We get to interact with enterprising & path breaking founders during the Fitbots spotlight series. This time, we are excited to bring to you an interview with Kalyan Varma, the super energetic, razor sharp focused & enterprising Co-founder & CEO at Almabase, Alumni Management Software.
Fitbots: Kalyan, could you share your story of Almabase and how did it take shape?
Kalyan: The idea for this came up when my co-founder Sri & I were in our engineering college at NIT Warangal. During the program, we came across fellow students or program seniors who were at the brink of dropping out, due to financial reasons. This did not make sense to us because, getting into this college was no lame task, and after all that hard work, dropping off just due to financial reasons would make things worse for them. That's when, Sri & I, along with a friend of ours created a non profit channel by getting in touch with our alumni and raised funds to help such students.
As we progressed with our professional lives, we tried to keep this alumni network up and kicking and saw it make a huge impact to the network, college and students. This was when we decided that this is a great startup idea. And thus, in 2014 we started Almabase with an objective to focus on building a strong Alumni community in India.
Interestingly, when we started working on our idea, our hypothesis was that such communities are very well managed in US, but then, our research proved that many colleges in the US are also struggling with connecting to an alumni community. This gave us an interesting opportunity to enter and explore the US market. Since 2017, we are operational in the US too and strengthening the alumni communities to drive engagement and increase donations. Today, close to 200 colleges & schools across the globe are Almabase users, 92% of who are based out of the US!
Fitbots: With the awesome growth story, how did you scale your team?
Kalyan: Unsurprisingly, we leveraged the alumni community extensively to hire the first few employees and also, a lot of investors belong to our NIT Warangal Alumni community.
Fitbots: While scaling a company, most founders face challenges in percolating their vision to their teams, how did you deal with this?
Kalyan: Creating a culture of transparency has been a very key element to our growth. Something that we have been doing since the inception, is having a monthly meeting beginning of the month, every month. This involves every single person working in the company and contributing to the company vision. Our focus in this meeting lies primarily on presenting what we worked on in the previous month , enhancements, features and plan for the upcoming month. This has been a huge win for us so far.
Another key aspect to building transparency in our company is that we pride ourselves in being "documentation nerds" and from day 1 until now, every single thing is documented. For example, if our sales talk is not documented on our sales management software, we consider "it did not happen".
Fitbots: How did OKRs catch your attention?
Kalyan: We have known of OKRs for a long time. But, when Upekkha Catalyst program brought this forward and explained the concept to us is where we decided to sign up! Since early 2019 we have adopted and implemented OKRs at Almabase.
Where OKRs really caught our attention was in the way it helped us define the hierarchy and how everyone contributes to the overall company building.
Fitbots: What has been your biggest learning during the OKR implementation?
Kalyan: I would classify my learnings under 3 key categories:
# Top Down - know how you would define the objectives from the top to every individual # Bottom Up - It is important for everyone to know how they need to align their work and commitment to achieve the objectives
# Regular Check-In - I think this is the most critical step of regularly checking in on the progress towards the objectives
When we first implemented OKRs, the top down worked well, the bottom up was vague and we didn't really see a real commitment. In the first quarter, we realized that we faltered in the way we built commitment & check-in from everyone. So my key learning is "Unless you do all the 3 together and with equal focus, OKRs are not going to happen"
Fitbots: Could you share some examples of your prized OKRs with our readers?
Kalyan: As a CEO, one of my OKRs would be "To create optionalities for the company" and some of the Key Results being
# Close atleast 1 enterprise level deal
# Get a deal with different pricing strategy
# Provide professional services to atleast one customer
We did define some good and strong OKRs, but the execution of those got derailed due to distractions. We are working extensively on achieving success with OKR implementation and I believe we will get there very soon.
Fitbots: You mentioned about the distraction, how then, do you work on maintaining the motivation of teams despite such roadblocks.
Kalyan: One thing that really works for us is the monthly progress meeting and the fact that it is very well documented. This still helps us keep up the tempo and the motivation of everyone in the team. As far as the execution distractions are concerned, we are still working our way towards handling those. Teams start calling out if its a distraction and we have the necessary huddles to ensure we get things on track. But honestly, we are yet to find our "Magic Mantra".
Fitbots: What has changed for Almabase after OKRs were implemented?
Kalyan: One of the best things in my opinion is that the engineers have started focusing on the revenue.
Today, when we have discussions, the first thing they ask is "how much is the customer paying & how does it impact our overall revenue". this to me is a huge change given the fact that engineers normally didn't focus on things other than product development and release. Now, they are very clear that everything they are doing should contribute to overall company objective.
Another big change we see is on the Customer Success Management. With OKRs, the team started tracking small key milestones in terms of customer testimonials, case studies, success stories and this has built their motivation extensively. Today, they don't wait for long term contract periods to feel a sense of achievement, instead, they proudly showcase their actions that contribute towards overall customer retention
"True Kalyan, it is great to see small acts leading to larger impacts and OKR does enable this significantly"
Fitbots: What advice would you like to share with anyone wanting to implement and achieve success with OKRs?
Kalyan: As I look back at our story, we approached OKR implementation as a massive change and wanted to implement it across the board with the same impact. Like any big change, this does lead to friction and difference of opinion. My advice would be to start small, try it with a team or a function, tune it to your company culture and then scale it for better results, Starting small gives you better scope for adaptability and acceptance.
The next important thing is what I mentioned earlier "Top down, Bottom Up & frequent check-in" all need to go hand in hand for it to be really impactful.
Thank You Kalyan, your clarity of thought and the way you played us through your OKR implementation story really shows us how you and your company must be by all means "The True Documentation Nerds" as you proudly call yourselves. There is no doubt that Almabase is going to scale the heights that all of you have envisioned
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