By Harshjit Sethi and Sidhant Goyal

When Jio launched it’s low cost data plans in 2016, we started looking for startups and apps that catered to the ‘real India’ beyond the country’s 10 million wealthy English-speaking households. Our interactions with young Indians that were coming online for the first time highlighted the big aspirations they had, and we were convinced that a product that offered them a ticket to a better life through jobs and skilling could be massively successful. We spent three years looking for the right team with no success.

Then we met Nirmit Parikh. It was April 2019, and Apna was an idea that was just starting to crystallize in his mind. We were super inspired by his passion and vision to create a social jobs network for India’s vast legion of grey and blue collar workers. Sequoia Capital India quickly agreed to partner on Apna’s seed round. Seven months later he launched an early prototype of the app in Mumbai’s Powai and Thane neighbourhoods – and it quickly went viral.

By September 2020, when Sequoia Capital India deepened its partnership with the team and led Apna’s Series A round, a few hundred thousand active users were using the app and there were early signs that Nirmit was building something special.

Apna has since evolved into a highly active professional social network, jobs marketplace and upskilling platform with over 16 million users from India’s emerging working class. Over 150,000 Indian businesses use Apna to augment their workforce, and over 18 million job interviews take place every month thanks to connections made through Apna. We believe they’re just getting started.

Today, Apna announced their $100 million Series C round, just 22 months after their product launched, going from idea to unicorn in an incredibly short period of time.

Nirmit and his team turned conventional wisdom on its head by building a super sticky product with deep customer love in an historically tough neighbourhood. While the Apna story is still unfolding, here are three takeaways from the early phase of their company-building journey that are valuable for any entrepreneur.

Independent thinking meets consumer insights

Prior to Apna, employment discovery platforms for the emerging working class were a graveyard of failed attempts. The business model employed by most incumbents focussed on jobs alone, a transactional approach that faltered in a category where users looked for jobs only once or twice per year. It was what we call a “treadmill business”, where a company is in a constant fight to keep adding new users to sustain its business.

The Apna team approached the problem with a fresh, thoughtful perspective. In early 2019, Nirmit spent many days at a manufacturing site in Ahmedabad, working undercover as a factory worker, so he could better understand this target audience at a deeper level – a level of dedication we have hardly seen. He realized what factory workers wanted more than a job discovery platform was a place to connect with, speak to and learn from peers employed in the same professions.

So Apna set out to build just this, starting with vertical professional communities for beauticians, telecallers, delivery executives, data entry specialists, and many more. They found product-market fit incredibly quickly. It became the place where beauticians showcased their hair designs to their peers, where data entry specialists shared productivity hacks for MS Excel with their peers, where painters discussed which paints company offered the best incentive structures, and so on.

What’s most compelling was how Apna struck a balance between independent thinking and customer feedback. In the pre-PMF phase we often see founders veer toward one of two extremes: either they’re too dependent on user feedback, or have too much bias for intuition and originality. In the former case, founders obsess about talking to users, get product suggestions from users and keep changing the product to reflect the feedback of a small sample set. In the latter situation, founders believe the user doesn’t quite know what they want and over-index on their intuition (“If you ask customers what they want they will ask for a faster horse and not a car”). The best approach combines both of these ways of thinking to rapidly iterate and build. This is why we believe Apna was able to find PMF in a few months in a category that has traditionally been a graveyard for startups.

Clarity powers speed of execution

Nirmit has this incredible clarity of thought, which has led to a culture that promotes a super high speed of ideation and execution. For example, Nirmit and his team made a clear design choice to be a product company, with a sharp focus on creating a scalable, digital-only product loved by its users. This was his thinking on the first day he pitched to us and it hasn’t wavered since.

Before finding PMF the Apna team created over 30 versions of the mobile app, testing every feature to evaluate their merit and constantly iterating to optimize key engagement metrics. This was done in a span of a few months as the company relentlessly focused on user love.

The most important meeting on the team’s calendar is the daily standup with Apna’s ‘enablers’, the 30-member team whose job it is to chat with 1,000 users every day and understand their delights and pain points, all of which is rapidly channelled back into the app via weekly feature releases. The business team, meanwhile, has codified tribal knowledge on how to launch a new geography into live playbooks, and new city launches are now executed end-to-end in just one week. In the space of one week itself, in September, the team launched in seven new cities!

The driver of Apna’s velocity is a high-quality leadership team, which has also been assembled in a short time frame. This also ladders back to Nirmit’s clarity of thinking on a framework for hiring. He thinks of product journeys in three phases: 0 to 1 (pre PMF) and 1 to 10 (post PMF) and 10 to 100 (massive scale). In the pre-PMF phase, he hired people with domain expertise and a keen understanding of the user base who could build a product and achieve PMF quickly. In the post-PMF phase, the team focussed on hiring business strategy and operations leaders with cross-industry experience who could build robust processes, while the ‘massive scale’ frame prioritizes the addition of ‘specialists’ with prior experience in scaling similar platforms globally.

Clarity and confidence in the company’s early design choices (whether product or business or recruitment) empowers leaders and employees to execute on the vision with speed. Speed, when part of a company’s DNA, becomes a moat and an enduring competitive advantage.

Storytelling inspires action

Founders are always telling their story – to employees, investors, business partners and customers. Successful founders have an ability to paint a vivid and ambitious big picture; to share their vision of the specific change they want to make in the world, and the authenticity with which they share the story which makes you want to join them in their cause. Nirmit’s storytelling has inspired believers at every step of the journey.

We love the fact that his vision has stayed almost the same since the early days: a jobs and skills marketplace overlaid on a large and engaged community of India’s emerging working class. Here is our favorite slide from Apna’s investor pitch that has been a part of the deck almost from Day One and explains the business model, key growth levers, inherent moats in the business and winner-take-all nature of the opportunity.

As various metrics and proof points emerged that helped the story evolve, it became even more compelling. And the set of believers kept expanding. Storytelling is the invisible thread that has helped Apna convince business leaders at established companies to leave their highly-paid jobs and join a startup with all the associated risks; that has brought in some of the world’s leading venture capitalists as long-term partners; and, most importantly, inspired millions of users and thousands of businesses to invest their valuable time in a new product.

Sequoia Capital India, which has partnered with Apna on every round, is proud to continue supporting the company in their Series C.

The latest financing is a significant milestone early in Apna’s journey. But looking at the scale of the ambitions of Nirmit and his team, we know that the company is just getting started in its mission of accelerating India and helping millions of Indians achieve their dreams. It’s been an amazing ride as their earliest partner, and we are excited for what Apna will achieve next.