Kayak Alum Plays to Strengths and Origins With 1st Startup, Drafted

Xconomy Boston — 

As a first-time startup CEO, Vinayak Ranade has taken the old adage “play to your strengths” to heart.

When running a startup, “everything is fundamentally hard. There are 100 different ways you could fail,” says Ranade, who started Boston-based Drafted, a job recruiting and referral software company, in September 2014. “I try to leverage every part of me, everything that I think is a strength, in whatever way I can.”

That includes tapping into skills and experiences from his childhood growing up in India. Poetry contests in middle school were “an early introduction to how to communicate in a way that engages empathy,” Ranade (pictured above) says. That has come in handy at Drafted, where the six members of the team try to improve their mobile app by better understanding how users experience it.

Ranade also gave a lot of speeches in high school. “Who knew that was going to help when I was starting to fundraise?” he says.

Before Drafted, the MIT alumnus spent four years at online travel search company Kayak, where he worked his way up from software engineer to the leader of the company’s mobile app engineering team. “That was a period of big mobile growth for us,” Ranade says. “We went from 5 [million] to 25 million downloads. We did that with a team that was under 10 people.”

Ranade also took on a key recruiting role at Kayak—both attracting technical employees and building an internship program basically from scratch, he says.

Ranade took Kayak’s “haphazard” intern hiring practices and created an organized program that helped raise the company’s profile on college campuses and brought more excitement to the office, says Kayak co-founder and former chief technology officer Paul English.

“He’s a fantastic recruiter,” says English, who hired Ranade at Kayak and worked closely with him for several years. “I remember each year when the interns went back to their school, it was a big loss because Vinayak had built this electrifying culture.”

After leaving Kayak in spring 2014, starting Drafted was “a very obvious choice for me,” Ranade says. It combined two things he’d gotten good at: developing mobile apps and recruiting.

“What’s a thing that I can do that no one else can do?” Ranade says. “It’s very rare to find people that will both have really good engineering experience—so they know how to build products and run teams—and also have experienced every aspect of recruiting.”

To get started, Ranade and the Drafted team raised $2.5 million in seed money from Accel, General Catalyst Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners, the BOSS investor syndicate on AngelList, Boston e-commerce incubator Launch, and Blade, the former venture fund/startup workspace co-founded by English. (Blade stopped making investments last year, and its team switched their attention to running a new travel technology startup, Lola.)

Drafted launched a beta version of its app and software platform last May. The product allowed hiring managers to quickly post the details of a job opening at their company, set a reward for filling the position, and then push it to people in their network (and beyond). People who receive a job notification on Drafted can apply or forward it to someone they know, creating a “chain of referrers.” If that ultimately results in a hire, anyone included in that chain splits the company’s referral reward, including the new employee.

Many companies already have hiring programs that pay referral rewards, but Drafted can help by handling the logistics of tracking who deserves a cut of the reward and by executing the payments for companies, Ranade says.

The bigger goal is to help hiring managers find qualified and interested candidates more quickly and easily. “The time between you needing someone and the time they join [your company] is now two months, three months, sometimes more. But it doesn’t have to be,” Ranade says. “At the very least, we can take that first unit of time”—the initial search for qualified candidates—“and crunch it to zero.”

That’s not easy, and it’s still not clear if Drafted has the right solution. During beta testing, more than 50 companies have posted over 130 jobs on Drafted—mostly Massachusetts tech companies, including Hubspot, Drizly, and Lola—and offered rewards totaling more than $1 million, Ranade says. But he declines to share how many jobs have actually been filled thanks to Drafted.

Working in Drafted’s favor is the fact that personal connections often play a big role in snagging a job, and “people want to help their friends out,” English says. The challenge for Drafted is if done poorly, the referral network it’s trying to build could feel “very spammy” and inauthentic if people are “constantly getting barraged by e-mails from all [their] friends all trying to pitch their company,” he says.

“So, Drafted has to walk that line,” English says. “Drafted is a little bit mercenary, and also a little bit like ‘help your friends out.’”

The first version of Drafted’s product had some success, but “didn’t really scale” as much as hoped, English says. But he says he was impressed with the way Ranade and his team kept at it, spending a lot of time speaking with customers to understand how Drafted could improve.

That led the startup to introduce two new product developments earlier this month. One was a data analytics dashboard that helps employers track how many views their job postings are getting and how jobs are being shared. It also attempts to calculate “the potential reach” of their openings and rewards.

The second development was an updated version of the Drafted app. Whereas the company initially focused on helping employers connect with job seekers, the second version of the app is more about enabling the reverse. When users come across intriguing job prospects, Drafted helps them get introduced to someone at the company. It does this by scouring their phone and Gmail contacts and trying to find someone they know who is connected to the company and can facilitate an electronic introduction with a few taps in the app, Ranade says.

Screenshots of the updated version of Drafted's app. Photo courtesy of Drafted.

Screenshots of the updated version of Drafted’s app. Photo courtesy of Drafted.

It’s still early, but the company may be on the right track. Drafted got another endorsement of its strategy this week, when iRobot signed up for the service. The Bedford, MA-based robotics company currently has nine job openings and $37,500 in referral rewards posted on Drafted’s website.

Regardless of where Drafted goes from here, English thinks Ranade built it with the right foundation. When startups pitch English on investing in their companies, he wants to hear origin stories like Ranade’s—entrepreneurs chasing ideas based on their own personal experiences and passions.

“Don’t tell me what your company is doing, but tell me why this matters to you—what was the spark,” English says. “Those origin stories are very powerful in driving the culture of a company, how you hire, how everyone talks about the company. It almost lacks integrity when you build a company without it. The company has less of a framework, and therefore cannot innovate as quickly as one that has this really strong origin story.”