“A person with an idea is a crank until the idea succeeds” -Mark Twain.
crank definition: a person who has strange or unusual ideas and beliefs.
Can you imagine how “crank’ Benjamin Franklin had to be to discover electricity when there was no electricity? Or how “crank” Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown had to be when they came up with the idea of an app where pictures and messages disappear 5 seconds after the recipient has viewed it? These radical ideas have gone on to change the world and become the biggest initial public offering ever for a Los Angeles based company.
Closer to home, we have 迪根德拉. Digendra Rathore (DSR) [as mentioned in his LinkedIn profile], who had the radical idea to reinvent the way people find and live in rental homes in Indian metro cities. He learnt that finding affordable quality accommodation has always been a problem for people in India. Determined to solve this problem, in 2015, he started his own venture called ‘Fella Homes’. We had the good fortune of hosting him at our office and picking his brains about the potential of student accommodation in India.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. On LinkedIn, you’ve spelt your name in Chinese? Any particular reason for that?
DSR- I work as an international business development consultant; as a result, I am required to approach people and businesses across the world, especially from China. From my experience, I believe that people do business with you if they like you. And if you want to be liked by people from other cultures, the first thing is to start communicating in their language. So, in my quest to establish a good rapport with the Chinese, I thought of spelling my name in Chinese.
Q. Tell us about that transition period between graduating and starting your own business. Historically, most IIT graduates prefer plush corporate jobs. What made you decide to start your own venture?
DSR – I’ll answer this question in two parts. Firstly, the trend of IITians preferring corporate jobs is changing vis a vis the last ten years. We have many examples of successful IITians like the Flipkart and Snapdeal founders, who have ignored the rat race, and instead, started their own ventures. To say that they’ve made it big is an understatement. Inspired by these success stories, more and more students now look for opportunities to start-up their own enterprise right after college, instead of joining a safe plush job.
In my case, I did get a PPO from a well-established Oil & Gas company with an offshore job posting, but I wasn’t sure this was the right path for me. Nor was I sure that I had the courage to dive into the entrepreneurial scene. Coming from a small village in Madhya Pradesh, quality education was a problem. So, my parents sent me to Udaipur for schooling, which turned out well as I made it into an IIT. At IIT-Roorkee, a couple of my friends and I took the courageous decision to start the college’s first-ever Formula Student team, which also fared well as we won several accolades at an international level.
Looking back at the decisions taken in my life, thus far, I realised that I have unintentionally taken so many risks but have always managed to land firmly on my feet. So, with this new-found air of confidence, I decided to take the plunge and become an entrepreneur.
Q. You have graduated as a mechanical engineer from IIT-Roorkee, one of the best IITs in India. But you work as an international business development and strategy consultant. How did that change occur?
DSR – Hailing from a small town, I was sold on the idea that becoming an engineer was your ticket to a lavish life. I was surrounded in an environment where studies came first, and the only thing that mattered was that ‘engineering degree’. That is why I never really played any sport, nor learned to dance or sing. But I did not fret as I was genuinely interested in machines and how they work. So, I had no qualms about becoming an engineer and having a career that revolves around machines. But that soon changed when I started studying vehicle dynamics for our race car project in college. I was overwhelmed by the practical nitty-gritty that went into developing a car from scratch and everything else related to it.
I let someone else take the reins of this function and thought It’d be best if I try my hand at something else. That’s when marketing and fundraising came to the fore. And boy, did this role fit just like a glove! I soon realised that I could leverage my gift of the gab and creativity in raising funds, bringing in the right talent for the project as well as managing the entire project.
Q. Tell us about your first venture.
DSR – After spending 3 years at IIT-Roorkee working on the Formula style race cars for Formula Student UK and Australia, and another year working on IIT Roorkee’s landmark solar plant installation project, I believed that I had garnered sufficient skill and experience to start my own gig. So, I started working on the idea of selling solar panels through an online platform.
Back in 2014, the whole Indian-solar-panel-concept was in its nascent stage, and I was hoping to capitalise on this potentially buzzing sector. I managed to get support from IIM-Ahmedabad’s incubation centre, thus providing my plan with enough wherewithal to take it off the ground. Desperate to see my venture bear fruit, I applied to Y Combinator and got selected for interviews! Before I even knew it, I was on a plane to San Francisco, where I had to pitch my idea to a panel of 3 exceptional Silicon Valley honchos. Our team of three had only 10-minutes to woo them. This was make or break for us. They loved the idea, they loved the plan, but they didn’t love the market. They were of the opinion that the Indian market was simply not mature enough for a product like this and instead, suggested I change my business model to that akin to SolarCity – sell commercial solar panels on an easy month instalment basis. But I stuck to my guns and immediately rejected this new direction for my idea, hoping the panel would admire my tenacity. But that wasn’t the case as I was sent home packing. Dejected on coming back to India empty-handed, I thought it was best I ditch this idea of solar panels and pivot to something else.
After brainstorming several ideas, I finally decided to enter the rental homes market in India.
Q. During your time at IIT Roorkee, you were heavily involved in a number of co-curricular activities. How did you manage your time between organising alumni meets and coordinating internship placements? Weren’t you worried about all that impacting your studies?
DSR – On the first day that I entered college, I told myself that studies would take a backseat. After all those years of studying the whole time, I was hell-bent on discovering new things that lied outside the sphere of academia. I was fortunate enough to find some other students who shared this ideology. Armed with this new carefree attitude (spearheaded by me), we threw ourselves at different activities around campus. I fancied the alumni relations cell because there were many posts, and I liked the idea of elections. With the first semester soon approaching, our textbooks were still “brand new”. That should tell you how determined we were to shun our books. When the results were out, I was in for a rude awakening when I noticed my so-called ‘partners in crime’ fared so much better than I did. This reality check made me realise that I really need to pull my socks up and focus on studies while still being involved in other collegiate activities. This brought up a seismic change in the way I looked at college. I worked on my time management skills and learnt to better coordinate the various tasks I was involved in.
Q. How did you manage to raise a mammoth INR 4.5 million as sponsorship from Indian corporates and alumni for the Formula Student and Formula SAE competitions?
DSR – Everyone knows that a good product will sell itself. So in that vein, my team and I decided that we will leave no stone unturned in our mission to build a solid product. The moment we decided on a final blueprint, I took it to our college’s annual alumni meet. Many big names in the industry who were present there loved our idea. That’s where it started. News of our Formula style race car spread like wildfire and soon the money poured in. With some more networking and funds from our college, we were able to achieve our target.
Q. The journey of an entrepreneur is not without its fair share of disappointments. How did you deal with adversity?
DSR – Adversity. (chuckles) There’s no other word in the English language that I’m more familiar with than adversity. This reminds me of an incident I had in Thailand. Soon after we had a successful showing in Formula SAE Australasia in Melbourne, we were headed back home via a short sojourn in Thailand. After five fun-filled days in Pattaya, it was time to board the final plane back to India. Just as I was about to step onto the plane, I discovered that I had lost the bag that had my passport, ID’s, money etc. In spite of this being my first trip abroad, I made the decision to stay back alone and find my bag. I bade my teammates goodbye and braced myself for what was going to be a rough couple of days. I headed straight to the airport police with my problem and there assured me that I would get my bag within a day. A day turned into 3 days and finally into 7 days. Perhaps my urgency and desperation got lost in translation. I spent 7 whole days all by myself in an unknown city where I didn’t know a lick of the local language. The decisions I took during my time there really developed me as a person. As perilous as those 7 days were, I can’t help but crack a smile when I think of those days.
Q. You’ve had some stellar highs in your career. What are some of your most proud accomplishments?
DSR – Of course, founding IIT-Roorkee’s first-ever Formula Student team is something that is really close to my heart. I credit this as a vital turning point in life as it made it realise the thrill of starting something from scratch. I think this is where the entrepreneur seed began to take sprout. In college, we were a strong force to be reckoned with as our team grew bigger and stronger. This even carried forward to our placements, where for the first time in India, companies offered PPOs not only to MTech students but also BTech students, simply because of the sheer talent they displayed while working on the cars. Also, the fact that for the first time ever, nine students of IIT-Roorkee went to Australia for Formula SAE is something that makes me really proud.
Q. From your experience at Fella Homes, do you think there’s potential for student housing in India? Were there any regulatory problems that you encountered or foresee?
DSR – When I started Fella Homes, I foresaw that co-living could be the future of housing for India’s millennial workforce. There is a massive demand for housing structures like this as a lot of millennials are checking into the co-living spaces. Several companies like NestAway, Zolo Stays, OYO Life, Stanza Living are thriving in this space. The real estate and student accommodation space are interlinked. Therefore, anything that affects the real estate sector directly impacts the student accommodation sector. Challenges like demonetization, implementation of GST and RERA (Real Estate Regulation Act), and funding shortage owing to the liquidity crisis have hit both sectors, with real estate taking the full brunt of it.
But now with the widespread adoption of technology and government initiatives for affordable housing, the student accommodation sector looks lively again. Another major problem is that almost half the country’s population, some 600 million people are under 25 years old. Of these, a large percentage is moving to urban centres in search of jobs and other opportunities. However, there is a severe shortage of quality affordable housing in tier-I cities and tier-II cities. The current demand for purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) bed spaces across the country is almost more than 8 million. This makes the PBSA a potential cash cow as the demand for them is likely to increase every year.