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Rishabh Kaul, co-founder of Belong, says the recruitment process has to change to attract the best candidates who are looking for more than salary and benefits (Photo: Raj Sam/Mint)
Rishabh Kaul, co-founder of Belong, says the recruitment process has to change to attract the best candidates who are looking for more than salary and benefits (Photo: Raj Sam/Mint)

Tapping AI to personalize the hunt for talent

  • As the race to hire and retain highly-skilled tech talent heats up, recruiters are turning to artificial intelligence for help
  • Startup Belong expanded into a suite of products that could be embedded in HR, such as tracking employees to aid retention

The world of startups has a dark side: most of them fail, which is understandable because doing something new is risky. Shuttering a startup is a stressful time as founders try to find alternative avenues for their staff as well as themselves.

Gurugram-based Quikmile was spared this trauma. The logistics tech startup got “acqui-hired" by telecom major Bharti Airtel in November 2019. The term commonly applies to acquisition of a failing startup for its tech talent. The Quikmile team got absorbed into Airtel’s X Labs “innovation factory" in Bengaluru.

Behind the scenes of this win-win outcome is Bengaluru-based HR tech startup Belong. “If 80% of startups are shutting down, that’s a pretty interesting pool of available talent with founder DNA. So we’re enabling our clients to do these acqui-hires," says Rishabh Kaul, co-founder of Belong.

Global innovation centres of multinational companies vie with Indian corporations for tech talent in Bengaluru, which is also a leading hub for thousands of startups hustling for savvy developers. Belong’s AI engine, which crunches not only resumes but also other publicly available data like social media activity, arms recruiters with tools to discover and hook the right talent in this feeding frenzy. Global enterprises like Cisco, Adobe and Publicis are among its clients.

Personalized engagement

When Belong started out in a 3-BHK apartment in 2014, it wanted to help startups solve their make-or-break challenge: hiring. Kaul was himself one of the first employees of warehouse robot maker GreyOrange and built its formative team. That was an eye-opener.

Why HR needs to be tech-ready
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Why HR needs to be tech-ready

“How was I going to build an engineering team for this deep tech company on the edge of Gurugram before it was sexy, before Peter Thiel had put money in it? Its tech stack was in Erlang, the programming language on which WhatsApp and Facebook chat were built. Probably 50 people in the country knew Erlang at that point," recalls Kaul. “We had to try out interesting things to get people excited about us."

Belong’s co-founder, Vijay Sharma, who also co-founded cloud telephony startup Exotel and was the marketing head of healthcare platform Practo, also had a hands-on feel of hiring.

Belong’s pitch to startups was “outbound hiring" which used analytics to discover potential candidates and engage with them in a personalized way, instead of waiting for them to apply and making the whole process so transactional that it puts off the best candidates who are looking for something more than salary and benefits. Its primary products Belong Hire and Belong Engage grew out of these insights.

“Our AI-based algorithms can also tell you that a candidate who’s not the right fit for one job may be suitable for another," says Arpit Garg, product head of Belong. “Instead of a rejection, the candidate could get a mail suggesting that they should consider a different job."

Along the way, the Belong team realized they could make a bigger impact with such a broad-based solution for larger enterprises, rather than startups.

The same products that worked for outbound hiring could be repurposed to solve the problems of enterprises flooded with 100,000 resumes a month. From AI tools for parsing resumes, matching candidates with requirements, and personalizing email for engagement, to maintaining databases for future needs, Belong expanded into a suite of products that could be embedded in HR. This extended to tracking employees to help with retention in an environment where people tend to switch jobs every 18 months.

Products evolved with the needs of clients. Belong Diversity, for example, helps global companies fulfil an increasingly important mandate. Adobe found it useful in working towards its goal of becoming a diverse workplace. Even emails to candidates are pre-scanned for gender bias.

Acqui-hire was another client-driven extension, even though it involved a far bigger consultative commitment than a SaaS (software-as-a-service) product startup would usually make. As Kaul puts it, customer success took precedence over sales.

Bay area shift

The pivot to serve large enterprises led to a physical shift too. Kaul moved to the Bay Area last year, when it became imperative to be closer to Belong’s growing roster of global clients. Key decision-makers of even those with development centres in India were abroad. “I spent 80% of my time there," says Kaul.

The US shift led to new learnings. First, it’s a more evolved market. “In India, people would like a consultative approach to figure out all the different things they can do; in the US, a manager would say, ‘I’ve tried these things. Can you help me specifically with these two things?’"

It’s also a much larger market than India where Gurugram and Bengaluru would cover two-thirds of the kind of enterprises that Belong serves. “In the US, there are 50 cities, each having a few Fortune 500 companies," says Kaul. “You have to also keep in mind the competitive landscape. If you have eight competitors in India, there would be 500 in the US. So you need to figure out which part of the market to play in."

What has worked for Belong is to get a foot in the door with one of its products, then drill deeper into any other aspect of talent management that the client requires. This is where its broad-based suite of products helps. “We wanted to be different by simply having so much knowledge about the enterprise that we could solve a lot of their problems, including the unsexy ones that no one was paying any attention to," says Kaul.

He explains one such “unsexy" problem in the HR domain. Typically in an application tracking system, a recruiter clicks on a candidate’s name to see their profile, then has to close that, go back to the list, and open the next one. “That’s three steps instead of just swiping right or left to the next candidate. Imagine a recruiter doing the three-step process for 500 candidates. It’s insane."

Conversely, going after a “sexy" solution can turn into a damp squib. For example, mobile became such a buzz that everyone was making apps. “So we created an amazing mobile app for our recruitment product. And we had, like, three users," says Kaul with a wry laugh.

Turns out that the recruitment department in large enterprises likes to switch off outside office hours to avoid getting pinged every three seconds. They were not in the least bit excited about using the mobile app.

From the rarefied air of AI to such mundane matters, it takes an understanding of psychology to crack HR tech. The Belong founders’ personal journeys in hustling for tech talent seems to have prepared them for this.

Malavika Velayanikal is a contributing editor with Mint. She tweets at @vmalu

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