THE INDIAN start-up fraternity recently went through a rough patch. In early November, TinyOwl found itself in a huge crisis when four of its co-founders were apparently held hostage in its offices in Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune and Chennai by laid-off employees. One of the founders, Gaurav Choudhary, who had gone to the Pune office to break the news of shutting shop in all the four cities, was even held hostage for over 36 hours. In September, the Mumbai-based food delivery start-up had initiated its first round of lay-offs that resulted in about 200 employees being shown the door.
A month later, while Helpchat (a chat-based personal assistant app) let go of over 150 employees, global restaurant search and discovery service company Zomato cut 10% of its global workforce of 3,000 employees close on the heels of trying to fill 1,200 open positions at the beginning of summer. Later, Deepinder Goyal, the founder of Zomato, shot off an angry email to his sales staff about the company missing its sales targets, which got leaked to the media and made headlines. There were also some reports that Mumbai-based real estate search portal Housing.com had shown the door to 600 employees a couple of months ago to trim costs.
Start-ups, generally known for using innovative HR solutions to support their billion-dollar ideas and to promote employee well-being, are suddenly in the news for all the wrong reasons. While many have gone on to create value for investors and staffers, some have been forced to shut down completely or resort to cost-cutting through lay-offs. As they deal with a high cash burn rate, wafer-thin margins and waning investor interest, several start-ups are going for mass-firing exercises—this after amassing massive funding from VCs and angel investors.
Referring to the recent developments as a “mass streamlining exercise to unlock the organisation’s operational efficiency”, Harshvardhan Mandad, co-founder and CEO of TinyOwl, says: “The current strategic focus for us is to build TinyOwl as a sustainable, profitable and scalable business, working towards the ‘big dream’. With the current take rate being 45-60%, we are looking at a more commensurate operational structure. Every business goes through its own unique journey with some hits and definitely some misses. We have had our share too. But the important aspect is to learn from your journey and continue to do what is best for the brand.”
While Mandad sounds optimistic, the fact remains that start-ups go through life-and-death situations every day. “Sales and profitability targets, and massive valuations create a lot of pressure. The dynamism to hire, and also to fire, in a start-up is of utmost importance. Individuals have to don different hats, work for more hours than a normal shift requires and be ready to be promoted or fired at any moment. That’s what life in a start-up is all about,” says Manu Jolly, CEO and founder of Digiperform, a Gurgaon-based digital marketing training company.
Moorthy K Uppaluri, MD and CEO of Randstad India, a global HR consulting firm headquartered in the Netherlands, sounds a word of caution: “While working for start-ups can be a lot of fun, the work pressure can also be much higher when compared to other corporates. Start-ups are constantly under pressure to perform to achieve results, growth and more traction. Hence, it would be wise to analyse the risks and drawbacks of start-ups before one takes that big decision (of joining one).”
Many, however, refuse to buy any negative sentiments. Kali Shukla, VP, marketing, Helpchat, a chat-based personal assistant app, feels this is not the actual truth. “People join start-ups to get freedom, autonomy and to showcase their creativity. And we believe in that. We have people who joined us as freshers, but due to their hard work and creativity, are now leading teams internally. People get to learn so much in a start-up in a short period, something that is not possible with a well-established company,” he adds.
Varun Khaitan, co-founder of UrbanClap, a Delhi-based mobile services marketplace, agrees: “While it’s a known fact that start-ups are tough places to work in, the promise of success is really high. UrbanClap has done very well in the services sector, raising over $11.6 million so far. We have enough funding to help us lead a robust expansion plan, which includes four new cities over the next four months. Yes, there is always the chance that a start-up might fail, but the experience people gain while working with one is extremely valuable.”
It also depends on the sector, feels Srikumar Misra, founder and CEO of Odisha-based dairy start-up Milk Mantra.
“For us, the dairy sector was a very serious choice. It is often referred to as the ‘mother of FMCG’ because of the unique stresses associated with a perishable product and the challenges of creating a consumer brand. We have been uniquely positioned due to our conscious capitalist business approach to attract talent. However, we are very mindful of recruiting only those who have the tenacity to work in an extremely challenging yet fulfilling work environment,” he adds.
Boosting the morale
Boosting the morale of the employees, therefore, becomes very critical for overcoming the aforementioned work pressure, lack of revenue or external financing. So what do you do? For a start, maybe, keep things light and have some fun along the way—something start-ups, and new-age, online tech-based firms in general have been known to do through their unique work cultures and uber-cool workplaces.
Step into Flipkart’s new office in Bengaluru and you’ll know what we’re talking about. The first thing you’ll notice at the reception of the sprawling 11-floor facility is a large digital map of India that projects a live feed of real-time orders being placed across the country—a testimony to the fact that the e-commerce major registers over eight million bookings a month.
Inside, there’s room for almost every kind of person, be it a geek, fashionista, movie buff or sports enthusiast. There are plenty of meaningful spaces in every corner and on every floor, including recreational areas, hallways, game zones, a library and a miniature golf area, among various other installations. With a no-cabin, transparent and open-workplace approach, the office encourages continuous collaboration among peers.
Flipkart’s opening of its new office comes barely a few days after it announced a slew of employee-friendly schemes like enhanced maternity and paternity benefits, and a new adoption policy in July this year. “At Flipkart, we want to create a world-class work environment. We want to support our employees and enable them to achieve work-life balances, as they continue to focus on their careers,” says Babu Vittal, senior director, HR, Flipkart.
If unconventional is the name of the game, Flipkart is not alone in the business. Mobile-only fashion retailer Myntra, which Flipkart acquired last year, has a reception area in its Bengaluru office that reflects a fashion high-street, with store fronts, a café, outdoor-style benches and a ceiling that mimics the sky. A section of the ground floor is themed around sports fashion and is surrounded by a running track. “The basic idea behind all this was to create a workplace that would be a living embodiment of the brand and, therefore, make the office reflect fashion in different aspects,” says Ashutosh Lawania, co-founder, Myntra.
Online food delivery aggregator Foodpanda recently shifted into a new building in Gurgaon, with interiors that can only be labelled fun and attractive. “We have stationed telephone booths in the office and a music room for employees to unwind in. Our office space is a massive open-floor plan, where the team can work together, stay connected, communicate ideas and grow together. All our meeting and conference rooms, and cabins have clear glasses, highlighting our transparent culture,” says Saurabh Kochhar, co-founder and CEO (India) and CBO (global), Foodpanda.
At POSist, a New Delhi-based restaurant management platform, each section of the office has a different colour theme. “We have used 29 colours in all, but when you look at it from one end to another, you will find all the colours blending with each other, making a happy picture,” explains its founder Ashish Tulsian, adding: “The basic idea was to get a space that is both vibrant and lively, so that no one gets the blues from coming to office.” To further up the quirkiness quotient, the office walls also boast posters featuring superheroes and humorous one-liners.
Outlining the need for such unique initiatives, Ankita Tandon, COO of coupon code provider CouponDunia, says: “Having a creative workspace not only stimulates the mind, but inspires innovation. We are a young team with employees in the age group of 21-30 years. With so much young energy in the office, we required an environment that connects with the people who work here.”
Like POSist, CouponDunia has also painted over the boring brown walls of its office with vibrant hues, colourful stripes and funny quotes. “The most eye-catching part is the flying bird origami incorporated with the office interiors. In one of our conference rooms, we have bulbs hanging from the ceiling. We also have the ‘loft’, where people can go when they are bored of working at their desks,” Tandon adds.
Lookup, a hyper-local mobile messaging app, has plenty of ‘standing desks’ in its Bengaluru office to make sure everyone has an active day. “Since green is the primary brand colour of Lookup, we have integrated planter boxes into the workstations with different species of plants to better the quality of air and to make it look more aesthetic,” offers Deepak Ravindran, its founder and CEO.
“It’s important to ensure that employees have fun while engaging in corporate initiatives,” says Shaifali Holani, founder of EasyFix, a repair and maintenance company headquartered in Gurgaon. “We have tried to create a culture that is cool, attractive and unconventional by setting up our office infrastructure that way. The colours of our office theme—red, yellow, white and grey—reflect our mind and intellect,” she adds.
Hyperlocal logistics service provider Shadowfax recently converted a sports pub ‘Dugout’ into its office in Bengaluru. “The idea behind the informal setting was to ensure the comfort of the fairly young team and keep the energy levels high,” says Abhishek Bansal, co-founder of Shadowfax.
The fun part doesn’t end at the décor. ShopClues, a managed marketplace with over 60 million monthly visitors, for instance, believes in giving its employees a chance to stay fit. “We recently got zumba and yoga classes conducted in our office. It was a fun way for employees to work out and de-stress. We also have a company-wide programme to give employees the flexibility to choose a workout programme based on their lifestyle—ranging from regular gym sessions to unconventional workouts like pilates, swimming, zumba and other dance forms across Delhi-NCR,” says Shikha Taneja, senior director, HR, ShopClues.
Health is something that is also on the agenda of Knowlarity, a provider of cloud telephony in Asia. “We organise ‘fun Fridays’ every week to build team spirit. Activities include yoga and zumba classes. We have inter-departmental cricket teams that even played for a ‘Knowlarity Cricket League’ in November. Then there are regular health check-ups and consultations by leading doctors every month. We even organised a free beauty camp for women employees recently,” says Ambarish Gupta, founder-CEO of Knowlarity.
But unique work cultures and uber-cool workplaces aren’t the only factors that can make life in a start-up less stressful. Because if a cool and casual environment was the only thing required, promising employees wouldn’t be shuttling jobs so often, would they?
If some people are to be believed, there are several human resource secrets behind it too—like generous leave and time-off benefits for employees to pursue life interests, among others. “When we think about benefits, we think about what they would need to be equipped with to be happy and satisfied along with benefitting from our initiatives. For instance, our ‘Learning Wallet’ programme offers employees the chance to learn and grow with us,” says a spokesperson of InMobi, a Bengaluru-based start-up. “Under the programme, every InMobi-an gets $800 to spend on learning something new and catching up with the rapidly-changing world.” Besides that, InMobi permits employees to bring their families and pets to office “to give them a sense of home away from home”. “They get to do whatever they wish with their desks and work environment as well,” the spokesperson adds.
Ruplee, an NCR-based mobile eating-out payment app, too, believes in giving its employees something to look forward to besides their pay cheques. “All employees work on their own mini projects, so that they learn the ability to operate independently and also have the freedom to drive an initiative. All freshers and young employees look for this kind of freedom to make decisions and drive change rather than working in a hierarchical set-up, where their opinion doesn’t matter,” explains Natasha Jain, its founder-CEO.
Clearly, taking a cue from the fact that young people love to work in a stress-free, flexible environment, start-ups in the country today are trying to foster a culture of high energy and innovation by creating comfortable work environments that enable performance, rejuvenate and spark creativity among employees and also remove gender disparity to an extent. Snapdeal has a ‘returneeship’ programme for women looking to restart their careers after an extended absence from workforce. “We conduct these drives for women in partnership with organisations like Jobsforher. We also conduct leadership development training to empower more and more women employees to assume positions of responsibility within the organisation,” says Saurabh Nigam, vice-president (HR), Snapdeal.
Such initiatives have a significant impact on employee productivity, happiness and, in the long-term, the retention process as well, says Uppaluri of Randstad India. He, however, feels one critical factor that will go a long way in retaining employees is a strong culture since this can turn into a competitive advantage for the brand and boost the morale of employees. “Start-ups are new-age businesses and hence it’s imperative that the culture of the company acts as a key component in the brand-building process,” he adds.
Sales and profitability targets, and massive valuations create a lot of pressure. The dynamism to hire, and also to fire, in a start-up is of utmost importance. Individuals have to don different hats, work for more hours than a normal shift requires and be ready to be promoted or fired at any moment. That’s what life in a start-up is all about, said Manu Jolly, CEO and founder, Digiperform, a digital marketing training company.
While working for start-ups can be a lot of fun, the work pressure can also be much higher when compared to other corporates. Start-ups are constantly under pressure to perform to achieve results, growth and more traction. Hence, it would be wise to analyse the risks and drawbacks of
start-ups before one takes that big decision (of joining one), said Moorthy K Uppaluri,
MD and CEO, Randstad India, a global HR consulting company.
The current strategic focus for us is to build TinyOwl as a sustainable, profitable and scalable business, working towards the ‘big dream’. Every business goes through its own unique journey with some hits and definitely some misses. We have had our share too. But the important aspect is to learn from your journey and continue to do what is best for the brand, said Harshvardhan Mandad, co-founder and CEO, TinyOwl, a food delivery start-up.
While it’s a known fact that start-ups are tough places to work in, the promise of success is really high. We have enough funding to help us lead a robust expansion plan. Yes, there is always the chance that a start-up might fail, but the experience people gain while working with one is extremely valuable, said Varun Khaitan, co-founder, UrbanClap, a mobile services marketplace.
It’s important to ensure that employees have fun while engaging in corporate initiatives. We have tried to create a culture, which is cool, attractive and unconventional by setting up our office infrastructure that way. The colours of our office theme—red, yellow, white and grey—reflect our mind and intellec, said Shaifali Holani, founder, EasyFix, a repair and maintenance company headquartered in Gurgaon.
People join start-ups to get freedom, autonomy and to showcase their creativity. We have people who joined us as freshers, but, due to their hard work and creativity, are now leading teams internally. People get to learn so much in a start-up in a short period, something that is not possible with a well-established company, said Kali Shukla, VP, marketing, Helpchat, a chat-based personal assistant app