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Blue-collar recruitment company Babajob to introduce ‘Polly’: an Instagram for voice

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Sean Blagsvedt, co-founder and CEO of Babajob

Sean Blagsvedt, co-founder and CEO of blue-collar job company Babajob is always on the lookout for new ideas, and not afraid to throw out old ones to make way for new. For example, in 2009-10, 75 per cent of new job registrations were mobile driven. Realizing the dangers of being too dependent on big telecom players, Blagsvedt switched strategies to be more aggressive on the web. The result? Registrations on the web went from 2500 to 250,000 by 2011-12. “A great focus on ensuring we had relevant jobs wherever job seekers were searching and a significant web redesign that made searching and applying for jobs much easier,” answers Blagsvedt, on being asked, about how he managed the switch.

Now he has a glint in his eye when he talks about Babajob’s exciting new initiative that could revolutionize the way interactive voice response (IVR) systems are used in India. Say hello to Polly. A voice based telephone system that lets users record and send messages using a voice filter, which became wildly popular in Pakistan after the second version debuted in May last year. “Its sort of like an ‘Instagram’ for voice, we should be rolling out a pilot in Karnataka soon,” says Blagsveldt, obviously excited about Polly’s potential to make Babajob viral. Developed as a game by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Pakistan’s Lahore University of Management Sciences, Polly was soon used for practical purposes. Researchers scanned Pakistani newspapers blue-collar jobs, recorded them in Urdu, and uploaded them, where they could be browsed as a voice message. In less than a year, job postings have been listened to 372,151 times, and also been forwarded to potential job seekers. Overall, to date, Polly has snapped up 158,055 users, with an cumulative call volume of 2,394,005 calls.

Babajob’s pilot, will debut in Karnataka in April, and depending on the quality of response, it may soon find its way to other states. While Blagsvedt won’t comment on it, if Polly is a success, it could bring down the cost of new user acquisition and promoting jobs for Babajob because the heavy lifting is taken care of by users, for free. There are approximately 370 million blue-collar workers in India and most of them possess a mobile phone. Finding a cost effective way to reach them, which isn’t high touch and scales fast is a big problem for companies like Babajob. Polly could become the audio Facebook meets LinkedIn for blue-collar jobs. Like Babajob before, new companies that target blue-collar workers are looking to use mobile, like CanvasM’s (owned by Tech Mahindra) Saral Rozgar that tied up with Airtel to launch a new service. Blue-collar workers can dial 54141 on their Airtel numbers and register or apply for a job.

While Blagsveldt is not thinking of new initiatives like Polly, he obsesses over how data can help improve his original vision of democratizing the blue-collar job industry. He’s digging deep to understand the needs, behaviors and aspirations of blue-collar workers by studying the data gleaned from the 150,000 applications that Babajob processes every month. Data points that his team tracks of candidates include city, state, language, gender, expected salary, category and education. The insights he is privy to gives him answers to various questions. Why will somebody work for nearly half the money at a Café Coffee Day rather than be a live-in maid? If you are a maid why does it make sense to look for a job near Bangalore’s Diamond District than any other locality? Why do the mothers of security guards prefer them to work at a software park than an apartment complex? These are bamboozling questions, worthy of a column by Steven Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, of Freakanomics fame. These insights he feeds to employers, who use it to tailor make job descriptions, salary and benefits. He uses employer insights to inform candidates on how they can spruce up their resume and interview skills.

In the short-term he plans to roll out initiatives that ensure employees get fair wages, create visualizations like skill demand maps, boost awareness of their legal rights and health and accident insurance for job seekers. Keeping this in mind and other ways to create awareness and education on resume and interview etiquette Babajob is rolling out a series of educational videos soon. For example, a video could talk about why its important to add multiple details to a candidate’s resume. Data suggests that a candidate’s chances of being shortlisted for an interview go up from 9 per cent to 55 per cent if the name, number and photo are listed. “The videos will inform users how best to use Babajob, tips to prepare for the interview, Learning a language is tough, but learning a new skill is tough. Video can help in this,” adds Blagsvedt. All these initiatives, he hopes, will make Babajob an authority in the blue-collar recruitment world.

Small epiphanies could lead to big changes.

After all, one small insight was what got Blagsvedt inspired to co-found Babajob in 2007 with his step-father Ira Weise and Microsoft Research colleague Vibhore Goyal. He was a researcher at Microsoft Research’s Technology for Emerging Markets arm, when he discovered that there were discrepancies in salaries of maids with similar levels of competence, after stumbling upon research conducted by Duke University economist, Anirudh Krishna. And much like the white-collar world, where who you know contributes to success as much (or even more) than what you know, it had to do with knowing the ‘right’ people. His insight was that most maids are not socially mobile and have no contacts in upper class households, thereby their chances of earning a higher income was limited to the households that they already worked at. It has been six years since Babajob started as an experimental project. Currently, it processes 150,000 applications a month and has had marquee VCs like Vinod Khosla and Gray Ghost Ventures invest in his company.

For Blagsvedt, he’s just scratched the surface, there are more ideas sloshing around in head waiting to be implemented. One of them is a new approach to education, which uses the www.khanacademy.org platform, to get children to learn and take tests. He’s not ready to talk about it, at least, not just yet.