How an Indian startup went from idea to unicorn in less than two years

The man for the job.
The man for the job.
Image: LinkedIn/Nirmit Parikh
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Hiring startup Apna was incorporated 21 months ago, and only fully launched about 15 months ago. Yesterday (Sept. 16), its valuation reached a whopping $1.1 billion.

The professional networking platform for blue- and grey-collar workers founded by ex-Apple executive Nirmit Parikh entered the coveted unicorn club after a funding round led by Tiger Global Management nearly doubled its $570 million valuation from June 2021. Apna dethroned B2B e-commerce platform Udaan, which took 26 months, to become the fastest startup to acquire unicorn status in India.

What is Apna?

The startup, which got its name from rap song “Apna Time Aayega” from India’s 2020 Oscars entry Gully Boy, is yet to make any revenue. But that hasn’t stopped investors, both Indian and foreign, from making big bets. From Insight Partners and Owl Ventures to Sequoia Capital India and Lightspeed India partners, several VCs have backed the young startup.

In a recent blog post, Harshjit Sethi and Sidhant Goyal, partners at Sequoia India—Apna’s earliest partner which has been investing in every round since its seed round—say they saw promise right from the start. In April 2019, “Apna was an idea that was just starting to crystallize in his (Parikh’s) mind,” and seven months later, “he launched an early prototype of the app in Mumbai’s Powai and Thane neighbourhoods—and it quickly went viral.”

Now, Apna’s user base is 16 million strong. More than 150,000 Indian businesses use it for recruitment, and more than 18 million job interviews take place via the platform every month.

So how did this young startup find the formula for success? Sethi and Goyal shared three key takeaways.

Finding the right product-market fit

In the early days, “we see founders either focus too much on user feedback or on their own intuition,” Sethi wrote on Twitter. Apna managed to strike a balance between these two approaches and find the right product-market fit, he said.

For instance, Parikh says he spent many days at a manufacturing site in Ahmedabad, working undercover as a factory worker. After that, he came up with the format of hosting vertical professional communities for networking and upskilling, as well as finding jobs.

“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,” the Sequoia duo wrote in their blog post.

Having clarity in product, business, and recruitment

Since day one, Parikh 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” and he stuck to it, Sethi and Goyal wrote.

In a few months, the firm’s product team created over 30 versions of the mobile app. Now, a 30-member team interacts with a thousand users daily to understand their delights and pain points, “all of which is rapidly channelled back into the app via weekly feature releases,” the investors said.

The business team also “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.” The app, available in 11 languages, exists in 28 Indian cities—nearly half of this expansion happened in the last three months.

Even the company’s hiring has been structured: those with domain expertise first, followed by business strategy and operations leaders with cross-industry experience, and then specialists for scaling up.

Creating a compelling startup narrative

A compelling narrative goes a long way—especially before a startup makes enough money for the financials to speak for themselves.

“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,'” the Sequoia investors wrote. “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.”

All that’s left is for Apna to make some real money.