Founder Stories by TeamWave, are a series of interviews of founders of small businesses and other thought leaders who share their practical insights from their journey of entrepreneurship. Here they talk about how they scaled up their company, what challenges they faced during their initial years, marketing strategies that worked to scale up their small business and much more.
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In this episode of FOUNDER SERIES by TeamWave, our guest is, Chinmoy Mishra, who is the CEO and Founder at HooLiv.
Transcript of the Interview with Chinmoy Mishra (Founder, HooLiv)
Reshmi: Hello, everyone. And our today’s guest is Chinmoy Mishra, the Founder and CEO of HooLiv. HooLiv intends to provide students with the modern form of coliving and today we will be discussing with him his entrepreneurial journey. Shall we get started?
Chinmoy: Sure Reshmi. Good morning and thanks for the opportunity. Really appreciate it.
Reshmi: And my first question will be, we would like to hear from the Founder himself, what is HooLiv and how did you come up with this idea.
Chinmoy: Sure. So I’ve been an entrepreneur maybe for the last eight years or nine years or so. Started my first venture way back in 2013 and exited that in 2019. And we have been in all four founders with the same founders of the previous organization. So we have been in the technology space for a long, you could say all our lives. We have been in technology and, you know, working for large companies and stuff.
So when we came out of our previous venture, we were like, you know, let’s do something different. It’s been too much of technology is getting boring. So we explored the other spaces. And then we actually started with a very different concept. You know, we, as part of HooLiv, were actually looking at setting up elderly care homes. More like a daycare for the senior citizens. We found that, either in India, you have this poorly run nursing homes, or you have a high-value kind of thing, where people buy a bungalow for their parents, for them to stay. So there was nothing in between.
So we were kind of contemplating the idea of having daycare centres for the elderly. But then we parked it for the time being. We felt maybe we are slightly ahead for the Indian market. And so the next logical thing was, Hey, why don’t we look at the student segment? So what we figured is that, when you look at shared student accommodation, they always had traditional PGS.
People have maybe 10 to 12 rooms that they can go to indeed where PG is and students can stay there. So when we were looking at this opportunity, we realized many of the traditional run PGs were extremely unorganized. They lacked infrastructure, there was no privacy, the food was bad. Students always complained about that. And the very reason they kept running is that the supply was never ceasing. Students kept on coming because then they had no other place.
They kind of started staying in the same shabbily run accommodation. So we thought that maybe there’s a great opportunity to be more organized in this space. And also build a facility where the kids not only enjoy staying, but it improves their quality of living as well.
With that thought, we launched HooLiv that was in 2019. And, four or five months down the line, we had the entire lockdown thing. But we are very proud of the team. Since September, till date, we have all been onboarded, with almost 5,000 beds across four towns in India. And looking to close this financial year, possibly with 6,000 or 6,500 beds. And the focus that we have Reshmi with HooLiv is one is we are exclusively catering to the student demographic.
When we say a student could be 18 to 24, 25 age group, they could be pursuing any vocation and not necessarily be enrolled in an Institute. They could be enrolled in a coaching Institute or they could be just out of their home, pursuing a hobby. It doesn’t matter to us, but that has to be the age group. Then the next criteria that we have is that we are very heavily focused on the non-metro.
So rather the tier two tier three cities, and there was a conscious choice between, you know, the tier one and the tier twos. And we said, let some of the early leaders in this shared accommodation space, fight it out in the Metro as well. We kind of encircled them in the non-metros. And also when you look at the properties in the non-metro is it’s small. Some of the smaller towns and cities of our country, that is a great opportunity to actually be thinking about a difference.
When we visit some of those properties, we look at those assets, it is so pitiable a condition. Even if you are putting a Kent RO in a floor, it’s an upgrade, that’s how bad they are. So it’s a great opportunity to make a difference. And so that’s the second principle we’re following. And the third one is that at HooLiv, we got a very asset light company. So we don’t actually acquire properties or build something from ground up.
We take our existing infrastructure from the owners, and then we put in our own capital to do the retrofitting and rent it out to the students. So we improve the hygiene, the privacy, the security, and the meal options, the rentals, and then provide those to the students. And the last and the most significant thing is that one, which can be all four of us are very passionate about, is that we felt when we were looking at this particular demography and the segment of the kids there, they lack, certain things.
When they moved to a Metro at year one, they always end up at the raw end of the stick, when it comes to applying for a job or even dropping shoulders with students from the Metro. So we said, why don’t we, you know, build more of a community aspect to all our properties. And when I say community, we go beyond the usual, rhetoric’s of just providing common space for people to commune. We take it something ahead and say, can we provide them with vocational training?
Can we provide them spoken English courses, job interview skills, or even, you know, help them improve their employability cushion. So that then when they come out of the properties, they’re at a much better position. So that’s how it’s structured, right? A 16 member team, as I said, around 5,000 beds across Pune, Meerut, Dehradun, Jaipur. And now we just took up our first property in the outskirts of Noida.
So yeah, big plans ahead and we are backed by a very good public listed company called Kolte Patil developers. We raised the funds from them just before the lockdown. So that kind of helped us tide over the lockdown. And also we came out of the lockdown with a slightly better financial cushion than some of our other competitions.
Not many could take the lockdown. While in all public forums, I say it’s very unfair, unfortunate that they have to shut shop. In the heart of hearts, we know that’s a good thing for us. And so that’s, that’s how we are pleased. I hope, I hope that gives you a decent idea.
Reshmi: Yeah. You gave a very detailed answer. You have already answered a few of the questions I had prepared here. So actually the COVID part I would ask about that later. I can see that you are doing a lot for the student community. And I am very curious to know, how did you reach out to the first few customers? How did you tell them that, okay, this is a great idea? How did you inform them about it?
Chinmoy: That’s a great question. The thing is when you look at some of these non-metros, the property owners were not aware of this organized way of looking at the assets. Or a student housing, they’re all running in silos. Whereas if you look at Delhi or Mumbai, you still had pockets where there were organized players running rent house? So initially it was a challenge to convince the owners that what is the benefit for them.
So I think it needed a lot of persuasion. And we had to show them the whole fact that look today, you are fighting for driving occupants in your properties, and then your rental incomes are variable depending on how many beds are occupied. But when we take it over, we are paying you a monthly rental. So you are assured of a return.
And at the same time, you know, you don’t have to worry about the occupants. So that’s something that we are taking care of, right? So you’re almost getting money, now sitting at your home. I think that kind of got the eyes that, Hey, look, you know, this is something that might help us in the long run. And also the fact that we are investing in upgrading the properties, right? So if I got a seven-year lease period with the owner, so by the end of it, unfortunately, if we have to move out the CapEx that we have invested in improvement that we have done at the property still belongs to the owner. Right?
So those, I think these, these education things played a crucial role in the early part. Once you have few properties in one location, the others get to hear about it. And they’re like, Oh, okay. This seems to be a good way. So it kind of spreads, right? And then once you have like five properties, maybe the sixth, one isn’t that difficult to convince or get the,owner to get convinced.
So that’s how we spread by and in some places, for example, in Jaipur there, we always had a good PG culture because a lot of kids from rest of Rajasthan, come there to prepare for the CA and all that. The owners were aware to a certain extent and some of the other competitors that we have in this space, they had also been in Jaipur. So that market was relatively easier for us. But, in places like Meerut and Dehradun and now, we look at places like Patna, certainly, we need to educate the market and show them what benefits they have. So it’s a gradual process, but once you show them that, you know, it works out.
Reshmi: So are you using any marketing channels, like Instagram, Facebook etc where these students usually hang out? Are you using any marketing plans to reach out to these students?
Chinmoy: So on the student side of things, of course, we, there are two things, right? One is since we are taking properties which were already running as to rent accommodation. So a lot of those students had left their luggage in the room. They’d gone back for the lockdown. They’re all coming back. So for a majority of our properties, we do not have such a big fight for the occupancy, at least for this Academic year and for this other part of it, yes, certainly for some of the newer properties, which we have been converting into housing for the first time they are in order to drive the occupancy, we are doing a couple of activities.
One is reaching out to them over an Instagram and a Facebook. Definitely. I think Instagram still remains the preferred mode of reaching out, especially for this age group, we are involved in that and ofcourse the other usual suspects like, you know, your Google ad words and the SEOs and stuff. And also partnering with a lot of aggregators of student housing, where generally they see a lot of traffic of students coming over and searching for property. So doing the usual route, and also we are partnering with, you know, not, not really partnering, but we are leveraging say the local Panwalas or the Chai shops, right outside colleges, that’s where the kids hang out.
So we are kind of incentivizing them that why don’t you push students to our properties and stuff. And the last thing they’re doing also, wherever our properties are close to educational Institutes, we are trying to partner with those institutes so that they can push the overflow crowd to our properties. So there are three four things we are doing currently to drive the whole demand part of it.
Reshmi: You had worked as an entrepreneur, and this is not your first company, right? So how did the past experience shape up journey in HooLiv?
Chinmoy: Now, I mean, it’s, it’s an amazing, amazing you know, learning when you go through your bus journey. There’s so many mistakes that we did at various levels. And I think those are the biggest takeaway for us, the learning from all those mistakes. I think, you know, just to kind of fun side of things. The two biggest thing I had mistakes, I did make in my previous venture was not getting a CA onboard right from day one and also not getting a lawyer.
I think you know the CA, especially is very crucial as entrepreneurs, I think they’re so involved and passionate in driving our product and are involved in sales that we miss out on this basic hygiene. You know, with regards to the regulatory aspects of filings, the share certificates and all that. And, you know, you can ask any entrepreneurial who had an exit or a next round of raise that comes back to haunt you, you know, and that, I think we, we, we kind of messed up. So in this venture before even I got started, the first thing I did is I got hold of a good CA Firm.
And I said, Hey, look, you are with me throughout the journey. So anything good? You take the credit, anything bad, you take the fall for it, you know, so you, but you have to be with me. I think that I did. And the other thing that we did is we, we had you know, I have a lawyer friend, so we got him on board as well. Then we said, every document that passes our, you know, our, our company has to be vetted by you.
There’s nothing that’s going out without being vetted. So I think, you know, some of these things stand out a lot with the, I think when you look at hindsight, you know, in my previous venture, we, we left a lot of money on the table. So this time we are smarter and how do we monetize? Or maybe even, I think one big mistake we did in the previous venture is that since we were so raw, we were just beginning our journey.
The reason we left so much money on the table is because we didn’t have a good mentor and advisor actually help us out there. And maybe we where complicent too. You know, so in this time round, fortunately the real estate is such a new space for us. We are not aware of everything. So we had almost, you could say impulsively driven to check with someone that, Hey, is this good? Is this bad right?
So that kind of puts some kind of you know, filtering mechanisms for us. So yeah, there’s been a lot of the learnings. Like one thing I always maintain, that whether we are building a technology venture or we are building into real estate or even EdTech, Food tech, whatever it is, I think the fundamentals of taking something from scratch and building, you know, from an idea and building a business out of it, I think the fundamentals remain the same. It’s how you deal with your customers, your suppliers, the level of integrity that you have, the professionalism.
And most significantly, we are able to maintain that unit economics of the profitability at each and every project for each and every property that we take up at some point in time with the profitability, at a corporate level as well. And I think you look at any, any venture in any space, that unit economics, the focus on that, or the profitability remains constant. Right. And in how do you go about building teams?
How do you manage your relationship with your colleagues? I think that’s kind of, you know, space agnostic, right? It could be in any space that remains the same. So I think some fundamentals remain the same, then some based on our learnings, we are trying to not repeat the mistakes. Hopefully though let’s see where it ends up.
Reshmi: Yeah. That’s very insightful. And I think it might come with an experience like so much knowledge on how to become an entrepreneur. And is your business based out of New Delhi?
Chinmoy: We are, we are headquartered in new Delhi.
Reshmi: How many other offices do we have?
Chinmoy: So, yeah, so we are spread across four cities now. So we would say Delhi, since three of us, three of the four founders are based in Delhi. So it’s almost become like a nano head office kind of thing. My, my elder sister who is also a co-founder, Rasmi. She is based out of Pune and she handles the entire Pune operations. And so they have a pretty sizable team up there in terms of Dehradun and Jaipur with the small teams. So, but majority of things are being driven when it comes to the operation side. She’s the chief operating. When it comes to the operations side, she takes care of it from Pune, when it comes to technology, biz dev and stuff. We take care of it from Delhi.
Reshmi: Hmm. Okay. And one thing like you were talking about the pandemic. So how did that affect you?
Chinmoy: I mean, it gave me the most unfortunate time issue. Just like what everyone else. I think we had just closed our, round of funding in March, and I think by April 1st we were supposed to go live with our first real property. So we are really excited and looking forward to it. But then unfortunately everything had to be pushed. So there are a couple of things which happened in general for the student housing industry as such the co-living industry. If you take into account the working professionals as well.
One is that some of the early leaders that were there in the space and create raised a lot of money, couple of them had to actually fold their shop. They couldn’t meet the obligations and they shut shop so that, you know, you could say in a way, yes, we all love a healthy competition and would like to have competition because that’s what keeps you on your toes. Right. But at the same time, having one less makes it all the more better. Right.
I think some of the bigger one that shut shop. So that was one, the second thing also what happened is when we came out of the lockdown now, because during the lockdown we had, as I said, you know, those two properties were onboarded. We managed to convince the owners and push the rental payouts almost till August or September. So we had absolutely no operating expenses as far as properties are concerned. It was only the salaries of the four or five of us that are there in the team. So we could manage our operations very well.
When, we came out of the lockdown. Fortunately, we had that much better financial cushion. So a lot of Mom n Pop you know, operators also started coming to us and saying, Hey, could you take up our lease obligations, we are unable to fulfill those obligations anymore. And that’s one of the reasons why we had such a strong growth in the last five to six months. Right. So that is the second thing which happened.
And the third one is the owners also realize that, Hey, look, this might be a good model to work with. There is an assured revenues and stuff. So they started, you know, the asset or the cost of taking up an asset started coming down slightly, you know, pre pandemic. It was very inflated people with large amount of funds. They used to overvalue the property. So the owners were used to a certain high valuation, but pandemic, post pandemic. I think that expectation also come down.
So the cost for us to acquire a property has come down a little, and that has positively impacted the EBITDA margins. Right? So I think if we look at the space typically all operators, we operate between 20 to 25 EBITDA margin. But because the cost of owning an asset has not come down or leasing an asset, the EBITDA margins might be slightly in the 30 to 35% range. Okay. So these are the things which happen from a competition perspective and from our own structure. I mean, yes, there are certain basic hygiene. Now we are trying to incorporate, there are no more properties which have three rooms, three beds in a room.
So we have changed all to two beds at the most, all the rooms will have your masks provided and your sanitizers then sanitizing the property once in a week providing you know, avoiding gathering at community places, places or at the meals. So those kinds of basic protocols we’re trying to follow. When we look at some of the properties in Jaipur, especially the government also has certain protocols that we are mandated to follow them. So we are taking care of that.
But on the hindsight, are rather not hindsight, what I feel now, you know, so if you look at the shared accommodation, right, you have one, you have the student accommodation site and the other part, you have the co-living or the executives. Right. But my personal feeling is that the student accommodation is going to bounce back much faster simply because the students in all of us have been for that phase.
We don’t understand form when we are at the final year of engineering, right. We all want to be in hostels with our friends. So just day before yesterday, we started our operations in a 500 bed property in Noida. And you won’t believe, I think in the first couple of days, we’re almost at 60-70% occupants, all the kids returned. And one of the common things we’ve heard from majority is that, hello, you know, we could go to the movie theaters, we can go to the cafes.
We could go to the parks, but we’re not allowed in classrooms. And they said, you know, one of the big reasons is because the teachers are now also used to teach from home and having the warm food that they don’t want to come back to college. So all the kids went there. So I think we, we believe that that segment is going to bounce back much faster. On the executive housing, I think we still, many of us still prefer to work from home if possible. So a co-living might take a hit, but student housing is coming back to b stronger.
Reshmi: So now you are focusing on the student community, right! So also now the new trend of Staycation has come up . Even people are not preferring work from home. They’re also planning to move out and work on some other peaceful location or somewhere else. So are you planning to expand your offering to that section as well in the future?
Chinmoy: Not at the time being Reshmi, simply because we felt that maybe the DNA required to operate both these different segments is very different. We may not, we may not have that competency at this point in time. And also if you look at the expectation from a student vis a vis expectation from a working professional, they’re very different, right? I mean, for a student hostel, you can have the, the, you know, the, maybe a TV or, and everything on a common area, but by working professionally, you need to have those in the rooms.
Right. And all those, it could be easy. So we’re not looking at that segment for the time being, but but yeah, no, I had no idea. Maybe once we are more experienced in the student segment, we may branch out to the working professionals and maybe at a certain point in time, we may bring back our whole concept of the elderly homes as well, you know? So yeah, those are the cards that we have up our sleeves. It’s just a matter of time.
Reshmi: Now we are almost at the end of the interview, so I had to ask two fun questions to you. Which is a favourite business book, or any book that you would love to recommend to other entrepreneurs?
Chinmoy: Yeah, I, I don’t read too many of these things. I’m more driven by the political you know or the economic affairs. But one, one book I would certainly recommend is by a lady called Sumedha Mahajan, Miles to Run Before I Sleep. I think that’s a wonderful story. So this lady, she was suffering from diabetes and then a homemaker, and she actually took a run with Milind Soman from Delhi to Mumbai against all odds and beating her Asthama.
I think that’s a phenomenal you know and so I loved that book. The other one I recently came across is the Bhujia Barons, story about growth of Haldirams. I think that’s also provided a phenomenal insight and I really loved about it is that, you know, how the women in the family they’ve actually shaped the entire growth and the growth narrative of Haldiram.
Reshmi: No, actually these books for sure will be a very insightful reading. And my final question is, do you have any advice for the entrepreneurs or people who are aspiring to be an entrepreneur?
Chinmoy: I think one thing that has shaped my career and I say it at many forums, this is when I went to Babson. I think the first thing the professor said us and told us there is that “make ambiguity your best friend”. You know, at that point in time, it was very tough for us to understand. But once you know, eight years, nine years in the entrepreneurial journey, I think, you know, that words, they were golden.
When you get up as an entrepreneur, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next hour. And the two hours in the day and situations are so ambiguous. Initially you try to fight it out and, you know, prepare your long-term plans to short-term goals. But at the end of the day, it’s just taking decisions every hour by hour so, so ambiguous. Right? So after a second period, Reshmi, my advice would be don’t fight ambiguity, just make friends with it. It is going to be there irrespective of your size and stays of the venture. It’s better to make peace with it and live with it. It makes you better at taking decisions, you know?
Reshmi: Yeah. Oh, I love that because we are all scared of ambiguity. So thanks a lot. That was all, anything else that I missed out on that you want to share?
Chinmoy: Nothing else. That’s been wonderful chatting with you. Good luck to you and your team. Take care.
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