Welcome to All-In Recruitment. A thought provoking, insightful series of podcasts. This series discusses ways to develop the right people strategy in startups from the get-go, and building on that to create a strong company culture. We are joined by Suraj Laungani, AVP of Human Capital, Sequoia Southeast Asia. Listen/watch to hear wonderful insights and learn more about the recruitment industry.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Lydia: Hi, Suraj. Thanks so much for taking time off your schedule to be here today midweek.
You're with us from Singapore. So a warm welcome to you, Suraj. We are excited to have you here.
Suraj: Thank you, Lydia. It's a pleasure to be here.
So let's start a little bit with your background. I think you've had an impressive career and various roles, and you are today, the AVP of Human Capital at Sequoia India, where you help early stage startups build out their teams across Southeast Asia. In all, you've spent seven years in the recruitment industry.
Half of that time you spent building up Southeast Asia's leading startup recruitment desks for VC backed businesses to hire critical roles across multiple functions and verticals.
So maybe you want to talk to us a little bit more and introduce your entire journey, and then give us some insights into some of the highlights of your role now.
Suraj: Sure, sure. Thanks for having me.
So I started my career 12 or 13 years ago, moved to Singapore and did an FMCG sales role transitioning into a product manager role.
Then about six years into that journey, I decided to transition to recruitment. And the first half of my recruitment career was focused on accounting and finance recruitment with FMCG and consumer goods and companies.
Then the rest was spent building what effectively became one of the leading startup recruitment desks in Southeast Asia.
Today, I, like you, mentioned work at Sequoia India.
My role here is to help our early stage portfolio companies with everything related to hiring.
“So attracting talent, retaining talent, thinking about work structure, understanding how to engage with them in the right ways to do just really anything when it comes to working with talent.”
Lydia: It's interesting that you've spent half of the time that you've been in your 12 - 13 years of your career, and you've spent that in recruitment.
So what drew you to recruitment Suraj? Why is this something you find important?
Suraj: I like meeting people, I like reading people, I like social dynamics, right. It's a personal hobby or passion.
What I found was what was lacking in my previous roles before recruitment was, it was not merit based, right. and I wanted, when I was thinking about a career change, I wanted something that had to be merit based. So where I knew my input had a direct correlation to the output, but also something to do with people and somebody suggested I should try recruitment. Once they put it in my head, I couldn't get it out. So I pursued it as a career and here we are.
Lydia: So do you find that to have materialized for you, the merit based expectation?
Suraj: 100%. You know, I was fortunate to work at a company called Hudson, when I first made the transition, and their model was very transparent, right, it was literally on the wall, and it was if you generate X amount of dollars in revenue, your bonus would be X dollars.
That, to me, was very different from the environment I was in. So it was very clear, transparent targets that you know, that were even for everybody.
I really liked that piece of the recruitment industry and yeah, it was very much the case.
Lydia: Today, you're handling recruitment, and you're strategizing recruitment for startups, and recruitment is definitely crucial for startups. So in your experience, so far, the past three and a half years, what might be some of the challenges amongst early stage companies that are recruiting in the midst of a health crisis? You know, what we've seen in the past couple of years at least.
Suraj: Yeah, you know, the pandemic really changed the perspective on where talent can come from, right. There used to be these blinders on and restrictions around.
You need to look at talent in a country, or it needs to be at least regional, or in the same time zone and, and kind of overnight, it became a global talent pool, and all restrictions associated with time zones, and even language barriers kind of lifted up pretty quickly.
I think this created a massive kind of polarization effect for countries that are host to large pools of technical and niche skilled talent. It created this sudden drive to attract and hire talent, where they are and where they're best skilled versus who can I hire around me, and I think that was a big change.
Lydia: It's multiple different perspectives that you have to look at now. It's not so straightforward at all right? So startups, especially in the high growth phase, I mean, they can face a really brutal talent crunch, right? It's similar to how you were describing. So hiring is also sometimes described as being more difficult than fundraising. But when a startup needs to go from, let's say, five to 50, for example, how would you say founders should be strategizing around this?
Suraj: Look, I think there's no silver bullet for us, right? Like, there is no one answer to solve all, I think it's one of three things.
“The first being talent will always attract talent.”
So if you can get the right person in your leadership, whether it's tech talent, or even sales, or marketing talent, right, if you get the right person to lead the team, and they're even mid level, if they have a following if they're evangelists, that will bring the next 20 People with them, right, because they're well known.These communities are small, they're global, but they're small; So getting that first person at the top is very important.
The other I think is, is, you know, think long term.
A lot of times when businesses start out and companies start out, they want to work with recruitment agencies, because that is the end goal for talent pools; they have access to talent that that a company wouldn't. But then they also want the best of the best in terms of pricing or costing, right, they want to negotiate and haggle on rates and things like that.
You know, my advice is always like, look, it's a service industry, you're going to get exactly what you pay for, you know, I came from that side of the table, and I can tell you that the quality of the service can be exponentially different. You know, if you're gonna pay market rates, you're gonna get good quality service, if you're gonna haggle and negotiate, you're gonna get subpar service. That's just how it works. Right? It's again a service based industry.
But I think the last thing is, you know there's a need, within tech companies now, to one up each other. There's bidding wars, and it just doesn't make any sense. Especially in early stage companies, there's always going to be a bigger fish, or a bigger player that can throw more money, more benefits. So there is no point getting into that bidding war, it means that a hiring process can take longer. But it also just means that if you go about it the right way, and you're not trying to outbid somebody, and the people that are joining you want to join you because of their mission aligned and vision aligned, then they're also going to be cultural champions in the long term and they're probably going to be long term hires.
So for me, it's a combination of the three things and getting those three right can help significantly.
Lydia: I think we've covered so much of how to get the right fit. There's also this phrase that I came across recently where founders need to be hiring obsessed during the stage, it's a high growth phase.
It's no surprise that the quality of these teams is the single best predictor of success, especially in the early phases. So what might be some of the factors that founders should consider when they ensure their first or their early hires are the right fit for a high growth business?
Suraj: Personally, I think one of the best indicators is actually, you know, when you're trying to figure out what's a good fit, and what do I look for, and you know, who's gonna be the right fit for this role. I think it's important for founders to step back and kind of take a bird's eye view of what's worked so far.
I think leaders can get caught up in what they've been told to believe is the ideal profile for a good candidate. The reality is that what's a good candidate for your business is not the same for another business.
So to me, it's, you know, looking at your own team and saying, okay, if I've hired 10 people, and these five have been super instrumental to my success already in the growth that we've had as a business, what kind of candidate were they? Where did they come from? What was the background that they came from right with a candidate that had never done the role before, and I gave them a chance to step up.
I experimented and took a punt, and or, you know, were they experts, right? They came in, and I just kind of gave them the keys to the kingdom and let them be.
“But knowing what's worked in the past is a great indicator of what's going to work in the future.”
This changes as companies grow Versailles, they go from early stage to mid stage and late stage, the need will change. But you can only know what's going to work if you know what has worked in the past.
Lydia: That brings me to my next point, actually, some instances of maybe red flags or even failures in startup hiring. Have there been any key lessons learned in the past couple of years, especially, you know, with all the changes that you mentioned about the pandemic, disrupting all processes? So have there been any lessons in the past couple of years about failures in startup?
Suraj: Look, I'm not a fan of the word failure, I think. I think everything is a lesson. I don't think it's fair to say anybody's failed at startup hiring, it's all a learning journey.
"Hiring is in itself an art form.”
Getting it right, getting a recruitment process right; it's a difficult thing. I mean, people have an entire profession built out of it. So it's not as simple as, you know, piecing it together and kind of running it. So to me, it's all a learning journey. There's gonna be missteps. The founders will iterate and they'll learn what didn't go, Well, what did go well, and they'll learn from it and then you know, it's practice. Its effort is building up that knowledge base of best practices themselves, and then using that to drive forward. So I don't think there's such a thing as failure, right when it comes to building or hiring a team.
There are learnings and there have been many across the past couple of years, and especially during the pandemic where people have experimented with different types of work arrangements, looking at how to hire even remotely, and meeting the expectations of talent that want to work remotely or want to work in a hybrid setting, etcetera..
So have there been any lessons that you have seen personally, in the past couple of years, when it comes to say startup hiring?
Suraj: Look, I think, you know, again, the world has changed and one of the things I believe is one of the biggest things has changed is that it is no longer an input driven world. It's a subtle change, but it's no longer an input driven world. What I mean by that is, there was this belief that, okay, if somebody clocks in and they put in 40 hours, and they deliver X result, then that x result is probably the best it's supposed to be because they put in the 40 hours and if it's not right, then they'll put in another 20 hours and fix it. I think that has changed. It's subtle, but I think it's changed.
Now it's a matter of, I asked person A to deliver XYZ, they delivered XYZ then I don't need to worry about whether they did it in eight hours, or 15 hours or 45 hours.
I asked him for one thing, they gave me the one thing, and it was great. So I don't need to worry about the rest. I think that's the lesson that people need to start adapting to and it's tough. I mean, you know I think most people have worked in corporate roles, and there's innate programming of what work looks like. Then suddenly, when it gets turned on its head, it's a little bit different to break that programming as well. But I think in the long run, that's where the world is headed.
Lydia: Then some key traits that leaders should have as well, when such a shift happens in workstyles. What we see and what we think work should be, right, so maybe some of the traits that a manager or maybe even a leader in a startup should have to allow this to happen.
Suraj: I think, first, founders need to be very clear that they need to be willing to hire experts to do specific things. If a founder can attract and hire experts to do their jobs, then they can sit back and actually run their business. As you strategize and have that bird's eye view, because their business is running smoothly.
But the other thing is, they need to be willing to also let go of control and a lot of times it's well, oh, but I'm CEO, or CFO, I don't want to give that up. Sometimes it's like, well, look, no matter what title you give away, nobody can take away a founder so you will always be top of the food chain, regardless of who has what role in your business.
“So it's important to be willing to understand where your gaps are as a leader, and bring the right people to fill those gaps for the longer term vision.”
Lydia: So we talked about some of the challenges and you've spoken at length about the strategies, even around hiring fast. So let's move to the subject of talent retention. What would meet these candidates who are just coming in, people who have bought into the mission and vision, what will make them stay where they are? How can they continue to contribute to these shared goals within a new company?
Suraj: I think two things. So first it is founders and HR teams and hiring managers; managers shouldn't make promises they don't intend on delivering or have not even flushed out.
I think when a candidate gets to the offer stage, the team on the startup side is often so excited and they are like we need to get this across the line that they start to paint these large sweeping images of responsibilities and ownership and impact that this candidate is going to have as a means to get them to join. That's really short sighted because then they'll join and then they don't have those responsibilities. They don't have that ownership, they don't have that autonomy or impact and perhaps they weren't even expecting it until it was promised at this offer stage. Then what happens is, they'll join, but then very quickly, they'll also turn out.
So it's more important to paint a positive and optimistic view of impact and change that can be achieved. But one that's truthful, and transparent, and not manufactured as a means to getting the person to join.
The other thing that I think is, like super important with just in general, with founders and companies, both around retention, but even defining culture, for example, and I always give this advice to founders is: ask your employees what they want. Especially at the early stage, you know, you have the opportunity to sit down with these employees that are part of your journey that have helped you build what you've built. You can ask them one on one, you know, at the six month mark,at the year end review; ask them, What do you want out of this job? What do you want in the next two years? Take it down and understand what their aspirations are, because then at least you know what it is going to take to keep the people that are critical to your business.
Retention shouldn't be an afterthought, where you're trying to retain somebody after they've already mentally checked out and walked out the door. Retention is keeping them engaged through their career within your organization, that means knowing what's gonna keep them engaged through their career, right or organization.
Lydia: So retention is, in fact, a priority for all recruiters themselves right at the beginning, the first touch point with the company and they should already be thinking about that.
So on that note, more companies are changing the way they operate post COVID and we are in the recovery phase right now. Everything is opening up. We've had remote work, fully remote work, but with hybrid work, and now hyperconnectivity data driven work structures. How should recruiters be thinking about hiring the right talent?
Suraj: I don't think that recruiters will take a job description, they'll try to understand what's required technically, you know, budget constraints, team sizes, team management experience, and they'll package all of that and try and find the right fit.
I think it lands on the founders. It's their responsibility to think about how they want to go about recruiting and hiring talent and what kind of talent they want.
Again, do they want candidates who they're going to take a punt on? That's the message that needs to be sent down right to the recruitment team to say, hey, look like, it's okay, if they've never managed a team before. If they're good, and you like them, let's chat, let's speak to them, let's give them a chance, let's see if they can cut it. If I believe that they are ambitious enough to learn how to manage a team, we'll put in the infrastructure to coach them to get there.
But that's a founder decision and it's driven from the top and I know founders have a lot of weight on their shoulders already. But like that's the job of the founder. They have to own almost all of these critical pieces and that includes figuring out what is the persona that works best in their organization.
Lydia: That also goes back to what you said earlier, which I'm reminded of the fact that it's a bird's eye view that you should have and looking at moving away from input driven work cultures where you're looking at more autonomy, maybe in terms of performance and ownership of the work that people take on as they come into these new companies.
So we are in 2022 and it's safe to say that any company today is or should be a tech company in one way or another. So what would you say might be the top three challenges facing tech recruitment today? What might be the ways to tackle them?
Suraj: So the first is that global talent, for sure you know. You're now fighting for the same talent pool with every organization anywhere in the world and that creates a massive disparity. You know, there are organizations who are always going to be able to pay more and offer more benefits, etc.
So again, my response to that one or my suggestion on how to tackle it is don't get into the bidding war. If one that never ends, it's never going to work out and if somebody is playing numbers over impact, then they're probably the wrong fit for your organization anyways and today, they have power and they have leverage but that plateaus out and it's gonna plateau and then they'll come to the realization that they're probably unhappy in the role they're in and yes, they get the paycheck that they want. But that's about it. So that's one of the challenges. I think.
The other challenge, or the next challenge would be the fast moving expectations of that landscape. So, you know, I think, before attraction and retention of talent was very different. I think now, you have to consider when you're offering candidates and trying to convince them to join you, you have to think about work from home benefits, insurance for the family, and you will have mental health benefits like three years ago, nobody was talking about these stakes, it wasn't part of the conversation.
Today, in a post COVID world insurance is probably the top two priorities for anybody taking a new role, especially to them for a family, right, and their family is not protected when you have a pandemic that knocks people off their feet and some bedridden for seven to 10 days at a time. It doesn't matter how much money you make for your families and taking care of them.
So understanding the fast movement expectations on the landscape and being able to build that into what you're offering out because you have these founders with the unique ability to build a lot of that stuff into what they're offering out and do it rapidly verse larger organizations who need to think about the global impact of rolling out these policies and the global cost of rolling over these policies.
But if you decide to add insurance for 10 of your employees, it might cost another $20- $30,000. But guess what, everybody's happier, they're less likely to leave. When you're attracting people, they're probably also more inclined to join and so to me, that's like managing and understanding the expectations and adapting to it.
But the third, I think, is speed because it's a global landscape, because everything is virtual, everything is connected. The days of let's fly you in for an interview, let's, you know, take our time, let's have you meet 10 people, it's not out there.It's just not going to happen.
But conversely, I think there's also this other end of the spectrum where founders are like, well, now there's infinite profiles out there. So even though I find somebody good, how do I know there isn't somebody better. Oh, I found a nine out of 10, but surely there's a 10 out of 10 out there. There might be and you might spend two more weeks looking for that potential 10 out of 10. But nine out of 10 are on a job and moved on already.
So it's about acting right, hiring and upskilling them in wherever they're lacking. But it shouldn't be a gut instinct, that look, I feel good about them, stop chasing perfection and pull the trigger.
To me, those are three that I would say are probably the biggest challenges.
Lydia: So we spoke about the challenges, but there are solutions to these problems.What impact do you think technology or recruitment technology, etc, especially in terms of speed; technology, like Manatal's can have on recruitment?
Suraj: It's all data.
Everything is data, it's who can store the most data in the most organized manner in the most accessible manner in the most collaborative manner in a location that's cheap, easy to use and pleasant on the eyes and pleasant on the experience.
So I think, a company like Manatal, does that. It plays a huge part in the candidate experience, because it's the slightest difference between me and let's say, I'm working with a teammate, and this the slightest difference between me talking to a candidate and saying, thanks for taking the time to speak with us again, I know you spoke with us six months ago, verse, Oh, it's really nice to meet you and then being surprised when they're like, Hey, I spoke to your colleague three weeks ago. It's that subtle difference and the candidate experience starts at that very part of the journey.
So being able to know what's happening at a global level, all the time is super important.
I think there have always been ATS's. I've used many of them throughout my recruitment career.
I think the biggest pain points are: one, you know, there's just like, their pricing makes zero sense and for an early stage company that's raised, you know, anywhere between $300,000 and $4 million, paying these kinds of fees is really hard to justify because most of the time te person buying the product is not even an HR professional. They're a founder trying to figure out where to store this information. So the pricing never really made sense.
But the second is, and I've experienced this personally, is that the rigidity and the lack of flexibility in these organizations is unreal. I mean, you can ask for a change and it's supposed to be a bespoke solution for you. You can ask for a change and there's a two year development roadmap and most recruiters churn out of firms in 18 months, so whereas with an organization like Manatal, you can go to them and say, hey, look, this is great, but I think we need to tweak this or you should add this.
“There's rapid innovation and evolution happening all the time. So to me that’s disruption. You take something that's there, and it's working, but it's just not working as fast, it's not as smooth, it's not as cheap and it's just rigid and you disrupt it, and you do something better, faster, cheaper and that's what Manatal does.”
Lydia: That goes back to the speed element that you spoke about in terms of challenges for recruitment today.
Let's move a little bit into the recruitment process now and talk about the role of the hiring manager.
In your experience, what might be the role of the hiring manager in making sure they get the right candidate through the door, and to stay with the organization's. Any best practices you'd like to share?
Suraj: I think it comes back to some of the things that we said earlier which is:
Don't offer things that you're not planning to deliver because it'll fall on you and unfortunately, the founder can be the one doing the offering and then the hiring manager is left collecting the pieces of, well, these are the candidates expectations of what the role is going to be. But that's not what the role is going to be.
"So I think founders and hiring managers have to work very closely together to make sure that they're both clear on what the role is going to be and what the expectations are going to be. But also they need to be aligned, they need to be cultural champions."
You can't have a lopsided equation for either one of them.
So if you have a great founder, who's this talent magnet, and can attract talent, and people like him, and he inspires people, but then you have a hiring manager who's negative and is demeaning and puts people down, they're still part of the interview process. So the founder can be amazing and they can inspire a candidate, and then they get us round two, and they're like, this is great. But if I have to work for this guy, I'm not interested.
So they're not aligned from a culture of vision, mission, vision, energy, outlook on roles and responsibilities. If there's no alignment there, or at least synergy in terms of wavelength, then it's just not going to work.
Lydia: It's interesting because all of these things culminate in the employer brand itself, whether it is the first touch or whether it's an exit experience, but it's still within the employer branding experience.
So what might be the role of employer branding for those in early stage companies in early stage growth?
Suraj: It’s actually advice that I give to all of our founders. That’s the one thing that you can control and it's completely free.
It's one of the best tools in your toolbox when it comes to trying to attract talent. If you build a good culture with a marketing that churns out beautiful videos and all this stuff of what our culture is like then you build the right culture. If you build the right culture and the actual employees like working at your company, then that’s all it takes to amplify the content that’s been put out by your marketing team.
It doubles down for every video that your marketing team puts out. This is, hey, it's great to work here. The employees will tell their friends on their Facebook, actually, this is real, like this is actually what it's like working here.
But it also has a congress effect, which is if it's not real, they'll very quickly be like this is not real, like this is not what it's like working here.
"So Employer Branding comes down in matters, but it's a byproduct of getting the culture right.If you get your culture right, then the employer branding is a massive tool."
But I think with employer branding, and again, unfortunately, a lot of it falls down to the founder. A founder's authenticity is one of the biggest tools that's out there. It's not about talking about their business or what they're building. Oftentimes, you just see founders that are just humble, or opinionated, or they just have a viewpoint that other people have and it's not offensive, and it's not demeaning. It's just a real human opinion and people connect to that, and that's polarizing as well. That's Employer Branding.
It’s, I believe in what this guy is saying, I like the way he thinks, which means that it trickles down into the culture of the company, which means that I would love to work there as well.
Lydia: You have had vast experience in the recruitment space. I mean, seven years, and then you spent half of that looking into startups and how they can scale their hiring and make the right kind of hire. So what advice would you give Suraj to someone starting out in recruitment today?
Suraj: So my advice to anybody starting out in the industry would be just don't ever forget what it was like looking for a job. It is not a pleasant experience. It's a lot of effort. It's very minimal outcomes for high volume of work and it's just an exercise and consistent disappointment most of the time.
When a candidate comes to you, you don't have to give them that same experience. You have the unique opportunity to give them a little bit of hope, and tell them to keep on and it's okay, keep at it, you'll find a role.You know, letting them know that they didn't waste their time and their efforts. It's just a little bit of hope. It can be something simple. The way I thought about it was always, if a candidate is going to take their time to come out and meet me, they're going to carve out time away from their family, and they're going to carve out time away from their job, and they're going to skip their lunch to do this interview with me. At the very least, they should have felt like they gained something out of it. They should not have walked out of that feeling demeaned or disheartened or feeling like they wasted their time. There's no benefit to that.
But on the other hand, if you treat them well, if you remember that they're just people and they're asking you for help, and you're in a position to help them, even if it's the smallest ways to do it. Not every interaction has to be self-serving.
Yes, it's a commission based industry and it's a sales organization and there's always this chasing of numbers and closing deals. But you know, there's nothing wrong with helping people along the way.
Those are the relationships that people that you help are going to be the ones that eventually come back and remember you for. They end up being the clients that have only loyalty to you and people who think long term and think about it holistically in that way will probably benefit them the most.
Lydia: It’s interesting that you say it's an exercise and a consistent disappointment and that's usually how it is in the beginning when you start something. How was your experience? So I'm curious to find out when you started, what was it like?
Suraj: That's the thing. If anybody looked at my LinkedIn profile prior to joining Hudson, they would see a company that fortunately or unfortunately that nobodies actually heard of.
It's a large company and I learned a lot there. It was one of the best learning experiences of my career.
But at the same time, if anybody looked at it they'd be like I don't understand what this is. It was at that time that somebody said you should try recruitment.
First I applied for your standard software roles and sales roles and nothing panned out. Somebody said you should try recruitment and I interviewed with four different agencies. One time we did 7 rounds, another we did 5 rounds. I interviewed with another and did 2 rounds. Then I interviewed with Hudson and they gave me a chance. That itself builds loyalty. Somebody was willing to let me in the door and make a case for why I'm going to succeed or why I'd like to succeed and why I'd be good at this role.
"They took a punt on me and that is huge for culture building because that would have made me a loyalist for many many years."
I left because I wanted career growth but for the 3 and a half years I was there, I bled Hudson.
That's the thing. It's remembering that hey while everybody said no and these guys could have easily said no too, they said yes. That proves that it was worth it.
Lydia: Today, when I'm asking you the questions about your beginnings, you're still talking about Hudson which means that such a chance taken on you like that was a really powerful experience.
Suraj: 100%. It changed the trajectory of my career. It changed the trajectory of my life. It was simple, one person saying let's take a chance, especially when 3 other people were saying no. 3 other organizations said no.
Lydia: It's a really powerful insight because many people have stories like this where they consistently shut off and they don't see the opportunity they think they should have. But instead are given totally different opportunities and that's where they're given the greatest growth.
That's very nice to hear. Thanks for sharing Suraj and on that note, thank you very much for your time today.
It's been a great pleasure hearing your insights into start-ups and how they should hire the right talent. How founders should be thinking and I'm sure the audience also wants to know more about you and Sequoia India.
So where can they find you? On LinkedIn, anywhere else? Any other channels?
Suraj: I’m primarily on LinkedIn. I’m quite active there. I make it a professional courtesy to respond to every message I get and to look at every profile, every connection I get added to. So feel free.
I’m not an email guy; that is the opposite of ways to reach me. I’m on LinkedIn and not really active on other platforms.
Lydia: Thank you so much Suraj. We have been talking to Suraj Laungani who is AVP, Human Capital, Sequoia Southeast Asia. Do look out for future podcasts from All-In Recruitment and stay tuned for next episodes.
Suraj: Thanks for having me Lydia.
Lydia: Thank you Suraj.