E-commerce Talent - On Hire, Again?

As we expect an uptick in sane capital, would the gold rush in attracting talent stage a comeback?

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Over 15,000 employees, like files from the computer, have been deleted by their e-commerce employers over last 20 months or so. That's because either businesses went extinct or their employees suffered the "restructuring' pang, courtesy – the drug that kept their spirits "high' became elusive. Now as we expect an uptick in sane capital, would the gold rush in attracting talent stage a comeback? Listen in to India's top e-commerce headhunters.


New market, new challenges, new learnings, new career paths and new opportunity for wealth creation were reasons that drove people across hierarchies - from CXOs to delivery boys - towards e-commerce. The volume hiring had happened at the mid to junior levels as there are only so much numbers of vacancies at the CXO level. The impact of top hi-profile exits like Flipkart's Punit Soni, Mukesh Bansal, Sanjay Baweja and Snapdeal's Anand Chandrasekaran, Aakash Moondhra, Amitabh Misra or Ola's Rajiv Bansal, Raghuvesh Sarup and Anuj Bhargava, cascaded onto mid and junior level people who either followed into their footsteps or were laid off by the companies. Similar trend swept through other start-ups at different growth stages.

Elusive CXOs

But staffing solutions company, TeamLease Services, believes that layoffs have already bottomed out, primarily after demonetization phase in Q3 of last fiscal year. "In Q4 FY17, the hiring at mid and junior level again went up. At the junior level, going back to e-commerce isn't that much of a risk as people switches jobs even for a small hike. If a company doesn't do well then they will move back to the previous company," says Ashok Reddy, Managing Director and Co-Founder, TeamLease Services. The challenge is about attracting the top cream. "Top talent is now once bitten, twice shy. They are trying to revive themselves after going through a bad phase. It would be a challenge because senior people don't want to change job often," adds Reddy. That's probably because switching jobs at the CXO level don't add weight to their resumes.

But movement at that level happens primarily because of the roles that senior talents get in other organizations, even if they aren't multinationals. So size doesn't matter much. For e.g., Network18 Digital's CEO Durga Raghunath moved to Zomato as its senior Vice President (Growth) or Reliance Communications head (human resources) Babu Vittal who had joined ShopClues last year on same profile. "At the senior level, people move for role if it is interesting, not the brand," says Nicolas Dumoulin, Managing Director, Michael Page India – a global recruitment consultancy for permanent, contract and temporary staffing.

Obviously, even if the capital deployment returns to the ecosystem led by many new domestic and foreign funds apart from few existing ones, the top level hiring won't be easy anytime soon. "I don't believe that we would see hiring like we saw in 2015 and early 2016. Over the time, there would be consolidation and the number of e-commerce players will come down," says Gauri Padmanabhan, Partner, Heidrick & Struggles India – a US-based global executive search firm for chief executives and senior level recruitment. Padmanabhan leads its consumer markets practices in India for whom Indian e-commerce provided a very high revenue growth potential that saw a dip over last many months.

That's in contrast to the mid level executives particularly that include roles like general managers, department heads, branch heads, regional managers etc., where the brand does matter. "Maximum resistance will be at mid level. The brand name is as important for their growth," adds Dumoulin.

While entrepreneurs stuffed their businesses with employees blindly as a solution to every problem they came across, employees too jumped onto the e-commerce bandwagon without any due diligence done on their part. But of course, they can't be blamed for lacking the foresight. "The estimation by senior talent for opportunity to learn and create value, both at personal and organizational level, has been perhaps over estimated by them," claims Padmanabhan.

Letting it Go

Does that mean that entrepreneurs hired talent irrationally failing to forecast hiring demand and managing talent in a leaner way at the mid and junior level? And if so, then that brings bit of a reputational drawback on entrepreneurs as their retention strategy has been flawed.

Avdesh Mittal, Managing Director for digital practice at US-based executive search firm Korn Ferry's Asia Pacific region, believes entrepreneurs shouldn't try to do everything by themselves. "Entrepreneurs are known to be visionaries to achieve the unthinkable however, putting structures and processes in place to scale organizations is not necessarily their core skill. At an appropriate time in the business, they need professional managers to do that like Facebook brought Sheryl Sandberg, and Google hired Eric Schmidt etc." Mittal had hired CXOs at few of the top e-commerce companies.

However, there can be an absolute argument that while e-commerce is still nascent and entrepreneurs are building an industry from scratch, the trial and error has to be the approach. "The sector is new and there are mistakes to be made. You cannot look at other industries for solutions and replicate it in e-commerce," explains Reddy. Perhaps then the blame, if at all, lies on investors' part. "I believe investors could add great value if they were to stay closer to the leadership hiring process but it is always a fine line between adding value and imposing on the entrepreneur's independence in running the company," asserts Mittal.

If the uptick in hiring, particularly at junior level, will maintain the momentum followed by the mid level and senior level, that won't be a hockey stick growth as people would think through the opportunity before risking burning their fingers again. "Over next few months hiring across levels will resurge from mass hiring and indiscriminate compensational structures which will be corrected," opines Padmanabhan. The change is already here; at TeamLease, candidate walk-ins are continuous but they are now detailing about the company, how it is doing etc. On an average the company has around 500- 1000 open positions at any point in time. So this time it is the other way round where candidates are also interviewing the businesses.

(This article was first published in the June issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)