Having multiple co-founders yet getting the startup formula right

1 Aug, 2014

If every time I was offered Rs 10 for answering the question 'Is it tough running a company along with 11 other co-founders?', then Housing.com wouldn't need any external funding.

To start with, we are a set of 12 friends with a common goal of replicating the offline experience of buying or renting a property without necessitating physical presence. All our actions have to be aligned with the goal of doing what's best for the company.

Coming from an engineering background, we are trained to break situation and scenarios and come out with things in a structured manner that has a well defined math or formula. You can call me a nerd for this but that's what has really worked for us. That said, none of us would deny that we have had several discussions and long arguments- but no conflicts.

And when a particular discussion is about to cross the border, it is best to remind everyone the common purpose and goal of the company. When everyone keeps the best interest of the company in mind, we come out with a common decision because not many solutions are left after that. It's neither democracy nor autocracy; it's just about doing the right thing for the company.

Besides these, some of the other learning's from our journey are:

Tagging along with the most talented

All the 'studs' (people who were very good in certain areas) in IIT-Bombay became the co-founders of the company. For instance, Neeraj Bhunwal (one of the co-founders of Housing.com) could hack into any system. In college, he had once hacked into the sites of representatives of the elections of our institute. At Housing, he is in charge of coding.

We all picked what we love because we thought that when one's passion and job complement each other then professionals have the ability to create magic. I've taken up HR, sales, marketing and other different roles from time to time in Housing but finally picked up marketing and PR. Though we are best of friends, all the roles and financials are formalised legally.

Google uncle to the rescue

We Googled for a CA to work out the entire documentation for us and zeroed down on one of them after negotiations. Back then, we didn't even know what a company structure looked like or the best way to register one.

Going in-depth

Together, we have taken some quality decisions. While brainstorming we realised that people want to know what lies inside and outside the house so we introduced the practice of having pictures of the house and having maps as the user interface. Much later we also figured that users expect insights which required data in various forms. You get this data by building process innovation and this gave birth to our data science lab. With this we could build what was essential or missing from the market, since the other classified sites looked like an online telephone directory of agents.

Pivot in the business model

We have also made several errors. We started off as a broker/agent and not an online classifieds site. This is because, I come from Jammu which barely has any rental homes and most of the people are living in their forefather's homes. After college when we rented a home, we were under the impression that agents charge a tip of Rs 500 for helping get a home. However, he asked for a month's rent. While I didn't have a job and shelling out that much case was tough, I could already see dollars flow in front of my eyes.

We blindly followed this business model assuming that there was huge money here, without realising its implications on the 'online broker'. However, we were quick to learn that even though the margins were high, the problem was scalability. Also, real estate is a very hyper local business where local expertise is a must. It did not make economic sense to hire brokers from every area of a city.

So we gave up that model in December 2012 and pivoted to an online classified model. We were very agile in changing the model.

Never say no to luncheons!

You could be a dozen co-founders. But external help is always required. When we met Haresh Chawla over a casual dinner, we ended up discussing best strategies to take the company to the next level. In the very first meeting itself we started feeling very warm towards each other and he actually ended up investing in our company.

Today, all our investors help in taking important decisions including expanding to 14 cities at one go and other strategies, business model as well as getting the right people on-board.

Lower manual dependency

When you are building a company for the next century, you need to nurture it in a manner that its dependency on you reduces significantly. It must be more tech dependent so that when a new member joins the team, passing on the knowledge of that department is much easier. We are building a sustainable eco-system within the company that just thrives.

(Sharma is the co-founder of real-estate portal Housing.com. As told to Techcircle.in's Nikita Peer)