Belong.co - Helping companies grow
Hiring's being a perennial pain with startups, for ages. And it's always the same story everywhere one looks: how does one reach out to the right people at the right point in time, and make sure the new hire is an asset, as well as make sure the company is the right place for said hire? A lot of startups have - and are taking a shot at cracking this problem set. But Belong.co's approach is probably the most interesting.
And for a variety of reasons - by skillfully combining a focused vision, liberal portions of tech and data, as well as long-term customer engagement, Belong.co has managed to create a space for itself in the hiring ecosystem as a platform that helps your company grow, and becomes a part of the company's growth story. A strong statement, nevertheless. But as one would see, in a conversation with Sudheendra Chilappagari, one of the co-founders and head of Product at Belong, this particular statement isn't far off the mark.
Sudheendra is a BS grad from BITS(Note to self - how does BITS manage to churn out so many amazing founders?), which happens to be the place where his love affair of sorts with the Internet started. "College was all about startups," he reminisces. "That's where I realized there's this beautiful thing called the Internet, where you can do whatever you want to do, and that's when I started thinking of coding. Me and a bunch of friends, we'd build websites and apps, and after college, when it was time to decide what to do, I figured I enjoyed building products. I wasn't a great coder, but I could think about how to solve a problem, and building products was something I knew I'd love doing."
After college, Sudheendra worked at places like Instamojo and Exotel, where he focused on hiring and product. Exotel was where he met Vijay Sharma, the co-founder and CEO of Belong. And it was Sudheendra's work at Exotel that made him think about how the hiring system could be made even better.
"At Exotel, I was leading hiring for engineers. Being an engineer myself, it didn't make much sense; isn't this more of an HR role? But the answers to my questions were always the same - the experiences with traditional recruiters hadn't worked out very well, and an engineer was needed to hire engineers, the idea being that being an engineer myself, I could gauge others. This made me try out some experiments to make the workflow better, and that led to Vijay and me discussing how we could fix it."
Belong is essentially a platform that helps companies discover the right kind of talent at the right time - which also means they help companies discover passive talent that may not be looking for a change, but would be open to it. In the last one year, Belong's come a really long way, which is a testament to their growth skills. "The last year was eventful," Sudheendra acknowledges. "It started with defining our vision - bring the right talent and the right companies together. We believed that helping great companies hire great people is our way of being a part of great companies building great products. Who wouldn't want to be a part of this beautiful vision?" he smiles. "That's what we worked on in the last one year. Built up our product in a month - the fastest delivery time we've ever done, brought clients like Helpchat(earlier Akosha), Practo and Ola onboard. Hearing back from them was invaluable. Plus, we measured a lot, and that gave us a lot of clarity. We started off with 3 people; now we're at 65. The best part is that our team is extremely passionate, and joined for all the right reasons, which makes our vision easier to execute."
Python, Python for the win
Belong's tech stack runs on Python, for the most part. "Our first developer - who's still with us - he's a Python programmer. The language is easy to learn, my friend and I had worked on Django earlier in college, and we thought, why don't we use Python, there's no harm. The best part is the community around the language, and the fact that we can reach out to so many people when we need advice."
Since the platform deals in a lot of unstructured data about candidates from across the Web, NoSQL was an obvious choice. "When we started to think about NoSQL, Mongo seemed good. So we spoke to people, and everyone felt Mongo was reliable. Also, Mongo and Python plus Django work very well together. Since then, we've also started moving some of our data to Postgres, especially since it now supports JSON documents."
"The best part is the community around the language, and the fact that we can reach out to so many people when we need advice."
For Belong, search is mission-critical, and the team uses the best tool for the job out there: Elasticsearch. They also use Celery and RabbitMQ for distributed tasks, to keep collecting and collating more data about potential candidates from disparate sources.
On the frontend, Belong was written in Angular, but they recently moved to React(check out this blog post on their migration and how well it's working for them).
The best part about Belong's tech stack is its ubiquity. "A lot of our tech isn't niche - it's fairly easy to go out there and find a Pythonista over, say, a Rubyist. Plus, we're always up for checking out newer libraries and tools, and as always, there's this broader community to tap into whenever we want outside views to come to a tech decision."
"Growth is retention."
"In SaaS, growth is retention. If you get the retention right, if you make sure your funnel doesn't leak, it's all good."
When Belong first started out, marketing wasn't exactly an active focus area. "Vijay's done marketing for about 4 years, and he realized that the first 20-25 customers should come aboard through a structured sales process. That helps you understand your customer segment better and get your user personas right, so that you create better marketing campaigns.", affirms Sudheendra. Interestingly, Belong didn't have more than a landing page as its website for almost a year, so focused they were on getting their initial users set, and their personas figured out.
Belong has some really good content marketing initiatives on its blog and newsletters, which focus on the art of hiring and gauging candidates, as well as targeting passive candidates. According to Sudheendra, the biggest factor behind growth is to make sure customers get the most out of your product.
"Think first principles," states Sudheendra. "When you acquire a customer, when's the first a-ha moment? For us, it's when s/he finds the right candidate through our product. The second a-ha is when the candidate is hired. SO the first 30-40 days are crucial. A customer success team engages with new customers, with onboarding sessions over Skype or in person. We also bring our developers into these sessions, to help show our customers how hiring engineering talent can be done better. That's why customers go for Belong. It's not just about better candidates or better intelligence on top of them, it's also about what Belong's going to bring to the table, about better hiring processes. We try to share knowledge and experiences. For instance, with Snapdeal as one of our clients, another startup founder would think, 'Hey, look, Snapdeal hires from Belong, I raised funds from the Snapdeal founders, I want to learn how they hire.' Then they sign up with us. That's also the idea behind our content marketing, and people like it, and they come back to tell us so."
Break up your product into smaller problems
Belong follows an interesting model, when it comes to product management. The idea is to break down the problems they're out to solve, into smaller parts, and then deploy teams around those problems, to solve them.
"How do we get Belong to become a part of the recruitment workflow, and stay there?", asks Sudheendra. "The chief problem for our customers is that they're growing, they need to hire, and they need to find the right talent. So we've got different teams working on these small problems that arise out of that one statement - one product manager, engineers, a couple of data scientists. It's like a pod structure that Google follows - one team works on candidate discoverability, another works on candidate engagement, and so on. All these teams collectively decide what to build, and why."
"It's like a pod structure that Google follows - one team works on candidate discoverability, another works on candidate engagement, and so on. All these teams collectively decide what to build, and why.""
So where does the "what" come from? "There's a lot of different sources," he answers. "There's customer feedback - which isn't always readily apparent with a B2B product, it becomes more about you trying to figure out what they want. Then, we try and use hypotheses and experiment with them, to add more features - say, building mobile interfaces for recruiters. Then there's data, since we use tools like Mixpanel and Intercom a lot, which tell us where customers might be facing issues within the platform. We also try and observe new customers using our product, and find better solutions and iterate. Then we also might have features coming out that aren't essential, but make the experience better - like emojis for chatting with a candidate."
A Belong.co demo
"A good metric is..."
For a SaaS product like Belong, metrics are the lifeblood, literally. But what kind of metrics does Sudheendra and his team look at, and why?
"There's this great book called Lean Analytics. A beautiful book, which made me think about why we track something, and how it impacts the North Star metric." he replies.
The North Star metric is that one number that defines a product's success best. For an ecommerce giant like Amazon, it could be the number of deliveries per week. For an instant payments startup like Instamojo, it could be the number of transactions in a month, for instance. Defining a North Star metric is a great idea, because it helps you cut out the noise, and focus on building a better product - and thus, a better business - by focusing on that one number that truly matters.
"A good metric, " states Sudheendra, "is simple, which I can go and show my accountant, and he'd get it and say, yeah man, we're doing good. A good metric is also actionable, it tells you what to do to improve it. A good metric is always delta - it keeps changing. 15% growth month on month, that's change, as opposed to saying we made $1000 this week. It doesn't matter, there's no benchmark. A good metric will have a well-defined target. The kind of metrics we track are contextual, like active customers who come and do 4 events on the platform, with each event having a weight, which tells us how many customers are healthy and how many aren't."
This helps Belong track and deal with churn quite effectively. By measuring customer health, they're able to retarget customers who're at risk of dropping out, and engage with them more, to make sure they use the platform in the best possible manner. For Sudheendra, the North Star metric is hires - how many hires were made through Belong, and the entire team owns this one metric.
"..every designer here is a data fan."
When it comes to user experience, Belong's designers turn to data, like everyone else. As teams sit together, a designer can walk up to a data scientist and say, hey, I got this idea, can we use existing data and our algorithms to power it?
"Every designer here is a fan of data."
It's unusual indeed, hearing about designers who track metrics but at Belong, the idea is to make design as data-driven as possible. It tends to give them greater clarity about not just what to build, but how to build.
"The biggest problem at companies is communication."
At Belong, the induction process for new hires is another testament to their vision. Everyone who joins, no matter what their core skillset is, works on hiring for two weeks. "That makes you understand the pain points our users face," says Sudheendra. "It helps you relate to how we're trying to solve the problem at hand. There's also a 3-4 hour induction session with the whole team, with a 52-page document that talks about what we're doing, and how we intend to evolve. Then, when you join a team, you're walked through what the team's done for the last one year, and what they've got planned for the next quarter, the like. Every other team also walks you through the same process, so you have an idea of what the whole company is up to, and how it's moving ahead."
The best part about Belong's culture is the way emails are used. No one-to-one emails - teams are contextually included on every email. So if two data scientists are discussing something related to design, the entire design team is copied on the email, so they know what's up. "Deepinder Goyal once tweeted about how the biggest problem at growing companies was communication and the lack of context. We took inspiration from Stripe's email transparency programme to make sure communication would never be an issue," says Sudheendra. "Also, all our emails are archived with Google Groups, so when you join, you can also go through them to see how we've fared."
The most interesting products are those that solve a problem so well, they become an inalienable part of one's workflow. Belong's fast becoming that kind of product - the kind of product a growing company couldn't do without.
I love the fact that they've included the profiles of In-house Chefs in the "Meet the Team" page .
Gives people an impression about the culture even before working with them.
Is it true that you collected resumes by scraping LinkedIn (and thus violating their terms and conditions, and simultaneous breaking privacy laws) and then started a new corporate entity to avoid the liability?
How did you build your candidate profile database? BelongCo was not at all well-known among candidates and so, they couldn't have given you their profiles on their own voluntarily.
I have heard a lot of shady things about this team.
They are solving a very genuine problem and helping companies grow. What is most impressive is Vijay's way of making Customers understand the value through vision and though leadership and of course Hustle1
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