Exclusive Conversation: Sarvesh Agrawal, Founder & CEO Internshala
Sarvesh Agrawal is the founder & the CEO of Internshala. He is responsible for defining the vision, developing the road map, and execution. He graduated from IIT Madras (Dual Degree – Civil Engineering) in 2006 and worked for 5 years in Business Analytics domain (Capital One, Barclays Bank, and Aviva) before starting Internshala in 2011.
1) What was the idea behind starting Internshala?
In late 2010, while mulling over various student needs and available solutions for each of those needs, I realized that internships was one area where not much had happened primarily because in India, internships are still not as mainstream as they are in West.
But things were changing. On one hand, there was growing youth population spending like never before on Education, which is seen as a ticket to good life in India, and on other there was a growing economy which was starving for good talent and always complaining about ‘unemployability’ of our graduates. Numbers vary between 50%-75% as per various estimates but a majority of students coming out of universities in India lack necessary practical and soft skills required to succeed in a global corporate environment. And I felt that ‘internships’ can be an effective bridge to close the gap between what universities produce and what companies want.
In India, internships are largely done in the summer of penultimate year before one is about to complete his or her degree and we believe if every student is able to secure a meaningful internship during this period, he or she would get a realistic picture of what is expected from them in a work environment, both technical and soft skills, and companies would find the same student lot more suited for a full time job when he or she graduates next year.
Thus was born Internshala and its mission statement: “At the core of the idea is the belief that internships, if managed well, can make a positive difference to the student, to the employer, and to the society at large. Hence, the ad-hoc culture surrounding internships in India should and would change. Internshala aims to be the driver of this change.”
Another incident took place around the same time. A friend who went to university with me at IIT, later on went to pursue his MBA from London Business School, and was looking for an internship in India during his MBA semester break. It proved really difficult for him to find one. This got me thinking that if someone with his academic credentials finds it difficult to get an internship in India, it must be pretty hard for other students too and convinced me further that there was a solution needed.
2) Please tell us about your business model and revenue model?
The core services remain free both for students and companies. That is, students can search for and apply for internships for free and companies can post their internship requirements free of cost on Internshala. Our revenue comes from various value added services (Resume Service, Cover Letter Service, Interview Preparation, Training in select few areas) that we offer to students and through advertising on the website.
3) How did Internshala get its tipping point?
If I have to pick one incident, it would be the massive support I received from my Alma Mater, IIT Madras. With-in couple of months of starting, IIT Madras alumni office sent an email to our entire alumni base informing them about Internshala. Now IIT Madras alumni include who’s who of the world and to get introduced to such an elite audience so early in the process set the ball rolling. Many of these alumni were running companies themselves, and needed interns – they posted their requirement on the website. Many were faculty in various colleges pan India, they recommended Internshala to their students. And many simply wrote in to wish me luck because they identified with the problem Internshala was trying to solve.
4) What is your user acquisition strategy?
Word of Mouth. Being a bootstrapped business, we don’t really have lot of marketing money to spare. What has worked for us is the relentless pursuit of quality and innovation in everything we do and that reflects in the customer service we provide (please see student testimonials here ) and our users in turn have been very kind and have recommended us to their peers. Fortunately for us, both the types of users we have, students and employers, are very social media friendly and when they talk about us on various social media channels (Facebook primarily), it helps us grow really fast.
5) There are many organisations similar to that of yours. What sets you apart?
I wouldn’t talk about us being the largest internship portal despite being the youngest (for that you can check the Alexa rankings or Social Media metrics). What truly sets Internshala apart is the trust and the love we enjoy among employers and students alike. And this has come to be due to our relentless focus on bringing a culture of meaningful internships in India through a series of innovations. We started with initiatives like Your Internship Story, Internfair, My 1st Stipend, InternSaturday, Internconnect, Share an Internship Contest, which all were industry first and the community was pleasantly surprised. Other than being innovative, we take pride in being gold standard of customer service – every one of more than 100,000 student queries that we have received till date (over email, comments, forum etc.) regarding internships have been answered which made students believe that we truly care. Similarly on the employer side, we go great distance to counsel them on how best they can design their internship programs to attract the best talent and get great work done! Our users tell us that they have found this kind of commitment to the cause nowhere else and I think that is what sets us apart.
6) What are your current challenges and your strategy to overcome them?
i) Hiring talent, especially in technology domain – I think this is a problem faced even by large corporate and for a start up, without the brand and money, the problem is more acute. Moreover, unlike large companies, a start up can not afford a wrong hire – it is a very costly (and at times fatal) mistake. Fortunately, for us, being an internship portal ourselves, we have had access to India’s best student talent whom we hired interns to build the whole business. For first 2 years of its operations, Internshala was entirely run by a team of interns and even today, they constitute 70% of our workforce.
ii) Convincing employers/companies to hire interns – the present internship culture in India is very ad-hoc. Students don’t take these seriously and companies’ middle management teams tend to think of interns more like a liability than assets and we have been working to change this mindset gradually. Fortunately for us, there is a start up boom going on in India and start ups are more open to the idea of hiring interns which has helped. Plus, we always have our own example to quote in front of prospective employers where we tell them how Internshala itself has been built by a team of interns and how could they also benefit from intern power!
iii) Convincing colleges to allow for more internships and/or longer duration internships in curriculum – One of the key reasons why companies find it difficult to run internship programs because of the short duration (4 weeks in Winter and 8-10 weeks in Summer) students are generally available for internships. In such a short time, it is really difficult companies to get meaningful work done from interns. This is very different in West (especially in Germany and US) where students spend 6 months of more on an internship and usually have more than one internships on their resumes by the time they graduate. Academia in India also needs to understand the value internships can add to a student’s overall learning and development and design more flexible curriculum around it.
Fortunately, many colleges are now allowing students to pursue last semester of their education (4-6 months) as an intern which is a welcome change plus there is the rising trend of work from home internships where students work on a part time basis from their campuses during regular semester.
7) What are the markets that you cover and your strategy for them?
For now, and foreseeable future, we are going to stay focused on Indian market and our goal is to make an impact here first before moving globally. Of the 1Mn+ students who visit Internshala website every year, only 10,000 find an internship through us – we want that number to significantly improve over next 3-5 years.
8) What is your future plan?
Over next couple of years, we want to expand into providing internships to students of all streams (especially from Core engineering branches, degree subjects) and this would require concentrated employer marketing efforts. We’ll also be expanding our value added services to students to include new services and training programs to improve overall employability of a student while driving revenue growth. And we also intend to invest in our core platform heavily to make it truly state of the art for both students and employers. We’d reach out to investor community at appropriate time to raise the required capital to achieve all this.
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