Let’s go back to 2011
Two Indian students in a different country, different city surrounded by different people with different cultures and both facing the same problem – no place to live! Saurabh found no accommodation while Mayank was forced to live with a boorish English couple. This is where the seed was sown.
Fast forward to 2015
Having completed their studies, Saurabh & Mayank came back to India to set up University Living – a platform for students to find the perfect accommodation and ensure that they enhance their customers’ living experience by providing not only housing essentials but also help with education loans and guarantor assistance.
Now in 2020
Today, the platform offers 1 million beds in 15,000 properties across 203 international education hubs in the UK, USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and UAE – and all these properties are verified. In the face of the COVID19 pandemic, the team has also accelerated the launch of its B2B SaaS product for accommodation management.
In this free-wheeling conversation with LetsVenture, Saurabh talks about starting up, scaling, and a COVID19 induced reimagination of what they are doing!
What was the primary pain-point that you were solving when you started and how has that problem statement evolved over the last 5 years?
When an international student goes to a new city to study, accommodation is a major pain point. I personally went through it and when I came back to India, I saw that many of my friends and family were still facing the same problem. It was a real problem and there was a need for a global marketplace to address it, we understood the nitty-gritty of the target audience and we got down to building a “market-ready product”. Today it is a 6 million international students market which, as per reports, will become 10 million by 2025. Now, only 1 out of 6 students get on-campus accommodation globally; the rest have to figure it out on their own and this is where University Living comes into the picture.
It’s a classic marketplace that University Living is building – what were the challenges on each side of the marketplace?
We have two stakeholders – students and accommodation partners. The student side is sorted as they discover shortlisted properties and we take care of this process end-to-end. On the other side, you have the accommodation providers and here we realized that customized student accommodation is still a new market, and not much technology is getting leveraged on this front. There are still providers who are managing around 3000 rooms and they are doing it manually.
There is no SaaS product or property management solution that is specific to student housing and that’s where we realized that we need to build a product for our accommodation partners to help them manage their property more efficiently and help them scale up by leveraging our platform.
Tell us a little more about this SaaS product or property management solution that you have launched
The product and it’s features bridge a lot of gaps that landlords or large property managers face: A dashboard allows them to view the health of their finances, see metrics for maintenance, receive and manage payments and long term leases, renewals, etc. The product also fosters student connections, interactions, and engagement. Ultimately, student housing is really about community building so this module is quite essential.
It’s a product that has come out of our own needs. We didn’t find a single product that could help us manage our finances, invoices, and accounting along with ensuring a smooth customer journey for our students. So we started building it out ourselves. Now, 36 months on, we are confident of releasing this out to our B2B customers for their use.
But is this product a ‘good to have’ or ‘need to have’? Why should the property manager spend the extra dollar, especially with COVID19 and the impending uncertainties?
Our product is a subscription-based product that eases the financial burden of a building and has an in-house inventory management system. What gives us a competitive edge is that we are working with them and we are helping them book their buildings. We are bringing dollars to them. Now, these new seamless integrations improve their efficiency, cost of acquisition, and improve bookings. Earlier students used to get confirmations in 5 days, we reduced it to 48 hours and now we are reducing it to 4 to 8 hours. It is a win-win for us, our accommodation partners and our students.
Over the years, University Living has actually seen different markets getting mature and new markets emerging and India is the epicenter of all early-stage markets. In India, we have actually led with our B2B SaaS product and have forged partnerships with all the large housing and co-living platforms.
So for instance, can companies like Oxford Caps, Stanza Living use your platform to list their accommodations as well? And is there a possibility that they can use your product to internally manage their inventory and booking?
That’s absolutely correct Syna. In fact, we’re already working with Stanza, Oxford Caps and other such highly funded and strong players in the ecosystem. We work with them on a B2C side where we help them increase their occupancy rate. Before the pandemic, these folks were probably at a 60-70% occupancy rate but now it’s almost 40-50%. We’re a performance-based marketing solution provider, so essentially they only pay us once we get them a confirmed booking. On the B2B side, the biggest operators globally have either built their own management systems or use a third-party product from the SAPs of the world, but that is a niche – a lot of the others are exploring our product and using it too.
What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education sector and on your business in particular? The signs on the wall don’t look very good, with the inherent uncertainty, flip flop by universities and students delaying travel. What are you seeing on the ground?
When we went into lockdown on March 22, most of my team members, my investors, and many of our stakeholders told us that doomsday will be coming around because we were all looking at uncertainty. Everything was going sideways and everyone was impacted. But in time, we realized that our fundamentals are strong. The model which we are building solves a real-life problem that will continue to exist even within this new normal. Actually, our services have become even more relevant now; from the point of view that students want to use only verified and standardized accommodation.
What are your two biggest learnings in the last few months as a founder of University Living?
Firstly, I think it’s good to be over communicative especially when you are not meeting people and secondly, never make assumptions. I think we need to be more humanistic leaders and not just bosses and managers. Everyone is having physical, mental, and financial struggles so we need to be more humane and empathetic towards the people we work with.