Kevin Freitas, CHRO, Dream Sports

In an exclusive catchup with HRO's Aditi Sharma Kalra, Kevin Freitas, Chief Human Resources Officer, Dream Sports speaks about:

  • The journey of developing and strengthening a highly employee-focused, transparent, in-person and open culture,
  • Learning from great sports teams to balance match season and downtime (unlimited and unplugged leaves, experience vouchers, etc.),
  • How Dream Sports is building a place without micromanagement and bureaucracy.

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Dream Sports is a 14-year-young sports technology platform housing more than 140mn users playing fantasy cricket, football, kabaddi, and basketball, with brands like Dream11, FanCode, and Dream Capital.

Leading its people practice is Kevin Freitas, CHRO, Dream Sports, who has been with the company since 2017, and brings more than a decade of experience as CXO in companies like InMobi and Flipkart. 

Read on for the full interview!

Q With more than a decade of business, consulting and HR experience with consulting companies, what do you love most about your job? If not in HR, what career would you have picked?

I enjoy coaching and partnering with senior executives to lead business, culture, and organisational transformations. In the course of my career, I have designed many initiatives that strengthen work culture and help teams scale new highs. I’m proud of the impact of the work my team has done and I’m glad that I’ve had the privilege and trust of some of India’s best founders (Flipkart, InMobi and Dream11/Dream Sports) to work with them.

I would probably be an accountant or a financial advisor if I had not chosen HR.

Q How has your leadership style evolved over the years? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned?

I give my team members space to shine, commit mistakes and learn from them.

I think it’s very important to have your team members believe in themselves, reflect, learn and know that you still have their back, if things go south.

One of the things I reflect on in the interviews that I take is that a very small percentage of individuals give credit to their team for their success. For most candidates, they believe they’re successful because they shone and their team did not. For me it’s always been my team, my captain and colleagues that have made me successful.

Q Do you have any personal philosophies that you hold dear to you as you come to work each day?

I have three personal philosophies:

1. Treat everyone with respect and kindness, and begin the relationship with trust.
2. Be comfortable with being dispensable. Be confident and self-assured about building a strong second line to take your place.
3. Figure out what you want to stop doing every six months, so that you can enrich your role.

Q Talking about the work front, we know you’re aiming to build a stadium-like environment for your employees, Sportans. How does HR contribute to this culture? How fulfilling has the journey been so far?

Sports technology is a new, exciting and rapidly growing sector with a lot of opportunities and Dream Sports provides the perfect combination of sports and tech like no other in India. Inspired by the spirit of sports teams and leagues, and our vision to 'Make Sports Better', we have tried to establish and implement work culture and core values that would make us a great sports team.

In my experience over the years, I have realised that:

Culture is king: It’s important to develop core values and make them part of every organisational practice, including HR. We have made our culture principles 'DO-PUT' (Data-obsessed, Ownership, High performance, User first, and Transparency) a part of our recruitment strategy and our employer brand effectively supports this as well, as we consider this the strength of our brand.

Performance management is the key: As professional athletes work towards improving their performance, we have set up a sophisticated internal system to help Sportans map and improve their performance with quarterly 360-degree feedback, surveys, aptitude analysis, learning, and training opportunities, etc.

Balancing match season and downtime is necessary: Just like sports players and athletes enjoy their off-season time to focus on their other non-professional goals, organisations need to help employees strike the right work-life balance as well. At Dream Sports, we offer and encourage Sportans to avail multiple benefits such as unlimited and unplugged leaves, flexible hours, long lunch breaks, proximity to Stadium benefits, international offsites, experience vouchers, etc.

Under our unplugged leaves benefit, Sportans need to compulsorily take seven days off in a year during which, they are completely disconnected from their work, laptops and communication over email/telephone with their team. To lead and motivate them in availing these leaves, our Super - Captains / Coaches (our management team members) who don’t take unplugged leaves, donate INR one lakh (~SGD 1,800) to charity.  Evidently, we are serious about taking time off and recharging to better prepare for upcoming match seasons.

The journey of developing and strengthening a highly employee-focused, transparent, in-person and open culture at Dream Sports has been extremely fulfilling. As Sportans, we do put our culture first!

Q Tell us some of the coolest and most impactful HR initiatives you’ve executed for Sportans. And in doing so, what did you gauge the impact of these programmes?

Besides our focus on culture, we also encourage our Sportans to pursue their dreams and goals beyond their work commitments, especially in a city like Mumbai that has so much to offer its residents.

With our wide array of a wide array of offerings including competitive salaries, ESOPs, opportunity to work in a dynamic industry like sports technology, working with the latest tech stack, unlimited leaves, conveyance, gym membership, exceptional health/wellness benefits for Sportans and their families, international offsite, exclusive match tickets/experiences and more.

Some of our unmatched benefits include:

The Dream Sports Stadium: Designed to look and feel like a sports stadium, Dream Sports’ very own office or ‘The Stadium’ is a state-of-the-art facility that resonates with our culture. It is designed with a sports theme, with a cafeteria that offers free healthy snacking and meal options. Sportans have the option of subscribing to a variety of foods, joining Sports Clubs, playing their favourite sports, working out at the gym or taking a relaxing spa session.

Dream Sports has a transparent, in-person and open culture. Our offices do not have any individual cabins or cubicles.

Proximity to the stadium: We are committed to providing flexibility and work-life balance to all Sportans. Especially in a city like Mumbai, where daily commute and long distances prove stressful for most people, our Sportans have the reassurance of this benefit which enables them to live in their ideal residence while remaining close to the Stadium. Under the benefit, Dream Sports pays up to 67% of their rent and assistance in rent deposit payment so they can live within 30 minutes of the Stadium and commute to work easily. The benefit is available to Sportans even during the pandemic when they are working remotely, without worrying about rent and accommodation expenses.

Learning wallet: We believe that Dream Sports is a great place for on-the-job learning, and this needs to be supplemented by the pursuit of learning new concepts that every Sportan can apply at work. Sportans can avail of this benefit for every financial year of which Dream Sports will bear 80% of the costs. Our 'Learning Wallet' allows Sportans to take charge of their own learning, both in and outside of their job profiles, to enhance their knowledge, work in great synergy with other clubs (departments) and excel in their careers! They may take up any development program(s), training/certification programme(s), seminars, books, ebooks, webinars or any other learning initiative.

The learning wallet benefit includes all expenses related to the Sportans’ learning initiative, including but not limited to their travel and accommodation, along with the tickets for conferences, workshops, seminars, etc.

● Relocation benefits: We recognise great talent from across the country and provide complete relocation benefits to Sportans and their immediate families, so they can join us in Mumbai. This includes taking care of all expenses for their relocation, accommodation in five-star hotel properties while they look for their dream home in Mumbai and assistance in finding the same near the Stadium.

Speaking about impact:

● 60% of Sportans opt for the Proximity Benefit and that % has doubled over the past three years. This results in a better work-life balance as work is close to home and vice versa.

● Just 1 in 20 Sportans that opt for learning wallet quit the company over three years. That is clearly a very high return on investment and engagement in learning.

● We have consistently been rated one of the Best Companies to Work for in India by The Great Place To Work Institute, and our retention rate has been quite high even as we’ve tripled our organisation headcount over the past two years.

Q One of your brand EVPs is to build ‘a place without micromanagement and bureaucracy’. What does it take to eliminate these phenomena, given you aren’t a small organisation and red tape is bound to creep in?

Transparency is one of our main focus pillars when it comes to the culture at Dream Sports. We are constantly working towards making additions to and modifying our policies and approach to ensure the utmost transparency, sense of ownership and comfort for all Sportans, regardless of their position.

Some of our organisation-wide cultural practices that enable Sportans to perform their best stress-free are the hyper-experimentation based HEAL (Hypothesis, Experiment, Analysis and Learning) under which, Sportans are encouraged to experiment, fail fast, learn fast and move forward. We motivate them to learn from their experiments and share their thoughts and feedback instead of following the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). We also implement collective decision making and changes based on discussions, surveys and feedback from all Sportans.

These initiatives have strengthened our culture to a large extent and one clear indicator is how the Sportan family has more than doubled in the last two years.

Q What are some of the talent challenges you have faced in the tech industry, as you’re constantly looking to hire highly-skilled staff? How do you overcome these challenges?

The scarcity of highly-skilled staff in fast-paced and dynamic industries like technology is a challenge that many companies experience globally. Luckily in India, we are blessed with many talented young professionals. However, at Dream Sports, especially with brands like Dream11 that have a significant base of over 120mn users, an issue that we usually face is that most candidates do not have the experience of working at such a scale.

Hence, our priority while hiring candidates is to ensure that they are a culture fit and possess the necessary skills to work on our tech stack. Then, we focus on providing them with great mentorship, training and work experiences. For this, Sportans work in Dream Teams which include 11 to 15 people across tech products, design, customer support team etc., with a mix of experienced and freshers. This not only ensures that the products we build are the best of both experiential and experimental minds but also helps our Sportans grow.

Initially, while setting up, we believed in hiring experienced people who can help us build what we want to build. But over the years, as we have expanded, we are also hiring freshers and putting them alongside experienced people who can help them grow. We let them imbibe the work ethos and once they understand our culture, we encourage them to work on their own and be creative with technology.

Additionally, we have an open work culture concept at Dream Sports, where even the newest and youngest of our team members are free to raise their needs and concerns in terms of professional and personal development. We also offer generous learning wallet benefits besides the training sessions that we frequently conduct. For example, towards the end of 2021, we sent select team members to London for an immersive training session with Scala.

Q What does your own dream team look like - in terms of the skills and attributes you respect most?

At Dream Sports, we believe that culture is the only thing that scales in an organisation.

Thus, when it comes to acquiring talent, our go-to strategy is to hire great people, ensure they are culture-fit, and trust them with their role so they can perform their best.

We look for top talent across the country, provided they make for a potentially good fit for our culture. Apart from experienced professionals who obviously bring a lot of knowledge and experience to the team, we also actively hire young talent who bring a data-driven mindset and have the desire to help us construct the most cutting-edge cross-platform products at scale. We scout for such talent through referrals from our existing Sportans and from reputed institutes such as IITs, NITs and ISB.

We have over 800 employees currently at Dream Sports across our brands like Dream11 (with over 120mn users), FanCode (a premier digital sports platform that personalises content and commerce for all sports fans), Dream Capital (a CVC and M&A arm) and our philanthropic arm, Dream Sports Foundation. Our team has more than doubled since January of 2020 during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic when our headcount was just 339.

Currently, the primary focus in hiring for the next couple of months is to rapidly scale up the teams in our core productivity functions of technology, product and design.

Q In line with Industry 4.0, what can HR do to keep the organisation up to date with the challenges?

Industry 4.0 is a very interesting place to be in as an employee and employer. The world is changing and evolving at such a rapid pace and at the crux of it stands innovation. Even for us, as HR professionals, innovation has become the need of the hour as we face unique challenges and dynamics in the modern workplace.

One of the things that have worked wonderfully for us at Dream Sports is being data-obsessed. Data-driven decisions have helped us create high-performing teams that have led to excellent growth across verticals.

We also utilise the latest tech stack to meet our hiring needs. It consists of:

  1. Lever, that combines an application tracking and relationship management system so we can build stronger and better relationships with our candidates,
  2. LinkedIn, Zoom and Calendar integrations to manage hybrid interviews and speed up our hiring process,
  3. Hackerrank and Ongrid for filtering and background verifications that address talent and build trust,
  4. Monday and Slack integrations to get a quick and overall sense of our recruiting playbook, so we can timely and efficiently respond to referral candidates,
  5. Woohoo for the gratification of referral awards.

As long as there are problems, there will be solutions that are brainstormed and implemented. However, it is important to not do this alone but take everyone along. Every organisational problem is not for the management team to solve, but for everyone in the organisation to contribute solutions to. So having an open dialogue and conversation in townhalls or through anonymous suggestions is key to building that trust and using the minds and hearts of everyone in the organisation.

Q Finally, and this is on the lighter side, can you teach us something in five minutes or less?

The credit for this life and career lesson stems from my English Literature coursework from the novel Tom Sawyer, during my school days.

According to Mark Twain, “work is what the body is obliged to do and play is what the body is not obliged to do”.

It is a very deep lesson. You may not enjoy everything you’re doing, but you can trick your mind into enjoying it with a little bit of creativity. We all need a little creativity in navigating life and even if there are surprises along the way, the choice of staying positive is our own.


Image / Provided (Kevin Freitas, CHRO, Dream Sports)

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