Dhruv Agarwala, Group CEO, Housing.com, PropTiger.com, and Makaan.com, is a serial entrepreneur who has started and successfully exited ventures across education, mining and fintech domains. Here, Agarwala recounts in his own words his fascinating journey, and spells out a bright outlook for the real estate sector in 2021 to BrandSutra
Born into a business family...
I grew up in Calcutta, seeing entrepreneurship first hand as my grandparents on both sides, and then my father, ran their own businesses. That seeded a very early desire in me to go out and build something of my own. After obtaining a degree in Material Science and Engineering from Northwestern University in the US, I went to Stanford University, but left it to come back to India. Then I started a small iron ore mining business, to supply iron ore to steel plants. The mines were at Barbil in Odisha, and I would take a train from Howrah to Tata Nagar and then travel three-and-a-half hours in a cab (no AC those days!) through smoky and dusty terrain to reach Barbil. When you enter the iron ore mining zone, this red dust flies into the car and settles on you. I remember the first time I went to Barbil, and took a shower after reaching there, I was horrified to see a red stream of water going into the drain. Then I realized it was iron ore dust! As for business, I couldn't have asked for a bigger trial by fire as I had to deal with the quasi ‘mafia’ contractors. At that time, I also partnered my maternal uncle to take the management institute that he ran in Delhi to Calcutta – I set up the Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning in Management. So being amongst intellectuals, professors and students was exciting as well. Then something funny happened – I asked my Dad to take over from me as opposed to kids usually taking over the parents’ business - as I wanted to move back to the US.
EAT, COOK AND READ…
I like to read historical stuff because it gives you a perspective on what happened in the past. History repeats itself and the world moves in waves and cycles - so what happens, comes back at some point in time, and there are lessons to be learnt. Like everyone who's grown up in Calcutta, I am a quintessential foodie. I cook infrequently now, but last November, when I was in the US, I cooked a mean prawn malai curry!
To America and back to India...
In the US, I did my MBA at Harvard Business School - 9/11 had just happened a few months back, and it was a tough time. Jobs were hard to come by, but I managed to get a job with GE Specialty Materials in Wilton, Connecticut. It was a very small office, giving me a chance to work very closely with the CEO, Bill Woodburn, and he became my mentor. Subsequently, he gave me multiple opportunities, such as co-leading the Lean Six Sigma initiative for GE along with him. It was Bill who asked me to move to India to be the CEO for GE's infrastructure business in India. Eventually, I handled the GE Growth Team – a big initiative to ensure that India grew to a certain revenue level by 2010. My role, essentially, was to present the combined suite of GE products as a single offering to the Government, and sell to them.
By then, the entrepreneurial wave had started in India, and finally, I left GE to start a fintech start-up called ‘iTrust Financial Advisors’ with Kartik Verma, a classmate from business school. We raised some high-quality capital and ultimately sold the business to Karvy in 2011. On the back of that, we started PropTiger, along with a third co-founder Prashan Agarwal (who now heads Gaana) - an end-to-end service for consumers to help them buy new homes and also to help developers market their projects.
The NewsCorp association...
In November, 2014, we raised capital from NewsCorp. When their Global Head of Strategy, Raju Narisetti (Founder-Editor of HT Mint), first reached out, I wondered why NewsCorp would want to invest in our business. The connection had come through R Sukumar of Mint, for which we used to write columns. I later realized that NewsCorp owned REA Real Estate, Australia's leading real estate player. One thing led to another, and I eventually met the CEO, Robert Thompson, and the CFO, Ajay Singh Bedi and the meeting went well. A few months later, Raju called me to say I should meet Rupert Murdoch, underlining that ‘If Rupert likes you, the deal’s done. If he doesn’t, the game is over.’ I wondered what to say to a man of his stature, especially at a meeting that looked like a life and death situation. What broke the ice was mention of his visit to Harvard Business School when I was a student, and we had a good conversation. The deal too went through. That was the start of the real Prop Tiger-Housing-Makaan journey because it gave us access to strategic capital.
When we bought Makaan, they always had eyes on Housing. By then, the controversy had started and we felt there was an opportunity, and went ahead though our investors had doubts. Since then, Housing has grown multifold. In terms of revenue, we did approximately Rs 140-142 crore in the last financial year and grew by about 20%+. Our marketing spends will be in the vicinity of Rs 40-50 crore over the next 18 months. Even post COVID, we advertised significantly, including during the IPL. We continued with our old campaign #GharDhoondnaKoiInseSeekhe which had Vicky Kaushal and Kiara Advani and just launched #YahaanSearchKhatamKaro featuring Rajkumar Rao and Manoj Bajpayee.
Focus on your action...
The Bhagvad Gita says, “Focus on your actions and outcomes will come.” That is my fundamental belief - keep doing the right thing with complete honesty and integrity, and success will automatically come.
On trends in the real estate category, and the consumer sentiment at present: The sector has displayed tremendous tenacity in the face of the unprecedented crisis in 2020, and has seen significant improvement. Sales of new homes grew by 60% QoQ in the last quarter of 2020 (Oct-Dec), in line with the broader economic recovery. The outlook for the real estate sector in 2021 is very bright. With home loan interest rates at multi-year lows, stable prices, multiple Government incentives such as stamp duty cuts and tax rebates on home loan interest payments, and attractive offers from real estate developers, real estate could not be more affordable than it is now. Consumer sentiment is also improving with the COVID vaccination programme in full swing. People now appreciate the importance of owning a home even more with work-from-home as the new way of working.
On recent acquisition of Elara Technologies (parent company of Housing.com, Makaan.com & PropTiger.com) by Australia-based REA Group: The company can become a clear market leader in digital real estate in India, with access to REA Group’s capital and expertise. Knowledge-sharing will allow us to adapt REA Group’s ideas that have worked well around the world, giving us an edge over our competition. At the same time, this transaction opens a big window for us to share our products and expertise with the rest of REA Group, leading to potential new revenue streams. Leveraging REA’s global expertise, we will continue to launch new products in the market to enhance the consumer experience and make the process of home buying, selling and renting simpler, more digital and more transparent. For REA Group, India is an incredibly attractive market and one that provides excellent long-term growth opportunities.
On talking points at Housing.com, and evolution of the rental business: Housing.com has recently launched a platform called 'Housing Edge’, a unique full stack rental and allied services platform, enabling digitization of multiple services that tenants and landlords can use, without leaving the comfort of their homes. These services include packages like online rent payment, online rental agreements, property management, tenant verification, packing and moving, furniture rental, home interiors and home services. Through Housing Edge, we aspire to make the end-to-end process of renting and moving into a home simple and hassle free.