In India, Ritesh Agarwal is something of a household name. Or, rather, a hotel name.
The 25-year-old tech star is founder and CEO of the country’s largest hospitality chain, OYO, and, as of last year, its youngest major self-made entrepreneur, worth an estimated $365 million.
In just six short years, Agarwal has turned his budget accommodation bookings platform into a network of more than 13,000 properties spanning seven countries. In the process, he has also responded to a growing demand for standardized, low-cost accommodation and sated his childhood ambition to start a business.
It’s no mean feat for someone born to a middle class family in a small town in the eastern state of Odisha. But it might never have been if it weren’t for some sage advice from one of his “biggest role models,” Agarwal told CNBC Make It.
That role model? PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
“Getting mentored by him really changed my worldview and gave me a new perspective to the way I was looking at entrepreneurship,” Agarwal said of the billionaire investor.
Agarwal is an alumni of the Thiel Fellowship, a program launched by Thiel in 2010 to nurture young tech talent. The scheme, which awards $100,000 to promising entrepreneurs who drop out of college to develop their business ideas, has received plaudits and criticism in near equal measure for its flagrant rejection of mainstream education.
Agarwal was just 19 when, in 2013, he became one of the fewer than one percent of applicants to be accepted into the two-year program. By that point, his idea for OYO had already started to percolate. An incident one night while traveling in Delhi had alerted a then-18-year-old Agarwal to the country’s lack of reliable, affordable hotel options. Yet, it was the mentorship he received from Thiel that shaped that vision into the global brand it is today, Agarwal said.
That guidance was comprised of three parts, he said.
First, and to Agarwal’s surprise, he was advised to trust his instincts and create a business that responded specifically to the Indian market, rather than replicating in India something that had worked elsewhere.
That suited Agarwal, who had set its sights on serving India’s vast and fast-expanding middle class with OYO’s booking platform. The company works by partnering with low-cost hotels and guest houses before renovating them and training staff to meet OYO’s uniform standards. The partners are then provided with a web presence (many for the first time) and aggregated together on OYO’s bookings website.
“I learned to trust the power of an unique idea, rather than trying to build an Indian version of a U.S. or Chinese company,” said Agarwal.
Next, Agarwal was advised to aim high and set his sights on capturing the enormous tourism industry in India and beyond. Agarwal said that big-scale thinking is typical of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and is an important factor in their success.
“Only when I went for the Peter Thiel Fellowship did I learn to think big, to think in terms of creating an enduring, growing, lasting business idea,” he said. “The scale of impact that people aspire to create, based out of the (San Francisco) Bay Area, is truly incredible.”‘
Two years after receiving its initial $100,000 funding from Thiel, OYO completed its Series A funding round receiving $24 million. As of last year, the company was valued at $5 billion after raking in $1 billion to fund its expansion into China and elsewhere globally.
Invest in culture
Finally, Agarwal was told to build a strong workplace culture right from the start.
“He taught me to partner with the right people who shared the same values,” said Agarwal, whose high-profile backers include Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Softbank. “You should never compromise on culture, even if your company becomes huge,” he added.
In 2018, OYO ranked as the number one start-up to work for in India, according to LinkedIn. As of January 2019, OYO has a rating of 3.5 out of 5 on job search site Glassdoor. Agarwal has an 86 percent approval rate.
Fifty-one-year-old Thiel, meanwhile, has faced a checkered reception as a tech visionary and superstar investor, but also a backer of U.S. President Donald Trump.
In the years since receiving Thiel’s advice, Agarwal has carved his own path as an entrepreneur and a leader, establishing a team of more than 10,000 employees and partners who are dubbed “OYOpreneurs” and encouraged to take ownership of their own projects.
But echoes of Thiel’s guidance are in Agarwal’s advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs.
“My advice to others in a similar situation would be to trust one’s instincts, be open to learning and growing, and most importantly surround oneself with people who bring more to the table either in terms of ideas or insights,” said Agarwal.
He added that that advice is especially applicable to fellow Indians who, now more than ever before, are thirsty to become entrepreneurs and are benefiting from programs like the one that helped him.
“I feel (that) the hunger and aspiration growing among young Indians will lead to a completely new and successful ecosystem,” said Agarwal.