Sarvesh Agrawal was born and brought up in a business family in Nawalgarh, a small sleepy town in Rajasthan located in the western part of India. He graduated from Indian Institute of Technology in 2006 where he studied his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Civil Engineering. Post completion of his studies, Sarvesh started working as a Business Analyst with product innovation team of Capital One in Nottingham, UK. He moved back to India in 2008 to work with Barclays Bank’s credit card analytics division and in 2010, Sarvesh joined Aviva Life Insurance’s India business in Gurgaon to set up Business Analytics team for them.

In the beginning of 2011, Sarvesh started working on Internshala as a hobby project on side and after initial traction and validation, he quit his corporate job with Aviva to take up Internshala full time in October of 2011 and has been working on it since then.

The Asian Entrepreneur interviews Sarvesh about Internshala, and the insights he has acquired making the shift into enterprises.

Tell us about Internshala, what is it?

Internshala is an online internship portal where students from all over India, across different education streams, can search and apply for various internships of their choice and organizations, Startups, Corporates, SMEs, NGOs, Education Institutes, to name a few, can post their intern requirements to reach out to and hire university students all over India.

167

Sarvesh, how did Internshala come about?

Having been first hand beneficiary of both, Education & Technology excite me a lot and coming from a business family, I always wanted to do something of my own in either of the two areas. I believe, in a country like India, these 2 factors can really have a large scale impact on quality of life for people and the scope for new ideas is huge.

In late 2010, while mulling over various student needs and available solutions for each of those needs, I realized that internships was one area where not much had happened primarily because in India, internships are still not as mainstream as they are in West.

But things were changing. On one hand, there was growing youth population spending like never before on Education, which is seen as a ticket to good life in India, and on other there was a growing economy which was starving for good talent and always complaining about ‘unemployability’ of our graduates. Numbers vary between 50%-75% as per various estimates but a majority of students coming out of universities in India lack necessary practical and soft skills required to succeed in a global corporate environment. And I felt that ‘internships’ can be an effective bridge to close the gap between what universities produce and what companies want.

In India, internships are largely done in the summer of penultimate year before one is about to complete his or her degree and we believe if every student is able to secure a meaningful internship during this period, he or she would get a realistic picture of what is expected from them in a work environment, both technical and soft skills, and companies would find the same student lot more suited for a full time job when he or she graduates next year.

Thus was born Internshala and its mission statement: “At the core of the idea is the belief that internships, if managed well, can make a positive difference to the student, to the employer, and to the society at large. Hence, the ad-hoc culture surrounding internships in India should and would change. Internshala aims to be the driver of this change.”

Another incident took place around the same time. A friend who went to university with meat IIT, later on went to pursue his MBA from London Business School, and was looking for an internship in India during his MBA semester break. It proved really difficult for him to find one. This got me thinking that if someone with his academic credentials finds it difficult to get an internship in India, it must be pretty hard for other students too and convinced me further that there was a solution needed.

166

Walk us through the process of actually starting up Internshala.

I started it as a side project, a WordPress blog, in early 2011 when I still had a day job. In my 5 years of Corporate experience, I was fortunate to be part of recruitment team in all 3 organizations I worked with and knew about some of the common pain points employers face when they hire students, either as fresh graduates or interns. For example, most of the student resumes lack structure and direction and are poorly written.

I started writing about these from an intern’s perspective and shared the blog with my friends and with students of IIT Madras, my alma mater. The reaction was positive.Then I started aggregating whatever available internship information I could find on Internet which was relevant for Indian students and started blogging it. Students found this really useful as earlier there was no one place where they could find this information along with tips on how to apply and the traffic built up.Some of my friends who were starting up themselves back in 2011 needed a few interns and they placed their ads on my blog and were pleasantly surprised with the number of quality applications they received and the word of mouth went around in the closely knit start up community in India and companies started posting internships and hiring interns through Internshala.Internshala was and till date is free both for students and employers but an advertiser who wanted to advertise his training product to students started advertising on Internshala which got us our first paycheque – all of this happened while I was still in my job.This initial traction gave me the confidence that I should pursue it full time and I quit my job in Oct’11 to take up Internshala full time.

165

And how have you been developing Internshala post-startup?

Interestingly, and very aptly, the foundation of Internshala was built by a team of interns whom I hired when I started it as a full time gig in Oct’11. And for next 1 year, these interns built all the aspects of the business including content, social media, technology, sourcing new internships, developing new ideas and running marketing campaigns, just to name a few. In hindsight, this worked out to be a brilliant move for 3 reasons:

1. We had a live example in Internshala of the power of interns which made it easy for us to convince other businesses to try interns for their projects. The pitch was, “Hey, look at all the great stuff our interns have been doing for us at Internshala. Why not give it a shot yourself?”

2. Our interns being students themselves, it helped us tremendously to understand the market and build the brand. For example, our facebook page, now more than 70,000 fans, quickly became one of the largest students pages in India – thanks largely to interesting and engaging campaigns run by our interns who knew exactly what would excite students and what would not.

3. It proved really cost effective – which meant I had a longer rope when it came to building the brand and business than worrying about monetization immediately. Our first full time team member after me was hired in Dec’12 who incidentally started as an intern himself and over last 10 months, we have grown to be a 5 full time members team. Interns continue to play a critical role in the business and we still have 10 of them contributing to the different teams.

Friends have been another BIG help. When I started, I knew nothing about building an internet business and absolutely nothing about programming, but friends contributedimmensely in developing the initial set up and were always available for a quick chat or guidance.

164

Tell us about some of the challenges you faced starting up Internshala.

Attracting good talent to work for a fledgling business is perhaps the biggest challenge in general and If I were to pick one obstacle, it would be lack of good technical talent willing to work in a start up, both at a junior level and senior level (CTO). Since I come from a non-programming background, this is one area where I have struggled the most and continue to face the challenges. Even today, we are operating without a CTO.

Despite producing a large number of Engineering graduates every year, only few students in India have the engineer’s aptitude to problem solving and building things that can scale. And the few good ones are either picked up by technical giants like Google and Facebook or start up on their own! We have been able to manage it so far with help of interns, by engaging another start up as technology partner and hiring couple of developers internally who work closely with the partner.

What is one strategy that you believe has helped grow your business?

Focus. Right from day 1, we have been clear about internships being our focus area whichhas helped us build a niche for ourselves and allowed us to grow as a thought leader in this domain in India. While seen as a much smaller opportunity compared to full time job market, which is inundated with players at the moment, we genuinely believe it to be growing opportunity and want to remain focused on solving this problem alone in near future.

Many similar websites as Internshala, over time have ventured into different aspects such as first job market, scholarship or competition aggregators, of student life while we have chosen depth over breadth. This clarity of objective has helped us not get distracted and continue to build on the dominant mind share we have among students and employers when it comes to internships.

163

How do you find the industry that you are in?

As I mentioned Education and Technology excite me a lot and internships, as a market, allow me to dabble in both and I feel super excited about it. There is also a huge satisfaction of making a positive impact on lives of thousands of students out there who struggle every year to land an internship where they are not treated as free/cheap labour or as a burden on middle management.

On other side of the equation, when I see other start ups growing with help of interns they hired through Internshala – I feel happy that we have been able to contribute to the growth of start up eco-system in India as well. So it is a pretty exciting market we are into, both from a business and social impact perspectives.

I think we are beginning to see the cultural change that we talk about in our vision statement when it comes to internships in India, more and more students and companies take internships lot more seriously than they did 2 years ago and I think this upward trend would continue.

Have you developed any industry insights?

Not sure if this counts as an insight. In India, the internships market can grow tremendously if colleges allow students to take long duration internships (6 months or more) between semesters. The single most detrimental factor why companies hesitate to hire interns is because of their availability for short duration (2-3 months) in which it may be difficult for interns to contribute meaningfully.

Thankfully the trend of remote or virtual interns has been picking up where students continueto work for a company (especially in case of content writing, social media, and programming internships) even after going back to colleges when semester starts after the break.

How have you managed to stay relevant in this industry?

By being focused and by choosing depth over breadth; we have been able to occupy the thought leader’s position in the internship space. A good example of this is our content section where we have built such a strong knowledge base of resources for interns which is hard to find anywhere else.

Every year we run a ‘Your Internship Story’ contest (first of its kind in India) wherethousands of students share their experiences of interning in different companies which are very helpful for future students looking for internships in the same company/industry next year. This also builds a positive incentive for companies to take their interns seriously because if they have good experience with a company, they would talk about it on a platform like Internshala where it would be read by thousands of other students – building a positive brand for the company and making it easier for the company to attract talent.

There are many such examples/initiatives centred around the core of internships that we havepiloted at Internshala which have been a win-win proposition for everyone in the eco-system (Students, companies, and Internshala).

162

What do you think is the most important thing that entrepreneurs should keep in mind?

By being focused and by choosing depth over breadth; we have been able to occupy the thought leader’s position in the internship space. A good example of this is our content section where we have built such a strong knowledge base of resources for interns which is hard to find anywhere else.

Every year we run a ‘Your Internship Story’ contest, first of its kind in India, where thousands of students share their experiences of interning in different companies which are very helpful for future students looking for internships in the same company/industry next year. This also builds a positive incentive for companies to take their interns seriously because if they have good experience with a company, they would talk about it on a platform like Internshala where it would be read by thousands of other students – building a positive brand for the company and making it easier for the company to attract talent.

There are many such examples, initiatives centred around the core of internships that we have piloted at Internshala which have been a win-win proposition for everyone in the eco-system.

161

What is your approach to human resource?

Hire the best and let them loose.
We have very stringent hiring guidelines, even for interns, to ensure we get people onboard who genuinely feel for the cause of internships and are ready to face the start up grind. This tough filtering process also helps us eliminate lot of pain of managing the resources later on as everyone is smart and self driven.

Once hired, everyone gets lot of mentoring, not just from immediate manager but also from team members and tremendous creative freedom which make them fall in love with Internshala even more and treat it like an extended family. We have a very active team diary section, where team members regularly write about their experiences of working at Internshala. We are also, perhaps, the only organization to have an alumni page, where we feature everyone who has ever worked with us.

If you could start all over again, would you change anything about approach?

I am fairly content with the way things have happened for us in last 2 years and would not want to change much.

However, going forward, I would like us to become more aggressive in our approach towards growth. With the kind of reach and goodwill we enjoy among students and employers, there is no reason for us to not aim to land a meaningful internship for every 1 million of students who come to us looking for help.

160

What do you think about startups in Asia?

Most of my interaction and knowledge is around start-ups in India and it is very heartening to see the way the community is growing in India and how more and more people are choosing the path of entrepreneurship over traditional corporate jobs. Since India is a very traditional society, the acceptance of entrepreneurship as a career option was low among parents and family which is now changing.

To see businesses like InMobi, Flipkart, Zomato, Fusionchart, or Wingify take on their global counterparts in international markets, or to see start ups like Biosense, Invention Labs, and Embrace Innovation come up with low cost but highly useful products in area of medicine and healthcare, or to see many students setting up websites and businesses when they are still in college – all of these are inspirational stories and would have been difficult to imagine even 5 years ago.

India with its 1.2 Bn population poses challenges for entrepreneurs that are hard to solve but are also areas of maximum opportunity. Personally, I feel there has not been a better time to start up in India than today.

What is one market trend that really excites you?

I have always felt that technology has not impacted education delivery in last 100 years as it has other fields say Medicine or Communications. One can not even imagine the medical set up or communication facilities that existed a century ago and how fast they have evolved.

But education, not as much. You still have schools with teachers and a blackboard in a class room. But this is now changing. Be it low cost laptops, hole in wall experiments, or MOCC like Coursera and Khan Academy. Finally, technology is making in-roads in Education and it is pretty exciting to see that.

159

What is one habit that makes you a productive entrepreneur?

Given the amount of non productive time I spend on facebook and other social media platforms, I doubt if I can call myself a ‘productive entrepreneur’. One habit that works for me is to break down a long term project into daily tasks and write then down in a diary. Before start of every day, I write down things that I want to accomplish in the day and strike then one by one as they are done. Writing things down gives a structure to my day, there is a definite amount of work to be done and striking them off the list as and when these are done, gives a sense of accomplishment.

Why did you become an entrepreneur?

Two reasons primarily, I was worried that if I continued in a Corporate career, I would also become part of a mad race get good education, a good job, a car, a family, a house, few EMIs, then a bigger car, a bigger house, and even bigger EMIs and then boom! You die. Leaving no legacy, no imprint whatsoever. For some reason, leaving a legacy behind is a strong driving force for me.

Freedom, not just creative freedom but physical freedom too. Whenever we old friends meet up, my wife tells me that I look the happiest among the lot and I think it’s true. Despite having great jobs at great companies with great bosses, there were still silly things that gave me lot of stress like need to look professional all the time, using a prescribed presentation template only, having to tolerate plain idiots or political gurus as colleagues, or having to fake sickness for leave when I did not feel like working. Not anymore. I wear round neck t-shirts to work and shave once a week and feel really happy about this little freedom that I have earned for myself. I have also taken more holidays in last 2 years than 5 years of corporate life. There is a strange addiction to a life like this, you feel like a scientist or an academician in a business environment.

158

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

As an entrepreneur my job is to solve a customer’s problem and not to build a cool product. For first 2 years, Internshala operated as a very basic WordPress blog and not as the slick portal that one sees today and we were still able to build a business. Customers care only for that you solve their problems and less for how you solve them.

People first, profits next, I think as we grow, there is a natural tendency to look at numbers all the time as a measure of a business’s success and somewhere the human face of the business, which is all you have in the beginning, gets lost. I hope we do not make this mistake as we grow. After all people did come first and the money started coming in later on only because of people.

In your opinion, what are keys to entrepreneurial success?

Hardwork, I have come to believe that pretty much everything is possible if I am willing to work incredibly hard for a long period of time. Perseverance, ‘no’ is not an answer. It just means that you should try another approach. Decisiveness, a sub-optimal decision today is better than a perfect decision tomorrow. Don’t let an issue linger on. Honesty, people your customers, investors, prospective employees are smarter than you and can see through dishonesty. Conversely they will be willing to extend you a longer rope if they know you have been genuine and honest with them.

Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there?

Hire interns, if you deal them right, they can do wonders to your business.

157

Connect with Sarvesh and Internshala today
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Internshala
Linkedin: http://in.linkedin.com/in/sarveshagrawal/
Email: [email protected]
Website: http://www.internshala.com/