In April 2008, Anand Subramanium graduated in Mathematics from lesser-known Chikkanna Government Arts College in the suburbs of Coimbatore. Three months after his graduation he still hadn’t found a job that suited his educational background. He went back to his hometown, a small village called Sulur near Coimbatore, to work in the family’s weaving business. Clearly, that was not what he was meant to do as one year after graduating he got a call from Desicrew’s HR manager in Chennai. He was soon a part of their 20-person BPO center in Maanikapuram, close to Sulur. This was a dream-come-true for Subramanium who now works at Desicrew as a ‘junior crewmate’. His client is one of the world’s largest search engine companies, and he generates content for some of their online portals. Like Subramanium, there are many educated young Indians from tier-2 cities who have been successful in entering India’s flagship IT services industry. And they have Desicrew to thank.
Desicrew is one of India’s very first rural Business Process Outsourcing facilities (BPOs) that commenced operations in the year 2007 in Chennai. They currently manage five technology-enabled service centers in Kollumangudi, Thirukuvalai (Thiruvaror), Maanikapuram, Aapakoodal (Erode) and Salem to service urban clients from the Internet, insurance and financial sectors. When jobs could travel all the way from the U.S. to Bangalore, Desicrew took it a step beyond – from urban to rural India. G. Ashwanth, a project manager at Desicrew says, “We aimed to generate, distribute and retain wealth within the rural community.”
How did it happen?
For Saloni Malhotra, the CEO and co-founder of Desicrew, the need to do something at the grassroot level drove her to set up Desicrew. When she was 24, a speech by Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala, one of the directors of IIT Madras’ rural technology and business incubator (an organisation that supports enterprises that foster growth in rural India), on generating employment in tier-2 and tier-3 cities through the use of technology, inspired her. She met Jhunjhunwala and worked with him on the business model and operational details for a rural BPO. Apart from generating employment in rural India, this BPO also solved several problems that plagued the BPO industry such as high attrition rates, sky rocketing real estate prices and other overhead costs. Says Prof. Jhunjhunwala, “We wanted small decentralised BPOs in the rural areas where a maximum of 15 to 20 local residents are employed.”
This is also when India’s BPO industry put the country on the world map. Clocking 30 per cent year-on-year growth, employing over two million people directly and serving over 80 industries, the BPO sector had become the face of vibrant India. And what better way to take this forward than through rural involvement.
Business Model Innovation
Desicrew brought employment to the doorsteps of rural India. It follows a distributed business model whereby their Chennai office acts as the interface between their client and the centers in non-urban areas. They train their staff on a continuous basis; an activity that starts immediately after an employee comes on board. It extends itself to on-the-job training when there is a need for specialised skills depending on the project. Apart from project-specific training, continuous learning is provided in language skills, Internet and e-mail usage, and other soft skills. The whole process of getting an employee “ready” takes anywhere between one and three months. The financial downturn has put a lot of pressure on corporate houses to cut costs through unconventional solutions. Experts believe that Desicrew’s model will ensure the cost of running a 20-seat BPO facility in non-urban areas will be 40-50 per cent lower than the cost in urban areas. Interestingly, 70 per cent of its employees are women. “We noticed that women delivered better at their jobs and were less likely to shift jobs in search of more lucrative career options outside their home towns, thus contributing to lower attrition levels. Retaining trained employees contributes to cutting down repetitive training costs, the benefits of which are passed on to our clients,” adds Ashwanth.
Impediments they had to overcome
The biggest challenge for Desicrew has been in convincing their clients about the quality of their workforce, and ensuring that clients trust them with critical data. And it is tackling these challenges through continuous training, and with projects that are not time-critical. As in any other startup, the key has been in hiring the right talent. They hire degree holders from tier-3 colleges across Tamil Nadu. Training is taken very seriously, and the founders are extremely hands-on in the coaching process.
Desicrew started with providing digitisation services such as data entry and content generation and added on beta testing for web products, secondary research, and project management. It has worked with organizations across various verticals including insurance, market research, Internet, eGovernance, and the social sector. And now it’s time for Desicrew to expand beyond basic jobs like data entry, and move on to higher-end services like secondary research. “We’re working on offering some knowledge-based services to our clients. Only 30 per cent of the work we do is currently is related to data-entry,” says Saloni. This will help foster growth in the rural areas, and more importantly, serve as a platform to revolutionise the concept of a rural BPO.
According to Saurabh Srivastava, co-founder and former chairman of NASSCOM (National association of software and services companies), “India’s BPO industry is going to touch around $250 billion by 2020. If the rural areas can get even 1 per cent of this pie, it’ll revolutionise the rural economy’’. Over the last 2 years, Desicrew has played a critical role in this space. They have recruited over 100 people across their 5 centers, and early indicators show that their clients are extremely satisfied. The benefits of a rural BPO have especially been noteworthy in the insurance sector. It’s a margin driven sector, and cutting costs has been crucial. The demand for data entry and verification fluctuates a lot; so managing the bench in a rural BPO is a lot more cost-effective.
Rural growth is crucial for India’s growth. As employment and spending power in tier-2 cities increase, domestic demand will rise. Tarun Khanna, Professor of Finance and Economics at Harvard Business School says, “India should seek to empower its villagers and nurture entrepreneurial activity, while also taking advantage of its strengths in the private sector. Corporations need a seat at the table of village reform because the task of reform is so enormous”.
Clearly, Desicrew is a part of a larger picture of the country. The success of Desicrew’s business model might actually pave the way for several private sector enterprises, both in the IT services space and other sectors, to look at talent available in non-urban areas more seriously. In spite of the fact that the work outsourced to Desicrew is fairly low-end, it’s making a huge difference to the lives of the people who work there. But this might change too with the company now looking at expanding its talent base and list of services by offering end-to-end solutions for its clients. They want to start working on larger projects, where they can manage the complete data flow, while ensuring no single person has access to all the data. “We are also looking at expanding into other regions within the country, now that our business model is well ironed out,” adds Ashwanth.
Thanks to Desicrew, Anand Subramanium now knows about the latest gadgets and technology from around the world. So the next time you are in rustic surroundings don’t be surprised if someone from the countryside talks to you about a Google wave or an Amazon Kindle.