Through The Lens Of Varun Khona: How Headout Traversed A Tumultuous Time And Came Out Stronger
"Our focus is always on how we ensure that anybody who is coming into Headout gets a platform where they are able to do their life's most interesting, most challenging work possible. Everything that we do is a manifestation of that question.” says Varun Khona, co-founder, Headout, a mobile marketplace offering travel-related services from transportation to entertainment.
Varun joins us on our podcast, Inside The Bored Room, to share his perspective on everything from remote work and employee engagement to hiring and scaling remotely. The founder sheds light on how Headout restructured their team during the pandemic and why authenticity is the secret sauce of their success
Making the hardest business decisions during a pandemic
At Headout, be it their Berlin or Bengaluru office, people come together to work on a common mission —ensuring that their users have the best travel experience. While challenges are ever present, the culture is designed so that employees are well equipped with resources and guidance to find their way through these obstacles. With a team of talented and committed individuals, Varun says people at Headout are in a way, each others' fans.
Now, letting go of such team members is heartbreaking. But, what would an entrepreneur do when a global crisis collapses his million-dollar business within a week? Like most entrepreneurs, Varun and his co-founders had no certainty as to when they would be able to make their next dollar again. Therefore, they had to start laying off some of their employees gradually. But, how they did is what makes their story worth sharing.
Varun and the company were determined not to let their employees go empty-handed. So they spent the following 30 to 45 days surfing through all of their contacts to find the best positions for the impacted employees.
By doing so, they stand out in a world where many businesses failed to be compassionate these testing times. While 1400 employees of Ola received their suspension over an email by the CEO, more than 2000 employees of Indiabulls Group were asked to resign over a WhatsApp call by their managers.
According to a study conducted in April 2020, 31% of organizations laid off their employees and 15% of them had cut off the staff without any intent to rehire. In fact, even in the post-COVID era, many jobs could disappear, and job seekers need to be prepared to sail through.
Here’s what Varun shares for his fellow founders who have to make such tough decisions:
- Varun says that if he were looking to downsize again, he would change the time it took for the process to be implemented. The earlier you do it, the fairer you are with the people impacted. So be decisive and get it done, he shares This will also give your employee(s) more time to look for other opportunities.
- Do it with all the humanity that you can, he stresses. How do you do that? By conversing with your employees transparently.
- Taking such decisions is already not easy for founders because they need to explain why they have had to do this. So, while you're doing it, make sure you communicate at every step in a way that they understand where you're coming from. Ensure that they don't feel that they're being thrown under the bus.
Although helping his employees find a home in other organizations was his personal choice, Varun appeals that you do it too. Help them find roles that they would like to explore. Assist them with any documentation they need to get through the process. Of course, you may not be able to help 100% of the team that is being laid-off, but you can always do your bit to keep that percentage as high as possible.
Don't do it alone. It's natural to experience your lowest point while you're going through things you hadn't thought you would experience. So, get help. Varun suggests speaking to your partners, friends, family, mentors, whoever can help you see clearly. If needed, go for therapy. There's absolutely no shame in that. In fact, you would be amazed at how wonderfully it might help you navigate through tough times like these.
Sharing profits with the team
After going through a rough patch throughout 2020, when they were reviewing their numbers more recently they noticed they had made a sizable profit. Now, it may not have been a big deal for a global organization like Headout before getting hit by the pandemic. But that day, it was a sign that they had started gaining their momentum back.
What could they do to celebrate such a notable feat? Now, you may think this is crazy — they distributed all the profit within their entire team. It took them just 20 seconds to make this decision that made their employees' day, if not their year.
Restructuring the workforce post-pandemic
"If we are in a position to be able to bring them back, then we will do so at the very first chance that we get. That's exactly what we did when things started getting back to normal in the late 2020s," Varun shares joyfully about calling back some employees.
Now that almost every industry is back on course, founders and recruiters are freshly strategizing to form new teams to accommodate the post-pandemic scenario.
From his years of experience, Varun has some solid suggestions for them not just to hire great talent but retain them by building massive trust and authenticity with them.
Here’s how they have been doing it at Headout:
- Find people who identify and resonate with the purpose of the mission that you are trying to solve. While hiring, look for the characters who would be motivated to put that stumbling block aside than those who would rather sit there and wait for someone else to do it. Choose missionaries over mercenaries.
- Once you have the right people on board, maintain a transparent ecosystem. Be brutally candid with your team about your decisions, numbers, and the position of the company. Everybody at Headout, from a senior-level position to an intern, has access to all data points and internal dashboards. There isn't a single aspect of the business that Varun and the company are not willing to share with their employees.
- In disastrous times like a pandemic, you owe even more conversations to your employees, both one-on-one and in groups. They deserve that assurance and the clarity about how you are going to take your next steps.
Along with these insights, the podcast is filled with power-packed nuggets on remote work, company culture, and Varun's entrepreneurial journey so far. Not to forget the crazy rounds of rapid-fire that kept the energy high throughout the episode.
Catch up on the full episode here: