corporate secretaries, we’re “business doctors.”
U Ventures is a Xero certified advisory firm that goes beyond traditional accounting services to provide solutions for your business. You can reach us on our website: http://uventures.com.sg/

How can people connect with you?
Converse to connect. You can reach me via email at [email protected] or alternatively, on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacekoh/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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