Office Hours: I transformed Advantage Club from a small startup to a multi-million dollar venture. I’m Smiti Bhatt Deorah. AMA!Featured

Hi Elphas!

I’m Smiti Bhatt Deorah, Co-founder and COO at Advantage Club, a YC-backed global employee engagement and rewards platform.

At Advantage Club, I wear various hats, focusing on Business Development, Marketing, Hiring, Content and Customer Relations. I'm a people person and love making new connections. I truly believe that real business associations are a combination of business synergy plus friendships.

I’m a UCLA grad and before Advantage Club, I was working with Microsoft in their Redmond office, managing SQL Azure customers.

During my downtime, I enjoy reading books, swimming and traveling (16 countries down, many more to go!)

Ask me anything about HR-Tech, business, sales, startups, Harry Potter trivia, going through YC, entrepreneurship, or anything else!

Thanks so much for joining us @smitibhattdeorah!Elphas – please ask @smitibhattdeorah your questions before Friday, April 26th. @smitibhattdeorah may not have time to answer every questions, so emoji upvote your favorites 🔥👍🏾➕
Hi Smiti! Happy to see you here. What would you say is the most valuable lesson you learned from going through Y Combinator, and how has it impacted your approach to business?
@Shenna20 pre-Yc, we used to be happy with a 5% MOM increase in our revenue. YC pushed us to strive for a 15-20% MOM growth. That completely changed our trajectory and the way we looked at our business. When you build something with focus on fast growth, you build differently.
Thank you for stopping by. I appreciate and am excited by your successes. Startups are doing some great things in data/AI. Where can one be a fractional consultant to them for free or paid? It would be great to just learn and support them, especially in the AI, healthcare, and ethics space. What books are you reading or listening to? Most recently, I consumed Anderson Cooper's Vanderbilts. It read like a Gded Age succession. Thought I should share and ask for a book recommendation. Have a great week! @smitibhattdeorah
Hey @lisa02coleman, thanks for the message! There are a lot of platforms where experts can share their ideas for startups and companies seeking for the same. For example, we've used platforms like Upwork in our early days for quick external resources on projects/initiatives.And thanks for sharing the recommendation on Vanderbilts! The Gded age itself is fascinating because there was so much industrialization and yet so much corruption happening, it makes up for an exciting read. Not to mention yesteryear's concepts on gender equality and general thinking fascinates me in realizing how far we have come as a community. I would recommend "Play Bigger" by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead and Kevin Maney if you'd like to read up on how companies have become giants as category creators, and how a lot of category creators could never become category kings even though they were in the market first. Amazing read.
Thanks, Smiti. It sounds like a good read to me based on topics that interest me.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights and experience. I am in the process of starting my own Cultural Consulting service. How do I get beyond the "word of month" to find the right client base?
@fadakageorge welcome to the other side! I'm assuming since you are just starting up, there are no marketing or ad spend budgets available right now. I'm also assuming you have or are in process of building a website where you could redirect people to read about your company. Here are some zero-to-no-cost things you could do:- Linkedin marketing: This comes in 2 parts, first is outreach to your potential customers and the second is building a personal brand as a culture expert through your own posts on linkedin. You brand building is most important before you even hit the market, as in B2B, what looks good sells good.- Networking events: You need an initial set of customers irrespective of size or pedigree. Attend any to every networking event you can find in your city. Start building a customer base from there. Sell hard. Network like crazy. Give 1 month free trials to your first 10 paying customers.- Groups you are part of: Identify all groups you are part of. College/school alumni, parents groups, entrepreneur groups, neighbourhoods, whatever you can find. Get referrals from your friends to their HR's and constantly pitch your product everywhere. Every business has employees, therefore every business in the world needs advice on retention and culture building. Even if it doesn't convert, you at least will get a good practice pitching. Run referral programs and give a percentage of your earnings from these paying customers to the folks referring you.- Host your own meetups: People love meeting other people in a similar domain. Host short meetups of your potential customers in a coffee shop or restaurant where people come not only to meet others, but also to learn more about your business. I know a lot of people who host meetups and the attendees pay for their own bills, the USP is that the organizer is bringing like-minded people under one roof, and not the free drinks/dinner.
Thank so much for your thoughtful response. To be honest, I wasn't expecting such a thorough response and happily surprised. You already sparked an online event idea to host for next month to showcase my services!
I truly admire people who are great at networking and connecting with people. What advice do you have for improving networking skills?
@Kalyn179 people who say networking skills come naturally are lying. It is a constant process of self improvement, reflection, and takes a LOT of effort to become efficient at it. You can get basics of it by doing a simple google search, like improve your spoken communication, maintain eye contact, show interest in the other person's conversation, etc etc. But I feel everyone can do that, still some people are better than networking than others. In my opinion this is why:- Try to build a higher trust with the person you are speaking to. This involves coming on the same emotional level as the other person. If the person is being vulnerable, show empathy and maybe give examples of similar vulnerabilities of yourself or someone you know. This makes them feel you understand them better and trust you.- Networking really takes time and multiple conversations with a person to build a better connection. Strive for more follow-on conversations. My thumb rule is to convert a contact from a stranger -> acquaintance -> someone i can chat with -> a friend i can meet -> someone i can have coffee with -> someone i can have drinks/dinner with.- Networking is a 2-way street. If you want to connect with someone because you feel they can help you with something, also find ways in which you can help them. Offering help, no matter how small, builds a deeper connection, even if they don't take it.- Be like-able. Even if you do not agree with someone's views, there is always a polite way of arguing. Being too overwhelming and judgemental on people's opinions irritates them and hampers relationships in the long run.
Thank you for spending your week with us, Smiti! It's a pleasure to have you. Congratulations on all you've accomplished in your career and with your startup. My work is fully remote and I'm always trying to find ways to keep people on the team engaged, a good chunk is actually students who have competing priorities so I want to make sure we're always top of mind. We do things like retreats, professional development opportunities (they all love the work so we're super blessed for that), but i'd love to level ourselves up a bit!
Hey @iynna, super excited to be part of the community! It is amazing that you are already thinking of leveling up on your engagement metrics, which is literally the first step to accepting that no level of engagement is ever enough, we need to do more and more everyday. Retreats are great but they are not regular and hence forgotten in a short period of time. Professional development opportunities works best when the training provided to employees also helps them level up in their current company at the same time. Here are a few other ideas on enhancing engagement:- Peer appreciation: Today's generation wants to be appreciated on everything they do. The ideally want to be thanked or applauded for their efforts, because getting a paycheck if just not enough. Creating structures around that, like thank you/kudos weeks, will go a long way in engaging employees, especially students.- Communities: You can engage students better when they have access to one another and they actually feel like a team. Being fully remote, they must have never met their peers face to face for more than once or twice a year, which removes the connectivity between them. Zoom is great, but it doesn't have the same impact. So creating groups of like minded individuals, things like hobby clubs, support groups, ERGs, DEI groups would bring them closer and increase their belongingness.- Find ways in which people in the same vicinity can connect with each other. For example, we have a classifieds feature, where I can literally find roommates or rent apartments from other employees in my company. People you work with are more trustworthy than random folks on craigslist etc, so leveraging the power of your community really helps.- Fun digital events: These are digital so can be done more often and easier to organize than physical events like retreats. For example, an online team lunch on zoom, or a fun gaming session on a digital platform with leaderboards etc, or running a virtual stepathon or walking challenge, or even simple quizzes rolled out to employees will engage them better without the logistical nightmares.- Moments that matter: Celebrating milestones like work anniversaries, birthdays, completion of 3/5/10 years and more add a lot of value in engagement and retention. If a monetary gift can be attached that would be best or a simple e-card, personalized email or certificate goes a long way :)
Hi Smiti, thank you for your time! I'm interested in understanding the process of going through Y Combinator. Could you describe what the application, interviews, and the program itself were like? Additionally, as a college student in my junior year, I'm reflecting on my own experiences and future. Is there anything you wish you could've improved about your time in college?
Hi @vivienyin, it's so nice to see you start thinking about the future from junior year itself. That in my opinion already puts you ahead of most of your peers! My YC experience was a little different than most because we were a little late stage to go in YC (we were the oldest and had the highest revenue in our batch). But the process remained pretty straight forward. We applied for summer 21 and this was a remote batch because of Covid. The application also requires you to submit a 1min video along with the written application. The written piece is fairly a standard set of questions for every batch, asking you to talk about your past work, education, and some interesting questions around how good of a hustler you are. This was not our first time applying, we had been rejected in the past, so it is true that you can keep re-applying to YC with your progress and you could still get through later. The interviews are short, 10-15mins where they ask you a rapid fire of quick questions where you should give short, to the point, but concise answers. Ours were mostly around the need of the product, our reason for pivoting from our original perks idea we had interviewed with last time (they had notes from our previous interview in the Bay area where we had gotten rejected), what were we doing differently this time, questions around our revenue and why we were applying to YC now since we were a little late stage. They actually changed protocol and one of the partners did a SECOND interview with us a week later, over a phone call, to answer some follow up questions. A day later we got the acceptance.In my undergrad I spent a lot of time doing extra curriculars, like organizing fests, worked in getting sponsorships from companies, participating in events, I was the head of the computer society etc etc, I even did a lot of social work where I taught underprivileged students english and mathematics. But the thing I missed out in undergrad was getting a hang of running a venture or building something from scratch. So when I went to grad school I tried to fix that. That is where I did a lot of hackathons, built a lot of products from scratch, launched mini projects, went to a lot of startup networking events and starting learning real world skills instead of just bookish knowledge. I feel the exposure I got by interacting with the industry in this manner was much more valuable as an entrepreneur later in my life.
Wow @smitibhattdeorah, thank you so, so much for taking the time to thoroughly share your invaluable experiences and journey with us. As an aspiring entrepreneur and college student, I'm really glad to have this opportunity to learn from your insights about your college experience as well. Wishing you all the best in your endeavors!
@smitibhattdeorah thanks for your time. I would like to learn about the playbook for building a community platform. Elpha is a great example. However would like to understand the vision to execution playbook to understand better.
@manjuladharmalingam the first step is to identify the objective of the community, what that community is supposed to achieve. It is important to have a defined goal, eg, Elpha is primarily women in tech, not a broad women community. This is a closed defined goal. Second is to define how will you run the community. Is it a blog based community, is it more like a social media platform, is it offline, hybrid etc and create online and offline assets basis that (website, app, physical office etc). Third is getting members to join basis your community definition. Start with low hanging fruits and easier to convert members and work your way up to find influencers and super smart people in the industry to be a part of it. Share guidelines, rules, ethics, setup moderators, loyalty mechanisms etc. Lastly, start engaging the members via the community. Create initial topics for starters till topics start free flowing on their own. Have weekly events people can look forward to, create a hype on social media and invite other influencers to be speakers. There is no specific one-size-fits-all-playbook, so try everything and see what works for your community best, and build upon it.
Thank you for joining us, Smiti! I have three questions; I hope you get the time to answer all of them :-)1. I am interested in knowing how you transitioned from the Microsoft SQL Server role to a Bizdev/Marketing/Hiring role. In your view, what skills have been crucial in success for you in Business Development and Marketing? Was your earlier experience transferable or did you have to learn any new soft or hard skills? 2. Next question I have is about the HR function: in your experience, in a slow economy where companies are laying off, what are the challenges companies face with their existing workforce? (I am asking based on assumption that in a slow economy, attracting talent is not hard, but feel free to correct me!)3. Last question is about your use of AI and ML in your daily work: how do you envision making your job more impactful by using these technologies today and in the future?Thank you much and looking forward to hearing from you!
Hey @madien, great questions! Sharing answers one by one:1. Switching roles is never easy and it will take every bone in your body to do it, especially when you are so comfortable being a techie since forever. For me it started off with interacting with customers (was not easy, I had to convince a lot of people to let me even speak to clients) but that is where the journey began. Very early in my career I had realized that my interests lied more as a people's person instead of being a coder, and all my efforts started moving towards that. I still work with my tech teams at Advantage Club today in terms of solutioning, although I do not code myself anymore.The skills which have been crucial in my success are primarily good communication skills, negotiation skills, customer interactions and understanding what my TG wants, good hold of written content, relationship building skills and the sheer curiosity to learn everything in the world related to these fields. While some of my experience with customers did help, eventually I had to learn almost everything on my own. Starting a venture is very different than doing a job. Even the things I did know had to be upgraded when I actually got on the field and started selling. In a job you have a lot of resources available at your disposal but in a business you have to find cost effective ways to getting the same work done at less than half the cost. The hustle is at another level.2. You are absolutely correct - attracting talent is not hard in this economy - which also creates the reverse problem that retaining good talent is hard. In a world where companies are struggling to stay stable, most increments and bonuses are being cancelled, which is forcing good talent to look out elsewhere and companies can no longer afford high pay increases to retain them. Eventually, there is a requirement of great talent everywhere, they are definitely not the ones getting laid off in most cases. So retention is the first problem. Second is, after you have laid off 20% of your workforce, the remaining 80% becomes insecure. So re-engaging the folks you decided to keep becomes a big challenge to re-build the trust with those employees again and giving them security. Hence, driving effective communication to build authenticity becomes important. Third is bridging the skills gap due to layoffs and driving the same amount of productivity with a smaller workforce.3. There are so many use cases of AI ML today. For starters, basic use cases of AI come in creating content, presentations, polls, surveys, even code can be curated for modules to build upon using AI. We use ML to analyse user data, patterns, usage, predict results, behaviors, generate inferences to present intelligent data to our clients. We also use AI ML to drive personalized results and recommendations for our end users to suggest where they should redeem their rewards, trends in their companies, automated reminders on low usage, location based app notifications for ping-based reminders when they are near an outlet they can use and so much more.
Thank you for the detailed answer! Regarding AI/ML - your use cases are fantastic but I think I need to clarify my question: As an HR head, do you use ML to make decisions or draw strategies for workforce hiring, management etc?I understand that I might have exhausted my time to get answers :-) but if you can answer, then that would be great!!TIA!!
@madien oh I get it now. Yes absolutely. The first benefit of using AI/ML in hiring is to shortlist the candidates themselves. A lot of recruiter time and effort is spent on resume shortlisting (an average of 2-3 minutes per resume) and this makes it much easier. You can also model AI to do initial interviews and share responses in terms of assessments, like a Pre-HR round. We have built an onboarding module where companies can offer candidates an engagement platform post getting OLs, and basis the interactions each candidate makes with the platform, we use AI/ML to create a predictive analysis on how likely is the candidate to join on the day of the joining, as dropoffs post acceptance of offer letter has become a very real problem off late. We have also built in sentiment analysis, mood-o-meters, culture survey pieces to predict disengagement levels of existing employees so that appropriate measures can be taken to retain them before they resign. Hope this answers your question :)
Thank you for taking the time to answer! Are you running your own homegrown ML models or are you running packaged models for this prediction? What does your overall AI-ML environment look like? Again, if you cannot answer due to time constraints, then I can understand! Very much appreciate all the answers!! TIA !!