First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sanjay Varma: I’m well and as charged up as ever about Kalido’s opportunity to make positive, global change! My family is split across different countries right now – two of my children are in Hong Kong, but two are in Canada, so I’m not sure when I’ll get to see them as quarantine and visa challenges are making it difficult. My parents were in India at the start of the year, and I helped them navigate the complications of moving to Hong Kong – it’s great to have them with us. The key challenge has really been helping elderly parents while taking care of my kids. But we’re not unique; every family has experienced different challenges and difficulties during the pandemic.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Kalido.
Sanjay Varma: I began my career as a consultant at McKinsey. I’ve been a serial entrepreneur ever since and have been founding and building companies most of my life. I was the number three employee in Jack Ma’s core team at Alibaba.
My mind is wired to look for solutions for the problems I see around me. I’m more attracted to the bigger problems – particularly those who have a social impact. The problem that was the genesis of Kalido was about the lack of opportunity and hope for so many people, and a real lack of joy within the enterprise and outside as well. I was held up at gunpoint in Sao Paulo by a biker who was clearly more afraid than I was. I felt bad about the circumstances that must have led him to this point and wondered how I could change his trajectory: what would he do if he had easier access to an opportunity to make an honest living? This, coupled with the fact there are billions of smartphones, and my own personal journey of finding business opportunities, got me thinking of the possibility of matching people based on complementary skills and interests. With this idea, I teamed up with my college flatmate and his colleague, both long-timers at McKinsey & Company. We had hours of exciting discussions and, with complementary skill sets and the same values and excitement to solve a global problem, we decided to start Kalido.
The idea of democratizing opportunity globally was really appealing – and it is needed now more than ever. Given the speed at which economies are changing, organizations and industries need to be able to tackle opportunities as fast as possible. The need for this increases every day. We saw the opportunity to found Kalido – a platform that uses patented AI to match people with economic opportunities within organizations, communities, educational institutions, and on a peer to peer level – as a global opportunity to create a billion smiles. And that idea was just too good to let go!
How does Kalido innovate?
Sanjay Varma: At Kalido, innovation stems from a combination of our values and the market needs.
For us, it’s all about keeping our eyes and ears open to the problems of the people around us. We take the time to understand the challenges enterprises are facing, what they need, and why. We also look at the pressing issues in society and how democratizing opportunity could help solve them. Then we assess where Kalido can have maximum impact and prioritize accordingly. In some instances, we know we can have a maximum impact right now, but in other cases, it may not be for another two years or five years. We’re realistic about our resources, and what we can do, and when. The key is being able to pivot and be agile with our priorities.
Our approach to innovation is rooted in our values of inclusion, impact, transparency, generosity, and teamwork. These values are essential to the co-founders and team at Kalido and make sure that our platform meets our users’ needs and that their data is not being used for anything other than finding them opportunities.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Sanjay Varma: Not being able to meet your teammates and business partners in person is far from ideal. But we’re lucky that this situation has happened now when we have cheap, accessible tech that supports virtual engagement, rather than 15 years ago.
Kalido has been built to empower enterprises and communities by giving faster access to information and improving teamwork. It’s an ideal product for the current conditions as it enables organizations to boost innovation and productivity by engaging people in relevant discussions and projects, using Kalido’s intelligent auto-suggestions. You can securely chat, group chat, contribute to discussions, and file share with anyone in your organization or networks.
Kalido is needed now more than ever. Covid-19 has really accelerated the digitization of businesses. As so many people are working remotely, it’s become very important to have really effective onboarding, engagement, and an understanding of who you’re working with. Most platforms haven’t been designed to do that – but Kalido has. Obviously, we didn’t foresee the pandemic, but we were already creating a platform that we knew would increase engagement across professional and social landscapes.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Sanjay Varma: The main change for us was that our team all switched to remote working – that wasn’t a choice, of course, but something that just had to happen. We set Kalido up to operate remotely, and our team already worked in different countries and timezones, so we were able to utilize this agility across the whole company.
We had to find ways to accelerate our product development because the pandemic has increased the need for Kalido. This acceleration is difficult to execute – because of the huge increase in work – but it’s not a difficult choice because the demand for what we’re building has grown so much.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Sanjay Varma: I’m quite practical. While I love to achieve perfection, expected perfection can lead to a lot of stress. Instead, knowing that you’re going in the right direction, most of the time, is a better approach. So long as you’re alive to changing circumstances, it’s possible to navigate through difficult times. There are so many unknowns that all you can do is prepare as much as possible and be ready to be agile.
Stress and anxiety are still there, of course. I manage them by practicing meditation every day and exercising. I find tennis, forest-bathing, hiking, and open-water swimming great for releasing stress.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Sanjay Varma: We’ve seen others start out with similar visions, but they all seem to have either given up or settled for much smaller, lower-value outcomes. Often, we see them focusing narrowly on specific sectors or serving individual businesses as if they were isolated islands rather than nodes in a global network. No-one else we know of is attempting to take on the whole grand challenge of matching people to opportunity in all contexts, with the goal of empowering them to engage organizations, and their individual careers, at the same time.
At Kalido, we’ve taken some of the useful features of LinkedIn, combined them with some of the useful features from Slack, and then turbo-charged the result with richer profiles, a more fine-grained approach to protecting user privacy, and machine learning models that surpass natural language processors like IBM Watson for our particular use case: to match people to opportunities in real-time, within and across entire organizational ecosystems.
You can create Quests on Kalido to find whatever you need for your enterprise or community – whether that’s looking for a mentor, a product or service, a new hire, or staffing a project. We came up with the idea of Quests because we realized that organizations have many different kinds of searches they want to do using the information on Kalido. All of these searches have enormous value and have different requirements, so Kalido Quests are tailored to search journeys that find the user what they’re looking for, whether they’re an enterprise, school, or non-profit. No one that we know of has built something like this in such a comprehensive way.
Our business model also stands out in this space. We don’t sell customer data, we don’t charge commissions on user transactions, and we don’t have ads on our platform. Instead, we enable organizations to manage secure, private matching communities, which can then extend bridges to other communities to create even more value for everyone. And for individuals, joining a network on Kalido is free.
Do you have any advice for other startups?
Sanjay Varma: My advice to other startups in the current climate is to be very quick to optimize your cash burden, ready for the times ahead. Be ready to pivot as much as possible to find the right market fit for your product. There’s no reason that you can’t pivot back, later on, what’s important right now is staying in the game. If you’re rigid about your market or the opportunity you’re going after, it’s going to be harder to survive.
So, if you’re a founder, step back from what you’ve built and taken a fresh look. Covid has given us challenges, but every challenge brings opportunities – work out where these are in your product and business. And really embrace your team as much as possible – they may well have ideas that haven’t occurred to you, so bring them into your problem-solving discussions. They’re as keen as you are to make sure your business grows.