In a candid interview with All Things Talent, Kadam Jeet Jain, co-founder of Treebo Hotels talks about his entrepreneurial journey, challenges of donning the mantle of HR Head and the important role positive people practices play in the growth of a company. He also explains how businesses can boost their competitive advantage through intrapreneurship and structural innovation.
Q. You started your entrepreneurial journey 5 years ago by quitting a regular paycheck job to start your own business. When did you decide you were ready to be your own boss?
A. Before starting Treebo, I was working at a startup called Mygola. It was a travel planning service which got acquired by MakeMyTrip in late 2014. Post the acquisition, all of us became part of the MakeMyTrip team. But after spending a few months there, I started feeling this restlessness, this itch to start something new, something of my own. I got in touch with Sidharth and Rahul, who were my friends from college and were also in a similar mental frame. So we decided to quit our jobs and started up Treebo in early 2015.
It was also around this time, my first child was about to be born. I don’t know in what way did it influence my thinking, but I felt quite sure that this was the best time to start up. I just felt ready and decided to take the plunge.
Q. What has been the most rewarding part of your entrepreneurial journey?
A. I enjoy the excitement of running a growing business — enriching travel experiences of travellers in 100+ cities every single day, helping hundreds of hotel partners run their hotels more efficiently and in a hassle-free manner, employing some really talented folks and giving them meaningful opportunities and exciting challenges to work on. And in our own little way, shaping the future of budget travel in the country.
Q. Hailing from a technical background, you are not only involved with tech but also heading the people function at Treebo. What were some of the challenges you faced while transitioning into an HR role? Has this experience helped you become a more effective people person?
A. Heading the people function at Treebo was a very exciting challenge for me and something that really helped me grow as a leader. There are a few things that make this job a really challenging one.
One of the challenges was the distributed nature of our workforce. Our business requires us to have small teams in a lot of cities that we are present in. It means having a large distributed workforce spread across the country. Sometimes there are only one or two people in a city. It becomes difficult to stay connected to the mission when you are alone in such far off places. Likewise, it’s a challenge for regional managers too. Especially for managers with large territories, who have to find a way to stay connected to people in all the cities in their region.
Another challenge was the heterogeneous nature of the workforce. There are few teams like the call centre, which need to work in fixed defined shifts, while others like engineering, product and marketing need to be a lot more flexible with regard to work timings. Likewise, the operation teams outside the central office might have to work six days a week while other teams might have a five-day working week.
One thing that was quite different from several organisations that I had worked in the past was how young our organisation was. While this brought in a lot of fresh ideas and a lot of energy, it also brought a unique set of challenges. For example, setting up training programs so that these people can become productive very quickly. Likewise, another side effect of having a younger workforce was that a lot of managers too were first time managers, hence required a lot of help in dealing with softer aspects of people leadership.
Because of such challenges, it became quite clear to me that when creating people policies, we cannot take a conventional view or a one size fits all solution. We had to create a culture which was best suited to handle such unique challenges. Needless to say, it was and continues to be a great learning experience for me.When creating people policies, we cannot take a conventional view or a one size fits all solution. We had to create a culture which was best suited to handle such unique challenges. Needless to say, it was and continues to be a… Click To Tweet
Q. How do you personally define leadership? In this era of disruption, what do you think is a leader’s role in delivering a great employee experience?
A. I think the best definition of leadership I ever came across was from Colin Powell who said- “You have achieved excellence as a leader when people will follow you anywhere if only out of curiosity.’’
My personal theory on a good leader is that he/she is someone who has the ability to effectively engage with people and navigate them towards successful outcomes by bringing out the best in them.
Q. What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are starting out?
A. Be bold. Be willful. Work hard and be hard to compete with. Ignore the naysayers, have too much self-belief. Surround yourself with like-minded folks. Don’t be too married to a single idea. Keep learning. Keep iterating. Keep taking risks. And above all, have fun. It’s a long ride.
Q. At Treebo, you’ve been carrying out various company-wide events like the town hall, where all employees, irrespective of their levels in the hierarchy participate, have the right to ask any questions and are recognized for their specific achievements. How has employee involvement played an important role in the growth of your company? Also, why is an engaging, employee-centric culture heartbeat of any successful business?
A. At Treebo, we wanted to build a culture where there is an idea meritocracy — regardless of the level or hierarchy of the individual, the best idea should be promoted.
The reason I am quite bullish on this concept is that from very early days at Treebo, I have seen a lot of good ideas come from our employees, some of which have become an integral part of our SOPs (Standard Operating Procedure). For example, our mystery audit program ‘Friends of Treebo’ came from an intern during a problem-solving session on how to better customer experience at a hotel. Another example is our Proactive Guest Delight (PGD) program which became an organisation-wide initiative only after seeing one of our AOMs (Area Operations Manager) who had already put this in action and was seeing phenomenal results at hotels under his supervision.
We believe that innovation is not the Key Responsibility Area (KRA) of founders or the management team alone. Innovation should be an important part of every employee’s job. In our experience, the people closest to the problem are often the best positioned to find a solution to the problem.
Hence, we wanted to build an environment in which the best idea wins.
Q. With flexible timings, Happiness Survey, employee feedback and Open Door Policy Treebo have been able to promote the balance between career, family and personal well being. In your opinion, how can improving work-life balance, become one of the strongest predictors of employee happiness? How are you making happiness a competitive advantage for your organisation?
A. I believe employee happiness can definitely become a great competitive advantage. But happiness is a very subjective thing. For a newly become father happiness might be reaching home early from work, for young engineer happiness could be working on a challenging problem which provides a faster learning curve.
We realize that happiness could mean different things to different people depending on the different stages of life and varied circumstances. That’s why we have set up people-friendly policies like unlimited leaves, flexibility to work from home, flexible working hours etc. to best accommodate the needs of our employees.
Q. AI is on the verge of becoming a critical part of business infrastructure. According to you, how advances in digitalisation, artificial intelligence, communication and robotics can help in creating growth opportunities and generating new insights? What changes do you expect in the coming years?
A. AI, no doubt, is currently the hottest area and literally, every company is trying to implement it to better understand their customers. We are living in an information age and data is the king. Not only is it impacting products and businesses, but it is even pushing people to acquire new skills. Jobs like Data Scientists, Machine Learning Engineers are in top demand and people are hunting for the skills to apply for the same. There was a fear that AI might make some jobs obsolete, not denying that completely, but we are also witnessing the birth of new skill-based jobs.
At Treebo, we are also investing decent time and effort to create AI systems to better understand our guests and hotel partners and provide them with a delightful experience. We have seen our own employees switching in internal jobs by acquiring AI and Machine Learning skills and have created some fantastic products for us in the field of dynamic pricing, predictive modelling etc.
The emergence of modern technology made gig-based work possible and feasible. On the downside, it cannot be applied to all sorts of jobs where immense experience and hands-on training is required.
Q. In India, demand for short-duration talent is increasingly gathering momentum, with skilled professionals seeking flexible work arrangements. What does the emergence of the gig economy mean for the future of work? Also, how can companies expand their reach beyond traditional hires to benefit from the gig economy?
A. I will answer this question by looking through three lenses — Employee Lens, Employer Lens and Moral Lens. A few years back, the Gig Economy did look like the future of work. However, recently we have had some revelations that it isn’t the case in true sense. The labour policies of many countries have passed laws to treat gig-based freelancers as regular and conventional employees. The emergence of modern technology made gig-based work possible and feasible. On the downside, it cannot be applied to all sorts of jobs where immense experience and hands-on training is required. From the employer’s perspective, hiring gig-based workers is cost-effective, hence they are used on project-based work. Hiring people on short term contracts, getting them to do a specific project is much more frugal. Employees, however, are taking it as extra income. A data scientist can do freelance projects for a startup while engaging in his full-time work. A win-win for both the gig-based worker and a company employing them for their services. From the moral lens, it is tricky. Gig-based workers are not often treated as employees. Uber, for example, treats its drivers as customers and not employees. A company with a lot of projects can surely look to benefit from Gig Economy but that wouldn’t necessarily bring a paradigm shift in its hiring practices.
Q. Many firms today are looking to boost their competitive advantage through intrapreneurship and structural innovation. What role does HR play in the innovative process? In your opinion, how can HR leaders foster a culture of innovation through intrapreneurship?
A. The first name that comes to mind when I think of the word intrapreneur is that of Steven Sasson, the Kodak engineer who invented the first digital camera in 1975. Instead of taking his idea forward which could have changed the fortunes of Kodak, the digital camera became a very big missed opportunity for the company since they failed to see digital photography as a disruptive technology.
I think HR leaders need to understand that the responsibility of discovering and nurturing intrapreneurs solely lies with them. And it is possible to do this by carefully creating an environment where bottom-up innovation is promoted, people are given enough freedom to try and experiment and building a culture where, along with success, failure is celebrated too.
This is obviously easier said than done. But if done right, this could indeed become a competitive advantage.