Jaya Shelli is 43 years old and a very good cook. Her track record would bear out that claim. Shelli returned to India eight years ago after 15 years cooking in places as varied as Kuwait and Japan and she learnt to make Italian, Mexican and Japanese dishes from natives of these countries. Still, it wasn’t easy finding suitable jobs when she returned to Bangalore in 2003. Then in 2007, a friend who’d gotten a job through Babajob suggested Shelli too register with the company; she did and was very quickly placed with an Italian expat family in Bangalore itself. “I was quite surprised to get a decent job with a foreigner. They were equally taken aback at getting someone who could cook Italian food,” she says with a laugh. Shelli’s moved on from that job but she’s no longer worried about finding employment. “Babajob has helped me four times since I got back and it has been a good break each time,” she says.
High praise, but not unjustified. From the time it launched in 2007, the Bangalore-based Babajob has helped match over 60,000 job seekers to potential employers every month, people with positions like cooks, drivers, maids and receptionists. In just four years, the company’s books are filled with over 193,000 job seekers, over 39,000 employers and over 615,000 job positions. And all this using the power of the Internet and mobile phone—it sends out over 1 million job alert messages every month. So much so that it’s being called the ‘poor man’s LinkedIn’, a tag Babajob’s Founder-CEO Sean Blagsvedt doesn’t object to. “It makes a great headline,” he grins.
The Trinity: Vir Kashyap, Maya Chandrasekaran and Sean Blagsvedt of Babajob.
Blagsvedt came to India in 2004 as an employee at Microsoft Research India. Like anybody else in a big city, he had great difficulty in finding—and retaining—good domestic help. But that wasn’t really the catalyst to starting Babajob. No, the trigger was a report presented by a colleague at Microsoft on why Indian families get in and out of poverty. The findings: people get into poverty when major health issues crop up; and people climb out of poverty through income diversification, which usually happens because someone knows someone who helps you get a different job.
The seeds of an enterprise were sown: somehow, Blagsvedt wanted to bring together people from the bottom of the pyramid who were seeking jobs and people who were either looking for employees or knew someone who was. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy: the people he wanted to address would not all be literate, have access to the Internet or own a mobile phone. So, not only did he have to reach out to potential employers and employees, he also had to bring in people who would be willing to help job seekers represent themselves online. Enter Babalife and Babajob. While the first is a social networking site where relationships can be created, enhanced and renewed, the second aims to connect employers and job seekers by leveraging their social relations from Babalife.com. While employers can browse job seeker profiles based on skills, location, salary, etc, job seekers can do the same and apply for jobs by sending an SMS. There’s an added bait: mobile phone credits or cash payments to help others get jobs or even just help employers and employees hook up.
Blagsvedt invested over Rs 1 crore into the venture: his life’s savings as well as money from his stepfather. The first year was spent in just making door-to-door visits to get people to register and create a database. The website went live a year later, with 3,000 registered job seekers. Last year, angel investors from the US and India put in another Rs 1 crore. “We are looking to raise another $1 million from more investors and that should take place over the next few months,” says Babajob’s COO, Vir Kashyap. He adds that the company broke even “sometime back” but declines to share current income figures.
The Babajob office in Bangalore’s Richmond Town is buzzing. The telephones ring continuously, interrupted only by the beeping of incoming text messages. Indeed, it’s the mobile phone that’s fast becoming the backbone of this enterprise. “The reach of the mobile phone has changed everything. It is really thanks to mass mobility that we exist,” says Kashyap, who has been with the company for about two and a half years.
The emphasis on mobile technology isn’t the only change in Babajob’s functioning. It began with the intention of helping domestic workers find jobs but now concentrates equally on providing low-end staff (such as drivers, store assistants, receptionists and security guards) for offices and businesses. Depending on the profile and the salary scale (the range is now from Rs 3,000 to Rs 25,000 a month), value-added services like SMS alerts, smartphone applications and walk-in registrations are provided. Babajob currently operates on a subscription model: the employer pays Rs 999 for a regular hire while a successful premium hire carries a Rs 2,999 tag (this service offers a larger database of phone numbers. Typically, this is for those who want people urgently). A tieup with the Hyderabad-based Jantakhoj helps in providing background verification as a value-added service.
The Way Forward
In the next five years, Babajob wants to reach out to 20 million job seekers and have a “few hundred” employees on its own rolls (it currently has 19 full-time employees). Those who have tracked the company acknowledge the challenges involved. “Where Babajob has succeeded has been in playing the role of the aggregator in the informal sector. They are definitely trying to do something that has never been done before,” thinks Ashok Reddy, Managing Director and Co-Founder of staffing solutions company TeamLease Services.
Still, it won’t be easy. “It is hugely important for us to simplify the levels of interaction with the job seeker. Literacy, too, in any language is still a problem,” concedes Maya Chandrasekaran, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Babajob. Another view comes from Reddy, who thinks handholding after a person is placed could be a challenge. “It is very different here as compared to placing people in a company and that is a challenge,” he adds. Blagsvedt isn’t worried by the challenges ahead. “The biggest social impact we have made is to help people in the process of getting better jobs. If they can make more money and bring about a better quality of life, that will be significant enough.”
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