Soon after launching his tech startup in June 2012, Paul Rivera, CEO and co-founder of Kalibrr, thought he had to close shop. He and his team had just built—in tech startup speak—their first minimum viable product, but soon after, his software engineers quit.
Not being an engineer, Rivera could not exactly go ahead with his plans. He had the vision, yes, but he could not write code. “It was a near-death experience and it was my own doing. I think I was just an asshole,” he said. “[I blame] my attitude, and me not being more empathetic as a manager, me never having managed an engineer before, he said.
He added that his own expectations of what was possible did not align with his engineers’ then so there was a major disconnect. Lucky for Rivera, he soon met Danny Castonguay, who is now Kalibrr’s chief technology officer.
“What I learned from Danny over the next few months is how to work with engineers, how to manage your expectations, how to communicate with engineers, what sort of work style they like,” he said.
“Engineers don’t necessarily like meetings. [They’re more like] ‘give me the list, give me the design, and I’ll build it.’ I learned how to work with bright engineers. And I think, if you’re doing a tech startup and you’re the non-engineer, it’s a real skill that you’ll want to learn,” he said.
With Castonguay on board, Rivera said that within six months, Kalibrr was able to build an engineering team. It was good timing, because in January 2013, Kalibrr was to start a 3-month incubation program at Y-Combinator, a Silicon Valley-based tech accelerator considered among the most successful in the world.
The team later developed the code for the new version of Kalibrr, which Rivera hopes will revolutionize online job hunting.
Misreading market needs
But what do you do when you realize your business model will not fly?
It was a problem Kalibrr wrestled with in 2013. Originally envisioning Kalibrr as an online training platform to help people looking for jobs in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, Rivera and his co-founders Dexter Ligot-Gordon, Castonguay, and Timothy F. Trutna raised $500,000 in capital from investors on the strength of that business model.
Y-Combinator gave Kalibrr 90 days to build the product and launch it. “We literally spent 45 days building, and 45 days marketing it. And in that period, it began to work, meaning young people—most of them only with a high school diploma or two years of college, all of them never made more than P9,000 ($192.88) a month—were starting to get jobs in the BPO industry.”
But in May 2013, the team realized they had made a mistake. First of all, Filipinos were not accustomed to online learning. “We take Internet and connectivity for granted in the US. But here it’s a challenge—it’s super slow,” he said.
Also, it’s hard to train online for the skills that people wanted in a few hours. You don’t make up for 15 years of bad education in an online course. It was like we were trying to overcome insurmountable obstacles,” Rivera added.
In that month, with Kalibrr running out of money, Rivera fired 10 of his employees as the company took the first step to fix the problem. By October, they had the workings of Kalibrr’s present iteration—from being an online training platform, it is now a recruitment platform. “We’re going to kill Jobstreet,” said Rivera.
The goal is still the same—help people find jobs. But the approach is now focused on providing a scheme that would assess the qualifications of job applicants.
This way, companies will have an easier time finding employees, and on the part of the applicants, they only get to go to job interviews they actually qualify for. “It solves [the recruitment problem] both ways. We’re still helping people get jobs and we’re also helping companies find talent,” said Rivera.
Ligot-Gordon said Kalibrr, which has so far raised more than $2 million in capital, plans to go for another round of funding to expand the reach of the platform and grow the company. The Kalibrr team is up for it. Tim Dumol, the chief engineer, said, “The nice thing about restarting is we knew the mistakes we made so we knew what not to do and what to do. Because of it, our code came out better.”
Before starting Kalibrr, Rivera had a BPO company called Open Access Marketing. He recalls that one day, eight of the 10 employees left for lunch and never came back. “I didn’t know if it was a revolt, [because they were] unhappy with the management.”
They immediately informed their client about the situation and promised there wouldn’t be any disruption in the service. “Our client was not very happy and I ended up being a call center agent for a couple of weeks. I had to step in. Literally, 11 pm ’til 8 am, I was taking phone calls.”
Being upfront really did wonders for Rivera as clients appreciated honesty. “Honesty is the best solution, because when you try to lie or you try to fudge, it’s easy to get caught up in your own lie….
Besides, the clients were also entrepreneurs. “They’ve been in that scenario. They know that it’s not easy, and I think they appreciated candid honesty. And they appreciated the fact that we stepped in and did what we could.”
Maricris is the former managing editor of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine.
This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine.