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ENTREPRENEURSHIP | Abhiraj Singh Bhal (PGP 2011)

 

Co-founder & CEO, Urban Company 

 

Impact: Urban Company is India’s and the UAE’s largest tech-enabled home service marketplace. Since its inception in November 2014, Urban Company has delivered 14 million service orders across 22 cities. Urban Company has recently expanded to Australia and Singapore.

 

Key Recognitions: 

Entrepreneur of the year Award 2020, NASSCOM Technology & Leadership Forum

Fortune 40 under 40 for India for three consecutive years in 2017, 2018 and 2019

Entrepreneur Magazine 35 under 35 for India in 2017

GQ 50 most influential young Indians in 2017

Economic Times ‘16 startup founders of 2016’ award

Asia Retail Congress Top 50 most influential E-commerce Professionals for 2018

Guest Faculty for 2nd year MBA course ‘Managing Digital Businesses’

 

 

What are your fondest memories from the campus?

 

That’s a great question. So, I came to IIMA, straight from IIT-Kanpur. That being a typical engineering college, there seems to be a relative relaxation that happens in the final year for most of the students.  Considering this, my first memory of IIMA was a stark contrast to the academic culture. During the first trimester at the Institute, I was still figuring out about what actually happened, as with a hectic schedule and constant efforts, I still had the feeling of barely catching up and keeping pace. I assume that I haven’t ever worked this hard, especially in the first year. So, the first year was quite overwhelming, with the events from the student clubs, the Placement Committee discussions, creating the CVs from the third day of being in the campus, and a lot more. So, for me, the only tangible option was to fare well in academics and I was able to achieve that. Then for the Summer Placements, I went to BCG, but also opted for the Placement Committee even before this and happened to work closely with Prof. Saral Mukherjee who is still a mentor for me.

 

The second year was more interesting where I spent most of my time in the Placement Committee, where we even thought of revamping the placement process to ‘cohort peace process’. During this association, we did many conferences to promote the IIMA brand, both in India and globally. It was the Singapore Conference which was the most successful, as it was attended by a strong network of alumni in Asia and the son of Prof. Samir Barua who is also an IIM grad and founder of Delhivery. Here, we were able to unlock a lot of new first-time companies leading to an impressively successful placement season in 2011, which followed the perils of global recession since 2009.

 

What does the YAAA and recognition mean to you, especially when you are one of the youngest awardees?

 

It is a humbling experience and especially when it is coming from my alma mater, it stands as one of the most important awards that I have received so far. IIMA has been a shaping experience for me as a clueless engineering grad who couldn’t know how hard he could work. Therefore, to be recognized by the institution for some of the work that I have done through Urban Company in the last 10 years means a lot. I don’t think it’s an award just for me, but it’s an award for the whole company and all the people who work in the company towards our vision to empower millions of service professionals worldwide to deliver services at home like never experienced before. The first goalpost in this vision is to get 1 million service professionals who could serve millions of consumers in India or elsewhere in India with the highest quality of reliable home services. In the current scenario, we are still far away from that vision and these are early years for us. So, if this award had come 5 or 10 years later, when we would be a much larger and impactful company, it would have seemed well-deserved. Right now, it is both humbling and feels undeserved to me, but I accept it with full humility and gratitude – driven to work harder to grow immensely in terms of impact and corporate social responsibility.

 

You co-founded Urban Company (formerly UrbanClap) in 2014. So, what were you up to from 2011-2014, besides your earlier venture Cinema Box.

 

I joined the Boston Consulting Group straight from the campus. I worked for about two years in their office in Bombay, for about seven to eight months in Singapore, then towards the last three or four months in Delhi and in between, spent some time for their project in Germany. So, I spent good 3 years with BCG across different offices, working on a variety of different projects and industries, viz., construction, clean energy, commercial & passenger vehicles, financial services, telecom, power and towards the end, banking. So, the basic outlook was to work on the most challenging and interesting problems that the leading companies in the world face. During my tenure with BCG, apart from learning to work on the most strategic topics with senior leadership, I imbibed the BCG value of charting your course as an individual, which was indeed entrepreneurship for me.

 

What was that tipping point for you?

 

I think it happened over a period of time and the first time I considered entrepreneurship seriously was in my second year at IIMA. At the time, I was talking to my co-founder, Varun Khaitan, who was working with Qualcomm in San Diego, California. He was my batchmate at IIT-Kanpur. We discussed a bunch of ideas, and one of them we really liked was in the Edtech sector. We were not able to get started back then, but, throughout the 3 years at BCG, Varun and I kept exchanging notes on what we could create together. These conversations were sporadic and added up over time. Eventually, thinking more actively, we returned to India in October of 2013, both working with BCG. Towards the end of our stint at BCG, we started Cinema Box in the travel entertainment space. The idea didn’t take off, but we had many learnings on how to think about businesses in terms of scalability, profitability and competitive advantage. Also, it gave us the idea that our first company is not the global institution that we wanted to create to outlive all of us. We took the practical decision to put a lock there, being in the guardrails of pragmatism and objectivity, channelising our emotions in the right direction.

 

Following this, we started thinking fresh and over a few months of market studies, soul searching, thinking and ideating, we arrived at the idea of Urban Company which was called UrbanClap back then.

 

Probably asked a lot many times before, but from ‘learning to be a good entrepreneur’ to ‘creating thousands of micro-entrepreneurs through a single platform’ – how has the journey been?

 

It hasn’t been a straight line walk upwards and has been definitely challenging. We had to undertake many micro pivots and mutations to our business or operating model, along with trying different categories/services/models. After all this, we zeroed in on a couple of large verticals within home services, beauty, home repairs & maintenance. We worked strongly on the model of service partners, especially on the training aspect and standardising the equipment, tools, products, pricing, deliverables and SOP. We set to control the service delivery through technology. We rigorously select our partners and provide services such as loans, bank account opening, insurance, branding and customers. We have been able to accomplish this through a full-stack or fulfilment-led approach, which considerably changed the game for us.

 

I still feel that in a sector like ours, there is a lot to be done and we have just scratched the surface of what is possible. So, the next 10 years are very exciting and the challenges to be encountered and our ability to overcome them will find the kind of company we create. Additionally, at some point in the journey, we’d like to take the company public sooner rather than later. This is going to be an important milestone for the team for our investors and stakeholders. These are the few experiences that I am looking forward to and excited about.

 

What sets you apart in terms of the service providers or partners who are associated with the Urban Company?

 

Since the early beginning, we were aware that if we have to win, we need to have a great experience for the customers, and equally for the service partners or service professionals. The proof of the great experience is ‘earnings’, meaning if the service professional is able to earn a lot more with us compared to elsewhere, there are high chances of word-to-mouth promotions leading to strong referrals. To highlight, the average earning on our platform today is between Rs 30,000 to 35,000 a month in India, which is almost double of what these service providers would be able to earn offline. Also, if I take the top 30 or 40% of professionals in every category, they would typically make more than 50,000 a month. This is coupled with other benefits that we provide, for example, free of cost life/accident/health insurance, along with a wide array of loans at competitive interest rates from our NBFC partners, access to free training and opportunity to upgrade, access to genuine and high-quality service products at lower prices than the retail market. All these factors have become a significant input into substantially improving the quality of experience for the professionals, simultaneously providing a sense of safety net. We have this saying internally that happy professionals lead to happy customers, resonating with the fact that 100% of our customers and service providers come through referrals and word of mouth.

 

Being the biggest pull, earning is also a function of the price point. Is that going to be a challenge when you try to move to the tier three towns?

 

I don’t think at this point, we are a solution for tier III cities. We are a solution for tier I and tier II India, which is the top 50 metros. From a future perspective, we want to drive our focus and energies on international markets. We have already expanded our services to Singapore, Australia, the UAE, and are looking forward to entering Saudi Arabia.

 

What direction do you see in policy development for informal labour in India and challenges in the business transition to global markets?

 

Last year, India being at the forefront of the policy development passed the ‘The Code on Social Security, 2020’ in the Parliament. This code has recognized gig workers as a formal labour class, identifying their rights and extending welfare measures with a social security fund. So, I think the policy in India is now clear with a forward-looking regulation and it’s one of the best things that has happened as no entrepreneur wants to operate in an environment of policy uncertainty in terms of labour regulations. It has also made our role and responsibility as a platform clear. We are happy with the example that India has set for the rest of the world.

 

Also, in the global context, as a company, we are committed to complying with the letter of the law, as well as the spirit of the law in every market that we operate. This is primarily because we are not wedded to the business models, but to delivering phenomenal world-class services to our end consumers – being compliant with local regulation and local laws.

 

In terms of learnings and challenges, we have phenomenal cross-pollination between teams, with the core model being quite consistent across different markets, with the technology and product also being the same. So, we leverage our global markets to improve our service in India and we leverage our Indian market to improve our services globally – all in sync.

 

What’s next in the game with Urban Company?

 

I wish I had a very interesting answer to this, but over the next 10 years we want to focus in supercharging the company over 50-100 times, take it global, take it public, keep building memorable service experiences for our customers, and in this process, keep creating more jobs for the local service providers.

 

We read somewhere about your intense CrossFit workouts, love for adventure sports and activity-based vacations. Is this a personality trait that makes you seek adventure in all its forms?

 

I am a regular guy with a larger-than-life ambition. I am fortunate to have an amazing team, which sees the vision, and the little that we have accomplished now has been largely by the team, their hard work and commitment. It is the team that keeps me on my toes and always prepared, even if it means giving the most honest opinions by calling a spade a spade. This helps me to keep myself grounded, humble and realize that we have a long way to go.

 

 

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