Jasveer Singh, co-founder and CEO, Hood. Image: Madhu KapparathD
elhi, October 2015. “It was crazy,” recalls Jasveer Singh, who got hooked on Richard Branson’s autobiography Losing My Virginity
during his college days in Agra, Uttar Pradesh (UP). Though Singh idolised the maverick British founder and wanted to emulate his ‘crazy’ list of achievements, in 2015—six years after his graduation—the serial entrepreneur was grappling with a flurry of events unfolding at a furious pace. “It was indeed crazy,” reiterates the unassuming founder who was born in Agaunapur village in the Etah district of UP. “I got to learn the English alphabet when I was in class VI,” he recalls.
While a strong footing in mathematics and physics helped him excel till class 12, he lost his chaste Hindi ‘virginity’ when he was forced to learn English in the first year of college. “My seniors advised me to read novels, and my first book happened to be Branson’s bestseller,” he says. The young man from the hinterland was moved by the business exploits of Branson. “If he could do it, so can I,” he said to himself, and decided to become an entrepreneur. “A villager nursing big dreams was crazy,” he says.
Meanwhile, in October 2015, there were a couple of things that Singh found to be crazy. First was the brisk pace of his venture. Qik Stay, an online aggregator of affordable premium hotels which had a few pivots since January 2013 and got rebranded as Qik Stay in July 2015, had galloped at a lightning speed. With over 30 hotels in the kitty and operations spanning Delhi, Gurugram, Ghaziabad, Ludhiana, Chandigarh, Kanpur and Lucknow, the platform raised $250K in seed round of funding from venture capital firm ID Enablers in October 2015.
Qik stayed true to its name and kept cruising over the next few months. In January 2016, it ramped up its reach to 200 hotels, 3,000 rooms and a presence across 50 cities. The target for the next twelve months was ambitious: 800 hotels and 50 more cities. “The pace was absolutely crazy,” Singh recounts.
During the same time, there was something else happening at a crazy pace. In August 2015, rival Oyo raised $100 million from Softbank. A year later in August 2016, the budget hotel aggregator reportedly grabbed another $90 million. The same year, MakeMyTrip and Ibibo announced their merger deal, which changed the dynamics of the hospitality industry. Fast forward twelve months, Oyo went miles ahead of competitors by bagging $250 million in a round led by SoftBank Vision Fund. The two big boys—MakeMyTrip and Oyo—consolidated their lead and position, investors shied away from placing bets on smaller rivals in the fray, and the room for fringe players got increasingly constricted.
For Singh, the writing was on the wall. “No one was willing to invest,” he rues. This meant two things. First, without venture capital (VC) firepower, the company had no chance of taking on the might of the biggies. Second, the business had to sustain itself. This is what happened for the next four years till July 2019. Though the business survived, it couldn’t scale. And this is what Singh never wanted to do. “Ye clear ho gaya tha ki business bada nahin banega
(It had become clear that the business won’t grow big),” he says. The result was along predictable lines. He exited the venture, which gave fresh ammunition to his detractors. “He seems to be crazy. How many times will he start from scratch,” was the big question asked.
Two years later, in September 2021, Singh was back to the starting line. Along with Abhishek Asthana and Deepak Kumar, he co-founded Zorro, a pseudonymous social media platform. In the big universe of social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (now X), SnapChat and TikTok—Singh’s Zorro appeared to be a speck. Industry observers were quick to hurl a volley of searing questions “Is there a need for a pseudonymous social network,” asked a set of analysts, raising question marks on the viability of the venture. “Can it find users? And even if it does, how many?” was another set of critics who raised doubt. “Would it scale,” they asked.
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Back in 2019, ‘scale’ was turning out to be an unwanted companion for Singh. Let’s start with his first venture—it was more of a pilot—which the young undergrad started during the second year of his MBA. A fruit and vegetable delivery startup, Abhilaya was bootstrapped and started operations in April 2011. Singh skipped the college placement and decided to try his luck by starting on his own. “I was deeply influenced by Branson’s journey,” he recalls. “If he could start so many ventures, why can’t I,” he said to himself, used the scholarship amount of Rs50,000 and started Abhilaya. Within four months, the venture closed down. There were two reasons. First, it was too ahead of the time. Second, the venture couldn’t be scaled. Passion gave way to hard reality, Singh went back to college, and after the term, opted for a job. “I needed to survive, and then think of starting again,” he says.
After eleven months of stint as an employee, Singh decided to turn an employer. He started Sparehousing, a platform for PG accommodation in January 2013. The bootstrapped venture ran for 11 months till December 2013, and then it hit a roadblock. “It couldn’t be scaled,” he recounts. The concept was ahead of its time. “Bada nahin banta (It could not have become big),” he says. He pivoted the business and started ZoZo.in, a chain of guesthouses. After a year or so, scale came back to haunt the founder, who again pressed the pivot button. In January 2015, he started ZoZo Stay, which offered guest houses on an hourly basis.
Though names kept changing, the problem remained the same. In five months, ZoZo Stay got rebranded as 'Qik Stay' in July 2015. A chain of affordable premium hotels. Qik Stay had a promising start, managed to draw attention of the VCs, and scaled furiously in the formative months. The venture, though, was hit by abnormal funding raised by rival Oyo. Scale, consequently, disappeared.
Singh, though, stayed undeterred and started his new venture. Ryhno, a startup in travel and luxury, was rolled out in March 2019. A year later, Covid killed it. In November 2020, the gritty founder started one more time. This time, he started an investor review platform DotReview. Twelve months later, Singh exited the venture as it lacked scale. For a founder who had lived his journey by practising the philosophy of ‘go big or go home,’ a flurry of aborted entrepreneurial ventures—some failed and some had muted success—the road to salvation remained elusive.
Cut to October 2023. Hood might turn out to be Singh’s redemption. Started as Zorro in September 2021 and rebranded as Hood last year, the pseudonymous social media platform has galloped at a furious pace.
It has over 1.2 million users, the venture is backed by over 20 unicorn founders in India, and has raised $3.2 million in seed funding from a clutch of investors such as 3one4 capital, 9Unicorns, Roots Ventures and Eximius Ventures. With the venture pressing the monetisation button recently, Singh is optimistic about the prospects, and is living his dream of finally making it big. “This has to be my moment. I can’t miss this opportunity at all,” he says.
The backers too are excited with the opportunity. “It’s a disruptive idea,” reckons Ajeet Khurana, former CEO of Zebpay and founder of Reflexical. Every few years, a new social media platform gains a foothold. TikTok, he underlines, established a strong presence despite video being available on other platforms. Instagram too used images better than anyone else. “In most cases, new winners expand the social media user base,” he says.
For investors like Nitish Mittersain, the potential of a pseudonymous social network was the biggest pull to invest. “Everyone needs a space where they can share thoughts openly without the fear of judgment,” says the founder, CEO and joint managing director of Nazara Technologies. The opportunity to build such a unique social network from India is enormous, he adds. Hood, Mittersain maintains, has an innovative value proposition that resonates with a specific target audience. “It addresses the unmet need in the existing platforms, and can disrupt the social networking world,” he adds.
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Though the opportunity is massive, the challenges are equally daunting for the fledgling social media startup. The biggest is the need to keep the platform inclusive and free from trolling and negativity. Another issue is beefing up the tech capabilities of the platform to ensure a smooth and glitch-free user experience.
Singh, for his part, is aware of the big ask. “We understand the challenges and responsibilities that come with running a social network,” he says. The data, he claims, reflects that Hood experiences significantly fewer instances of trolling and negativity compared to other platforms. Periodically, Hood shares insights and updates about moderation efforts with the user base, emphasising its commitment and gathering feedback on potential areas of improvement. Hood, he underlines, believes in the power of the community. “The collective vigilance acts as an added layer of quality control and ensures that issues are flagged and addressed promptly,” he says, adding that Hood is a work in progress.
Over a dozen years in entrepreneurial journey, how does Singh rate his progress? The founder makes a realistic assessment. “The failures in the past were more about timing. In the startup world, timing can change everything,” he says. Hood, he reckons, has got its timing right. It has got users, it can never face the issue of scale, and it is disrupting social media. But what about the possibility of big boys—Facebook and likes—rolling out a similar feature and product. Singh remains confident. Social media, he underlines, has never been disrupted by the incumbents. “Hood has the potential to have a crazy outcome,” he signs off.