[The Turning Point] How backpacking across Europe led this entrepreneur to found hospitality startup Zostel

The Turning Point is a series of short articles that focuses on the moment when an entrepreneur hit upon their winning idea. Today, we look at Gurugram-based Zostel, a chain of backpacker hostels.

Dharamveer Singh Chouhan started Zostel with an initial investment of $15,000, which he accumulated by winning a poker game.

A graduate from IIT (BHU) Varanasi, Dharamveer says that his only intention to do engineering was to be able to start something in the gaming space. In his first year at IIT, Dharamveer founded Bright Ants Gaming Studio in 2009.

“At Bright Ants, I would build social games, the likes of Farmville and Mafia Wars, focused on cricket. Two of our successful games were Iplcricketgame.com and Battle T20,” he says.

However, Bright Ants was too early in the market, and there was no way to monetise the business and eventually. It had to shut shop in 2011.

Dharamveer Singh Chouhan, Founder of Zostel

Backpacking across Europe

During summers, the same year, Dharamveer cracked a four-month-long internship as a software engineer at SenoCAD Research in Karlsruhe, Germany. The working hours were till 5 pm, but Dharamveer worked until 8 pm everyday and took Fridays off.

“I used the extended weekend opportunities to explore Europe,” he says. Dharamveer travelled across Europe, including Switzerland, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

“During my travels, I fell in love with the idea of backpacking. The experience of meeting new people was fun and unique. It was different from what I had experienced in India,” he says.

He recalls that once he was lost in Badalona, Spain and had to spend the night at the beach. That experience of sleeping under the stars changed Dharamveer’s idea of travelling.

“There was a point when I realised that although I am poor right now but even when I earn a million dollars and get the option to stay in a five-star hotel, I would prefer staying at backpacker hostels and meet new people,” Dharamveer adds.

The value proposition pushed him away from the red ocean and into the blue ocean.

Second-time lucky

“Travelling helped me introspect on my mistakes and gave me the confidence to take the next steps ahead,” he says.

Once back in India, Dharamveer completed his engineering and started working with San Francisco-based social game developer Zynga, as a games designer. Just when Dharamveer thought that his dream was coming true, he realised that the “grass is always greener on the other side.”

He quit within three months and joined IIM-Calcutta for his MBA.

“My earlier stint with Bright Ants made me realise that, while it was possible to start a business inside the campus, one had to let go off activities that happen inside the campus. Thus, at IIM, I had to quit the placements within a week of joining,” he adds.

With an increased bandwidth to focus on building something on his own, Dharamveer started researching the travel industry. “I gained confidence that I could do something in the backpacker hostel space but like other budding entrepreneurs, I did not have the money,” he says.

During his free time at IIM, besides researching, Dharamveer spent a lot of time playing poker. Additionally, he was mentored by poker star Aditya Agarwal.

Eventually, the initial $30 that Dharamveer had bet on poker was converted to $15,000 within months. He claims that his all-India rank in poker tournaments was under 10.

“Instead of giving a push to my Poker career, I decided to invest that money in building something in the travel industry,” Dharamveer says.

Thus, he started the first hostel, Zostel, in his hometown, Jodhpur, in June 2013.

Today, Zostel is a community-led and experience-driven ecosystem, providing budget accommodation across 36 locations in India and Nepal.

Going ahead, Dharamveer wishes to, through Zostel, unlock India’s potential as the ultimate travel destination for travellers across the world.

(Edited by Suman Singh)