When the author came back to Bangalore for work in 2018, he had to make do with a paying guest accommodation in one of the bylanes of Indiranagar. After hauling up his bags over three floors, not to mention the random hours waiting for food to be served, the author decided to put up with it because of the reasonable cost and the location. The author had a desk at one of the most talked after coworking spaces in Residency Road, where he became used to a better standard of managed spaces.
India’s urban locales are brimming with migrants, from students who go on to become young working professionals to working professionals seeking better opportunities to live, work and earn. Humans have always been moving for various reasons. In today’s day and age of aspirations, especially in a country with two-thirds of its population under 35, it is prudent to reason that urban spaces need to be managed better and residential facilities must play a big part in ensuring that arrivals feel well-settled and ready to give their best, personally and professionally.
The co-living trend in India has only begun and it is a trend that will definitely continue, since the market that co-living players are looking to displace consists of unorganised PGs and private landlords looking to make residual income from their properties. It is a space that is extremely close to this writer since he, himself is looking for one.
Today, at Bangalore Insider we spoke to the founder of FF21, a co-living company looking to make its mark in the Bangalore real estate market. Below are the excerpts from our interaction.
FF21. When did it all start? What was the inspiration behind it?
The idea behind coliving or long term stay came about in 2015. Ajay Nemani, the founder of FF21, was operating his other business which is into corporate serviced suites that catered mainly to new recruits in companies who were provided short term accommodation to allow them to acclimatise into the city. Often, the new recruits since they were new to the city would ask around for recommendations for places to stay. The options available in those days were either individual apartments/homes or PGs. Both these options had challenges and were not the best to recommend.
That is when Ajay sensed an opportunity to create something on the lines of a co-living space. Barring one or two companies at that point, no one was really looking at this space in the same lines and that’s when he decided to begin this journey. To make the switch from short term to a long term stay model required some experimentation and in 2016, a building with just 33 rooms was made operational. This provided a lot of insights into the customer needs, the operational needs and helped fine tune a lot of the offerings that then became the blueprint for FF21.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your previous jobs/ventures. What were you doing before starting this venture?
The core founding team consists of 3 members – Ajay Nemani, Arun Nemani and Rahul Baliga.
Ajay Nemani has been a serial entrepreneur with over 25 years of experience in varied businesses from FMCG, Telecom, Advertising, Public Transportation and Hospitality. For the last 12 years, Ajay has been involved in running Sherwood Suites, a high-end hospitality business catering to MNCs and Corporate accommodations, with a client list that includes SAP, Accenture, Deloitte, Aditya Birla Retail, Visa, and Target among others. Ajay has been a pioneer in launching the first private airport taxi service (in Bangalore) under the brand name of Airlift in 2008. Ajay holds an undergraduate degree in Business from Christ Church College, Kanpur and is an alumnus of Sherwood College, Nainital and Modern School, New Delhi. Ajay is happily married to Archana and they have two daughters and a son.
Arun Nemani worked at Essential Energy (E2) in Bangalore, India as Executive Vice President for Sales and BD. At E2, Arun closed business for providing clean power provisioning to 28,000 telecom towers across India, worth approximate contract value of USD 1.56 Billion over a 10-year period. Arun worked in San Francisco, CA, for 20+ years in business development, sales and management roles with corporate America and as an entrepreneur. His business development background and sales experience include working with Chrysler Capital in Computer Systems Leasing, DEC in Computer Systems sales, LRN in Business Development, Asterop (France) as Director of Corporate Sales. As an entrepreneur, Arun has co-founded or been part of various startups as CEO and other positions in the Silicon Valley, in the areas of technology, life sciences and events management. Arun holds an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from HBTI, Kanpur and an MBA from Miami University, Ohio, USA. Arun is an alumnus of Sherwood College, Nainital, India. Arun is happily single.
Rahul Baliga has worked with established companies such as Eureka Forbes, QuEST-Global, in the roles of Sales, Marketing, Branding, Franchise Management among others. Rahul holds a BE (Electrical & Electronics) from MIT Manipal and an MBA from University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia, He is an alum of Frank Anthony Public School, Bangalore. He has 20+ years of experience in project implementation, risk assessment and mitigation plans. Rahul is happily married to Sushma and they have a son who is a budding artist.
What does FF21 stand for? How did you come up with the name?
The tagline and the overall ethos of our business stems from the phrase Where Friends Become Family!
The two FFs in the brand name stand for Friends & Family and 21 signifies the age and mindset of our target group. FF21 typically targets the aspirational young working professionals and our spaces are designed accordingly to suit their need for living experience which we feel conveys very well in both our brand name and the tagline.
What are the different kinds of stays FF21 offers? Is it only into long term stay?
FF21 primarily provides long term stays only. We do have different room configurations that provide options to the residents based on their individual needs such as twin-share rooms, single occupancy rooms, pod rooms, studio rooms with kitchenette. The buildings are all designed with a lot of emphasis on the common areas which allow for the residents to have the necessary social interaction for a vibrant community living experience.
The minimum commitment for stay is 3 months. This we feel is necessary as the long term stay allows for the residents to bond with one another, make long term friends, involve themselves within the community to pursue their passions, seek support from others and all of these help elevate their happiness and experiential quotient.
Bangalore has seen a lot of coliving spaces come up of late. How does FF21 differentiate itself from the rest?
The last few years has seen a lot of interest in the coliving industry as a result of the decline in residential real estate sales and changing consumer behaviour in terms of their appetite for better living spaces in lieu of the available options at hand.
Since the beginning, FF21 has been centered on creating a space that enhances the living experience of the residents. Our biggest differentiator is that across the organisation we have institutionalized the concept of community living to provide to our residents an experience as close to living at home.
As a community focussed place, what do you think is the most essential ingredient for creating a thriving community?
For a thriving community, it is necessary for the coming together of the following:
Residents – At FF21, we try to meet and interact with each resident at the time of sign up and explain the importance of community living. It also gives the opportunity to assess if the resident is the right fit into the community. We try and ensure that we maintain the right demography mix amongst the residents.
FF21 team – The FF21 team is handheld and continuously trained on the importance of their actions on the community and keep them motivated and part of the community. Each of the touch point with the residents is mapped and processes are in place to deliver high customer satisfaction
The Space – All of our buildings are designed to maximise space utilisation and to provide an ambience that the residents can call home.
As a founder, what are you paranoid about? What keeps you awake at night?
Our drive and passion is towards improving the overall customer experience. This pushes to constantly think of ways to use our resources to deliver value across all services. FF21, has set certain benchmarks across its properties and with each new property opening, we have seen that the customer expectations have also risen. This has helped keep us on our toes and our ears to the ground to meet those expectations that we feel we have created.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced while running a coliving start-up?
The concept around co-living with an emphasis on building a strong community was not so prevalent when we started. Since most of our competitors were basically only running better PGs or aggregating PGs, there really was no template for what we were attempting.
So it was difficult to convince landlords and a few other stakeholders including some customers that the model we were planning to implement was indeed possible to help all stakeholders realise their individual objectives. But once the 1st couple of properties were online, that perception has changed and since then we have had a lot of believers.
At present, the challenge is to maintain and improve our standards and make best use of our resources as we attempt to scale the business. With the current scenario of a post COVID-19 world, as there is a huge impact to the way the world now operates, we are also sure that it would affect us too. However, we are confident that with the customer confidence that we have been able to build, we will be ready for any challenge that comes our way.
How big is the team? Tell us a bit about the team members and how did you all meet?
Apart from the 3 founding members, the management team also includes Shyamli and Devanshi.
Shyamli primarily focuses on defining operations processes with the help of a strong technology backbone and creating a thriving community for FF21. In the past, she has worked in data analytics for 5 years, mainly with Mu Sigma and a short stint at TheMathCompany with expertise in gathering business intelligence, strategy to improve customer experience & operations, building long-term client relationships and designing organisational policies. On a personal note, quite an organised person to work with, love problem solving, fan of punctuality and believe that happiness drives productivity.
Devanshi manages the transformation of the properties, the community initiatives, social media marketing and human resources at FF21. In the past, she has work experience of over 4 years with companies like Zomato, Orchard Advertising and Mudra in different roles related to marketing, advertising and account management. She completed her masters in entrepreneurship from Durham University, UK in 2017. She has a strong set of people skills, passionate and fun in nature, loves to party and believes that customer and employee satisfaction is the key to a successful business.
The larger team is about 75 members strong that include staff across the corporate office and buildings. This primarily consists of supervisors and team members for housekeeping, kitchen operations, maintenance, laundry, sales and customer service
Any advice you would like to give to upcoming entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry?
For any entrepreneur something that would help would be to Think Big and Act Small. This means that one must always have the big picture in mind while taking small steps towards achieving those goals. It then allows one to be as detailed as possible in each of those steps so that you know exactly what works and what doesn’t.
Always focus on the customers’ needs and build all processes and the organisation around those needs. That is when the right value is delivered and customer confidence is built.
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