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Apna: Jobtech’s newest unicorn

Oct 26, 2021 | Lessons Learned (the Hard Way)

Author: Tracy Mwaura

Apna is an Android app that helps low-skilled workers in India find work. It was built by former Apple executive Nirmit Parikh for job seekers on the margins.

This ‘Inspirations from Abroad’ article seeks to understand the reasons for their monumental growth for potential application to the African market. Main lessons include:

  • Huge focus on quantity of jobs posted
  • Integration of community and peer learning element to the platform
  • Deep focus on understanding the user

Nirmit Parikh, Apna’s founder, has a rich history in entrepreneurship and tech that dates back to his early twenties. Through his different ventures — including Cruxbot, an AI-powered web tool that reads and summarizes web pages that was acquired by Intel — and his time at Apple, what remained constant was Parikh’s desire to uplift and bring order to the unorganized workforce across the world. Parikh was perplexed by the seeming disconnect between the massive numbers of blue and grey collar workers in India and those who needed their assistance.

He began sketching out a solution to achieve this. Apna means ‘’ours’’ in Hindi and in a recent TV interview shortly after Apna achieved unicorn status, Nirmit revealed the inspiration behind the platform’s name. Our startup was named after the song ‘Apna Time Aayega’ from the movie Gully Boy.” A particular dialogue from the movie perfectly aligned with the solution he was trying to create. Parikh believes that working-class people shouldn’t have to crucify their dreams for their reality and, like the protagonist in Gully Boy, Apna began to help workers build a reality that supports their dreams. 

They set out to do this by hosting a community of skilled professionals like carpenters, painters, field sales agents, and beauticians; helping them access local jobs, network with peers, and tap into upskilling opportunities. Apna is focused on being a marketplace for jobs, a professional social networking platform & an upskilling business. That platform has over 16 million users, and claims to have facilitated over 18 million interviews to date. It aims to touch over 2.3 billion people in the working class category across the world within the next two years. 

Below are some of the lessons we could learn from them conquering India’s labour market and their quick rise to unicorn status in less than 2 years of starting up.

Huge quantities of jobs

It is important to point out that India has its unique market characteristics, the main one being scale. The large size of the grey economy (formal low-costs jobs like guards) means that over five million job openings have been hosted on the portal to date — a huge number compared to most African markets. Potentially obvious, but this focus on getting large amounts of jobs on the platform (often moving offline recruitment into the digital realm) is unquestionably one of the main reasons why it acquired so many job seekers so quickly.

Integration of Community and Peer Learning Features

While blue collar networking platforms like LinkedIn have never been able to effectively ‘crack’ the blue collar market, Apna managed to engage huge populations of captive users through a community and peer learning component. Although this massive community existed before Apna, they didn’t previously have a way to find one another. Technology has made it possible for these workers to now connect, learn and share with one another in a light and easy way that doesn’t require them to massively invest their limited resources. 

The interactive community approach that Apna has taken to upskilling and employment is making it possible for peers to learn from one another. The app’s social feature ApnaGroup provides users with access to vertical-specific communities across a variety of sectors including accounting, delivery, cooking, and other fields. Through these communities, users are able to provide each other with leads for new jobs, get problem solving tips, speak with top professionals in their field and showcase their skills. For example, on the Apna platform beauticians are able to showcase their hair designs for others to replicate, and data entry specialists to share productivity hacks for MS Excel with their peers.

Apna community members can also join groups that help them reach their goals through the development of new skills and competencies. The “Learn English” Group is one of the app’s most popular and allows group members to access interactive language lessons at no cost. For those wishing to start their own businesses, they can join the Business Group to access information on government grants, crowdfunding, loans and benefits available to new businesses as well as to look for potential business partners with whom they can launch their ventures. 

Apna also has features that allow users to upskill themselves. They can access video tutorials that provide guidance on how to apply for a job and best practices for interviewing, and Apna is also in the process of building interactive digital masterclasses that will allow users to access more specific content related to their unique job requirements.

With this unique approach to social learning, Apna stands out from the crowd of other elearning solutions. Apna plans to double down on this approach and is working to enable even more peer learning features within the vertical communities and themed groups. Although quality control of peer-led content and advice may be a challenge Apna will need to solve in the future, the startup has embraced the desires of its community to support one another directly.

Deep understanding of users

One of the factors behind Apna’s success is the dedication of both its founder and the Apna team to deeply understanding its users. In the early stages of Apna’s development, Parikh went undercover as a blue-collar worker. Parikh told YourStory, “My first order of business was to understand the market.” This meant Nirmit worked as a plumber, electrician, barkeep, and many other jobs for several months before he even began working on a jobtech solution. This firsthand experience allowed Parikh and his team to design from a place of clarity and empathy, and make sure that the tech fit the problem and integrated seamlessly into the habits and desires of its users. Today, Apna has THIRTY full time user researchers to deeply understand the behaviours of its user base.

Storytelling and making constant improvements

Storytelling is Apna’s greatest superpower and has helped them cut through the market noise capturing the hearts and minds of both its investors and users. This 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. The startup was founded in 2019 and in just a few months, their product team created over 30 versions of the app. Through the platform the team maintains constant interactions with a thousand users daily enabling them to intensively understand their users. This feedback is continually harnessed to make improvements via weekly feature releases, ensuring they stay efficient.

Dedication to the cause “acceleration over monetisation’’

When India needed them most, Apna showed up. Covid19 brought the world’s greatest economies to a halt and India was no exception. With lockdowns and cessation of movement, essential services were hard to come by and unemployment became rampant. An opportunity arose for Apna to prove their value to the community and they did not fall short. Apna made it their mission to mitigate the negative impact that Covid19 has had on the job market and help India come back to work. They committed to making the app available to employers free of charge and expanded to new cities to help businesses and frontline workers across India in their battle against the pandemic. The App is available in 11 languages. In doing so, Apna became a nationwide sensation and helped India counter unemployment during the pandemic.

What next for the jobtech’s newest unicorn?

It’s important to point out that Apna has not yet monetized, which might cause some to dismiss their growth. It’s evident in their business decisions that Apna looks out for the underdog workers. The team is working to launch newer initiatives that better cater to the needs of its users and further harness the power of peer-to-peer learning through tech. They will soon begin to monetize (possibly in 2022) but as of now, their current focus is on finding the best people, running best practices inside the company and taking far better decisions. Strength is in numbers and Apna’s are definitely looking strong enough for them to conquer beyond the Indian labour market.

A call to action for the jobtech community

In a recent announcement on LinkedIn about Apna’s USD 100 Million in Series C funding raise, Parikh shared his belief on the power of a like-minded community to address the employment challenge. “We are already on our way to solving complex earth-scale problems of employment, education and poverty. This is a herculean task. We will require the strength of an entire village to join our force in conquering this challenge.” 

At the Jobtech Alliance, we too believe that a rich ecosystem with collaborative actors is necessary to solve the complex challenge of employment in Africa. Our vision is that technology enables Africans to access and improve work that enhances their quality of life. We aim to change the underlying conditions that prevent jobtech solutions from thriving and build a healthy ecosystem that supports outstanding local organisations to reach new heights. Read more about how our community can catalyse your work and help you do the hard work of building effective jobtech solutions. 

The author is a youth employment and jobtech researcher and content developer with Education Design Unlimited


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