Founder of UrbanClap and IIT & IIM graduate Abhiraj Bhal changed the way people hire professionals for services with his breakthrough app. In an insightful conversation with Mr. Bhal, we took a peep into his mind and found out a great deal about how brand UrbanClap came to be incepted and what keeps it going. Read on to find out.Exhibit: Hello Mr. Bhal, can you give us an insight into how you came up with the idea of starting the breakthrough business that UrbanClap is?
Abhiraj Bhal: UrbanClap was started 2.5 years back with the vision to organize the local services market in India. The idea was to create a large tech business which solves a primary customer need. The local services industry is very fragmented and unorganized. When we started UrbanClap, hiring a plumber, beautician, yoga trainer, math tutor, etc. was a painful process. There were no standards, no concept of trust, pricing inefficiencies and the industry was shackled in the “yellow pages” era. We saw this as a large opportunity. By leveraging technology, and a set of simple yet powerful processes, we have been able to build a fairly disruptive platform which is now the default way to hire these services in India. Equally important is the massive impact we have created for 50,000+ service professionals and small businesses for most of whom, UrbanClap is the dominant, if not only, way to grow their business.
Exhibit: Before heading out to start your own entrepreneurial venture, you were associated with a Consultancy firm. Do you think that your corporate experience influenced your entrepreneurial venture in any way?
AB: Yes, prior to UrbanClap, I spent 3 years with The Boston Consultancy Group, advising Fortune 500 companies across India, South East Asia and Germany. My stint with BCG had a very lasting impact on me. Firstly, it taught me the importance of a structured approach to solving business problems, which I believe is invaluable. Secondly, the global and board-room exposure at an early age instilled in me the confidence of venturing out on my own, and building UrbanClap.
Exhibit: What was the greatest reason that pushed you to start your own business?
AB: I was eager to create an institution which has a lasting, deep impact on the lives of people, and outlives me. I wanted to spend the formative years of my career solving one problem very deeply and well, and building this institution in the process. I read somewhere that success is the magnitude of beneficial footprint you leave on society, and I feel UrbanClap is the best way for me to do that.
Exhibit: You have a great team of investors right now. However, how easy or difficult was it for you to find investors for your business in the beginning?
AB: Yes, we are very fortunate to have an amazing set of investors who have backed us – Saif Partners, Accel Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, Mr. Ratan Tata, Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal of Snapdeal. Investors look for ahead of the curve, disruptive ideas which can transform into large, impactful businesses, and great teams which have the passion and stamina to execute. Their role is very hard, and often under-appreciated. We see our investors as deep partners in the company building journey. Finding the right set of investors is not easy, and unfortunately there is no recipe. But I believe if one is building something good, investments will find you.
Exhibit: UrbanClap has utilized impressive marketing tactics in the past. With so many options available to the users, how do you manage to stand out of the clutter and in order to do that, how important is marketing?
AB: More than marketing, we have seen our efforts as “community building and engagement efforts” on both sides of the marketplace. As a young company with limited resources, one is forced to think outside the box, try 100s of different things to get noticed, explain the value proposition to users, build the community and grow in the process. Some things work, and most don’t. You double dive on what works, and discard things that don’t. That has been our motto. Growth for us is more a series of small, analytical problems which need to be cracked systemically through deliberate experiments.
Exhibit: Currently, India is witnessing a great boom with regards to the Startup scene. In your opinion, what are the positives and negatives about India as a Startup hub?
AB: India is the third largest internet economy globally, and the seventh largest economy by GDP. We are amongst the few countries to get on a true “growth path”, having seen sustained GDP growth for the last 2 decades. More importantly, we have a stable, well-intentioned government, and a resilient, promising eco-system. This makes me believe that we are literally at Day 1 of the startup and tech boom in India. Over the next decade, as we climb to the third largest economy globally by GDP, and fuelled by a young, bursting in its heels population, we will see many many disruptive businesses emerge from India, including several billion and 10 billion $ enterprises. I am very bullish on India’s long term prospects, and at UrbanClap, we are just putting our heads down and executing hard towards that horizon.
Exhibit: How would you chalk out your greatest strengths and weaknesses with regards to your personal and professional life that you observed after successfully heading a Startup?
AB: I consider my strengths to be big picture thinking, structured approach to problem solving, the ability to rally my team members behind our shared vision, and the ability to work hard. I have many weaknesses. I get impatient very fast, and can tend to lose my temper at times. I can do a much better job of prioritization, I tend to want to do everything now, and many others. I am working on these.
Exhibit: Can you share an experience of any hurdles that you had to overcome while you were on the way to set your business?
AB: It’s been a long journey and there have been many challenges that we’ve faced. Essentially, there are three major lessons we’ve learnt so far.
- Business model and unit economics- It is important is to prove that basic unit economics – cost of acquisition, the cost of operations, revenue from transactions – all need to add up to the positive. And for this, it is important to rely on the data, rather than trust hypotheses and hunches.
- Customer Experience – the primary factor that will cause a business to succeed or fail. While growing, one has to be extremely grounded and understand what their customer’s experience while using them. You have to invest in ensuring the best customer experience is delivered, or else you won’t be left with customers to serve. It’s very very important to listen to your customers.
- Building a stable product product, which creates a real value proposition for the user, is absolutely essential and it is important to figure this out before moving ahead to scale the product.
- Start-ups have to be really careful of the kind of talent they bring in, and the tone and culture they set. To scale as a company, everyone needs to rapidly scale on their own, which requires a lot of effort to build the right core values, the right communication channels, the right messaging and the right company culture. Hiring and team building is one of the most important processes for any company.
Exhibit: What are your thoughts on the importance of formal education and how is reality different from the educational world?
AB: Education is very important. Be it formal or otherwise, learning is a continuous process. With respect to the need for formal education from top colleges, while I do think the experience at IIT and IIM fundamentally shaped me, I don’t think it is either necessary, or sufficient for long term success in any field. The real world requires you to work hard, work smart, and work with passion, and I believe these three are necessary and sufficient.
Exhibit: What changes do you envision in the various payment options and emergence of the many payment gateways with regards to Demonetisation?
AB: Demonetisation has brought a large wave of Indians, who had never transacted online through credit, debit cards, or online wallets, to try it for the first time. Many of them were fence-sitters, habituated to the cash economy. They wove up and said, “wait a minute, this is easy. Why was I not using my CC earlier?”. As a ripple effect, they have started to become more comfortable with online channels, be it for shopping, services, travel, etc. I believe this move will help the Indian Ecommerce industry reach a new normal in terms of usage and online transactions, albeit it will take some time.
Exhibit: How would you like to describe UrbanClap in a statement?
AB: UrbanClap is the one stop shop that provides trusted and reliable professionals conveniently, to solve all your service needs, whether it’s getting your tap fixed or getting your wedding planned, whether it’s getting a yoga trainer or a beautician at home.
Exhibit: Tell us about your favorite influential and inspiring books. Which books would you suggest readers to get their hands on?
AB: “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel, and “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries and “The Hard Things About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz are great books for startup founders to read. Outside of this, I enjoyed both biographies by Barack Obama “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope”.
Exhibit: On a personal level, how big a consumer are you of technology and the internet? Which are your go to sites and apps?
AB: I’m a huge consumer of technology for services. Between my wife and me, we use a lot of app-based services. We use UrbanClap a lot, almost every weekend to get chores done. My wife is a fan of UrbanLadder, another app that delivers high quality products and customer experience. We use Uber and Ola almost everyday; also BigBasket, BookMyShow, Cleartrip; the list is endless!
Exhibit: What is on the cards for UrbanClap? Do you have any expansion plans?
AB: UrbanClap has recently launched its services in Kolkata, which makes us present in 8 cities. In the coming year, we want to elevate our presence in each of these cities and work on delivering the best customer experience. In 2017, we may look at overseas expansion.