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Oyo is like a first baby to me. It is special. And the tale of how we discovered it is an interesting one. Oyo did not happen through the usual prospecting methods that VCs follow. It was rather serendipitous.
I love watching Sarah Lacy’s (PandoDaily) fireside chats. They throw insight into the mind of the entrepreneur/investor and tell inspiring stories. One late Saturday night, I logged onto YouTube to watch her conversation with Peter Thiel. During the chat, they talk about Peter’s ‘20 Under 20 Fellowship’programme. Peter is a strong advocate of young people choosing alternative paths instead of college education. Under the programme, Peter’s foundation grants USD 1,00,000 to 20 students who are under 20, to drop out of college and work on something revolutionary. I was intrigued by some of the examples (14-year-old kid building a nuclear reactor) and decided to learn more about these bold, visionary entrepreneurs who were doing amazing things instead of spending their time in college.
The current year Thiel Foundation fellows included two Indians. Ritesh was the only one doing something here in India. I reached out to him on LinkedIn and followed up with a Skype call as he was traveling to San Francisco.
The first conversation with Ritesh was mesmerising. Somewhere buried in Oravel’s introductory deck was the idea of Oyo. Oravel was a plain aggregator, much like an online travel agency (OTA), but Oyo was a fully integrated model that controlled customer experience right from discovery to booking, and all the way to the stay and check-out. This 19-year-old had traveled for months staying at budget hotels, attended customer calls everyday and immersed himself in every possible experience to learn about budget hotel customers and their expectations. That was the kind of on-the-ground learning that helped him pivot Oravel to Oyo. At Lightspeed, we gravitate towards entrepreneurs who build their consumer understanding bottom-up – Ritesh clearly stood out.
Subsequently, I arranged for Ritesh to meet Bejul, who was at SF as well at that time. Bejul had tracked the online travel sector for more than five years and met startups trying to connect travelers to budget hotels before. Internally, we had a point of view that a light touch aggregation approach is not likely the right one, given the nature of hotels in India. When he met Ritesh and learned about Oyo’s model, which had more control over the inventory and customer experience, he believed it to be the right answer. The fact that Ritesh had arrived at this conclusion based on his market experience and had the courage and conviction to pivot from the original model gave us important insight into his ‘learning orientation’, a characteristic we value highly in an entrepreneur.
We decided to spend more time with Ritesh and the team at Oyo to learn about the opportunity. Quintessential to Lightspeed’s diligence approach, we planned to experience, firsthand, the consumer experience at budget hotels.
That same weekend, I visited Mahipalpur – an area near the Delhi airport, which has about 50 budget hotels in a small stretch of less than two km. I knocked on the doors of eight to 10 hotels and pretended to be a medical representative who frequently travels to Delhi and is looking for reliable options at an affordable price. Learning from these conversations was mind opening in many ways.
On the demand side:
- It was extremely difficult for a consumer to gauge the experience “XYZ residency, inn” would offer. Reviews at Trip Advisor and/or pictures on OTAs would not solve experience expectation problem
- Pricing was completely arbitrary. Similar hotels at the same location would vary from Rs 1000 to Rs 2500 a night
- One could never be sure whether the booking will be honoured or not
On the supply side:
- There was a large pool of such hotels in the country
- It was clear that these hotels operated at low occupancy because of competition and a non-definitive/differentiated proposition. Also, they did not have a structured way of capturing demand
- Most of these hotels were not the primary business of the entrepreneur and a ‘general manager’, who usually took care of the day-to-day operations, had little incentive to increase occupancy
As I came out of Mahipalpur and watched the strip again, it finally dawned on me why an Oyo should exist for every 10 hotels in this strip. And if it did, the occupancy of the other nine hotels would gravitate towards the one Oyo, which is a national brand and one that people can trust. Today, there are more than seven Oyo hotels in the same Mahipalpur strip.
Bejul and I subsequently visited the three Oyos that were operating in Gurgaon and met their owners as well. A sleepy residential lane in Gurgaon had several of these budget-stay options, which further cemented our market depth thesis. It was also clear from our conversations with the owners that the Oyo model was working and that they therefore treated Oyo like a partner who has access to complete inventory rather than a marketing channel (e.g. OTAs). Interestingly, when we spoke to the OTAs, some of them did admit that this was a huge opportunity and they had themselves thought of capitalising on it. But it required a completely different organisation and it would be very tough to execute.
Oyo was still very young and in a state of transition:a few hotels and less than 10 people in the team, some of whom were part time and working from a different city. Ritesh and Anuj used to double up as call centre agents, business development executives and all that could possibly be there in the middle. We recognised that Oyo was in its cradle and would require enormous amount of company building. But our conviction in Oyo stemmed from our point of view of the opportunity, signs of early product-market fit, a belief in what the company could become and the clarity in Ritesh’s thinking and vision.
It has been an awesome rollercoaster ride so far. We are proud and fortunate to be a partner on this journey with Oyo, a startup that can truly claim that it is ‘disrupted in India’ unlike most models which become successful first in the West and then get copied here. Oyo for ‘X’ – primary care, diagnostics, schools, auto-service centres is quickly replacing Uber for ‘X’.
Oyo will celebrate its presence in 100 cities this month. It has a world-class team that strives to make it the largest network of technology-enabled hotels in the world. Ritesh is now 21, a dreamer who operates with clarity of purpose, speed and conviction that is a defining trait of successful entrepreneurs.
Watch out for the next post in this Oyo blog series ’How Oyo built a world class team’
[Published in NextBigWhat on May 19, 2014]
This blog post illustrates how products have used comparison and choice based user interactions to successfully reinvent consumer experience on mobile. The underlying concept is titled ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’, derived from the original website created by James Hong. ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’ is now used by many products including an accidental creation from an entrepreneur we all know very well.
Remember Facemash? – Facebook’s predecessor that asked visitors to choose between pictures of students placed side by side and decide which one was ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’. Facemash may have been a product of Mark’s intoxication…a joke…an experiment if you will. But as I see it, it could very well be a great product concept that can wow the consumer and exponentially increase engagement, especially on smart-phone devices. To illustrate this thought, let’s look at a few examples.
Tinder is a dating platform, which has used this concept and has been hugely successful. It lets you swipe ‘Liked’ or ‘Nope’ on images of women and men located close to you. So rather than answering a million questions on ‘Okcupid’ or ‘Match’ and relying on intelligent algorithms built by MIT/Stanford data scientists (who apparently understand dating), you just swipe on Tinder and get connected to people who have swiped ‘Liked’ for you as well. Simple, fun and it works!
What makes Tinder great and gives the application of ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’ credibility is the fact that it is absolutely frictionless. It connects people easily and instantly. Currently, Tinder gets 750 million swipes a day and makes more than 8 million matches. As compared to it, Okcupid, which is one of the most successful dating platforms, has 1 million daily users. Hence, far less matches when compared to Tinder.
Thumb is an app that lets you get or give opinions in real time. From asking people about their travel destination choices, to product preferences all the way up to soliciting opinions on love lives, Thumb transcends a host of categories. It quickly became an addition and a community before it merged with Ypulse. Though Thumb was not as successful as Tinder, it does represent the kind of exponential engagement ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’ type products concepts can derive.
Thumb reminds me of a show called “kaun banega crorepati” – the Indian version of “Who wants to be a millionaire?”, where the contestant can use a life line called the “audience poll” if he/she is unsure of the answer. And there are plenty of such situations, which are frequent in nature, where we need advice and we would rely on wisdom of the crowds rather than make the decision ourselves. Hence, presumably Thumb’s success was because the ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’ type product concept was applied to a simple real life problem encountered by every man and woman almost on a daily basis!
‘We heart it’ is an image based social network that has quickly grown to over 30 Million users serving 50 billion images per month. Users ‘Heart’ images that they love and put these images in their collections that are shared with their friends and followers.
‘We heart it’ is incredibly simple, yet a very powerful way for people, especially teens to express themselves – their personalities, feelings, preferences, opinions through images. Images based networks have existed for long (remember Flickr?) but they never achieved the kind of scale ‘We heart it’ has done. Secret to their massive and instant success – a simple application of ‘Hot’ or ‘Not.
Fad or science?
It is easy to pass this as a quirky fad. However, the concept of ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’ has deep routed scientific reasoning. For those who are familiar with market research techniques, would know Conjoint analysis to be a bedrock of research studies. The simple form on conjoint analysis asked consumers to rate and review products just like a lot of platforms on the web today. This was disrupted when CBC or Choice based conjoint came along and proved to be a much better alternative. CBC asked consumers to choose between different product or service concepts and say whether it is ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’. It was argued by scholars that CBC works well because that’s how human psychology works. It is natural and intuitive to choose, it is unnatural and much more difficult to rate. Also, the variance or the error in the latter was higher. For the curious souls, you can read about CBC here
‘Hot’ or ‘Not’ for Indian start-ups
Mobile is key to the growth of Indian start-ups. The mobile user is on the go, wants to be quick and fluid with his/her interactions with the device, does not like typing and is more visual. These aspects make it imperative for Indian start-ups to re-imagine their products for the mobile. Traditionally –
– Mobile products have been replications of web interfaces including the feature set and the sequencing of the user interactions
– The platform is not built around a single user input like a Pin, Thumb, Heart or Fancy. Instead, it is cluttered and asks users to do multiple things. For e.g. several buttons beneath an image asking the user to Comment, Like, Share and more.
This is where concepts like ‘Hot or ‘Not’ could help achieve a wow consumer experience and quick scale. – just like the examples illustrated in this post have done. Perhaps, soon we will see E-commerce sites moving to ‘choice’ from ‘browse’, Review/rating platforms giving up the age old 5 point rating system and new-age dating/marriage platforms innovating like Tinder.
If you think this article was ‘Hot’, feel free to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or visit the Lightspeed blog to leave a comment…Or just ‘Digg’ it.
With all the speculation about Bitcoin and an exciting 2013 behind us, I thought that a list of predictions for 2014 would be a good way to start this year. These predictions are based on growth patterns of similar networks, the traction in various ecosystem activities last year, and my conversations with various Bitcoin enthusiasts. So here are my Top 10 predictions for Bitcoin 2014.
1. More than $100M of venture capital will flow into Bitcoin start-ups.
This pool of capital will be distributed across local/global exchange start-ups (e.g. BTC China*), merchant-related services (e.g. Bitpay), wallet services (e.g. Coinbase) and a host of other innovative start-ups. A large chunk of the capital is likely to flow into startups which have emerged winners in their respective segment with majority market share. Building exchange liquidity and merchant network is tough. Hence, these businesses are likely to command high valuations as well. That being said, there would be plenty of money available for start-ups trying to solve a plethora of other challenges (e.g. private insurance, security), that exist with Bitcoin growth and adoption today.
2. Mining ‘will not’ be dead
A lot of press notes and individual viewpoints state that mining is dead, as we are already in the petahash domain and are restricted by Moore’s law from a technological stand point. I believed this until I heard Butterfly Labs and HighBitcoin talk about how enterprises can potential adopt mining. With transactions and transaction fees rising, it would be highly profitable for large enterprises to have data centers with mining equipment to process daily transactions. Medium enterprises, who cannot invest in capital expenditure, would resort to cloud-based mining. Finally, small enterprises would have to pay transaction fees, to the network. These fees would still be lower than those paid to Visa and Mastercard. In conclusion, we can potentially witness investment from large and medium enterprises in mining farms as early as the end of 2014.
3. There will be less than 5 alt-coins (out of the 50+ in existence) that will survive 2014
The open source nature of the Bitcoin protocol led to the advent of over 50+ alt-coins, most of which are blatant rip-offs with a tweak or two here and there. These can be divided into three categories
- Coins which are Ponzi schemes, where the sole purpose of the inventor is to drive the price of the alt-coin up and them dump
- Coins which can be mined easily and can have potentially more liquidity than Bitcoin
- Coins, which are based on a fundamental innovation and can result in specific adoption or security led use cases.
In my opinion, only the category 3 ones would survive. PPC coin, which has introduced a proof-of-stake system in addition to proof-of-work, is one such coin. It is on my list of survivors. It is also important to note that presently, other than Bitcoin, no other alt-coin has shown the potential for a growth in its acceptance network among merchants or companies. This is likely to remain true for 2014 as well.
4. Bitcoin community will solve problems including that of ‘anonymity’
One of the key roadblocks for governments and financial institutions to start participating in Bitcoins is the anonymous nature of transactions. This has led regulators to believe that Bitcoin can potentially be used for money laundering, terrorist support etc. The good news that we have a very active Bitcoin community globally, which is constantly evolving the protocol. Hence, my prediction that in an effort to make Bitcoin more accepted, this community will come out with a solution to ‘anonymity’ that regulators can live with. One of the ways is it being done today is by forcing exchanges, wallet services and other Bitcoin companies to have KYC practices similar to those of financial institutions. As a side thought – Internet was and is still used for porn. That does not make it ‘not useful’!
5. US, China and other global forces will not be at the forefront of Bitcoin adoption
Fincen, PBOC and RBI’s reaction to Bitcoin in US, China and India points to one single conclusion – we are not going to let a ‘controlled’ and ‘vast’ financial system adopt a decentralized crypto-currency, which can be anonymous and used for illegal activities…as yet. Countries which have had a history of currency issues and have not had effective monetary policies are the ones who will be at the forefront of Bitcoin adoption. With China out of the mix currently, one can look at Argentina, Cyprus and others to lead. These may be smaller as a proportion of the global base. However they are likely to have much more local penetration and most importantly more government support or less government intervention – whichever way you want to look at it. That being said, successful internet and mobile companies in the US/Europe are the ones, who are most likely to offer digital goods in Bitcoins. Zynga just announced their experiment. I would not be surprised if Spotify, Netflix etc are next.
6. Indian ecosystem will be slow to evolve; limited to speculators and mining pools
The Indian Bitcoin start-up ecosystem today is limited to less than ten startups, including exchanges such as Unocoin, wallet services such as Zuckup, mining pools such as Coinmonk and some other ideas – compared to hundreds of them in each US and China. There is little evidence today to ascertain whether any of these startups are going to create a home market or serve an international market. In fact on the contrary, the Indian market is likely to be served by global Bitcoin companies. For instance, Itbit, a Singapore based exchange has already started targeting Indian consumers. Global services have demonstrated the capability to be credible especially when it comes to convenience and security by solving complex algorithmic problems. This also makes them more defensible in the long run (e.g. Coinbase’s splitting of private keys to prevent theft) and poses a big challenge for Indian Bitcoin start-ups. There is an active Bitcoin community in India (about 15-20 people), which is trying hard to create awareness among consumers and regulators. I sincerely hope to see at least one world-class Bitcoin startup come out of India.
7. The use of Bitcoin will evolve beyond ‘store of value’ or ‘transactions’
The underlying Bitcoin protocol makes itself applicable beyond the use cases of ‘store of value’ and ‘payments’. The Bitcoin foundation took a huge step in allowing meta data to be included in the blockchain. This will unlock a lot of innovation and maybe even prompt regulators to acknowledge the potential of Bitcoin, making it all the more difficult for them to shut it down or suppress it. As one can see from the current Bitcoin ecosystem map that there are almost no startups, which solely use the protocol without using the ‘coin’ or the ‘currency’ as a function. 2014 will be the first year to see some of these.
8. The ‘browser’ of Bitcoin will come this year
The Netscape browser made the Internet happen. ‘Something’ will make Bitcoin happen. It is still very difficult for the average ‘Joe’ to understand, acquire, store and use Bitcoins. Though Coinbase and several others are working on innovative security algorithms and making it easy to store Bitcoins digitally, it is still not enough to make Bitcoin mainstream. Hence, what a ‘browser’ did to the Internet, a product or technology innovation will do it to Bitcoin in 2014. This will make the transition to Bitcoins frictionless. Kryptokit and Eric Voorhees’ Coinapult are promising startups in this direction. Encouragingly, all the building blocks for that to happen – like mobile penetration, cryptography algos etc are already in place.
9. The price of Bitcoin is likely to range between $4000-5000 by the end of 2014
Well, though some people will argue otherwise, price is not the most important thing about Bitcoin. But given the interest and its volatility, it does deserve a place in this blog post. Speculators have predicted Bitcoin to go upto $100, 000; some say the maximum it can reach is $1300. Though, am sure that there is some underlying basis for these predictions; here is the one for mine. Bitcoin’s price is a function of supply and demand. While the supply is predictive, the demand is less so. However, the increase in the demand of Bitcoin can be compared to networks such as Facebook and Twitter, which have followed a ‘S’ curve of adoption. All such networks typically take 6-8 years to plateau out with year 4-5 being the steepest. Though Bitcoin was invested 4 years ago, I would say that 2013 was its 2nd real year. Given the nature of the ‘S’ curve, the price increase in 2014 is likely to be 3-4 times more than the one this year. Hence, the $4000-$5000 range, where the Bitcoin price is likely to settle down in 2014.
10. Last but not the least – Satoshi nakamoto will be Time’s Person of the Year 2014.
Please read about him here.
* Investments of Lightspeed Venture Partners