How this woman entrepreneur started an affordable co-living brand and achieved Rs 300 Cr revenue
Sneha Choudhry founded two companies before she zeroed in on, a platform that provides fully-managed, long-term affordable stay options as an alternative to the existing paying guest (PG) accommodation and apartment rental facilities.
“My sister had moved to Bengaluru for a job and I went along to assist her in finding an accommodation. The existing managed rental options such as PGs and hostels were so sub-par in terms of quality and digital reach. India has a very large migrant population, comprising mostly students and early professionals. Solving for their living is a problem so complex and so large, it had all the elements to get us excited,” she says.
Thus, Zolo, India’s largest co-living brand, was founded in 2015 with the aim to redefine the living experience in India.
Create a good product and value
Prior to setting up Zolo, Sneha started a venture called Augbrain that aimed to use artificial intelligence (AI) in education to improve cognitive functions like comprehension, reasoning, assimilation, etc., among school students. Unfortunately, Sneha says, the product became too complicated for mass adoption and hence had to be shut down.
“The biggest takeaway from our experience was it is easy as an entrepreneur to fall in love with what you create, but in business, creating a good product has no value if no one wants to pay for it. Hence, at this point, we wanted to identify a market with a problem that we could address with an immediate solution, which has a more direct and tangible impact,” she says.
A gold medalist from IIM Kozhikode, Sneha holds an engineering degree from RV College of Engineering, Bengaluru. She has 10 years of experience in leading global companies like Deloitte and Oracle as Strategy & Operations Consultant. She is responsible for Business Expansion and Customer Experience at Zolo.
More intensive than a franchise model
Zolostays operates on a full stack model, which means it runs all operations in-house across its 450+ properties. “This is more intensive than a franchise model, but we believe that it is going to become our winning edge given the criticality of customer experience in the long stay business,” she adds.
Sneha’s primary role at the company is to oversee the business operations on the supply and customer experience side. “My everyday job is to think, act, and create better living spaces for our residents and prospective customers,” she says.
With its two-pronged solution, Zolo Standard and Zolo Select, the platform provides an alternative to the existing PG accommodation and apartment rental facilities in India. Promoting the idea of community creation, Zolo adds the co-living spirit into its services by engaging residents in activities like Zolo Premier League, chess and carrom championship, surprise birthdays, festival celebrations, etc.
According to Sneha, facilities like express move-in and move-out, free intra and inter-property movement, no lock-ins, deposits and brokerages, make it a hassle-free and seamless solution for people moving to multiple cities. Standardised essential services like complete furnishing, housekeeping, repairs and maintenance, food service, WiFi, and DTH are other highlights. Robust technology and a 24-hour manned support at the property helps the team maintain quality standards across all the properties.
The company has on boarded some renowned names like Godrej Properties, Shapoorji Pallonji Real Estate, Sobha Developers, Olympia Group, DRA, and Ozone Group.
Currently, Zolo is present in 10 cities - Bengaluru, Chennai, Kota, Gurugram, Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai, Noida, Delhi NCR, and Coimbatore. Over the past three years, the team of 500 members has helped 50,000 individuals find reasonable and high-quality living facilities across their 350 + properties in 10 cities.
Ensuring a wonderful stay
The “managed real estate business” has received some flak recently. How is Zolostays’ approach different than the competition?
“There are always individuals or companies who have envisioned being best in the business and have tried to push their way through aggressively without measuring their capacity or consequences. At Zolostays, we ensure that we develop a sustainable business model and then concentrate on other things that revolve around it. We consider living as a personalised and nuanced way of life. Hence, we make sure that each customer who registers with us know they are in good hands and that they will enjoy a wonderful stay during their time at Zolo,” Sneha says.
Sneha says her biggest success has been her team members. “These are people who believed in us and our vision and stood by our side as we take on one of the most difficult challenges that is out there. My lowest lows are usually centered around regulatory challenges in India for businesses. There is a lot of big talk around Startup India but the reality is very grim in this aspect.”
ZoloStays currently caters to about 40,000 customers, and is growing at a rate of 300 percent YoY. Its ARR is Rs 300 crore.
Entrepreneurship is a difficult career choice
Sneha believes in one strategy that she brings to the business everyday – customer centricity -
making things more convenient by introducing better choices of amenities, and affordability by catering to a wide range of options. She wants the platform to be more accessible by catering to a wide network of locations, more transparent by digitising every single transaction, and more connected by introducing online and offline communities.
As a woman entrepreneur, Sneha believes the glass ceiling exists in India, especially in the startup community.
“There are so few women that I am willing to put my neck on the line and say that in any sample group of investors or entrepreneurs, you will be able to always count the number of women in single digits. Entrepreneurship is a difficult career choice. In several sectors such a real estate, for example, there are virtually no women, and therefore it is difficult for young women to be taken seriously - although things are certainly changing very quickly.”
In future, she wants to transform Zolostays into a multinational company and address the larger issues of rental housing globally.
(Edited by Megha Reddy)