This 24-year-old university dropout now runs a $6.9 billion international company

Finding clean, affordable hotels in India can be a traveller’s hideous nightmare. Too often, what looks great on a website turns out to be a disapointing roach-infested room in a crumbling old building where water has to be schlepped to the bathroom in a bucket.

Ritesh Agarwal got the idea for Oyo while travelling India on a shoestring budget and lodging at some questionable guesthouses.

Photo: Bloomberg

Ritesh Agarwal’s solution is a booking app that promises truth in advertising and branded hotels that don’t deliver unpleasant surprises. The chain he started in 2013, Oyo Hotels, has already become the largest in India, a chaotic market worth $US4.5 billion ($6.2 billion), according to New Delhi-based researcher Hotelivate.

Now Agarwal is going overseas with his franchise model, which combines a reservation site with a full stack of services for small hoteliers who want to up their game. Yesterday the company said it’s raising $US1 billion from SoftBank Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital and other investors to fund expansion in countries including China, where Oyo opened in November. Last week it started service in the UK, bringing the business to a developed market for the first time.

“By 2023, we will be the world’s largest hotel chain,” the 24-year-old founder said in a recent interview at an Oyo hotel in a suburb of New Delhi, where the company is based.

“We want to convert broken, unbranded assets around the globe into better-quality living spaces.”

Makeovers

Oyo employs hundreds of staffers in the field who evaluate properties on 200 factors, from the quality of mattresses and linens to water temperature. To get a listing, along with a bright red Oyo sign to hang street-side like a seal of good-housekeeping approval, most hoteliers must agree to a makeover that typically takes around 30 days or so. Oyo then gets 25 per cent of every booking. Rooms usually run between $US25 and $US85.

Why let university interfere with my education?

Ritesh Agarwal

“Oyo is going all out to build a very large base of hotel partners and become a bona-fide brand,” said Mrigank Gutgutia, an analyst with RedSeer Management Consulting. “Their app model works well because price-conscious travellers who search by location like to feel they have lots of choices.”

Agarwal wouldn’t disclose sales nfigures, but he said the number of transactions has tripled in the last year, with 90 per cent coming from repeat travellers — and no money spent on advertising. There are now 10,000 hotels in 160 Indian cities, with in excess of 125,000 rooms, listed on the site, he said. That’s about 5 per cent of India’s total room inventory, according to RedSeer estimates.

“Over 150,000 heads rest on our pillows every night,” said Agarwal, a trim man who tugs at a sore ear as he talks. Constant airplane travel has given him an ear ache–one unwanted side effect of the company’s hyper growth.

Dirty sheets

Not everyone is happy with the Oyo experience. Payal Gupta, a recent guest, was disappointed by her stay at a place near Delhi Airport, which she said felt like a house that had been hurriedly converted into a hotel. The sheets were dirty and the bathroom was cramped. “It isn’t enough to have Oyo-branded shampoo and moisturiser,” she said.

Oyo has become India’s biggest hotel company. Photo: AP

Gutgutia, the RedSeer analyst, said the company will need a steady stream of capital and an army of people on the ground to maintain standards. “Sustaining a high-quality experience could be a real challenge,” he said.

Indian startups have been on a tear recently, with more than a dozen worth now more than $US1 billion, according to researcher CB Insights. Walmart last month paid $US16 billion for a majority stake in Flipkart, an online retailer founded in 2007.

To get a listing, along with a bright red Oyo sign to hang street-side like a seal of good-housekeeping approval, most hoteliers must agree to a makeover that typically takes about a month. Photo: Bloomberg

The funding announced yesterday by Oyo values the business at $US5 billion , according to a person familiar with the deal who asked not to be identified. That makes the startup India’s second most-valuable, after One97 Communications, owner of Paytm, a digital payments company with financial backing from Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

A college dropout in a country where university pedigree is obsessed over, Agarwal has become an unlikely business legend, with frequent appearances on televised award shows and a cover story last year in Forbes of India.

Agarwal says he never stayed at a hotel until he was picked to represent his school at a trivia competition held in a town a few hours away from home when he was 12. He got the idea for Oyo a few years later, while traveling India on a shoestring budget and lodging at some truly horrible guest houses. It wasn’t enough to aggregate hotels on a website, you also had to repair them, he realised. To learn the hotel business from the ground up, he spent a year cleaning rooms at one of them.

In 2013, he got a $US100,000 fellowship from Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder who subsidises students who drop out to start their own companies. The big break came in 2015, when he got $US100 million in venture funding from investors including Silicon Valley’s Sequoia Capital and Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.

Agarwal got a $US100,000 fellowship from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who subsidises students who drop out to start their own companies.

Photo: Bloomberg

In November, Agarwal brought the OYO business to China, starting with a single listing in the industrial city of Shenzen. Now, less than a year later, travellers in the world’s most populous country can choose from more than 1,000 Oyo-branded hotels and 87,000 rooms in over 170 Chinese cities.

For Agarwal, though, there’s still a small hitch. He says his mother keeps nagging him to take a break from the business and go back to college. “But why let university interfere with my education?” he said with a contented laugh.

Bloomberg

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Henry Sapiecha

Almost unknown start-up Meituan Dianping smashed into a $30 billion valuation

China’s Meituan Dianping just became the world’s fourth-most valuable start-up, reaching a $US30 billion ($38 billion) valuation that puts it ahead of high-fliers like Airbnb and Space X.

Never heard of Meituan? You’re not alone. The Beijing-based company, led by Wang Xing, is almost unknown beyond its home country. It delivers food to people’s homes, sells groceries and movie tickets, provides reviews of restaurants, and markets discounts to consumers who buy in groups. It’s a sort of mashup of Groupon, Yelp, Foodpanda and Uber Eats.

Meituan’s appeal for investors is its dominant position in a market of more than a billion people. It was formed through the 2015 merger of Meituan.com and Dianping.com, creating the leading player for internet-based services ordered via smartphone apps. It raised $4 billion in the latest round from Tencent Holdings, Sequoia Capital and US travel giant Priceline Group.

“It’s a quasi-monopoly built on the stomachs of 1.4 billion people,” said Keith Pogson, global assurance leader for banking and capital markets in Hong Kong at consultant EY.

Flipping smart $4 billion funding round by Meituan

Wang started Meituan.com in 2010 as a group-buying site similar to Groupon, where people can get discounts by buying electronics or restaurant meals together. Dianping was founded in 2003 in Shanghai with reviews of restaurants and other local businesses, then diversified into group discounts. The companies were valued at $US15 billion when they merged two years ago.

Meituan Dianping delivers food to peoples homes

www.foodpassions.net

The combined companies have far surpassed their US peers. Chicago-based Groupon, once a sensation in the US, has dropped to a market value of less than $US3 billion. Yelp, based in San Francisco, has tumbled from its peak in 2014 to $US3.6 billion.

Meituan Dianping has expanded well beyond its original businesses. With a few taps to navigate its smartphone apps, Chinese customers can order hot meals, groceries, massages, haircuts and manicures at home or in the office. One popular service offers the ability to have your car washed while you’re at work and it’s parked on the street – the service sends a photo to your phone to verify the job. Meituan says it now has 280 million annual active users and works with 5 million merchants.

The offerings, collectively known as online-to-offline or O2O services, may ultimately prove more successful in China than in the US. Labor costs are lower in China, cities are more densely populated and there are more people. The country’s O2O market surged 72 per cent to 762 billion yuan ($US115 billion) last year, according to estimates from consultant IResearch.

“China’s market is big enough for a company this size,” said Wang Ling, an analyst with IResearch. “After years of consolidation, Meituan is one of the few contenders in areas with gigantic revenue.”

Meituan is facing increasingly stiff competition from China’s technology giants and their proxies. In particular, Alibaba Group Holding has backed a rival service called Ele.me, which recently acquired Baidu’s business, Waimai. Alibaba, Tencent’s primary rival, is boosting its investment to bankroll expansions into more cities and businesses.

“Meituan faces so many competitors because of its wide range of business,” said Cao Lei, director of the China E-Commerce Research Centre in Hangzhou. “Lifestyle e-commerce, which includes online travel and dining reservations, is one of the fastest growing sectors in the country.”

Travel is becoming the latest competitive ground. With the recent fundraising, Meituan plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next three to five years to become a leading travel booking site. It’s also exploring opportunities to collaborate with Priceline as part of the investment. That may present a challenge to China’s biggest online travel site, Ctrip.com International, which is backed by Baidu. Ctrip shares fell 8.2 per cent in US trading.

It’s a quasi-monopoly built on the stomachs of 1.4 billion people.

 

China’s tech titans take their battle to a new frontier

In the latest funding, Meituan also received money from Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Trustbridge Partners, Tiger Global Management, Coatue Management and the Singaporean sovereign wealth fund GIC. Meituan said it would use the cash to expand in artificial intelligence and drone-delivery technology.

Meituan is one of the new generation of Chinese technology companies that has rapidly gained popularity thanks to the rise of smartphones. Where Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have come to be collectively known as BAT, new media upstart Jinri Toutiao, Meituan Dianping and ride-sharing king Didi Chuxing have now earned their own acronym: TMD.

The $30 billion financing ranks the company fourth in the world in start-up valuations, according to CB Insights. The first three are Uber Technologies, Didi and Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp.

EY’s Pogson however cautioned that valuations in China may be getting a bit overheated. Shares of private companies like Meituan and Uber aren’t traded in liquid markets every day, so valuations change only rarely and typically go up. In addition, many of the fundraisings in China and the US are done with ratchets, or protections so that investors get compensation if the valuations fall later on.

“You have to take these numbers with a grain of salt,” he says.

Bloomberg L.P.

Henry Sapiecha