Around two years ago, when Meenakshi Gupta Jain was founding what would become Helper4U with her husband, Punit, she received a phone call. A young woman, from a village outside Mumbai, said she needed a job. Jain instructed her to leave her details and meet when she arrived in the city.
“Two days later she’s standing at my doorstep with a bag,” the entrepreneur says. “I didn’t know what she wanted me to do—is she planning to stay in my house? She gave me her identification and I registered her. Before the end of the day she had a job. If she did not have that job she would’ve been staying on the road that night. Those kind of stories have happened because a live-in maid in the ‘in’ thing in Mumbai these days.”
Helper4U is an online platform that aims to pair employers with semi- and unskilled laborers. In India, the world’s second most populous nation, that means millions of people. A burgeoning middle class, prospering amid an economy growing at over 8% yearly, has generated a need for domestic help—especially in wealthier neighborhoods of Mumbai, the country’s biggest city.
“Our lives in India depend a lot of domestic help: we’re so used to having someone come regularly to clean our house, take care of the chores at home,” Meenakshi Jain says. “When someone is not available everything is affected. I cannot go to work, my house doesn’t get cleaned up. On the other hand we realized that if I want to hire someone—fast—I am depending either on my neighbor, or on my security guard to get in a new domestic help.”
Jain soon found, however, that helpers were being kept out of wealthy districts by guards. So she began making a database of local maids. It was called Maids4U. But in India, the need quickly grew. Men began calling—they needed jobs too. “That’s when we saw it’s a need everywhere, and it can become a business,” Jain says. The idea’s name changed to Helper4U. It was August 2014.
Two years later the Jains have seen their company flourish into a full-fledged solution. Helped by a $250,000 Facebook award they attracted 3,500 visitors to the site until April this year, and registered 4,000 jobseekers. Since April they have registered an additional 6,000 jobseekers and now receive 11,000 online visitors per month. The firm is gaining traction.
That is largely to do with a revenue model that the couple has recently changed. Initially customers would vet potential employees and request their numbers. But in many cases phones were switched off, or people were unavailable, and complaints were high. Now it acts more as a dating platform: Payment now is for access to the entire database. “There’s better matchmaking happening now, and I think that is what has helped us get more payments,” Punit Jain says.
The platform currently includes eight different job areas, as the demand for work ranging from food delivery to construction has exploded in India’s ‘Maximum City’. The entry of rideshare firms OlaCabs and Uber has created a high demand for drivers, too. The Jains liken their model to Monster.com, which they advise more skilled jobseekers to contact rather than themselves.
The Jains were quickly surprised at how many challenges they faced, were challenges India faces at large. Reaching unskilled workers, for example, has been an eye-opening combination of social and technological issues, Meenakshi Jain says.
“All the job-givers have smartphones and digital advertising works “very nicely”—Google Adwords, Facebook, SEO—but the constraint is getting the helper side,” she says. “Because they don’t have any smartphones. They only have a basic phone and when they have no money they switch it off.” Jain says she must continually tell jobseekers to respond to calls and messages—and, if they cannot read, to get their kids to relay job offers via phone.
In a deeply religious and patriarchal society, everything from language, faith, gender, education—even the attractiveness— of helpers has been specifically requested by potential employers. Helper4U will not become a social engineer, adds Jain: “We cannot deal with your private preferences. All of that we did not really expect.”
The company is currently focused on Mumbai and its sister city of Pune, which speaks the same language—Marathi—and is close geographically. Pamphlets and rickshaw advertising is currently its preferred method of getting a message out in poorer neighborhoods. But to expand, and dissuade copycat entrants to the market, more is required.
To get better exposure in slums Helper4U is looking to create partnerships with local telecommunication firms, which are active in contacting poorer Indians, and have the financial clout to do so. Connecting as a native app would be a CSR activity for telcos, says Meenakshi Jain—and would surely skyrocket Helper4U’s user base. Facebook’s endowment is also running low, and the company is looking for series B not only for marketing, but also technology and data security additions.
“We are a social enterprise,” Punit Jain admits. “But we don’t want to be a nonprofit social enterprise. Until now we are not making profit. But we will make profit, and we will be self-sustainable.” The couple have two daughters, who have chided their mother for putting off jobseekers’ calls. It shows they care. Meenakshi is proud that Helper4U, in just two years, has made such an impact.
“It has been a very great journey,” she says.