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How Apna is trying to bring out champions from the blue-collar world

Nirmit Parikh's professional networking platform, which uses a simpler approach to connect workers with employers, is attracting not just users but also investors

Manu Balachandran
Published: Jun 25, 2021 12:47:24 PM IST
Updated: Jun 25, 2021 07:19:45 PM IST

How Apna is trying to bring out champions from the blue-collar world

Nirmit Parikh loves solving problems. That’s who he has been all his life.

A few years ago, on a Friday evening, Parikh was out on his first date with a girl, a medical student, in Ahmedabad, his hometown. That evening, as they stopped by Crossword, a book store that has a presence across some 16 cities in India, Parikh’s date, a bookworm, put across a thought.

“What if there was a software that would scan a book or a journal, and give a summary of it,” she asked Parikh. As a medical student, reading up journals consumed much of her time. “It’s the summary that draws one to whether they should read or buy a book,” says Parikh. “We discussed how cool it would be if somebody could summarise a paper or book. It would have made things much easier.”

While his date assumed that the conversation had ended there, back at home later that evening Parikh was rather restless. “I wanted to impress the girl, so I ended up building a small piece of software over the weekend and by Monday morning gifted it to her,” Parikh says. Very soon, all her friends began to use the software, and word of mouth led to his friends using the tool too. That software would scan copious amounts of texts and summarise them for the reader, providing a crux of the matter.

Within months, the entrepreneur in Parikh used that software to put together his second entrepreneurial venture, Cruxbot, an artificial technology solution that can read and summarise web contents. His date couldn’t have been any less impressed and went on to become his wife.

But that’s precisely who he is, Parikh says. He has a penchant for solving problems and that’s precisely why investors are flocking to invest in his latest venture, Apna, a two-year-old professional networking platform for blue- and grey-collar workers, that raised $70 million in a funding round led by US-based investors Insight Partners and Tiger Global on June 16. Apna is currently valued at $570 million, up five times from its previous round three months ago when it raised $12 million. Until now, the company has received a total of $90 million from existing investors.

The app is currently live in 14 cities including Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Pune, among others. The platform has over 1.5 million jobs and 10 million users already on its platform. Every month, the platform helps facilitate over 15 million interviews, and the list of employers on its platform includes Flipkart, BigBasket, Amazon, Byju’s and Swiggy among others.

The platform essentially helps first-time internet users access professional opportunities, collaborate with others, gain new skills, and create communities that can help motivate them. That includes communities for professionals like beauticians, carpenters, painters and telemarketers among many others. Once on the platform, job seekers enter their personal information, which is made into a virtual business card that’s then passed on to potential employers. On the Apna app, the company claims that a hiring process is completed in less than 48 hours with candidates directly connecting with recruiters.

“These are people who have done very little schooling, and they are often scared,” Parikh says. “So, we needed a fresh approach, because when you go and build something which touches the heart, the possibilities are limitless.” Apart from a non-formalised approach to jobs, which meant not requiring a resume, and creating vertical communities, the company also began focussing on local languages to tide over the language barrier. Over the next few months, Apna plans to expand to Southeast Asia and the United States.

Apna Time Aayega

Long before Parikh began building Apna, he had already been bitten by the entrepreneurship bug while he was pursuing his engineering degree at the Institute of Technology at Nirma University in Ahmedabad.

Back then, he had built a company, Incone Technologies, that helped in the automation of dam gates, an idea that struck him after floods on the west coast in 2007. “It was super unsexy for a 19-year-old teenager to start a hydropower company,” Parikh says. Years later, Parikh merged that business with his family-owned business. The company was largely engaged in solving the problem of floods, using artificial Intelligence-based control systems that focused on flood forecasting and reservoir monitoring. “I got my early learnings into how to design value propositions and positioning around business,” Parikh says. “We have automated north of 1,100 megawatts of dam automation across the country.”

How Apna is trying to bring out champions from the blue-collar world

Three years into setting up Incone, Parikh set up Cruxbot, which was later purchased by Kno Inc, a Silicon Valley startup, and eventually Intel Corporation. That acquisition brought Parikh to the US, where he became a director at Intel Education. In the Bay Area, Parikh soon realised that his love for entrepreneurship had led him to miss college life, and he soon enrolled in an MBA programme at the prestigious Stanford University. “I was turning 26 that year and I had been building companies back-to-back, and somewhere, I felt that I wasn’t enjoying life,” the 33-year-old says. It also helped that his girlfriend was in the US to pursue her studies.

After graduating from Stanford, Parikh went on to work with Apple, where he oversaw the product and strategy of the software platform. While at Apple, Parikh had also begun to spend considerable time in India where he became privy to issues of unemployment upon his frequent visits. “We say these are big problems the world is facing, but you never feel that you’re going to go and solve this,” Parikh says. He also saw first-hand the problems in hiring skilled workers at his family-owned manufacturing businesses.

“From the employer perspective I knew the problems that we were facing, but I didn’t know from the candidate side,” Parikh says. “I went undercover as a blue-collar worker as an electrician, foreman, and shop floor guy. The idea is very simple. Till you don’t feel the problem, you cannot build a good solution and I didn’t want to be one of the other companies. Quite often, people find a solution from the West and copy.”

Conversations undercover led to a deeper understanding of the issues the blue-collar workers faced. Soon he realised that while many of them had the skills necessary for the jobs, most of them trusted only the jobs that came from their network. “Trust deficit is extremely high, and you need to solve for trust,” Parikh says. “The bottom of the pyramid workforce would traditionally rely on their family and friends or a limited set of known opportunities for employment, thereby limiting their potential to progress professionally and chart out a long-term career path.”

That was the trigger, and Parikh knew he had a big problem to solve on his hands. Around the same time, the Bollywood film Gully Boy had hit the screens, and Parikh was particularly inspired by a dialogue from the movie. “I’m not going to change my dream because my reality is so, I would rather change my reality so I can go and achieve my dream.”

Taking a cue from the popular song ‘Apna time aayega (Our time will come) Parikh named his new venture Apna which would be a platform to connect blue- and grey-collar workers with recruiters.

“The goal is to help people connect to opportunities,” Parikh says. “It’s just that people need motivation. On Apna, there is this crazy level of motivation because people help each other and are extremely selfless. We only needed to provide a platform for them so that they can channel their aspirations to create meaningful livelihoods.”

Dreaming big

In the early days, Parikh spent much of his time around the slums in Mumbai, trying to understand user requirements, and the latest version of the app, Parikh says, is the 16th iteration of its design. “Initially, we got the users through word of mouth, as we used to visit slums and chawls around Mumbai,” Parikh says. With users beginning to swell, the company also onboarded employers, starting out with small and medium-sized businesses, before expanding to companies such as Swiggy, Zomato and Delhivery among others.

Today, Apna allows for networking with peers to talk about your work, clarify doubts, and even find opportunities together. “I’m a strong believer in peer-to-peer learning,” Parikh says. “I think you just need to get people in a group and the magic starts.” Today there are over 60 such channels for different types of work. “Apart from this, there are a lot of job openings available,” Parikh says. “We are something special. We are not an XYZ of India. We are the Apna of the world, we have grown north of 50X over the last one year and the growth rate is only increasing every single month.”

India currently has over 300 million blue-collar workers, and the number is expected to grow by nearly 10 percent every year. That means a massive opportunity for companies like Apna, which have an early mover advantage in the sector. “These guys are going to write the future of the country,” Parikh says. “If we shape their career right, they’re going to shape the country with ripple effects. That’s why we have this crazy responsibility to get things right for them.”

Currently, all the jobs listed on the Apna platform are verified and free of cost for the candidates. In addition, the company is also helping users upskill for job opportunities and building out masterclasses like skilling modules, outcome or job-based skilling, enabling peer-to-peer learning through its vertical communities focussed on learning English or test preparations. “This solves a burning need among the bottom of the pyramid workforce that has historically not had the right avenues to learn and the access to jobs for newly acquired skills,” Parikh says.

That’s perhaps why he isn’t worried about the competition at the moment. “We are light years ahead in the total number of jobs,” Parikh says about competition. “Also, it’s really difficult to go and break this network effect. Like WhatsApp, many users are on WhatsApp because their friends are on WhatsApp. This is the power of the network. So, it is impenetrable. It's very difficult to break the network until we go and move the entire network together.”

For now, the company hasn’t begun monetising, although it reckons that it has enough avenues to generate revenues. “In terms of revenue, there are the recruitment products,” Parikh says. “Given we are helping hire, we don’t have to even build a model because people pay even if you charge a dollar per interview. Then, we can go and upskill people, we can build a distribution business, a financial services business, and so on. For now, we want to focus on our core value where we can create value for the user.”

Industry experts reckon that the platform has a significant first-mover advantage in the sector, that has long been ignored. “This is a great model that they have developed,” Aurobindo Saxena, the former head of education practice at consultancy firm Technopak and an independent consultant, says. “The quantum of the workforce entering our workforce every year has been significantly going up for the past few years. And not many companies have been looking at this space which has phenomenal potential. This is a segment that has been severely hit as the economy went into a crisis, and platforms such as these can provide great opportunities.”

So, does Parikh now see white-collar jobs shifting to Apna? “Interestingly, white-collar folks are coming in already,” Parikh says. “People are hiring for engineers using the platform and this is happening organically.” Perhaps, by the time Parikh scales up his business, his wife, who would have finished pursuing her studies in medicine, could well be on the platform, connecting with a potential employer. “Let’s see how that goes, that will be interesting.”


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