Sean Blagsvedt
Sean Blagsvedt is the Founder and former CEO of, India's largest digital job marketplace for the aspiring labor, with over 8.5 million users and acquired by Quikr in June 2017. Currently, Sean is a Principal at and Dara.Network, Chairman at and advises Unifize, Harambee and Quikr. Sean moved to Bangalore in 2004 as the 3rd founding member of Microsoft Research India and earlier was a Program Manager in the UX teams of Office and Windows. He also was a White House intern with President Clinton's Internet Policy Czar, Ira Magaziner.

Sean is a TED Fellow, GES Entrepreneur, Unreasonable Goals Entrepreneur and recipient of the Namma Bengaluru award for Best Foreign Resident. He holds 29 patents, degrees in Computer Science and Public Policy from Brown University and writes for the WorldBank and others at  Sean lives in Bangalore, India and is married to Archana Prasad, founder of and the Bengaluru Fantastic tech art festival. They share a wonderful son, Vyom, a love of music and techart and a street dog named Berlin.

Customer-centricity is achieved by making the intended impact through aligned donor-led and business goals

Interview with Sean Blagsvedt
31. Aug 2018

Sean Blagsvedt is the founder and former CEO of Babajob, a platform which connects informal sector workers and employers in India in an innovative way. In 2017, Quikr acquired Babajob, thus becoming the largest job platform that supports low-income workers, helping over 20 million Indians get better jobs. For his dedication for the positive development of the Indian society, Sean received the Namma Bengaluru Award for Best Foreign Resident in 2015. We also writes at  

What brought you to start your own company that tackles the problem of insufficient job placement in India? 

In 2004, I moved to Bangalore to help start the Microsoft research lab there. About half of the work we did in the lab was focused on how to build technology that is relevant for the base of the pyramid (BoP). Most technology companies were basically ignoring all of these five billion people living at the BoP. As part of that work, I came across a really interesting paper by Anirudh Krishna about why people flow in and out of poverty. He studied 3,000 families in Rajasthan and found that generally people descend into poverty because of illness-related debt. If you get sick and cannot work, your family income decreases and they often become poor. Becoming healthy again is not a sufficient reason alone for class elevation. Krishna discovered that the main reason why people got out of poverty was income diversification. They got different jobs. With each job change the job seeker generally gets paid better, has a higher status job or reduces their commute time, and with four to ten times job changes in a decade, these effects have people earning really much more money.  

I thought that was really interesting and I figured that we could catalyse the escape from poverty by leveraging the mobile. Even back in 2007, India had 25 per cent household mobile penetration. We wanted to connect people to information that they hopefully would use to take advantage of getting a better-paid job. When we started in 2007, questions came up like the way poor people do not use phones, especially in emerging markets. How do you create an interface that would allow them to go ahead and use this? We did a lot of innovation. We worked on IVR services [n.b. Interactive Voice Response], call-centre based services, SMS-based services and thus tried to create digital interfaces that would work for people who were not literate, didn’t have a smartphone, or didn’t have any balance in their account to make outgoing calls, but could receive incoming calls. For example, if you gave us a call and then immediately hung up, it wouldn’t use any of your balance and our automated system would call you back and then ask you to press one for English, two for Hindi, and then press one if you’re in Bangalore, two if you’re in Delhi, or three if you’re in Mumbai. From there, they could press one if you’re interested in driver jobs or two if you’re interested in cook jobs, for example. Then we would send them text messages of jobs and if they liked a given job, they could call another of our numbers to apply for it.  

Different call interfaces for users according to their level of literacy and income. Photo credit: Babajob
Different call interfaces for users according to their level of literacy and income. Photo credit: Babajob 


Job seeker chatbot by Babajob. Photo credit: Babajob
Job seeker chatbot by Babajob. Photo credit: Babajob 


What does customer value mean to you? 

One of the things we did well was to remain focused and to have one clear metric, which was “Does a hire happen?” If a hire happens that means both sides consensually chose to do something different; most of the time meant that the job seeker was earning more money. Thus, I think costumer-centricity is not about getting people on the platform or making them use it. In the end, it is about getting them to be hired. We discovered through our surveys that when they are hired, they on average earn 20 per cent more money and reduce their commute times by 14 minutes per day. We were pretty clear in terms of the goal. We wanted more hires and more transactions to occur on our platform and we wanted to facilitate that. We were not doing training, we were not telling people about all of the different things they could do in their lives. We were just trying to connect them to an available job that they could interview for today or tomorrow and that matched their skills and thus was worth the travel costs to interview.  

Secondly, we focused on where we could add value as a digital player and where we very clearly did not want to add value. There were other players that did training; there were other players that did upscaling. That was not our job. Finally, we paid a lot of attention to certain obstacles: If people do not have balance on their phone, if they cannot read in English, how are they going to interact with us? That comes down to usability testing: knowing what their reality is and what their lives, devices, and skills are. One way that we institutionalised customer focus was that we had clear user interaction goals and funnels. If somebody calls our number, we want him or her to tell us five data pieces about themselves. We want them to get jobs that are relevant, and we want them to apply. We want them to show up at the interview and, in short, we want them to get hired. 

We tracked each one of those conversion metrics to say what our percentage of users to get to each step was and if there are differences between gender, usage devices, professional groups and so on. This really allowed us to narrow in, in terms of the funnel of how far people get down this path on the job seeker side of what we want them to accomplish. We just paid a lot of attention to that from an analytics perspective in terms of which groups are successfully using us and which are not. This is where everybody seems to be failing. Especially if you get to levels of scale and you begin to spend a lot of money on marketing, then you take the next step. To say: people that we attract via Facebook seem to be successful on this path, but not over here, or people that installed our app after reading about it in the newspaper, have this rate of success; this allowed us to focus our own expansion on outreach on those marketing channels.  

Babajob secured quite a bit of donor funding. How do you bridge the gap between the funders´ interests or metrics and your own?  

For us this has two sides: Firstly, we didn’t make money from the job seekers; we made money from the employers. Our thesis was that if an employer makes a hire, he or she will end up coming back and continuing to pay for our tool. Our business model was about ultimately making placements and enabling companies to make placements with the people from our platform that they interviewed. USAID was the only donor we had, and all the other money was private capital through equity investments. Our private investors were interested in things like revenue profitability, but it was not necessarily that they cared less about the other metrics. In USAID´s case, they cared about scalable digital interventions that could facilitate hires of people that improved their livelihoods. We proved that we achieved this with our quarter activity metrics plus long-term studies we did with USAID. That benefit of people getting hired was also connected to what our core goals were on the business side: We wanted to ensure that employers hire on our site because that’s how we made money. 

That connection of the private business goals that we had to the donor-led goals was very important and one of the reasons we could succeed. It was the same goal. In the end of the day, we wanted hires to happen. That’s what we based our business on, and that’s the social goal that the donor also had.  

What would be your three key suggestions for somebody to develop more empathetic customer value propositions? 

First, hang out with your users. If you are not doing that for four hours a week, you are not doing your job. Often times, in management, especially at the founder level, we get further and further away from our customers and we are focused on donors, our board, mentoring our team and so on. But you have to find the time and develop a culture of directly talking to your customers. 

The second suggestion is that you have to constantly be using, testing and polishing your own product. You must remain focused on what it is that your customer sees, in terms of what you put forward and how they value it (or don’t). 

Thirdly, you need to put the analytics into it so that you know it is what you want for your customers. You get the qualitative parts by actually talking to people, and if you get to some degree of digital scale then you can get the quantitative parts to say, “This is what is happening, this is what is actually working.”  

To sum it up: Hang out with your customers, use your own product from the perspective of your costumer all the time and set up the analytics and goals so you can measure how well you are really working for your population and who is dropping out along the journey of trying to use it. If you are focused on those things, I think you will gain the right insights to make it better. 

Is there anything else you would like to add concerning customer centricity? Especially for entrepreneurs and what they should know when they start to develop their business models? 

In the end, you want to do things that people are willing to pay for. Once you actually get somebody to part with a little bit of money, suddenly their expectations change. They are not doing it out of the goodness of their heart; they do it because they see value from it. If they don’t see value from it, they don’t pay. I am believer that getting people to pay for something, even if it is a small amount, suddenly makes you much more beholden to what they truly think and believe. Once you say, “I have a product and I want you to buy it,” then, they say “you didn’t do this, this and this.” Then, you get into a real feedback loop, whereas without that exchange, you usually do not.  

   In 2017, Babajob and Quikr became the largest job platforms for low-income workers in India. Photo credit: Babajob
In 2017, Babajob and Quikr became the largest job platforms for low-income workers in India. Photo credit: Babajob