In Conversation with Abhiraj Singh Bhal

Co-founder, Urban Clap
Tuesday, 20 Jun 2017
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Abhiraj is the Cofounder of UrbanClap, India\'s largest home services marketplace. UrbanClap helps customers hire trusted and reliable home services - from beauticians to yoga trainers, plumbers to interior designers etc. It has a presence in all major metros of India, and through its verified network of 70,000 service partners, has offered services to 30 lakh consumers since inception in 2014. Abhiraj has won numerous awards, such as the Fortune 40 under 40 for 2017, The Forbes 30 under 30 etc. He is on the NASSCOM Internet Council, and the Domestic Workers Sector Skill Council of the Government of India. In his past life, he was a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group, advising Fortune 500 companies across India, South East Asia and Europe. Abhiraj holds a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT Kanpur, where he was on the Dean\'s list, and an Masters in Business Administration from IIM Ahmedabad, where he was an industrial scholar.
About
Abhiraj is the Cofounder of UrbanClap, India's largest home services marketplace. UrbanClap helps customers hire trusted and reliable home services - from beauticians to yoga trainers, plumbers to interior designers etc. It has a presence in all major metros of India, and through its verified network of 70,000 service partners, has offered services to 30 lakh consumers since inception in 2014. Abhiraj has won numerous awards, such as the Fortune 40 under 40 for 2017, The Forbes 30 under 30 etc. He is on the NASSCOM Internet Council, and the Domestic Workers Sector Skill Council of the Government of India. In his past life, he was a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group, advising Fortune 500 companies across India, South East Asia and Europe. Abhiraj holds a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT Kanpur, where he was on the Dean's list, and an Masters in Business Administration from IIM Ahmedabad, where he was an industrial scholar.

The success of UrbanClap happened because the promoters didn't get dejected despite previous failures. What did the failures teach you and what allowed you to strategise better for UrbanClap?

At UrbanClap, we deal with services, which is an unorganized market. Not just in India but globally. It is the companies endeavor to invest strategically in training, quality, better supplier understanding and work harder and creating great customer experience and value for our professionals. No brand is created overnight; in the case of UrbanClap we have a long-term outlook, capital muscle, and partners who believe in our vision and a team that is driven towards the mission.

Yes, we see failures every day. We face many hurdles. But with the mission in, we’re able to keep going. Over the period we’ve also become thick skinned. We don’t let dejections pull us down. [Editor’s note: Abhiraj Singh Bhal, Raghav Chandra and Varun Khaitan are co-founders of UrbanClap]. All of us have seen very tough times—during our  Cinemabox days [one of the companies by the co-founders that made entertainment devices for buses, trains, and plane, Cinemabox was shut down after six months of being in the market], and the early days of Urban Clap… However, when you have experiences, each is a good learning towards handling the next challenge. We take our work seriously, we try not to take ourselves too seriously. That’s our thought process and that’s why we could get back to planning and strategising UrbanClap’s roadmap.

UrbanClap identified a gap in the segment of end-to-end services and reimagined services for consumers. What were your key findings?

To tackle any issue, one needs to unpack the problem at a fundamental level. In our business, for instance, here’s what happens with service professionals like beauticians, plumbers, AC repair technicians - they earn roughly Rs 10,000-15,000, per month, and it is perceived they cannot earn more than that. Our research showed that consumers were willing to pay for quality services while professionals were willing to do more jobs if it resulted in their earnings rising. What prevented them was the market architecture, controlled by middlemen. What typically happens is that several of these individual service professionals align themselves to small and medium size businesses or to aggregators – people who have little knowledge of the business end up keeping 70-80 per cent of the proceeds simply because they control all the information, including the leads that come through online yellow page directories, etc.

Our endeavor at UrbanClap was to create a disruption in this market architecture, ensure that the person at the 15,000-20,000 price point is transformed into a proper micro-service entrepreneur earning much more. We’ve seen some of our beauticians earn as much as 1 lac per month.

What was the strategy deployed to achieve results to create the disruption in the market architecture? 

We identified five levels for our strategy to take shape. These were five areas where intervention became essential.
1. Several of the service professionals don’t have access to market because they have no leads. We decided to give them continuous access to the market, to new customers. 
2. They have very limited funds and not enough capital to invest in their business. A beautician, for instance, needs anywhere between Rs40,000-50,000 for a good kit with quality products. Similarly, an AC technician requires a good toolkit for smoother delivery of service. UrbanClap extended them that financial support.
3. Their way of operating businesses is extremely unorganised so they needed technological tools to manage – one needs to completely standardise the SKUs of the services along with the pricing and delivery to technologically enable them.
4. Many service professionals don’t have quality training, an area that needs to be addressed seriously. A beautician shouldn’t specialise in just one or two services but all of them; a technician who services homes in the summer months should acquire a new skill set in the winter. We decided to equip them with quality training through our own centres.
5. Every service professional needs genuine parts / products to run her business. The products or spare parts need to cost lower than what is available in the market. We decided to problem solve in this area.

Basically, UrbanClap attacks all these five levels, service after service. In most services, we are helping raise the working capital, purchasing business tools, training professionals and standardising the pricing for services.

How has this five-pronged strategy at UrbanClap helped service providers and customers?

What our strategy does is that it transforms an unorganised but skilled service professional into an entrepreneur who is organised and earning a lot more per month. In the case of beauticians attached with UrbanClap, we have professionals earning Rs 1,00,000 per month. Suddenly there’s no upper cap for these professionals’ earning capacity. There are hundreds of women beauticians who are driving their own cars, purchasing their own homes. We hear heartwarming stories of women and individuals who are becoming financially independent and courageously walking out of very painful circumstances, including difficult marriages. The customers, well, they are ensured of smooth delivery of service, in the comfort of their homes.

What was the biggest challenge for you?

Our goal was simple: We wanted to create disruption in a way that we would create value for our professionals by unlocking their potential to earn. For our customers, we wanted to create superlative experience, which could be possible only if our service providers were adequately trained. The bottleneck was to get these service professionals on board, make them understand the value of quality training and getting them to understand the ethos of our brand. The core ethos of being a good micro service professional cannot be taught completely but it was our mission to train them. The challenge was to maintain high quality, scaling with high quality and improve constantly. The focus had to be on building those high yields on the supply side, controlling the supply side, and controlling capabilities, all of which is not easy. It requires immense operational effort.

Will UrbanClap add newer categories?

Not really. We have roughly 50 services as of now and now we need to go deep in the top 10 of those services while looking closely at the remaining 30-40 categories. Our plan is to smoothen assignment to service delivery and avoid any friction that comes between the journey of service partner and the consumer. Instead of adding too many categories, we will pick out one category every 12 to 18 months and really go deep. In the case of beauty services, for instance, by 2018, UrbanClap will be India’s largest beauty chain without owning a single, physical outlet. We will achieve in three to four years what companies and brands typically achieve in 20-30 years.

That apart, we will continue to build our brand and ensure brand trust from customers.

UrbanClap’s advertisements are not merely about the product category. They are about an emotional connect. What role should agencies play in furthering this connect with the consumers?

In the first five to seven years of a company’s journey, customer experience is what defines the brand. That said, it is important to evangalise what one is doing to the people around while also recruiting new users. Our advertising budget is focused on creating awareness, showcasing what we do; it’s more call-to-action driven rather than brand-driven because we are very firm to say that the focus of our dollar spend should be on recruiting customers. Once those customers come in, our customer experience needs to be so top notch that automatically they have an impression of the brand and become sticky users. We are happy to spend on digital films that address larger issues. They add a zing to the brand but it’s not any more complicated than that. We don’t have too many agency partners, we are a frugal company and our brand building is an organic process. We do have a couple of partners and they understand what we do.

How do you unwind?

I don’t work 24/7. I try to keep a simple lifestyle. I focus on exercise, spending time with my wife, and working. I keep everything simple; I don’t stress or count hours. When I work, I work with passion, when I spend time with my loved ones, I am focused on that. I make sure that I focus on my health and keep fit. My wife and I don’t spend too much. We live a very basic life, one that is fairly minimalist.

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