Making room for growth: How student-housing startup Your-Space survived and thrived in a pandemic
Empty classrooms and college campuses without students are a nightmare for many. For student housing businesses, such a scenario is close to doomsday.
Your-Space, a Delhi-headquartered startup providing accommodation to college and university students, has seen multiple lockdowns stare it in the face in the last two years.
“It was about survival. We did whatever we could to get through that low period, because we knew there was light at the end of the corridor,” says Shubha Lal, Co-founder. “It was probably the most stressful thing I have ever faced.”
, founded in 2016 by Shubha and Nidhi Kumra, helps students find safe and quality housing around college campuses.
What began as a 77-bed girls hostel in Greater Noida in 2016 now has over 10,000 operational beds spread across Delhi, Noida, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Indore, Jalandhar, Bangalore, Gurgaon, Pune, Dehradun, and Jaipur, with operations in Hyderabad and Kolkata underway.
In January 2022, it raised $10 million in Series-A funding.
The lockdown scare
When India first entered lockdown overnight in March 2020, “we spent the first three-four months just firefighting,” Nidhi recalls.
This involved ensuring their staff were safe, and helping students get back to their homes. Your-Space decided to keep one hostel or property in some of these cities operational for the few students who were unable to return to their native towns.
“The biggest challenge at the start of the pandemic was the uncertainty,” Nidhi recalls. “No one knew when this was going to end.”
“It wasn’t an easy period,” Shubha adds.
For its operations team, the challenge was even more critical. “With everything shut down, the question was how to ensure continuity of service at each of those buildings that were running,” Shubha says.
As Your-Space had decided to keep a property running in popular locations like Noida, Delhi, Mumbai and Indore, the facilities were forced to quickly adapt to the COVID-19 protocols - which means being equipped with masks, sanitisers and temperature guns, and redoing standard operating procedures(SOPs) for housekeeping .
“The protocols are ever-changing every second day. There was something new that we had to do that we had to adapt to, so a lot of effort and work went in from an operations perspective to get the buildings ready,” Shubha says. It tied up with Portea, a home healthcare service provider, to work with the protocols and ensure easy access to medical care.
After months of prolonging uncertainty, towards the end of 2020, many students started coming back and Your-Space re-opened more of its hostels. Nevertheless, with vaccinations yet to be rolled out, and new cases on the upswing, Your-Space created quarantine rooms within hostels to isolate anybody who was unwell.
During the second wave in 2021, Your-Space converted some of its hostels in and around Delhi into makeshift accommodation for hospital staff. In fact, at the peak of the second wave, with severe shortage of hospital beds in the capital, Your-Space converted an entire hostel into a step-down care unit with 24-hour nursing service and oxygen concentrators. These spaces served as isolations wards for patients with milder symptoms.
In the non-metro cities, Your-Space even accepted working professionals as customers for a while. These, along with a few other operational centres, helped it generate some revenue, and pay rents for the particular property.
A productive lull
“Despite the fact that Covid was a huge hiccup, we've not stopped the growth process,” Nidhi says.
Besides its current 10,000 beds across several metros, Nidhi says the startup is looking to expand this number to more than 20,000 beds by July 2022 for the upcoming academic year.
All this growth, though, has not come easy.
“We had to make some very tough cost decisions across the board. Marketing was completely stalled. That was a big cost. We addressed operations costs across the buildings as well. Salary cuts were blanketed across the board,” admits Shubha.
The company also had to manage rising fuel and inflation costs, and balance it to offer a competitive pricing.
The pandemic-induced shift to remote work saw colleges and companies in the last two years increasingly discuss ‘return to campus’ scenarios.
“We never once imagined that colleges would become entirely digital,” Shubha says. “We knew this will be a temporary phase, and there will be a time when colleges will reopen and hostel services would still be required, because college and campus life—social interactions and discussions are a critical part of the entire academic cycle.”
So, Your-Space used this period of lull to improve its product, and study new markets where it could predict growth. ”We took the opportunity to work on the business and make our core stronger—the product, services, SOPs, technology (Your-Space app), the operational SOPs and the backbone of it all,” Nidhi says.
The app, which the startup released in 2017, now has a community feature where kids can interact with each other.
With coronavirus vaccinations being rolled out for the 18+ age group, colleges started opening up in late 2021. “With colleges reopening, we are on track now,” Nidhi says. “It is what we’ve been waiting for two years now”
In February, Delhi University (DU) released a notice directing colleges to resume offline classes from February 17, 2022. With different universities and cities such as Mumbai, Indore, and Bengaluru opening at different times, the startup has had the experience of operating through the guidelines.
“Things were moving on the ground, people were getting used to the new normal of working. And that gave us confidence,” says Shubha.
With DU opening up, the startup has been witnessing a busy time. The demand for organised housing is on the high, and with customers more conscious about social distancing, hygiene and clean spaces, there is an ask for fewer students per room than before.
“It's a good place to be,” Shubha says.
While about 70 percent of its beds are in metros like Delhi NCR, Mumbai and Bengaluru, the company is now looking to expand and grow its presence in markets such as Dehradun, Pune, and Mangalore. With a projected 20,000 beds, the share is expected to be 50-50 - metros vs other educational hubs.
Your-Space’s competitors include firms like Nestaway, Zolostays, OYO Life, Colive, Housr, Student Housing, and Stanza Living.
“We know at some point there will be a time where things will start to reopen completely everywhere, and we want to be ready when that happens,” Shubha adds optimistically, and there's every reason to be so.
Ajay Gupta of Capital Foods, an investor in the startup, had this to say at the time of investment, “This segment is growing and has demonstrated growth every year even during the economic downturn. The Indian student population base is growing consistently. The future of student housing is going to be driven by technology and building a strong community and Your-Space is at the cusp of bringing about this change.”