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Peel Works: Startup selling HR solutions to manage cos' sales team

MUMBAI: Nearly 90% of the consumer goods industry's revenue comes from an indirect sales force, but for the most part they remain faceless, get little attention from headquarters and are often underpaid. But with the job options opening up in sectors from retail to telecom, this anonymous sales force has become a much-sought-after talent pool on the list of priorities of companies.

Sachin Chhabra, who had been watching this evolution from Hindustan Unilever, first in his sales job and later in the human resources department, decided to fix this problem. His solution? A cloud-based software tool which would allow companies such as HUL manage their scattered teams of sales people, often in remote towns, and often on deputation from staffing agencies and vendors.

"There is no opportunity for a salesman from Gorakhpur (in Uttar Pradesh) to do something more with his career," says Chhabra, who joined HUL as a management trainee after graduating from Xavier's Labour Relations Institute ( XLRI).

He started out sharing office space with his wife, an HR consultant, when he launched Peel Works last year. The scale of the opportunity is very large - a consumer goods company with revenues of around $1 billion (around Rs 5,000 crore) will have at least 4,000 people as indirect salespersons.

"A distributor would handle a dozen people," says Chhabra. "But not be exposed to the latest HR principles to ensure transparency, fairness and meritocracy with their team."

While the strategic opportunity may have seemed obvious for a career consumer goods executive, setting up his business was anything but. For the first few months, Chhabra spent most of his time hunting for the most viable office space in and around Mumbai, visiting at least 30 locations and even driving down to Pune to try to strike a deal. He even outsourced his software coding, to allow his team to focus on strategy and brand building.

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Getting reticent employees to move from established corporates to his fledgling start-up was perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

From a position of having teams of every hue to help him deal with a crisis at HUL, he had to firefight almost single handedly with Peel Works. He had to be very cautious with money, hiring a skeletal team and spending only on the bare necessities. "It was very hard to get customers and financing," says Chhabra.

Nine months after going live, Peel Works got around $1 million in angel funding from the Indian Angel Network in December 2011. The money has allowed him to expand-Peel Works now has over 45 direct and indirect employees-and prospect for more customers.

As the company looks to expand, it will not just need to add clients but also have the management depth and technology bandwidth to ensure it can scale up with the expected growth in business, says Srikant Shastri, a member of Indian Angel Network and board member of Peel Works. "We have at least 12 potential clients in the pipeline," he adds.

"Our technology can now deal with around 20,000-25,000 employees but we need to increase this to deal with 100,000 or even half a million." Simultaneously, Peel Works is expanding its management team, adding executives to manage operations, technology and service delivery.

As a fledgling start-up in a tough economy, Chhabra's biggest headache in the coming months will perhaps come from technology giants looking to buy into an emerging opportunity. "This is a new blue-sky space with few competitors," says Shastri. Keeping rivals at bay and yet growing Peel Works will define his success or failure.
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