Darwinbox has blazed a spectacular trail in the last 6 years, starting with a simple mission to help organizations unlock the true potential of their workforce and ambition for global leadership, hitting multiple monumental milestones since its founding in 2015. Their Series D round, with a valuation of $1B+ marks the dawn of a bright new phase of growth for Darwinbox and, more fundamentally, HR tech as an ecosystem. And what a lot of observers have been asking is: what was their big secret?
Following Darwinbox's announcement, People Matters hosted a special online conversation with Darwinbox co-founder and product head, Chaitanya Peddi, on the company's big achievement and its next steps. Equity investor Jessica Neal, the former CHRO of Netflix, also joined the discussion to give a double-barrelled perspective both as an investor and a HR professional using products like Darwinbox's.
A groundbreaking notion from the beginning
The concepts of employee empowerment and customised applications are buzzwords today, but back in 2015, when Darwinbox first got started, it came across as so novel, agile, and sophisticated that Jessica, encountering the platform as a HR leader, describes her reaction as:
“You can do that? Wow!”
“What I loved about Darwinbox is that it really pushed things forward for both employers and employees – putting technology in the hands of the people who are working for you, and empowering them,” she says.
And as a HR leader, she believes, that concept of putting the employee at the centre really came to full fruition during the pandemic: when HR professionals finally had the opportunity to try out the ideas that had been bubbling in their heads for a while. HR technology, Jessica pointed out, tends to be a little backward; but platforms and tools that can meet the employee where their expectations are today, or even tomorrow, will always win out over those that attempt to make the employee meet them ten years ago.
The encouraging thing, she observes, is that companies today are investing much more heavily in technology that enables not just HR leaders but the entire organisation to operate more effectively. Which is where platforms like Darwinbox have really started to draw user, and thereby investor attention.
“Hopefully we're headed to a place where we're really going to enable not only HR leaders and organisations to operate better, but our people to operate better too,” she says.
From Asia to the world
Darwinbox has always taken an Asia-first approach because that's where its stakeholders – including the employees who use it – are located, and this was both a major challenge and a major opportunity for it in the early years, according to Chaitanya.
“This market is very different from how a Western market works,” he explains. “The companies are different, the workforce is different. There are cultural nuances, socioeconomic nuances...HR, unlike a lot of other functions, is very culture driven.” To illustrate, he cited a simple example: how the hierarchical nature of Asian societies can be reflected in company policies such that every single action requires multiple levels of approvals.
Because of that, investors were reluctant to become involved with Darwinbox at first. But focusing on the specific needs of the Asian market also became the company's greatest differentiating factor. For example, the ability to cater to the large conglomerates common in Asia's business landscape: Darwinbox had to evolve to be able to handle multiple widely different sectors within a single client, each sector with enormous internal diversity in all senses of the word. At the same time, nearly half of all end users access platforms via their mobile phone, meaning that as many use cases as possible, even the more obscure ones, have to be mobile-friendly.
“That was the hypothesis we started with,” Chaitanya says. “There is a clear set of unique requirements specific to this region and the existing players, especially our target – mid to large companies."
"And who is catering to that segment? Primarily legacy players who are aligned to Western philosophies and not solving for Asian needs. This is the opportunity we have seen.”
What's the next big step?
Chaitanya is firm that the $1 billion valuation is just another step in Darwinbox's journey. “It's not a destination, but a milestone in a very long journey,” he says. “For a private company like us, valuation indicates the confidence of the investors and the ecosystems in what more we can achieve. For me, that confidence means a huge responsibility.”
And the objective of that journey? Chaitanya and his fellow co-founders are out for market leadership, starting with the regions where they are already well established.
“From the beginning our ambition has been global,” he says frankly. “We want to become the number one player in the world eventually. But of course, the immediate priorities are the markets that we're operating in, primarily India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. We want to become a number one player in these markets.”
Why this concentrated focus on reaching the top? Very simply, he says, solving one market is the key to solving them all.
“If you solve for the complexity and diversity of these markets, in turn you're actually building a superset product that can work anywhere in the world,” he points out. “So that's why the highest priority is solving these markets, making our existing clients and future clients happy.
He also lets slip a hint at this year's plans: Darwinbox may be heading to the US towards the end of the year.
Throughout these ambitions, though, Chaitanya is firm about one thing: the company must remain able to hit its more fundamental metrics, because that is the real path to the top. That includes NPS, client satisfaction, quality of the products, the speed of bringing the products to market, “and most importantly, how happy people are working for you.”
For a company that's made unicorn status based on a mission to improve people's workplace satisfaction, it's a very appropriate metric to pursue.