“Contrary to opinions, marketed one service at a time” – Fortune India

Be it for pedicures, plumbing, servicing air conditioners or cleaning, in the last seven years, Urban Company has made sure that it becomes a part and parcel of India’s daily living. The market opportunity has garnered investor interest and catapulted the company to unicorn status when it
raised $190 million in April this year. With an army of 35,000 service professionals across India, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Australia, the company, founded by Abhiraj Singh Bhal, Raghav Chandra and Varun Khaitan, now aims to clock $1 billion in revenue and build a workforce of a million service professionals.
The Idea!
This is not our first company. [Abhiraj and Varun started theirs together and Raghav did his separately]. We failed at the same time. We knew each other and when we failed we got together to say, “Okay that was a good experience.” We had a better idea about the kind of company we wanted to build — something very large and impactful, and technology-based. We spent four-five months roaming in Delhi, meeting people to answer this question: What will be most useful to urban India? People expressed their everyday problems of not being able to fix basic repairs at home. Others complained about salon services. When we connected the threads, the idea of home services was sitting in front of us.
Early Struggle
We were a very different company when we started off — a very lead generation kind of play. We thought it would be great to have a technol- ogy platform that could list vendors/ service professionals. We did this for a year. But soon we realised that some of our assumptions were wrong. The customer feedback was: when you send a plumber or beautician over we want you to take the responsibility and send that one perfect person.
If we have to choose the right person, how do we assess that they have the right quality bar? Suddenly we went from being a tech player to owning and having a stamp on the service quality itself. That triggered a slew of changes. It led to us creating our own service training institutes in every city.
Make Or Break Moment
A massive component of our revenues came from lead generation, which is basically an aggregator model. But we realised it was not solving the real problem in our sector — quality issues. There was no contour to define a good plumbing service or a good haircut. That seemed challenging. To- day, we are a full-stack deep technology company owning every part of the experience — financing professionals, training them, and empowering them to deliver the job.
The Business Model
Our business model aims at maximising earnings of our service partners — we make 20% and service professionals 80%. We use technology to make sure that in the 20% we are able to run profitable operations. We have actually been unit positive since day one.
Tech Challenge
We are a services company: you have to go out and talk to partners, or sit behind the motorcycle of a plumber and visit houses. Pushing people out to be problem solvers took a while. Now we have overcome that. We have a multitude of categories. Through technology we need to model all of this in a similar way. Our tech teams have become experts at platform-ising things.
HR Challenge
It’s in two parts — central team and service partners. A year into the company we decided that the right business model would be working with individual service professionals directly, and empowering them to be independent entrepreneurs. That made a big difference to their loyalty to the platform. HR challenges for the first few years were focused on mak- ing this happen successfully.
Managing Investors
Our mantra has been to build a good business, and the best investors will come and support you. The best way for investors to support is to say we trust you guys to do the right thing, so no questions. And I think by and large that’s how our investors operate.
Marketing & Sales Lessons
Sales were difficult in the first few years since we were new. Once we started creating enough value for our service professionals, sales became easy. We realised the best sales pitches are those focused on one strong value proposition. We gained by going early on television. Contrary to opinions, we market one service at a time.
When Did You Think You Had Arrived?
In some ways we don’t think we have. Every year seems to be a new aggressive milestone or set of milestones that we end up setting for ourselves.
Riding Through Toughest Times
At the end of 2017, we realised that one part of the business, which was standardised services (beauticians, plumbers), was doing very well — it scaled 10x in two years. Customised services (yoga teachers, photogra- phers, interior designers) were not working well. It made better business sense to focus on what’s working and let go of what’s not. We did that and it has worked out beautifully.
What Next?
We want to be present in many, many countries. Our aim is to grow 10 times over the next three-four years. We would like to be a $500-million and then a $1-billion revenue company, and create livelihood for close to a million service professionals.
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“Start-ups just get emotional with an idea and start a business. Very few do high-quality research before launch. That’s the reason 99% of them fail.”
“Our customers are unique in terms of the kind of internet connections they have, the kind of phones they run. So, when you build a product for them, it has to be very simple.”
“In eyewear a lot of ‘problem diagnosis’ is required. The core challenge was staying grounded and focussing on those issues.”
“We spent lesser capital and achieved higher valuations. Investors appreciated it. You need to be transparent about what you are building, your problems and why your numbers are growing.”
“People referred to our Hindi memes as chillar content. My point was if India’s massive youth demographic is consuming it, why should we want to put our own sense and not give what people want?”
“Picking an investor and board member is as important as picking your co-founder. Never be enamoured by the brand of an investor, be concerned about the person who will be on board.”

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