From almost a decade at PwC to co-founding NoBroker: Amit Kumar Agarwal shares his journey and the importance of hiring a CA early on

 Amit Kumar Agarwal shares the success story of India’s first proptech unicorn

  • Hi, I am Amit Kumar Agarwal, an IIT-Kharagpur, IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus and co-founder of NoBroker, a brokerage-free real estate platform.
  • Did you know even though I studied engineering, I found my passion in Finance! In fact, I was with PwC, a Big 4 Firm for almost a decade in the banking and financial services vertical. 
  • By 2014, I was leading a comfortable life working at Australia New Zealand Bank (ANZ) as Head of Strategy but realised that brokerage fees highly inflated the rental property sector.
  • As a solution to the sector’s exploitation, I along with two other friends of mine came up with NoBroker, India's first property technology (proptech) unicorn. 
  • Here is my journey. 

 

A topper who followed the conventional IIT route

Growing up, I was a straight-A student and ranked among the top 20 in the Uttar Pradesh State Board class10 examination.

Normally in India, once you become a topper in a state-level examination, people expect you to pursue Science. I was no different.

After completing my 12th grade, I noticed that most of the science students in my school were preparing for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance examination. I considered engineering too.

In 2000, I successfully completed my Bachelor of Technology in Civil Engineering from the prestigious IIT-Kanpur.

I kick-started my career as an analyst at Cognizant Technology Solutions. I was responsible for creating web-based java applications.

Coding was undoubtedly fun, but it did not give me a kick. I asked myself, “What next?”

QAPITA

Engineer turned finance professional

Since I did not want to be stuck in a career with little to no enjoyment, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA).

I cleared the Common Admission Test (CAT) and got into the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad in 2002.

When it came to the MBA specialisation, I immediately grew fond of finance.

Honestly, the degree opened new doors and after completing my MBA, I received an opportunity to work with PwC, one of the Big Four accounting firms.

I joined the management consulting division, a premium sector within PwC where I was in charge of the banking and financial services vertical in that division for nearly a decade.

After being a consultant to several banks, I joined Australia New Zealand Bank (ANZ) as Head of Strategy, reporting directly to the CEO.

I was leading a comfortable life and had already envisioned my future, moving from one bank to another, preferably a European or Japanese bank.

But I also felt that if I didn’t take a rise, I would continue to be bound by this good-salary handcuff.

QAPITA

Launching a brokerage-free real estate platform

Almost everyone pays exorbitant brokerage fees when looking for rental property. While moving cities for work purposes, I also fell victim to this.

The additional costs made me wonder why I could not connect directly with property owners instead of their agents.

One day, while hanging out with my close friends Saurabh Garg and Akhil Gupta, we ended up discussing this.

Saurabh and I shared a dorm room together at IIM-Ahmedabad. Akhil was a freshman from IIT-Bombay, and our meeting was pure coincidence. All of us eventually became good friends.

It turned out, they had also struggled to find a place to stay when they had to move from one city to another. Besides paying a huge chunk of brokerage fees, shoddy customer service added to the frustration.

In 2013, we witnessed the launch of modern technology-driven real estate platforms in India. At that time, we thought the brokerage issue would be resolved but despite all the developments, there were still agents ruling the roost.

The three of us met once again and decided to resolve the matter. We decided to use the power of the internet to connect tenants and owners without any agents or broker interference.

When I shared my idea with my parents, they supported me. My wife also encouraged me to start up.

In early 2014, I resigned from ANZ to embark on this uncertain yet exciting journey.

QAPITA

Co-Founders of NoBroker

Bangalore office was vandalised but we soldiered on

We started NoBroker.in as a bootstrapped company from my home and entered a completely new territory of real estate. It is difficult to develop a customer-to-customer (C2C) real estate platform… It takes years.

Akhil was our tech guru, so he built the product. We would talk to customers and if they had any issues with it, Akhil would work on it. That’s how we improved.

Like many startups, we faced several fundraising challenges because Indian investors were unwilling to fund us.

At some point, I could not afford flight tickets to meet with investors. Around that time, my wife and I were expecting our first child, and we needed to pay the monthly home-loan installments also. The situation forced my wife to hunt for a job.

Luckily, Teruhide Sato (founder of BEENEXT, a venture capitalist firm) came to our rescue along with Elevation Capital (earlier, SAIF Partners).

We met individual investors in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Essentially, we were trying to gather all we could and eventually raised $3 million. Elevation funded us with this amount. Teru and Japanese investors joined soon after.

We also acquired our own office in Bangalore and within a month of settling in, 50-60 real estate brokers tried to destroy our office (including all property such as computers) and assaulted our employees as they considered us a threat to their territory.

Little did they know that NoBroker was a cloud-based real estate portal. We then approached local police officers and they helped us to safety.

It was difficult to work from home because we were completely unprepared and our customer care line was down.

Despite these challenges, the team worked together to produce the best results. Several customers sent messages of support to us, which was also encouraging.

How NoBroker became a unicorn despite the struggle to raise funds

Through a Series A round, we raised $3 million from Fulcrum Ventures India, and Partners. Through a Series B round, we raised $10 million from BEENEXT, Elevation, and others

Our biggest challenge was raising our next round. When we decided to raise our first round, players such as 99acres.com, MagicBricks, housing.com, and NestAway had already made a mark in the space. Hence, investors were leaning more towards them than us.

In the first few years, we just focused on helping our business survive.

For five years, we just managed to keep our business afloat. While our competitors were raising a huge amount of funds, we decided to put our blinders on and poured ourselves into our work.

During that period, we followed a commonsensical attitude and did not spend any money unless there was a good return on investment (ROI).

Still, it felt like the situation only got worse. An acquaintance told me, “Focus on your customers and building the right tech, everything will work out very soon.” We did just that, patiently.

In 2021 through a Series E round, we raised $211.6 million  (₹15.8B) at a valuation of $1 billion. Indeed, patience is the key to success.

Currently, we gain around 5 lakh new customers monthly and our collective customer base has reached 1.6 crores.

We currently operate in six cities - Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, Chennai, Delhi-NCR, and Hyderabad, and hope to expand our services to more cities soon.

Ultimately, our hard work paid off.

Importance of hiring finance professionals and why a co-founder will have your back, always!

In fact, when we started out, I thought I could handle everything on my own. Why waste money on an HR or finance professional?

Within the first few months, I realised I needed to hire experts from different fields in spite of the company’s size. Therefore, we hired HR and finance professionals.

Initially, we hired young finance professionals instead of seniors because of our lack of experience. In 2016, we hired CA Ashish Shand. It turned out to be one of our best decisions. 

He impressed us with his hard work, and we promoted him to Head of Finance at NoBroker. Ashish's contribution has been incredible. It has made me realise how finance-related expertise is worth its weight in gold for a startup. Coupled with a huge passion and love for NoBroker, he became one of the strong pillars of the company.

Having co-founders is also crucial to the growth of a startup. Founding a company on your own may seem simple since you can make decisions on your own, but the reality is that it is even more difficult.

When you have co-founders, you can share your insecurities and fears with them. I believe you can collectively decide on solutions and act faster.

In conclusion...

We never imagined NoBroker would grow this big and become India’s First proptech (property technology) unicorn!

When we decided on the idea of NoBroker, I embarked on this adventure without thinking too much. I must admit it was a kind of a rushed decision on my part.

I would not suggest people leave their stable jobs without a proper plan. Instead, they should multitask between their day jobs and business ideas until they are ready to take the plunge into the startup world.

Today, after we have raised a total of 3500 crores ($426M), people ask us what we did differently while raising funds. Honestly, we did nothing different.

Our pitch deck is the same as the one we made in 2015 when we started off. We have been doing the same thing repeatedly. It is just a matter of the right time.

I want to conclude by answering a question people often ask me, “If you could do one thing differently while starting up, what would you do?”

Honestly, I would hire a good finance professional as early as possible. The amount of value they add to the company is incomparable.

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