Abhiraj Singh Bhal: “We took center stage when business was at zero”

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This is part of a series of interviews with the winners of the Economic Times Startup Awards 2021.

Abhiraj Singh Bhal, co-founder and managing director of Urban Company, has had a busy two weeks. The company – which took first place in the Covid-Led Business Transformation category at the 2021 Economic Times Startup Awards – has revamped its policies for service partners, a critical part of its business.

Following protests from around 100 female estheticians, Urban Company (formerly UrbanClap) – co-founders Raghav Chandra and Varun Khaitan – has made changes aimed at increasing partner income and will tweak them further in the coming months. .

In an interview with ET, Bhal explained why the company made these changes.

He added that not all companies employing gig-workers should be measured the same.

Urban Company’s monthly income is 30-35% higher than before the second wave of Covid-19, which forced another lockdown earlier this year.

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It is now seeing higher order volumes than it was about six months ago, and its monthly revenue is two and a half times higher than pre-pandemic levels.

“We believe that we are a platform that is truly for partners and by partners. Urban Company is a platform for big income and very good safety nets and we want to be held accountable for that, ”Bhal said of the policy changes announced last week.

“Different companies have to be considered with different criteria. That’s who we are as a company, and we can’t talk about others… we have nothing to hide, ”he added. “We have come forward transparently for scrutiny and believe our practices are fair and transparent.”

ET said the company expects the policy changes to result in a revenue increase of at least 10% for its service partners by the end of the December quarter.

Fighting the Covid-19

Bhal said the company has fought both waves of Covid-19 by focusing on new categories that are performing well instead of just sticking to its traditionally strong categories like female beauty, which has been hit due to the virus epidemic.

“The challenge was to refocus the business on things that saw headwinds rather than sticking to the way we did things earlier and being attached to categories where we were originally stronger,” Bhal said.

The company quickly opened up home services with a focus on safety, hygiene and vaccinations in all major markets.

Seeing increased demand, the Gurugram-based startup launched the men’s salon, expanded its women’s beauty category to include high-end offerings, and launched in-home disinfection services.

All of these gained ground immediately, according to Bhal.

His men’s haircut service was a major success and the demand for such services continues to this day.

The company also continued to add categories.

“Historically, on the female beauty side, we have only focused on skin care services. Over the past few months, we’ve launched a bunch of new services including haircuts, hair colors, hair treatments, brushings and nails, among others. We are also introducing specialist services such as keratin treatments and at-home skin care, ”Bhal said. “And then there are a whole bunch of other categories that are going to go into pilot or launch phase in the next few months.”

Urban Company is experimenting with various services in different markets and rolling them out nationwide after crossing a minimum threshold. For example, he piloted the on-demand personal chef reservation service in Bangalore.

Bhal described the company’s adaptation to the changes induced by Covid-19 as ‘playing on the front foot’ at a time when business was at zero with lockdowns.

This approach, he said, has helped the company expand its base of service partners across the country. In total, it has around 35,000 partners, of which 27,577 are active in India.

“My point is that when you go against the grain and win, you win big. Everyone in our industry was playing it safe when the pandemic hit. Everyone was losing talent, cutting costs, and going into hibernation. We said look, it’s not like the whole industry is going to disappear because of Covid-19. Maybe if people spent Rs 100 earlier, they would spend Rs 70 to Rs 80 now. It won’t come back to zero, ”he said, explaining how being aggressive and focusing on the customer experience has helped him meet existing demand and capture more of the business. Marlet. “It was as easy as what we did.”

Today, female beauty is the most important category for Urban Company, both in terms of orders and revenue. “Men’s beauty is also quite important, especially men’s haircutting and grooming services,” Bhal added.

Growth, profit, IPO

Profitability is part of his plan, Bhal says, although he remains focused on growth and hits certain milestones before going public in about 18 to 24 months.

The startup closed a $ 255 million funding round earlier this year, led by Prosus Ventures and others, more than doubling its valuation to $ 2 billion.

“We would like to have a certain income scale and a fairly large footprint in the country. We want to make sure that some of our early days bets get a bit more done, especially on the category front, as well as some of our recent market launches, ”Bhal explained.

Growing the business “profitably and having a strong unitary economy” is “very important,” he said.

“It is also equally important to have a clear vision towards profitability, especially for our business in India,” he added.

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Urban Company is present in 35 cities compared to 10 before the pandemic.

“Hopefully by the end of this calendar year we should be in 40 cities in India. We will continue to add our presence in more Tier II cities. Internationally, too, we have broadened our footprint. Before the pandemic, we were only present in Dubai. Today we are present in two cities in Australia, in Singapore, in three cities in the United Arab Emirates and we have also recently entered Saudi Arabia, ”he added.

In June, Bhal told ET that the platform was doubling in non-metro markets as home service adoption increased in those markets.

In FY20, the company recorded sales of around Rs 216 crore, compared to Rs 106 crore in 19.

He reported a loss of Rs 137.8 crore for FY20.

The audited financial statements for FY21 have not yet been updated with the Registrar of Companies (RoC).

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