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How Amit Agarwal of Nobroker is fixing India’s rental market

The CEO and co-founder of the proptech company Nobroker on surviving an attack on the office by real estate brokers, building a unicorn, and cutting out the middlemen from the rental market

Amit Kumar Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of Nobroker
Amit Kumar Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of Nobroker (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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A few years ago, soon after the office of Nobroker Technology Solutions Pvt. Ltd was attacked by real estate brokers in Bengaluru angry with its market-disrupting philosophy, the company had a visitor. One of its investors, Teruhide Sato from the venture capital firm Beenext, visited its temporary offices in Koramangala. There was chaos, the employees did not have internet cables to pin to their laptops, the chairs were broken, and rats were scurrying around.

“People would take internet cables home because they were not sure if they would get one in the morning. There was a small, smelly bathroom,” remembers Amit Kumar Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of Nobroker.

“He (Sato) looks at it and philosophically says, ‘Amit, this would be good for your business and for your team.’ I was thinking: how can this be good for the team?” Agarwal says, his easy laugh echoing in the room from where he logs in for a Zoom chat. Much later, Agarwal realised Sato was right. “In a weird way,” the team felt a sense of solidarity after the attack. “In India, if customers are upset, they write on social media, but rarely do that when they are happy. Lots of customers wrote on social platforms how we are good and it did make the team stronger,” he says.

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Today, the company founded by Akhil Gupta, Saurabh Garg and Agarwal has over 16 million registered users across Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai and the National Capital Region, with 7.5 million properties registered on its portal. It facilitates 50,000 rental transactions and 4,000-5,000 sales every month— 3,000 crore worth of transactions every month. In November, the company raised $210 million (around 1,600 crore) as part of its Series E funding, pushing its valuation to $1.01 billion—the first proptech (property technology) and real estate startup to get to the once unique and now routine unicorn status.

Agarwal, a 44-year-old with an enthusiastic, eager demeanour and an infectious laugh, views the status as validation. “Has something changed within? In the past seven-eight years, we have been doing exactly the same things. We haven’t pivoted. This field is tough, C2C (customer to customer) is tough. There is no other choice except elbow grease. It makes me happy that this round (of funding) happened, that existing investors were more enthusiastic than the new investors. I am happy not a single investor sold.”

The son of a civil servant who would be transferred frequently, Agarwal usually spent less than two years in a single school. When you do that, he says, you become either an introvert or an extrovert, and he swung towards the latter. Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, followed Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, leading to a techie job as a programmer at Cognizant Technology Solutions and then a decade as a management consultant.

“You end up chasing what is paying the most, which is consulting or finance. I loved management consulting. The job seems fancy but when you reach the client, people are hostile. They think ‘ye hamaari ghadi dekh kar hamein hi time batane wala hai’ (literally translated, he will look at our clock and tell us the time).” He had been with ANZ Bank in Mumbai for two years when it started feeling like a “golden handcuff”, chasing salary and increments.

It was the late 2000s and all three—Garg is Agarwal’s batchmate from IIM, while Gupta is a junior from IIT—had experienced the kind of frustration new immigrants to Mumbai are all too familiar with: the trauma of house hunting, mercurial landlords, slimy brokers.

They believed that despite the presence of other startups in the field, despite other good user interfaces and customer-facing experiences, there was no escaping the broker. That led to the idea of the company, launched in early 2014 in Bengaluru.

At the time, Agarwal says, Indian customers were kind to startups, and there were enough initial adopters. Forgiveness came easier if the startup did not charge money. “The advantage to building a C2C platform is no one can come into the market tomorrow, offer a cashback and replace us over time,” he says.

Initially, they would pay salaries through their own accounts, working with qualified women who had given up jobs to raise children but were interested in working part-time from home. “This was perfect for us—we found them, interviewed them and trained them. It was a jugaad that worked well,” Agarwal says. Funding came a year later; they didn’t get any new Indian investor from 2015-19.

The initial website was basic. They got property ads through a “click and earn” crowdsourced scheme. Anyone who saw a “to-let” ad could take a photo and upload it on their app. The moment the property got listed, the sender would get 100. Even today, Nobroker gets 10% of its property ads through this route.

Today, the website has more listings—they add 500,000 new customers per month, diligently keeping brokers at bay. The way they try to identify brokers is their “secret sauce”, an algorithm that follows a broker’s digital footprints across the World Wide Web. “The way in which he interacts with the platform leaves breadcrumbs. We have an exhaustive algorithm which takes 35-40 parameters and predicts if this guy is a broker. We have improved the platform over eight years and blocked at least 500,000 brokers on the platform,” Agarwal adds.

Real estate has become the company’s biggest revenue stream—buying, selling, tenancy, residential and commercial. “Apart from the real estate no-broker, we consciously junked all our clever ideas in favour of what the customer was telling us,” says Agarwal, laughing. Why thrust an idea on customers instead of giving them what they are asking for? he argues. Now they offer a few other home services too—packing and moving, painting, cleaning, home interiors. They also offer financial services, home loans and insurance.

The first, nationwide lockdown in 2020 brought new worries: Customers were forced indoors. Nobroker innovated, asking home owners to send video clips. This worked, especially in the case of gated communities. People could rent the property without visiting it. “We had a huge drop in the first wave. In the second wave, the drop was barely 15-20% and third-wave drop is 10%,” he says.

He pauses for a moment, considering what the pandemic years did to the real estate market. While they saw young professionals and young couples moving from metros to non-metros, families with children stayed on, uncertain about schools reopening. In many gated communities, occupancy remained high.  He had assumed that buying and selling would slow down due to job losses and stress, but it turned out to be a bumper time to buy and sell in some categories. Many builders—for example, with villas in the range of 5 crore—sold across the country. The National Capital Region (NCR) was an exception.

Agarwal laughingly adds a rider about the no-brokerage policy. “It’s a free service but because it’s a life-time contract, we would charge you sooner or later,” he says. “People are cautious in India, they think there’s something hidden. But customers come here, post their properties, others click on it. Like Facebook, neither the content is ours nor are we consuming it.” Their money comes largely from services such as insurance, moving/packing—and their premium service for buying or renting, where your ad will get a better display.

The company hopes to expand Nobrokerhood, the gated community management platform it launched a couple of years ago, and raise its presence from 10,000 gated communities across the country to 100,000. Last year, it also bought Society Connect, a society management platform in the NCR.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, though. Last year, Nobroker and gated community management platform MyGate accused each other of stealing proprietary customer information and filed FIRs against each other. Agarwal declines to comment, but adds with a smile: “We are focusing more on not sharing customer data. We have wisened up quickly after that.”

Now, even their employees don’t have access to the phone numbers of customers, he says. As a policy, they don’t advertise, there’s no banner on the platform, nor do they sell or share data. “In the short term, it (selling data) may work but in the long term, it builds resentment, which happened to us.”

A large part of the roughly 2,500-strong workforce sweats it out for Nobrokerhood; the other significant team is at the call centre. The parent company has only one office, in Bengaluru, besides co-working offices in other cities. Even today, they keep their office address relatively hidden. It does not have a façade, to avoid unnecessary trouble. “We were difficult to find for the next two years (after the attack). But brokers have made peace with it. We have both realised that the other will be around,” Agarwal says.

“We have an attitude that we can only control our business,” he adds. “What can you do to make sure the customer has more choices? That’s all we can control. There is a huge market, which was unorganised, and we can save a lot of brokerage for the common people.”

Since he dislikes bosses who micromanage, he tries to make sure he isn’t one of them. “I give huge independence to my team, so my time is comfortable,” he says. Some of that time was dedicated—during the lockdown—to playing football with his sons, Aarav, 14, and Anay, 7, inside the house, much to wife and IIT batchmate Priyanka’s exasperation.

“We have a lot of fun,” he says of his co-founders. “The families are close, we take vacations together. We have grown up together and seen our children grow up together.”

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Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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