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Why we invested in Belong

As a venture investor, every once in a while, you come across a founder who sees the world very differently. Such founders have spent the proverbial 10,000 hours thinking about the market structure, the problems that exist and have developed a core insight that isn’t obvious to most. I remember reading somewhere that the world’s most enduring companies are built by founders who sense significant, and often, irreversible changes in market structures that pave the way for new business models. They see where the puck is going. Vijay Sharma is one such founder, but more of that later. First, let’s start with a short story of how we learned about Belong.

Vijay is someone we knew well since his Exotel days. Whenever we needed to reference check someone, I would often notice that Vijay is connected to that person. Over a period of time, we understood how well networked he is among startups and how perceptive he is about people. When he moved out of Exotel, he got in touch with me saying he can help us hire great people for our portfolio, but only if we paid him standard agency fees. It was a no-brainer and I said yes. Soon, he started sending me profiles that I would share with relevant companies in the portfolio. The feedback from our founders was positive — the candidates were of high quality, they fit culturally and most importantly, they were willing to move jobs, normally a huge challenge with the best talent. This continued for some time and I met Vijay in Bangalore a few weeks later. “You’re too smart to be running a recruitment agency, why don’t you do something more meaningful,” I said. Vijay just smiled, so I left it at that. The resume sharing continued for some more time. I met Vijay again several weeks later and decided to push a little harder. “If you’re so passionate about recruitment, why don’t you think of building a product?” I asked. He opened up a little this time. “Where do you think I’m getting these candidates from?” he replied with a half-smileHe proceeded to show me an early version of what is today known as Belong. He called it DataEmo back then — Data + Emotion. I was impressed — especially since I knew first-hand how well it was working. We chatted at length about the possibilities.

The Problem

Here’s the key problem with recruitment in India. Post a job on Naukri, LinkedIn or other job boards and you are flooded with thousands of job applications, most of which fit poorly. A company needs to hire a team of recruiters simply to sort through the pile of resumes. Your recruiters spend more time sifting through poor-quality resumes v/s sourcing and evaluating real candidates. As a result, the experience you deliver to candidates suffers, and your employer brand takes a huge beating. Staffing agencies on the other hand are often slow, expensive and don’t get company culture — hence they slip into being resume-pushers, sending you as many resumes as they can simply because they really have no idea what will stick. Either ways, as a company, you’re looking at long, expensive recruitment cycles often with poor candidate experience.

The Market Opportunity

India’s recruitment market is over $1B growing at 20% YoY. Of this, the top online recruitment sites (including Naukri, LinkedIn, etc) have captured <$100M. The vast majority is controlled by the tens of thousands of staffing agencies. The opportunity for Belong is to get as much of that share as possible, because it is essentially doing what an expert recruiter does, but at scale.

Belong’s Solution: Outbound Hiring

According to leading recruiters, one of the fundamental shifts in recruitment, is that power is shifting from Employers to Candidates. Great talent no longer applies to jobs — it’s the other way around. Companies are spending more time and money to identify, engage, hire and retain talent in a much more targeted fashion than ever before.

Belong’s premise is simple. It is built on the core thesis that for any two people to connect and build something together — be it a product, a company or even a social movement — they must connect on something deeper and more lasting than “skills” and “experience”. Their values and culture must fit. To make that happen, Belong analyzes hundreds and thousands of “breadcrumbs” we leave everyday on the social cloud, including Facebook, Twitter, Quora, GitHub, Behance, blogs and much more. Our likes, dislikes, followers and fans are all analyzed and combined to create more holistic and accurate profiles of ourselves, and matched using machine-learning algorithms to companies and jobs that are most relevant to us. I’ll explain with a few examples.

1. Akash used to retweet many articles posted by his employer. In the last quarter, his retweets of company posts have reduced. He also just favorited “Top 5 reasons people leave jobs”. All of us know that you generally retweet articles that you emotionally relate to at that point in time

2. Sanjana lives with her husband in Mumbai and both work in startups. Her husband just posted online that he’s moving to Bangalore for a job. What will Sanjana likely do next?

3. Lalita works at an MNC. They generally promote people every two years, but it’s been more than two years since she updated her title on a job site

4. Kelly works at an analytics startup. She just started following several new CEOs in the domain and retweeted things they’ve said

I can go on and on. Each of these data points, is a piece of evidence that a candidate might be thinking of exploring new opportunities. Belong takes millions of such data points to help answer two key questions:

1. Is this candidate the right fit for this role? And,

2. How likely is this candidate to leave her current job for this opportunity?

Belong uses data science and social signals to improve matching between companies and candidates. But perhaps, what’s more exciting and important I think, is that Belong uses these data points to help companies build contextual and personalised engagement with each one of their candidates — with almost no effort from the recruiter. A recruiter can simply log in, shortlist the right candidate, and a full personalised mail will automatically hit that candidate’s inbox at a time she is more likely to read and respond. Now, think of all the times you received recruitment emails — bereft of context, meaning or relevance. And how many times did you actually respond with any interest to the recruiter? No surprise then that companies complain that their engagement rates on most job platforms is in dismal single digits. What Belong is doing is bring the same intelligence, personalisation and automation techniques that marketing has been using so successfully, to recruiting.

In fact, several companies that leverage Belong today report at least a 3X increase in engagement rates compared to mainstream recruiting platforms. Recruiters report they spend less time sifting through resumes and more time engaging interested candidates. Belong’s customers include several leading technology companies like Amazon, Cisco, ThoughtWorks, Fractal Analytics, RedHat, Ola and Practo among others.

The Team

Now that you know enough about the story and the market, back to Vijay and the team. Vijay is what we call a true “missionary” founder — his sense of purpose is what drives him. Along with his co-founder Sudheendra and early team members Rishabh Kaul, Saiteja Veera among others, we saw a passionate team that is hungry and driven. Vijay understands recruitment and has experienced the problem first-hand when building the team at his earlier startups. He understands that often the decision by a company to hire a candidate is influenced more by factors outside the resume. And that the decision by a candidate to join a company is influenced by many factors other than compensation and job title.

The team at Belong has taken on the audacious goal of helping candidates find companies where they “belong” and vice versa. We love how the name reminds us each time about the company’s vision. It’s early days for this startup, but we have no doubt that what they are working on will change how companies hire forever, we’re already seeing it in companies where their product is live. We wish them the best!