#Asia 2 billion non-desk workers are strangers to email. These founders built a Slack for them.


Noticeboard co-founders [from left to right] Vishal Gahlaut, Sarath Chandran, and Vishesh Dahinwal. Photo credit: Noticeboard.

They encountered a curious communication quandary when working at Myntra, India’s leading fashion ecommerce company which is now part of Flipkart.

Vishal Gahlaut, Vishesh Dahinwal, and Sarath Chandran were senior executives at the company. They were highly trained engineers with top management degrees, but found that the toughest part about creating a happy customer hinged on the company ground staff.

Is the delivery boy well behaved; does he answer queries politely; is he in sync with the company’s policies? That depends on how well the company trains and controls its frontline staff, which in turn hinges on communication. And therein lies the problem, Gahlaut, Dahinwal, and Chandran saw.

Out of Myntra’s total staff of about 6,500, only 1,500 work out of offices, facing computers. The rest – the bulk of the workforce – is the logistics and warehouse staff. They aren’t tech-savvy. Their first brush with tech is most likely through budget smartphones. They aren’t even on email, leave alone Slack. They might be out in areas with poor cell connectivity. They might be on WhatsApp or other instant messengers but any chat group with a hundred or thousand people will get noisy and cluttered in a blink.

How do you communicate clearly, effectively, and constantly with this huge workforce became the burning question that led Gahlaut, Dahinwal, and Chandran to found Noticeboard – a Slack for the net newbie masses.

This isn’t an India-specific problem. Globally, there are over 2 billion non-desk workers who are part of the formal economy but do not even have email accounts – over 300 million in India alone, Gahlaut points out. “Information actually reaches them only when their supervisor talks to them directly – verbal, physical communication. It makes the entire process slow, clunky, and prone to error – like Chinese whispers – while flowing from top management to the bottom rungs.” Noticeboard is for them, he says.

The year-old startup announced its first round of funding today. It has raised US$1.2 million in venture capital, led by Stellaris Venture Partners. A bunch of angels, including Gahlaut’s old bosses from Myntra, Blackbuck founder Rajesh Yabaji, and YuMe co-founder Jayant Kadambi pitched in as well.

Incidentally, Myntra was Slack’s first paid account from India, Gahlaut tells Tech in Asia.

Old problem, new solution

The problem that Noticeboard attempts to solve is as old as industry. Factories, retail chains, hotels, warehouses, and so on always had large fleets of ground staff who needed supervision and management. What has changed in the last few years is the technology intervention made possible by the big drop in smartphone prices and internet data charges.

“The courier guy who comes to your house has a smartphone in his pocket. So now, there is no reason why we can’t include him in the formal communication, and that is what we are trying to do at Noticeboard,” Gahlaut explains.

Here’s how it works:

Imagine you are a delivery boy who just joined an ecommerce company that uses Noticeboard. On your first day at work, the HR manager onboarding you will ask you to download the app, probably even give you a basic smartphone with the app on it.

After HR creates an account for you on Noticeboard, you will see all the relevant onboarding documents for your role – company’s customer experience policies, how to dress at work, overtime policies of the company, information about your salary, incentives, and so on. You will get updates from the management on a day-to-day basis – training information coming down from the top, new directives, schemes, and so on. There will be other rooms for peer-to-peer engagement and a virtual watering hole where you can wish someone happy birthday, find out who is the champion delivery boy of the week, and so on.

Why can’t such communication be done on WhatsApp groups, I ask Gahlaut. He cites three reasons:

  • WhatsApp and other chat apps have limitations on the number of people who can be in a group. The teams that Noticeboard is intended for typically have over 1,000 workers.
  • Unlike chats – which are short and snappy – organizational communication is more longform.
  • Clutter: Say it’s Holi [an Indian festival of colors] and you want to tell all your delivery boys to wish customers “Happy Holi.” If you send out this message to the staff on a WhatsApp group, there will be a dozen delivery boys who will respond with “Ok sir” or “happy Holi to you.” By the time the 21st person looks at the app, he will only see a stream of “happy Holi”s and miss the main message. That is the problem of chat which treats all messages equally.

See: New trends in SaaS, and how Indian startups are grabbing those opportunities

Noticeboard is a business-to-business SaaS product. Like most work communication software, it has a per-month per-user based pricing model. The first iteration of the product was out in January and it bagged its first client in a month’s time.

It has a handful of clients in the logistics, retail, and hospitality sectors in India currently, Gahlaut says, without naming any. Noticeboard is also running pilots with hotel aggregators, large brands with stores, and ecommerce marketplaces.

Global competitors

A number of companies have come up to tackle the work communication problem for the bulk of the workforce in the last couple of years.

Collage by Tech in Asia. Original photo credit: Pixabay.

Silicon Valley-based Crew launched its app a couple of months ago. Long before that, however, it had spread stealthily to many organizations with unannounced funding from Sequoia Capital and Greylock Partners. From airport baggage handlers to hospital nurses and hotel staff, its spread targeted two-thirds of US workers.

An older player in the US is Red e App, but a host of European startups have joined the fray in more recent times.

Earlier this year, Swiss startup Beekeeper raised US$8 million in funding to expand to the US and compete with Crew. It claims to have a user base in 130 countries.

Another European company, Staffbase from Germany, opened a New York office in March to help companies engage with employees over their phones. Its SaaS (software-as-a-service) product helps integration with corporate databases and software such as Microsoft Sharepoint.

Israeli startup Connecteam, which was part Microsoft Accelerator’s Tel Aviv demo day last month, offers a platform that lets companies create their own branded apps with a suite of tools for employee management. Microsoft itself has created an app called Staffhub as an extension of Office365 aimed at frontline staff in service-oriented industries.

Another tech giant dabbling in this segment is Facebook’s Work. And then there’s Slack, which has been going after mobile workers in supermarkets, schools, hospitals, and farms after scoring a hit in the laptop world of offices. But the niche players claim to be more focused and simpler to use.

“There are no established companies in this space yet because the market itself has been made possible only recently because of the falling prices of smartphones,” says Gahlaut. “The market wasn’t there earlier in the pockets of the blue/grey-collared. India has the largest mobile-first population. A few years down the line, you will see some companies become very big and we hope to be one of them.“

See: Looking for funding? Here are the 10 most active investors in India

The Indian edge

Noticeboard, with its six-member team, is not expanding out of India for now. “Our focus in the coming six to nine months is on sharpening our product – make it more scalable, add a few more features, become a world class product. Then we will go more aggressive on sales,” Gahlaut says.

The Indian app is not that different from some of its global competitors, but it has some things extra going for it. “The biggest advantage we have is our mobile mindset,” says Gahlaut. India is the fastest growing smartphone market in the world. Within India, Myntra was the flagbearer in mobile ecommerce.

Secondly, there is a good talent pool available in India to build SaaS products, from design to tech, at lower price points than in the US or Europe. And there is also a growing global acceptance for SaaS out of India. Indian SaaS companies like Zoho and Freshdesk have become global leaders in productivity and customer support tools.

See: The unfair advantage Indian SaaS startups have over rivals around the world

The Noticeboard founders have a mobile-first SaaS product in a huge space that is yet to be conquered. Several Indian SaaS companies are raking in annual revenues of over US$100 million, and Noticeboard believes it has as good a chance as them to make it big out of India.

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