India added 15 unicorns in the first six months of 2021. Funds continued to pour into new-age technology and complex problem solving solutions to the tune of $7.8 Bn in the first half of this year against an average $10 Bn in the last three years. At this rate, experts predict, India may manage to get more than 100 unicorns by 2023.
The unicorn wave in India has been backed by the increased adoption of tech, which gets further bolstered in the post pandemic era. Most unicorns emerge and flourish in the segment of e-commerce, fintech, edtech and software-as-a-service. But who is backing the success of these unicorns?
The answer is simple: The people.
It is the people and their indispensable skills that take companies from ideas to excellence. Especially for emerging startups who turn into high-growth companies, the most critical investment is in human capital of a company to drive its intellectual capital. Let’s dive deep into the talent strategies of India’s unicorns and see how they are driving business growth with effective people decisions:
Hiring passionate & results-driven people with an entrepreneurial mindset
While domain skills, knowledge, and experience are critical. Most unicorns have focused on hiring and onboarding talent with some key competencies like drive, curiosity, solution-orientation, and entrepreneurship, among others.
Gerald Menezes, Vice President, People at BrowserStack shared with us, “Without a doubt, people have been an important piece of the puzzle for BrowserStack’s growth journey. Our innovation comes from our ability to understand our customers' problems and then creatively solving them—a world-class team is a bedrock for both. The kind of problems we’ve set out to solve are complex in nature and don’t already exist. Talent that is passionate and results-driven with an entrepreneurial mindset has helped us get this far.”
The unicorns focus on building products which drive the market for them and create solutions for the unique challenges of their target consumers. The delivery and outcome of these products is what defines the success, scalability, and resilience of their respective businesses.
Over the last six years, we have ensured that not only have we had the foresight to diversify our product offerings but also bring in the right talent pool to handhold our learners and augment our growth,” shared Preeti Kaul, President & Head - HR, upGrad.
upGrad’s philosophy has been that whoever we bring on board, should actually believe in the vision of the organisation i.e., "powering career success for every member of the global workforce as their trusted lifelong learning partner" and wishes to come into a sector that is the game-changer not just for our country alone but across markets and regions.
“Our firm belief that functional competence is an acquired skill but your passion and conviction to make a difference are what will make you succeed at upGrad, has served us well over the years,” added Preeti.
Managing performance to unleash potential
When the founding teams begin the journey towards their business vision, they set everything up to speed and talent processes are a critical part of it. In an interaction, Sana Nayyar, Vice President-HR, Urban Company said, “In the beginning, the top priority was hiring. Getting the talent and skills on board, as we grow, and acquire funding. The next big focus areas were ensuring basic hygiene, a smooth onboarding experience, getting salaries on time, and taking care that people have the resources to carry on with their work with ease.”
All the new and old unicorns began their successful journeys with a strong talent pipeline. But what has made them stick? How do these companies create an ecosystem where each employee can thrive?
Unicorns compliment their robust hiring practices with performance management systems which enable the talent to perform to the best of their abilities, grow in their career, and also drive business growth and create impact.
Preeti shared, “Ours is a very young organisation, so we ensure that we provide broad guardrails on our non-negotiable people practices but allow a lot of legroom to fuel creativity, innovation, freedom to execute ideas and retain the entrepreneurial zeal.
At upGrad, even the Performance Management System doesn't reside on a single axis of delivery outcomes which is generally practiced in startups. “We appreciate, reward, measure and incentivize the tangible display of our values and culture in our day to day operating frameworks, thereby building long term culture,” added Preeti.
Even for Urban Company to drive success for both people and business, managing performance has been key. “It has been not only about meeting KRAs or doing performance reviews, but more about having consistent dialogue with people.” It is important for leaders to have meaningful conversations with people regularly, discuss the vision of the brand, and talk about the unique role each person plays in its success and the impact their work has on just the business but the community at large.
To enable people to unlock their potential, the leaders have to invest time and effort in getting their feedback, capturing their sentiment, and bridging any gaps, if required.
Becoming an employer of choice: Retaining top talent
The era of great resignation has already arrived. The Microsoft 2021 Work Trend Index showed 41% of the global workforce are considering resigning this year. Employees are ready to quit if they don’t get the work-life balance they are seeking, or if the job doesn’t inspire them, or if they don’t feel connected to the workplace.
Given these shifting priorities of talent and the rapidly growing business ecosystem, leaders at Unicorn have to up their game and relook at work practices to become an employer of choice.
“We are growing at an enormous pace, and it’s critical that we retain and enhance the organizational fabric. For instance, since March 2020, we have grown from 300 to 800+. This means that we have 300+ colleagues who helped 500 latest entrants onboard and get acclimated to what we are as an organisation,” added Gerald. To create an impactful ecosystem, Browserstack is focusing on:
- Steep increase in the leadership presence across the organization
- Recognising and celebrating cultural alignments/adoptions
- Our core principles being assessed during feedback discussions
- Sharing real stories of success both inside and outside the organisation
- Using every opportunity to create a sense of belonging and pride of being with a part of BrowserStack
At Urban Company, becoming an employer of choice is all about empowering the people. With the right resources, skills, and conversations which help them grow and find meaning in what they do. Sana shared, “Instead of investing in employer branding campaigns, we focus on creating EX for our employees, who then owing to their experience, organically become our employer brand ambassadors.”
ESOPs, inclusive leave policies, comprehensive pool of benefits, wellness programmes, and opportunities to learn and grow, these are a few tools most Unicorns today are extending to their employees.
Sharing a glimpse of the key initiatives upGrad has introduced to strengthen its retention strategy, Preeti highlighted:
- Flexible leave policy allows employees 40 annual leaves which each employee has the liberty to use at their convenience.
- 1:1 open hour with the co-founders and CEO enables them to share their views, ideas and feedback openly and bring a meaningful change.
- As an upGrad employee, they and their family members can develop and upskill with up to 100% fee waiver on any of the upGrad's programmes.
As Unicorns continue to scale up and expand, creating a strong internal employer brand is critical for them not only to retain top talent but to also strengthen their hiring initiatives.
Hiring never stops: Winning the war for talent
“While we create and improve talent policies and work practices to enable the current workforce, we continue to hire aggressively to complement our business growth,” shared Sana.
For talent leaders hiring remains as a top priority as Unicorns are growing organisations. For instance, to expand its market share and prosper in an ever-growing edtech sector, upGrad requires not only people with best functional skills but also right midsets. Preeti shared, “Don't look for the same skill sets, look for a diverse pool of talent who are passionate, show potential, are go-getters and can pivot easily in an unstructured ecosystem.”
“We look for cultural adaptability and versatility because, at the rate at which we are growing, we don't want to look for people who are looking for roles that go by their basic definitions. At, upGrad are very hungry and this hunger translates into an entrepreneurial spirit – each one of us is determined to work, make decisions, own up to our actions as an entrepreneur,” she added.
Gerald shared, “We’re growing exponentially—accelerating the rate at which we take new products to market through product innovation, strategic acquisitions, and investment in our Product and Engineering teams. Also, we will focus on growing revenue by making more of our existing customers successful and scaling our Go-to-market (GTM) teams to acquire more customers.”
For this, BrowserStack is looking to fill key leadership positions in Marketing and Sales. “On this growth journey, we will need exceptional leadership—one that is global, has delivered hyperscale, and is inclusive and inspiring,” added Gerald.
The hiring strategy for unicorns is often a constantly evolving one depending on the sector they play in. Being more dynamic in nature they are constantly looking for talent and individuals to help them grow at various stages of their continuum of growth and seek for all weather talents capable of wearing multiple hats as the situation demands in their growth trajectory in different markets.
“Soonicorns, Unicorns, Decacorns in India have all been on a hiring spree and have become major employment and work opportunity generators. This essentially puts them on a very important pedestal as they cater to growing employment needs of the country while continuing to innovate on disruptive new technologies and business models,” shared Rameesh Kailasam, CEO, IndiaTech.org, with us.
For these growing Unicorns, it is expected that candidates have a combination of talent, experience, and hunger to grow. However, in the people-driven world of work and the present era of ‘great resignation’, even the Unicorns must provide meaningful work opportunities and flexible organisational culture.