If I didn’t know better, I would have easily mistaken her for just another bright young employee, walking about the funky startup office getting a coffee, doing her thing. Except, she’s the 25 year co-founder of this 2-year-old, multi-million dollar real estate portal, Grabhouse.
The 18,000 sqft office, opposite the Forum mall in Koramangla, is contemporary, swanky, and the energy is unmissable. “Our team reflects us, what we do, and where we want to be. Young, fresh and tech savvy”, gushes Pankhuri Shrivastava, co-founder of the house rentals platform Grabhouse.
Hailing from Ranchi, a first generation entrepreneur, Pankhuri’s career trajectory has been less than conventional. Armed with an engineering degree, Pankhuri’s first job wasn’t at a tech MNC coding her way to a promotion, but a two year teaching fellowship at Teach For India in Bombay. It’s at the NGO where she would meet her co-founder Prateek Shukla who too was fresh out of IIT-K. Being outsiders in the city, the two went through what’s considered one of the biggest banes of an outsider – finding a house. “I have changed 5 houses in Bombay and it wasn’t pretty”, says Pankhuri. Being an engineer, she would crib about the lack of a structure in the real estate scene, the user experience and the way data was collected and managed.
While for Prateek, the problem boiled down to the lack of professionalism amongst the brokers and the high commissions charged by them in a city already reeling under sky-high rentals. “We appreciated that the kind of brokerage you pay – one to two months’ rent to a broker – is not commensurate with the service you get. This could be easily replaced by technology, especially given that most of the target audience is online and using their smartphones to look up houses”
Their observations culminated into the two co-founding what today is one of the biggest names in housing rentals – Grabhouse, a broker-free online house rental and roommate search portal. “When you face a problem is when you see an opportunity. We saw rentals was a huge problem, mired in formalities, broker troubles and most importantly, not transparent. That’s where we wanted to come in even if it meant getting our hands dirty. Use technology to fix the existing problems and contribute to changing whatever’s not right.”
Grabhouse was started in late 2013, when the startup world in India was abuzz with another Bombay based real estate startup, Housing. “By the time we started, Housing was already getting big and making news. We think their product had potential and we quite like it too.”, Pankhuri admits, followed by assuring that their product and approach is much different from Housing’s.
After starting up in Bombay, where Shrivastava and Shukla did most of the coding, development and marketing themselves and raising an initial round of funds, the duo packed up, and moved to Bangalore. “Everyone was moving base to Bangalore. The city is receptive to technology and has the same problem of housing as Bombay, since Bangalore has a huge immigrant population thanks to the IT companies”, says Shukla referring to Instamojo, Quikr, Ola who too after starting up in Bombay moved base to Bangalore.
So, how did the two young co-founders who’d never held a conventional corporate job in their lives manage to start, grow and scale what is now a serious business? “I think not having had a corporate job may have been a blessing in disguise, as we didn’t stick to any conventions because we didn’t know any. Everyone in this office is encouraged to think independently and look at conventional ways to solve a problem. We just played it by the ear, learned everything on the go, and went with it.” , Pankhuri reflects. “Everything that you need to know can be learned. There’s so much material available online.” “We read a book on term-sheets, and learned a whole deal about funding off it”, laughs Prateek , when quizzed about how they managed to raise $12million in Series A funding from Kalaari and Sequoia capital last year.
However, looking to make a mark in an industry that was unorganised and yet dominated by biggies like Magicbricks and heavily funded startups like Commonfloor and Housing couldn’t have been straightforward for the then-bootstrapped Grabhouse. But the team relied on unconventional growth hacks to take on the biggies. A partnership with one of the biggest flatmates and flats group on Facebook was one such idea. “It really helped us get the word out on a highly targeted, relevant group as opposed to blindly spending money on ads and promotions.”, says Pankhuri.
It’s the second one I’d been meaning to know more about. Grabhouse’s unique approach to gathering brand recall (and millions of views and a couple of million INR in ad revenue along the way) through a content-led blog under the name ‘Urban Cocktail’ has been widely spoken about in the startup circles. One website had even debated whether an irrelevant blog would really help Grabhouse be associated with a serious real estate portal . The co-founders, however, are unfazed and are sold on the idea. “How do you keep your audience that uses the service once in a year – until the lease expires and you need a new house – engaged and interacting regularly? That’s when we thought of building a platform that other than serving as a one-stop shop for finding houses, also includes content covering relevant lifestyle aspects”. “Like a listicle on most haunted places in India?”, I prod, cheekily. “THAT was one of our best performing and most copied articles!”, laughs Pankhuri. The co-founders maintain that Urban Cocktail was not only one of their best growth strategies, but a total no-cost, no resource, one at that. What about the team that would promote the posts and share all over Facebook? “We used bots for that.”, the founders say nonchalantly.
There’s been a decrease in Urban Cocktail’s promotions, but the founders say that they haven’t discontinued work on the blog. “No, we’ve scaled down the content bits now, because it’s kinda met its purpose. We were looking at building an initial traction through an initial relevant content to our potential. But now we’re looking at newer strategies and many experiments are under way, to grow and scale further.”
This could’ve been the reason behind Grabhouse’s much-discussed layoffs, which culled almost 40% of their workforce, but Pankhuri and Prateek maintain it was all planned and part of the growth plan. “Lot of people relate layoffs with trouble in the company, which is not always true. The reasons for layoffs are always generalised in the media. It’s possible the company may let go of people because its tech is doing well”. This is what seems to have transpired at Grabhouse. “We were an operations-heavy team that was working on ground to gather and analyse data. But now that the data’s been collected, our tech teams have working on analysing that data, and a lot of our functions have been automated in the process”, says Pankhuri.
What’s next for Grabhouse? “Refining our core product, running many parallel experiments and rolling newer products catering to all spectrums of audience.” Cocoon, the company’s fully-furnished PG-like flats offering seems to be a part of that plan.
One could wonder how a couple of 25 year old founders of a multi-million valuation startup live the normal life, but the founders insist that the startup life is what they consider normal, and they’d have things no other way. “When you want to do something, you can make the time for it. While there have been days when we don’t sleep at all, but there are times when we party and travel.”
Today wasn’t one of those days. As I prepare to take my leave, Pankhuri and Prateek hurry up to attend a meeting at 8 pm.