One chance conversation, two pivots during his education, and two failed startups later, Shashank Mishra landed in front of the building that would become his destiny. With so much in his life riding on serendipity, he thought to himself that maybe he could become a happy coincidence in the journeys of others like him struggling to find their paths. So, he created a haven of sorts for struggling artistes and entrepreneurs to get through trying times, and in the process perhaps help them have their next fated chance encounter.
Twenty-four-year-old Shashank Mishra rode the hype train to IIT (ISM) Dhanbad, and like many others who would fall off the wagon as their course comes to a close, he realised he did not want an engineering job. CAT and CFA surfaced as options, but lost their appeal after he was warned about how mundane the work could get.
He was back to square one, but this time, with striking lucidity. “I sorted out my affairs, settled canteen accounts and left for Indore the following weekend, never to look back,” recalls Shashank. He confidently co-founded and owned his two failures – one, his early-stage tech startup, and the other, his next venture that broke up even before the final prototype was developed.
He then stepped out of the tech startup metropolis, in the middle of all the collaborations, plans, executions, travelling and meeting new people, to develop a very romantic idea of a place that catered to creative people with tiny budgets and big dreams -- where people could meet, discuss ideas and the coffee kept coming. The means to an end for wandering souls like him became the end in itself for Shashank.
“Just like those working people who shelve their idea of opening a quaint little bookstore or a cozy coffee shop for until after their retirement, I shelved mine. But one day when I was in the right city, standing in front of the right building, I knew I wanted my destiny right away,” he says. Some courage, a snap purchase, and a lot of interior decoration later, Shashank had his 99Inn, by September 2016. He also met his co-founders in Dhanbad, while in college. Twenty-five-year-old Amit Agarwal was a banker, while Vivek Poddar has his coal business in Dhanbad.
99inn brings together corporate workers, travellers, artistes, backpackers and anyone with ingenuity in them. You can relax in the cosy patio or take a virtual swim in its think-tank at the library. “It is supposed to be a place for misfits, for people who are searching for a purpose, are willing to make a change and need some kind of support,” he says.
Shashank decided to host those entrepreneurs who have not been funded and need to raise a round, for free -- as he had been there and felt that exact helplessness. And when the struggling artistes came in, not necessarily being able afford their stay but willing to give back something to the community — be it a little performance in the common room or a doodle for the lobby walls —he decided they would also be hosted for free.
One of these ''contributions” turned into a regular event - ‘Musical Nights @ 99inn’, which has built a small yet fiercely loyal following in Jaipur over time.
With 40 beds across eight rooms on offer, they also instated a 'pay as you go, and as much as you want' model for all their other boarders at the start. As a result, there were guests who paid more than the actual tariffs and the reception returned the excess amount, and then there were guests who did not pay at all, Shashank narrates. Today, their rates range from Rs. 350 to Rs. 1000.
A typical week in 99inn has guests like Kacper and Sofia, one a Zulu teacher from Poland and the other, a rather talented choreographer from New York, who shot a fun mannequin challenge for 99Inn; or boarders like the travellers from Israel who created artistic sculptures and dream-catchers with completely natural materials, which now rest in the common room; or on occasion, groups like the small bunch of friends from Russia who stayed with them and shared some wonderful music with the other boarders.
So far, they have hosted people from 14 different countries and from all walks of life -- artists, musicians, travel bloggers, etc. "While doing all these wonderful things, we also hope that we don't end up burning a large hole in our pocket. So we are trying to make 99Inn financially sustainable. We need to achieve scale to make that feasible," Shashank notes.
Over time, their occupancy level increased from zero to 20 to 30 and now to just over 50 percent. "Currently we're making both ends meet but we are not in favour of increasing the room prices in order to push profits, and we are working hard to try and increase occupancy instead," he says.
A technical issue they faced is that that although the quality of their services on offer was exceptional, the prices they quote were so low that they could not make it through the minimum bar set by sites like Goibibo and MakeMyTrip. “It is a put-downer, considering the fact that I am not in favour of increasing the rates. So this is a major obstacle for us,” he explains.
While there were hardships dealing with management issues, the milestones weren't hard to come by either. Within six months, 99inn has already moved to a bigger property in Jaipur – one with ten rooms and 48 beds -- to meet the growing demand. Seeing the increased interest, Shyam Pandey, an HNI and CMD of Ninety Group of Companies, decided to pump in the first round of seed money into the firm, right when it needed it the most.
With this capital, 99inn will expand to Darjeeling, Kasol, Goa and Kolkata, and is in talks with a few other people in similar lines of business for possible collaborations and working out the possibilities of a franchisee model. It also intends to diversify, and enter the space of pre-furbished flats as well as tie up with hotels to put bunk beds in their rooms, in order to provide affordable accommodation options to their customers.
In a global industry worth $203 billion as of 2014 — what with young people accounting for nearly 20 percent of all international arrivals — 99Inn is directly taking on standalone hostels as well as mainstream chains like Zostel. "We are certainly not clones of them -- we are less profit-oriented and more people-oriented. I personally try to make all arrangements and create an atmosphere which is warm and welcoming, and our various house rules set us apart!"