The 21-year-old building India’s largest hotel network #Beekhaybee

One night, 18-year-old Ritesh Agarwal was locked
out of his apartment in Delhi. It was an
unfortunate minor incident that was to change his
life.
Forced to check into a hotel he found himself in a
situation he had already experienced several times
while travelling in India.
“The receptionist was sleeping,” he says.
“Sockets did not work in the room, mattresses
were torn apart, the bathroom was leaking, and at
the end they wouldn’t let me pay by card.”
“I felt if this was my problem, this had to be a
problem for many travellers. Why can’t India have
a good standard of hotel rooms at a reasonable
price?”
Four years later, at the age of 21, Mr Agarwal is
now the founder and chief executive of Oyo Rooms
– a network of 2,200 hotels operating in 100 cities
across India – with monthly revenues of $3.5m
(£2.3m) and 1,500 employees.
The firm works with unbranded hotels to improve
their facilities and train staff, rebrands them with
its own name, and from then on takes a
percentage of the hotel’s revenues.
The owner of the hotel benefits from a higher
occupancy rate, thanks to Oyo’s branding.
And as part of the business, Mr Agarwal has also
developed an app, which guests can use to book
rooms, get directions to the hotel, and once they
have arrived, to use the hotels amenities, for
example to order room service.
Tough journey
Despite such rapid growth, he says the early days
were “extremely difficult”.
“No one would believe that this could be a
technology business in the future,” he says.
But some people did believe in him. A similar idea
– which eventually evolved into Oyo Rooms – won
him a coveted Thiel Fellowship – a programme
sponsored by PayPal co-creator and early
Facebook investor Peter Thiel – which pays for 20
teenagers each year to stop studying and try to
set up a business instead.
He used the funding from the fellowship to start
the business.
The firm launched in June 2013 with just $900
(£586; €799) a month, working with one hotel in
Gurgaon near Delhi.
“I used to be the manager, engineer, receptionist
for this one hotel and also deliver stuff in hotel
rooms,” says Mr Agarwal. “At night I would write
codes to develop our app and improve our
website. But alongside this I was also building
strong teams because I knew I wanted to scale
this up. ”
But the only way he could persuade investors that
it was a worthwhile idea was to show them just
how bad some budget hotels in India were.
“I took our first investor to the hotel we had
developed and the other hotels where there were
many problems. He saw the conviction in us and
felt good about investing in something which he
saw could make a difference.” recalls Mr Agarwal.
Now the business has grown, it has become much
easier to attract investors, and the firm recently
secured $100m from Japan’s Softbank.
Nonetheless when Mr Agarwal started the
company, lots of people told him he was crazy.
“But because it was crazy, it was doable. It’s true:
if you think crazy stuff that is when it becomes a
lot more doable.”
The journey from college dropout to business
owner may appear smooth, but he says starting a
business at 17 was not easy. Mr Agarwal says
normal things like getting a bank account or hiring
staff were more challenging. Plus some people
saw his age as a chance to take advantage.
‘”There were some people who took me for a ride
to achieve their short term goals. But I also met
some very good people and experiences with them
far superseded all the other problems,” he says.
Starting young
Mr Agarwal was always ambitious, even from a
young age.
He grew up in Rayagada a small town in the
eastern Indian state of Orissa, and started writing
computer code at the age of eight.
“I used my brother’s books, and it was the first
time I saw stuff happening on the computer,
because of the things I had done. That is when I
first felt the excitement of creating stuff from
scratch and it never stopped.”
By the time Mr Agarwal was 13 he started helping
people in his town design websites.
He also wrote a book on engineering colleges in
India when he was 17 years old, aimed at helping
students choose the right course and college in
India.
Looking ahead
Now his ambition shows in his plans for the firm,
which Mr Agarwal wants to expand overseas. He
hopes to create the world’s largest network of
hotel rooms.
But he admits it won’t be easy, saying recruiting
the right people when it is growing so rapidly is
tough.
Currently, his focus is on making improvements
based on customer feedback, and he remains
optimistic about expanding the company at home,
saying India’s increasing smartphone and internet
penetration offers “huge potential”.
For those keen to emulate his success, his advice
– perhaps unsurprisingly – is to “start early”.
“Start really fast and, if you fail, you will learn and
the chances of success in the next venture will
increase,” he says.

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