There is a lot of life in India’s homes, villas, apartments and stay places; and this single fact has spawned the building out of brands and marketplaces that serve every niche and segment that caters to India’s burgeoning homestays demand from its audience. The ‘value conscious’ tag has time and again made its presence felt in the Indian market, yet what often needs to be remembered is the fact that the Indian audience does not mind paying when sufficient trust and quality has been built into a particular brand.
The covid-19 lockdowns shut down entire markets and industries, with travel, tourism and homestays bearing most of the brunt. Although people are back on the roads, one does sense a lingering amount of uncertainty in the still air, almost as if there was a hidden secret still to be revealed or uncovered. Startup founders and entrepreneurs are back on the road, with all their grit and passion on display. It is times like these when the best of the best will be uncovered this decade.
Today, at Bangalore Insider, we met Sohail Mirchandani, the founder of Ekostay, which is a homestay brand that offers premium and affordable homestays across India. Below are the excerpts from our interaction.
Give a brief intro about Ekostay.
Ekostay is a homestay brand that offers premium yet affordable homestays in the form of private homes, apartments, and villas over 125+ cities and hidden gems in India. The brand scouts, acquires, and redesigns private properties into personalized and liveable home spaces and puts those properties on the travel market for guests from around the world to stay. These homestays are one-stop alternate accommodative spaces where guests get all-round and customized services to enjoy an immersive and hassle-free travel experience.
What made you start your startup and what problem does it solve?
Our startup was the result of the brand’s first founder Mr. Husain Khatumdi noticing a formidable gap in the homestay segment. In 2017, Husain visited a farmhouse in Lonavala and realized there is a huge market for organized homestays and many hidden offbeat gems in India. Once he transformed the Lonavala farmhouse, he could secure guests and enough revenue to kickstart a business model that solved many problems at once. Husain was looking to partner with individuals who had a strong hospitality, technical, and property construction management background with expertise in backend operations. Which is when me and co-founder Varun Arora came into the picture, strengthening the team’s core. We then met our last co-founder Zishan Khan through Husain. Zishan has a marketing background with hands-on expertise in property-hunting and scouting homes and just the right mix of social connections. Together, we tackled various problems. The first problem to solve was to take on the responsibility of redesigning properties of homeowners across various locations in India and helping them monetize it. The second was to provide premium yet value-for-money home spaces for travellers wanting a personalized home away from home vacation, staycation, or workcation experience. And the third was to become a brand known for benefitting all its stakeholders, homeowners, clients, and employees. True to our visions, we have achieved and solved these problems.
Tell us about yourself, your previous jobs/ ventures? What were you doing before this startup?
Before the launch of this start-up, the four co-founders of the company were involved in different engagements. I am a graduate in Accounts & Finance from the esteemed HR college of Commerce & Economics in Mumbai. Post that I got a degree in Business Administration from a prestigious institution. Then, I was a financial analyst for a year with a start-up. For the next four years, I was the director of a reputed property construction firm that helped me find my true passion and hone my technical, managerial, and marketing skills.. Eventually, I met with Ekostay’s foremost founder Husain Khatumdi and found this was my calling. Ekostay united me and my fellow founders and colleagues in a very fantastic way.
Where is Ekostay’s main office based? Why do you think that is the best place for you? Ekostay has villas all over India, tell us more about the one in Bangalore?
Ekostay’s main office is in Mumbai, and to be precise in Prabhadevi, Worli. It goes without saying that Mumbai is India’s monumental metropolitan hub with immediate access to influential and mutually beneficial connections. It is also where creativity and productivity run high and the pinnacle of diverse souls and minds. And when it comes to Worli in Mumbai, it is undoubtedly one of the trendiest and upscale places to work in Mumbai. Most of our homestays are in Maharashtra and near Mumbai, so having our main office close to them makes sense and works out for us. As for our villas in Bangalore, we have four unique-themed villas of different sizes and for accommodating different budgets and number of guests. In descending order of cost, we have the Sapphire Villa, White Pebble Villa, Bloomingdale Villa, and Hawaiian Villa.
As a startup founder, what are you paranoid about? What keeps you awake at night?
I think I am paranoid about this industry taking a backseat again in the face of another crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for homestays and staycations increased, but travel as a whole reduced drastically. Of course, we came out through it stronger with wiser and practical strategies in place, but we also saw a lull in business. The silver lining here is that travel and leisure will never become obsolete because people need to unwind from time to time, even during the biggest wars. Other things that keep me awake at night are human conflict and if time spent with my loved ones is really enough.
Who are your competitors and how are you better than them?
Like every business we have our competitors and we definitely want to move past them in becoming a benchmark in the homestay segment. But we also believe that our competitors are what help us challenge ourselves and reevaluate our performance from time to time. Our biggest advantage over our competitors is that we offer premium and holistic services at budget prices. We have an in-depth knowledge of the hospitality sector and strong local prowess. The existing players and homestay owners that rent out their properties have a conventional approach to client servicing. This can make guests feel disconnected throughout their stay. We, on the other hand, have specialized on-ground knowledge and experience in client servicing. We are known for adding a personal touch to our spaces – and the customer feels at ease right from the first call they make to book us to the time they exit their stay. We strive to look past the surface level of customer satisfaction and provide an all-rounder experiential stay as opposed to just a room for lodging. We are tuned to each customer’s unique needs and wants. This gives us an upper hand and a first mover advantage.
How hard is it to have a work-life balance as a startup founder and how do you manage it?
Being a startup founder means buckling in for a rollercoaster ride, especially in the initial stages, where the lines between your personal and professional life gets blurred. Of course, there is the excitement of brainstorming with the team and bringing your best calibre to the table. But there is also the fatigue of late nights and the burning of one too many midnight oils. The hustle does not end but once things get going, there is a routine that develops and a financial stability that makes it easy to maintain a work-life balance. 5 years in the company.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about you? Why do they have that? What’s the reality?
I think the biggest misconception people, as in, the people close to me, believe that as a start-up founder I don’t really have time for myself and I don’t know how to relax because I am a hustler and go-getter. The truth is that despite loving the grind to the core, I make sure to have ‘me time’ and catch a few moments of peace during the day. I also unwind on the weekends and make sure I do the things I love, whether that’s being one with nature or catching up on TV shows on the couch at home.
What gets you excited about this company?
Looking back to see how much we have accomplished and looking ahead into the future to see the immense potential goals we are going to tick-off both get me excited. I see the resilience and growth this industry holds, and as challenging and unpredictable things can get, there is excitement found in the many aspects of growing the company. Creativity and productivity run at an all-time high and looking into the finest details like backend operations can give you a sense of satisfaction. All frontiers of my brain get challenged and sharpened at this company and seeing the fruits of your labour getting acknowledged after a guest leaves with the biggest smile on their face is more than worth it. Not only does the daily work get me excited, but looking into the future and envisioning the many milestones this company will cross gets me inspired.
Tell us how a day in your life looks like? Your schedule for a day right from the time you get up till you hit the bed at night.
I have a bit of a powerhouse personality, but my day is disciplined and structured. I wake up early and sleep early, and at the same time every day. I believe a good and restful sleep sets the tone for the entire day, so I make sure to get 7-8 hours of undisturbed sleep. I start my day with a workout before breakfast to get me moving. I have a nutritious breakfast and lunch because I believe your body works really hard to keep you healthy. The least we could do is eat the right kind of food with natural ingredients to show our gratitude and fuel ourselves up. I also have coffee/ tea sometimes for some burst of motivation.. The work day begins around 10 am by addressing the previous day’s backlog, and goes by in team meetings, brainstorming, and looking into the day-to-day business operations. As I am responsible for personalizing the homestay experience for guests, I look into the finest details. In the evening, I look into the backend operations to see if everything is running smoothly to ensure an unforgettable homestay for guests. I wrap up with team sessions or motivational sessions. I spend the night unwinding with a book and seeing global updates and industry trends.
Tell us about your team and how did you meet each other?
The universe works in mysterious ways because our team met each other exactly at the times we needed it. Me and Varun already knew each other and were in the property construction management industry for four years. The brand’s conceptualizer Husain Khatumdi had in-depth knowledge on hospitality and was the one to unite me and Varun after setting up his first farmhouse in Lonavala. As me and Varun had immense technical knowledge on construction and real estate along with local prowess, we brought a powerful and niche expertise to the brand. We also have practical experience in handling backend operations, property refurbishments and on-ground shortcomings to ensure smooth operations. In 2018, Varun and I partnered with Husain. Our last co-founder to join the team, Zishan Khan was introduced by Husain. Zishan has a marketing background and is a part of influential networking groups, which really propelled our brand in the right direction. He also has hands-on expertise in property-hunting and scouting homes to add to our list. Together we bring unique skill sets and insights to the table and share a meaningful, close-knit friendship, even outside of work.