Carrying a box of chocolates and several other gifts in hand, Ramesh Agarwal went to meet his son Ritesh at the University of London's India centre—the Indian School of Business and Finance—in Delhi. But the dean told him that his son had not been attending classes for the past six months. “What the hell is he doing?” thought the father. Disappointed, he called up his son, who asked him to come to his office. “Office? Where? When?” asked Agarwal. When he reached the place, he found that his son was running his own company. Ritesh spent the evening convincing his dad that it was just a gap year and if things didn’t work out, he would go back to college.
That was three years ago. Today, Ritesh is seen as the man who disrupted the hospitality industry through his brand, OYO (On Your Own) Rooms, an online network of branded hotels. He never went back to college, which is why he is popular as the ‘dropout-turned-entrepreneur’. “I never wanted college to come between me and education,” he says. “I think that education for me can happen in so many different ways.”
Don't be fooled by his boyish looks, lanky figure, overgrown hair and beard. At 22, he is one of the youngest entrepreneurs in India, managing a Rs.2,640-crore business. “OYO Rooms now has 24 copycats in the world,” he says, with mixed feelings of pride and displeasure. “Imitation is the best form of flattery, but it hurts when somebody copies your idea calling it their own.”
Work from home had a different connotation when Ritesh started the company from his paying guest accommodation. Today, the company, with 2,000 employees, occupies three floors at Gurgaon’s Spaze i-Tech park, occupying three floors. Ritesh walks barefoot in his office. Shoes shackle him, he says. He has kept a pair in the office for formal meetings. He bears a spartan look in his blue full-sleeved shirt and beige trousers. He apparently wore just three pairs of shirts and trousers for an entire year, that too of the same colour.
The basic premise behind OYO Rooms is to make you feel at home, minus the usual household hassles of, say, paying electricity bills or fixing the air conditioner or doing the laundry. OYO has standardised 30 things in its branded properties like free WiFi and breakfast, flatscreen TVs, spotless white bed linen of a certain thread count, branded toiletries, six-inch shower heads and beverage tray.
But the OYO idea didn't come to Ritesh sitting in a room; it came from his travels. He stayed at various hotels for three months and found that discovery was a problem for good hotels. Thus was born Oravel Stays in 2011, the precursor to OYO Rooms. In 2013, soon after starting OYO Rooms, he was awarded the $1,00,000 Thiel Fellowship, created by PayPal founder Peter Thiel exclusively for college dropouts. “The Thiel fellowship taught me to think really big, which is not the way we are traditionally brought up. The second is not to settle down. Our society places too much emphasis on settling down,” he says. Dinnertable conversations at his home in Bhubaneswar still veer around him getting a formal college education. “[Otherwise] who will marry you?” is a question his mother often asks.
While people may think that OYO Rooms is modelled on the lines of Airbnb, the US-based lodging discovery platform, Ritesh likens it to Uber. “Uber has addressed the predictability problem very well along with affordability,” he says. “Today, you can get cabs from anywhere to anywhere at less than half of what people were earlier paying for taxis. We want to give a predictable customer experience through OYO branded rooms.” Surely, expansion is on his mind. “We want to get into every branch of real estate—be it commercial, residential or anything. We will make it efficient,” he says.
Ritesh had an independent and entrepreneurial streak long before the startup bug bit him. He sold SIM cards and fast-moving consumer goods in his teens. In 2008 while he was in Kota, the mecca of IIT coaching, he would go to Delhi over the weekends to attend entrepreneurship events, meeting stalwarts like Sanjeev Bikhchandani of Naukri.com and Deep Kalra of makemytrip.com.
A workaholic, he doesn't usually indulge in 'me' time. He has started doing yoga to stay fit. Also, he can often be seen cycling to office as he lives close by. A foodie, he likes to gorge at Paranthe Wali Gali in Old Delhi on Sundays, if he is free. Parsi cuisine is another of his favourites. He also developed a taste for sushi on a recent visit to Japan.
Although travel is an intrinsic part of his work, he hardly gets time off for exploring the city. “I went to Neemrana [Rajasthan] recently and took my team for lunch at the fort. That’s how I could visit. Otherwise, schedules are generally packed,” he says. Books, somehow, worm their way into his busy schedule; he is currently reading Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future.
OYO Rooms, however, won't find a better brand ambassador than Ritesh. He had been staying out of OYO Rooms before moving to an apartment a couple of months ago. “I plan to again go back to staying in an OYO room,” he says, which comes as no surprise because convenience and comfort go hand in hand for him.
RITESH AGARWAL, 22
Company: OYO Rooms (started in 2012)
Valuation: Rs.2,640 crore
Hobbies: Yoga and cycling
Quote to note: The Thiel Fellowship taught me to think really big, which is not the way we are traditionally brought up. The second is not to settle down. Our society places too much emphasis on settling down.