A friend’s destination wedding in Jodhpur had just wrapped up. As guests began to leave, we friends hung around our hotel terrace, enjoying the beautiful view from the top and sipped onto steaming masala chai. Another friend brought out what looked like a bottle of moisturizer with OYO printed on it in bold orange letters and began dabbing the sweet-smelling liquid onto herself in the pleasant winter sun. “I love these complimentary cosmetics, man. Dibs on the pouch.” Our host had booked OYO rooms for us and with its well-kept rooms and prompt service, it was just about perfect. The knowledge that our generous host did not have to lose a limb to afford the rooms let us enjoy the wedding guilt-free. Perhaps this is how Ritesh Agarwal, the founder of OYO, has called dibs on a huge section of tourists in the country.
High quality rooms, good service and affordable prices – just the perfect mix to win over a tourist. You’d think that for a company to cater so well to its customers, it must have been an old market player with a legacy of family-run businesses. It’s not. The brain behind the company is 24-year-old Ritesh Agarwal who founded the company back in 2013 when he was only 19.
From a regular 17-year-old to the owner of a million-dollar company at the age of 22, Ritesh Agarwal’s story is what fantasies are made of. Ritesh was born in a Marwari family in Bissamcuttack, a small town in Odisha. Even as a kid, he yearned to do his own thing. It was this love for entrepreneurial living that led to a 13-year-old Ritesh selling SIM cards.
Related Post: Man behind OYO Rooms : Ritesh Agarwal
“As a young kid (growing up in Rayagada in Odisha), I had the aspiration of doing something exceptionally different. A lot of people say if you have limited exposure, you’re handicapped. But I got more opportunities when I grew up in that place because as a young kid, more often than not, people would compare you on the basis of age rather than skills,” he said at the Odisha Investor Meet in Bengaluru.
Studying for his engineering entrance exams in Kota, Ritesh knew from the start that the conventional was not for him. More than his books, he was excited by the young and enterprising world around him. He would sneak out to Delhi from Kota every weekend to meet entrepreneurs.
At an age when most of us were busy securing admissions into colleges, some of us still confused about the career choices we were making, Ritesh Agarwal decided to listen to his heart. It was now or never. A good idea should never be made to wait.
Much has been talked about the fact that he did not complete his graduation and dropped out of college. Not many know that it was this very fact that made him eligible for the Peter Thiel fellowship, something that, in Ritesh’s own admission, proved to be crucial in his journey as an entrepreneur. “The¬ acceptance rate is lower than the Ivys, but the catch is that you have to drop out of college,” he reminisced while speaking at the Techcircle Startup 2015 convention. Ritesh was the first Asian resident to have won the fellowship.
In an interview with Economic Times he talks about how the month-long fellowship at Stanford taught him to ‘think big’. As part of the fellowship, he also received a grant of $100,000.
In 2011, at the age of 18, he founded Oravel, a platform for booking budget hotels, that later became OYO. How much experience and skill could an 18-year-old have? What he lacked in years, he compensated in experience and research. For months, Ritesh travelled across the northern part of the country, staying in budget hotels himself, doing first-hand research, talking to customers every single day to learn the problems and expectations of his customer base. Those who know him well know of his trademark backpack that he carried everywhere he went, even to investor meetings – it was his home in a bag; he wouldn’t know where he would be spending the night each day.
He was spending his savings on room rent staying at bed n breakfast apartments. Not everybody let a young entrepreneur stay for free as part of market research for his venture. Speaking at the Techcircle Startup 2015 convention, Ritesh talked about how that was a huge learning experience for him and he knew he had to stay put despite his diminishing bank balance at that moment. “My family was well-off and it’s not like they couldn’t have helped me, but the problem is if I had picked up the phone, being 18 years old, and told my family ‘Guys I’m broke’, the first thing they would’ve told me is to come back home.” It was a choice he had to make – it was now or never.
The young man left no stone unturned in understanding the budget hotel industry and it finally, showed results. Oravel Stays Pvt. Ltd. was scaled to OYO in 2013.
OYO, which is an acronym for ‘On your Own’, started with one hotel in Gurgaon in 2013. Today, the company has 8500 hotels in 230 cities across India and has even launched in Malaysia. In just 3 years, OYO has been named as India’s largest budget hotel network.
Ritesh’s incredible journey can be best understood in his own words: “At the age of 19, I was clear about one thing – I did not want to build something that was another business. I wanted to create something that created a real impact. And if I lost, out, I would have great learning […] I will not build something that one thousand people kinda like, I will build something that 5 people will fall in love with.”