In 2019, Nirmit Parikh, a three-time entrepreneur who sold one of his startups to Intel in 2015, did something that was unexpected for someone in tech. He applied for electrician, floor manager, and carpenter jobs as part of his research for his next venture, and went in for the job interviews. Parikh spoke with people who he met along the way—they were candidates who were seeking to fill those roles. He wanted to learn about the problems they encountered when they were trying to secure new jobs.
Parikh found out that these job seekers often didn’t know which companies were hiring. Information about remuneration was also opaque. And recruiters, he said, only find out about applicants’ actual skills set after hiring them.
Before going undercover, Parikh’s hypothesis was that there is a huge information gap between recruiters and people who are part of the gray- and white-collar workforce. In fact, he navigated a variation of this while running his three companies. Whenever Parikh tried to hire semi-skilled workers, it was a painful process, as it was extremely difficult to ascertain applicants’ skill levels. Also, he typically didn’t have access to enough candidates to interview.
“It was baffling to me how hiring can be so difficult in a country that has millions of semi- and unskilled laborers that go unemployed every day. I wanted to fix this,” Parikh, who is now founder and CEO of HR tech startup Apna, said to KrASIA.
Launched in 2019, Apna (Hindi for “our”) connects job seekers with recruiters through its app, facilitating the job application process. The company’s platform hosts many types of job listings, such as office assistants, content writers, carpenters, electricians, and more. A large number of its customers are first-time internet users from India’s tier-2 and tier-3 cities.
“Apna wants to give people access to both formal and non-formal job opportunities. There is a lot of informational asymmetry in the job market, specifically for blue- and gray-collared jobs,” Parikh said.
Upon signing up on the app, users gain access to job listings made by Apna’s roster of employers, with details like the monthly salary, location, and period of engagement. Before candidates can apply for a position, Apna screens them using a proprietary test to ensure they match the employer’s requirements.
In the last six months, Parikh said, the company’s user count and app downloads have increased by multiples. In August 2020, Apna had 1.2 million users. Now, that number stands at 6 million.
Last year, during the lockdown in India, around 120 million blue- and white-collar employees either lost their jobs or were placed on furlough. This happened in factories and major enterprises, as well as in many startups that trimmed their headcount of gig workers under their employ.
“As the user demand for internet services is slowly getting back, these companies are now looking to hire again,” Parikh said. Firms such as grocery delivery companies BigBasket and Grofers, edtech giants Byju’s and Unacademy, as well as e-commerce majors Amazon and Flipkart have all hired people from Apna.
The company claims over 80,000 companies use its app to locate new workers. It has facilitated 60 million interactions so far, Apna said.
This is just the first layer of the problems that Apna aims to solve.
The company has built a vertical in its app for LinkedIn-style social networking, where users can highlight their professional accomplishments, share ambitions, and connect with new contacts. People who use Apna are even issued a digital business card, which they can share on Facebook and WhatsApp for visibility.
“Business cards many a times work as a social and professional identity, and many of Apna’s users have not had an opportunity to do so till now, as no company gives them one. This is the first time they have a digital identity as a professional,” Parikh said. He believes that a welder or a carpenter working in a factory should be able to share their accomplishments on a digital platform, much like a company’s general manager does on LinkedIn.
Beyond its intended use, the social networking feature is also where users are teaching each other new skills and referring gigs to one another. Already, Apna has recorded over 30 million work-related conversations on the app.
The company plans to ride this trend and roll out an edtech service soon. “A lot of people are learning English on our platform by talking to each other. We are currently seeing how it shapes up. Based on that, we will come up with an online learning feature to help our users upskill themselves,” Parikh said.
Apna seems to have carved out a niche for itself. VC firms such as Sequoia Capital India, Greenoaks Capital, Lightspeed India, and Rocketship.vc have already invested in the company. In all, Apna has raised over USD 20 million in two funding rounds.
Currently, the platform is free for use, but Parikh said Apna will soon charge recruiters for the service. “We can also roll out a fintech product for end users and a background check service for companies. There are multiple revenue models that we are thinking of, which will be implemented when we have a substantial user base.”
Apna’s solution can be deployed in developing as well as developed economies, Parikh believes. That’s why he plans to take the platform to the United States, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.
“A lot of our thesis is unclear and is under experiment today. Apna is going to build services for the global market, and at the same time, play a very significant part in India’s edtech sector,” Parikh said. In an eventful two years, Apna has gone from being an HR tech platform to also become a LinkedIn for India’s workforce, and its evolution isn’t stopping there.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.