India has been waking up every morning to headlines on the madcap antics of 26-year-old Rahul Yadav, the controversial founder of Housing.com. Be it the rude letter to his investors, the bizarre distribution of his personal equity to all his staffers or a foolish prank on the media culminating in his very public sacking, it's a circus out there.
Was it immaturity playing out? Was it an inability to handle pressures of scaling up so quickly and keeping his venture capitalists happy? Or was it mere whimsicality?Haresh Chawla, Partner at India Value Fund Advisors, in a moving account of the Yadav saga believes it was the lack of an experienced senior that led to his fall. "No one asked them to pause, to review, to reflect? He had no mentor in the group," he writes, sounding a warning to all 20-something start-up founders on the importance of creating management strength they can lean on.
While the Yadav saga is an extreme example, there are other smaller examples as well. Take the way Indian online eyewear portal Lenskart tried to ride on the Nepal earthquake with an SMS promotion, 'Shake it off like the earthquake' for a discount offer. The company got pilloried for putting out an ad in poor taste. It was just the kind of mistake that any seasoned industry professional would have guarded against.
Peyush Bansal, the 32-year-old founder of Lenskart, quickly responded with an earnest apology but this incident has taught him a new lesson - he now recognises the need for senior talent in his young organisation. "Yes, of course," he says, acknowledging that such oversights can be controlled through the induction of experienced hands. They (start-ups) require long-term strategic thinking, which sometimes comes with exposure and experience of having lived through multiple situations," says Manish Bhatt, Founder-Director, Scarecrow, an ad agency.The brave young world of start-ups is suddenly realising the need for a few grey hairs and throwing open its doors to experienced seniors. "Tenured talent is being sought after by e-commerce players. They bring in specific knowledge and experience relating to products, platforms, processes, systems or technology along with a specific functional capability especially involved in scaling up operations," say Pallavi Kathuria, Partner at Egon Zehnder, a leadership talent search firm.
Aparna Chopra, who has joined Lenskart very recently as VP, Strategic Initiatives, has no illusions about her key responsibility area (KRA) at the eyewear portal. "I'd say my experience is the most valuable thing I can bring to an organisation," says the well travelled executive, referring to her 17-year association with MNCs such as Nestle, Starbucks and Costa Coffee. "In a young start-up, one often tends to overlook building a solid foundation due to the dizzying speed at which growth takes place. However, I'm in a position to enforce a strategic view and make sure that the bigger picture is taken into account," she says.
Be it Flipkart, Snapdeal or Amazon, everyone's now hiring senior talent in droves. Snapdeal has recently recruited Amit Choudhary from Procter & Gamble (P&G) as its Senior VP, Corporate Finance. Choudhary was spearheading the MNC's Asia pet care business across several countries, including Japan and Australia. Srinivas Murthy, Senior VP, Marketing at Snapdeal, was with pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline in his previous assignment. Murthy was the regional director in Africa. Snapdeal's new Senior VP, Finance, Vivek Patankar was earlier based at Unilever's London Office, in charge of the consumer goods company's entire global business. "With the rapid growth in the e-commerce industry, it is imperative to look at people who are self-driven and have risk-taking abilities," says Saurabh Nigam, VP, HR, Snapdeal. "As e-commerce is essentially a complex business model that requires continuous company reinvention, we are looking at a talent pool with dynamic skill sets."
But with the growing presence of senior talent in their ranks, the workplace dynamics and culture at e-commerce companies is now changing. No longer is it young and whimsical.
Induction of senior people often changes an organisation's culture or character, according to Kartik Hosanagar, Professor of Internet Commerce at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "In young start-ups, founders often call the shots and there is no expectation of consistency. Individual whims may dominate over processes."
"We find that senior people are questioning our style of operations and are creating processes that make logical and business sense," says a 24-year-old employee of one of the top three e-commerce companies in India. "Earlier, we would blindly do things that were suggested without a thought to the impact."
For the seniors now walking into a young workplace, the ability to carry the entire team along is crucial. Some e-commerce companies - such as Amazon - even give them a crash course on the organisational philosophy and goals. It is intended to ensure their smooth integration into the team. Consider the example of Akhil Saxena, who joined Amazon in July 2013 as Director Operations. "Here we are obsessive about customer focus and satisfaction. Any action is taken by keeping that in mind and catering to that need. Hence, it was important for me to take that time and understand the focus of Amazon so its values and style of functioning is consistent across geographies," he says. The end result - he has managed to deliver with speed and efficiency and also ensure that the entire team works together with him on projects. "When I joined, there was only one fulfillment centre (warehouse), and in 14 months I was able to launch 11 centres," says Saxena.
Saxena's over two-decade experience at Hindustan Unilever and KEC in operations has served him well in his current role at Amazon. But, above all, he believes that his substantial experience in mentoring the young has played a pivotal role in his success. "I am comfortable with high quality and young talent, and have been a coach and mentor to many young leaders and trainees," he says.
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Others also point out that e-commerce companies need a mentoring process for its young talent. "We realise that we cannot grow only on the basis of the high energy of 20-somethings. At the end of the day, they are young and are really are not in a position to create processes that are required to manage fast growth," says Swati Bhargava, the 32-year-old founder of CashKaro.com, an online cashback and coupon company.
No Longer Flat
So, what is clearly going out of the window is a flat organisation that was really at the heart of most of these young companies. "That does not work. Fact is people in their mid-to-late 30s are likely to be married and have kids. This makes them more settled and, in addition, they bring in valuable domain experience," says Bhargava. Yes, there is the critical bit about the comfort of investors too. They would surely be worried about an organisation that is run only by people in their 20s. And there is nothing better than getting a former entrepreneur or a professional to shake things up. "This is not something new, even I was sought for skills as an entrepreneur," says Subrata Mitra of Accel Partners, a venture capital fund, who was an early investor in Flipkart and is now on its board.
There are examples galore of e-commerce companies poaching senior talent. Consultancies and consumer goods companies are the favourite hunting grounds. Recently, Flipkart hired former McKinsey director Saikiran Krishnamurthy as Chief Operating Officer of its commerce division. Paytm has taken on board Nehul Malhotra, Head of Merchant Operations at McKinsey, as the digital payments company continues to forge ahead in mobile commerce.
Yet, this kind of recruitment policy is mixing up the age profiles, where the tenured talent is even older than the founders. It is not only changing the work dynamics and the work culture, but also leading to organisational stress.
Ritesh Agarwal, Founder and CEO of Oyo Rooms, candidly speaks about the impact of the induction of senior talent. "Of course, it is not easy dealing with people who are smarter than you," says this 21-year-old, who set up his budget hotel aggregator when he was just 19. The company has recently brought on board Abhinav Sinha from the Boston Consulting Group. It has recruited Ayush Mathur (earlier with Parthenon Consulting) to head Delhi operations and, among others, Shreerang Godbole from McKinsey & Co. to run Mumbai operations.
"Fact is that founders are control freaks and they think they know it best. So, it is very stressful learning to back off and trust senior colleagues. You have to learn to give them space and autonomy, and also earn their respect," says Agarwal.
The learning and adjustment process is clearly not easy for the young talent in an outfit, often including the founders. But wisdom gradually dawns on them that it is best to have seasoned professionals running the show. "He (Agarwal) is extremely driven and passionate and has the gift of getting many senior people on board. But, he is also a guy who has no experience of having worked in a professionally-run organisation. So he is also learning and evolving as a leader," says Ravi Kiran, former CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group South East and South Asia, who is now the co-founder of VentureNursery - the start-up accelerator for OYO Rooms. Today, OYO Rooms has over 500 people on its rolls with average age around 24 years, and the leadership team of around 50 people has senior talent in their early forties as well.Experienced people coming into an organisation can bring in key processes, says Hosanagar of Wharton School. "Another such change, particularly in Silicon Valley, can be work-life balance. At valley start-ups run by 20-somethings, it's not uncommon for employees to work late into the night and weekends. It's just part of the culture. Introduction of someone senior can again change the norms," he says.
It's not just the youthful founders who are adapting under the seniors - the reverse is happening too as the evolving work ethos demands an openness and flexibility from tenured talent. Given this, reverse mentoring is not a fad, but an existential reality that most dynamic professionals, such as 42-year-old Ranjeet Oak, Chief Business Officer, Holidays, MakeMyTrip.com, readily embrace. "Sure, I do know the dynamics of what it takes to reach out to 700,000 retail outlets, but I needed to quickly learn the online go-to-market structure and online product structure from someone younger, given that MakeMyTrip does over 15,000 transactions on a daily basis," admits Oak candidly, who has over 16 years of experience at P&G in various markets.
Are these people missing out on a peer group that leads to a more cohesive culture? "Myntra is at the forefront of doing things and we have talent from global companies that adds to the diversity. And there is employee ownership in such structures that makes it very attractive for any senior person," says 42-year-old Vikram Kolar, Senior VP at Myntra, adding that the opportunity available to foray into unchartered territories with e-commerce start-ups is a big draw for people like him.
Significantly, most of these e-commerce companies have extremely seasoned HR heads. Consider the example of Yuvaraj Srivastava, Chief Human Resource Officer at MakeMyTrip.com. He joined the company in May last year and has over 16 years of hardcore corporate experience dealing with industrial relations for organisations such as Asian Paints. MakeMyTrip, under Srivastava's guidance, has launched product councils where everything and everyone is reviewed. The benefit is that the younger generation gets instant feedback and the older team members also get an honest opinion from others on their views and decisions. "A top down approach is not the answer," says Srivastava.
In fact, organisational culture is still a work-in-progress in most companies. "We had people walking in at odd times, or taking leave and there was no way of telling them whether it was acceptable or not," says an employee of a leading e-commerce start-up. "Now with seniors coming in, these issues are getting defined."
Paying the Price
But tenured talent does not come cheap and is not easily available. Today, people with specific domain experience are commanding anywhere between Rs 2 crore and Rs7 crore per annum. "Fact is that in India most professionals do not want to take a haircut on cash component to get a stake in highly valued companies. They want it all," says Kathuria. But growing e-commerce ventures are only too aware about such a challenge and, in fact, are prepared for it. Nidhi Agarwal, founder and CEO of fashion portal Kaaryah.com, is trying to address the issue by roping in talented professionals seeking only part-time, consulting roles such as Sarika Grover, the former marketing head at 99labels.com, an online sale portal. "She wants to be involved with different things and I am fine with that, so long as I too get to benefit from her experience," says Agarwal.
Bansal of Lenskart sums it up. "With more senior talent joining us, we would like to develop a much more professional and customer-focused culture in our organisation. This is already happening by empowering these new senior leaders to lead large teams and independently find solutions to problems without involving the founders," he says. "I'm also driving a lot more disruption as the senior teams give me confidence to take much bigger leap steps."
Occasionally, however, the seniors can go wrong too. Remember John Sculley, the corporate star who was hired from PepsiCo by Steve Jobs to steer the course of Apple and who ended up firing Jobs! Jobs came back to turn Apple around. Maybe there is hope for Rahul Yadav yet.