THE OFFICE OF JSK Marketing, in Mumbai’s Lower Parel-Worli region, looks like any other traditional Indian business house. There is a corner altar with images of deities, a large statue of Ganesha, along with slick couches and circular tables in the reception room. The smell is a mix of lit incense sticks and air freshener. Within, in a 4,500 sq ft space, formally- dressed employees walk around, carrying files to and fro, making and attending calls, typing furiously on their computers, and occasionally, when no senior is visible, stopping by for a quick chat with one another.
The company is a leading distribution agency of consumer goods with clients like Nippo and Amazon. And it looks every bit like one. Except right in the centre, where a large boardroom divides the two halves of the office space. Here, something entirely different is playing out today.
“A man walks in wearing a nice watch,” a diminutive woman tells a group of young men and women assembled in the boardroom. “What will you do?”
Members of this group exchange perplexed glances in silence, until finally one of them has a go at it. “I will say,” he says with a leery grin, “that ‘That’s a nice watch, sir’.”
The woman has flown in from the Bengaluru office of William Penn, a chain of retail outlets that sells branded pens, to conduct a workshop for sales managers at its Mumbai outlets.
“No, no, no,” the woman seems upset by the answer, “Don’t be insincere. Don’t say it. No, no. Not if you don’t mean it. You just walk up to him instead, ask him something, like if he wants water or something…” Now the group begins to offer one another nods of approval. And so the session goes, for another half hour or so.
Outside, just hours earlier, JSK Marketing’s MD Kunal Jiwarajka had stepped into office, and, seeing the boardroom occupied, had stopped by his Human Resources desk to ask, “Who is it today?” The HR professional, Nilesh Kumar, who informed his boss, mimics his reply for me now. Covering his mouth and recreating the hush, he says, “I told him, ‘Sir, it’s a pen company today.’” And then he renders an imaginary scribble in the air.
The two distinct companies—one of them a pen retail chain and the other an FMCG distribution company—have been brought together by Breathing Room, a unique Indian platform which strives to be a kind of AirBnb for office spaces. If you have unused space in your office, Breathing Room says, you can rent it out by the hour. Empty desks, under-utilised conference rooms, a vacant yoga studio—anything of value to someone else, according to this startup, can be monetised this way. Owners of space and maximise its utility, while mobile workers in need of space for short durations get exactly what they are looking for. William Penn needed a conference room in Mumbai and JSK just happened to have a boardroom vacant for that period of time.
At its heart, Breathing Room has a radical and disruptive idea: you don’t need to own or lease an office for work or to run a business. You can simply rent it for an hour or more. “I get like six bookings a month for an average of about five to six hours each,” Jiwarajka says. “I’m suddenly earning all this money with no expenditure at all.”
WHEN KAUSHAL SANGHAVI, 33, a former Amazon employee who had worked at its Seattle office and later moved to India to put together engineering teams for Kindle, was setting up the India office of CK-12, an education non-profit organisation, he began to notice what he calls “a problem”. Several friends and acquaintances offered him space within their own offices, but he eventually established the office elsewhere, a small space in Pune that could accommodate only three individuals apart from him. Whenever he had a meeting, either in Pune or some other city, he had to arrange an alternate space. Coffee shops turned out to be too noisy, and options like Regus, a multinational company that provides various types of office spaces across several countries, too expensive. “If I met five people in a small Regus room for a couple of hours, I would have to shell out a minimum of Rs 5,000. That just didn’t make sense. I knew there were options. They were offered to me (by friends when he was looking for an office). Over time, I realised that the problem was much larger than making a few day trips (to other cities), or holding meetings with vendors and clients. But that’s where the itch came from. I was thinking about it all the time.”
Why will a film maker build an office set? You could just log in, scroll through, and rent one
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Sanghavi is from a family of real estate developers. With his father and several uncles involved in the business, he would often hear of commercial projects lying unsold or vacant. “I was realising this was a big problem, both from the supply side as well as [from the perspective of] customers looking for an office space,” he says.
An early user and an unabashed fan of shared services like Uber, BlaBlaCar and AirBnb, Sanghavi began to wonder if he could find a solution to the problem through such a sharing model. What he came up with, along with Mahernosh Bathena, a friend and co-founder, by the end of 2014, was Breathing Room, a platform for offices to put underutilised spaces out for hire every time they were free, making it available for any span of time from just an hour to several months. In essence, it is like an aggregator of office spaces, like what Uber is for taxis and AirBnb for vacationers. All a user has to do is scroll through the spaces available on the app (or website), and book a suitable space within a fraction of a minute, just as one books a cab for a journey. Such a service did exist in the West, with successful platforms like ShareDesk and Breather. Sanghavi was keen to see how it would work in India.
“In India, there are lots and lots of office spaces lying vacant or underutilised. If you point to an office randomly from the street, I can bet you there is a meeting room or desk that is being rarely used,” Sanghavi says, sitting in a small cabin at JSK Marketing, which along with another cabin will soon put up on Breathing Room for the next slot. “It’s a really big market. And we believe it will grow rapidly in the next few years.”
Indeed, several Indian cities are experiencing a prolonged real estate slump. According to a September report prpared by JLL, a realty consultancy firm, at the end of the second quarter of 2016, as much as one-fifth of the office space in Mumbai was unoccupied. Delhi-NCR’s vacancy level is even higher, at almost 32 per cent. The all-India estimate at 15 per cent.
The way Sanghavi views it, while the nature of businesses and types of jobs have changed and evolved rapidly over the years, there is little that has happened with the physical office itself. “The last big thing that happened was multi-use buildings, where you had different things on every floor. But otherwise, commercial real estate has not changed much at all in more than 20 years,” he says.
Standardisation is a challenge. Each space on Breathing Room is vetted and photographed by a member of Sanghavi’s team. A user logs in through either a Facebook or LinkedIn account, and the website enables a search filtered by city and type of workstation (hot desks, meeting rooms, board rooms, training rooms, etcetera). A hot desk, available for as low as Rs 79 per hour, fetches the user an individual desk and chair, and free wi-fi and a beverage. Other deals include projectors, whiteboards and so on.
A wide variety of people use Breathing Room. There are young entrepreneurs using rented space to work on their next big idea, mobile workforces looking for a quiet hour or so to wrap up work, or even large companies that need a functional conference room for meetings or seminars in cities they don’t have an office in. “Currently, a lot of people just book a conference room in a hotel for large conferences. But these are usually multipurpose rooms that do parties and stuff, where they will put some tables with a white tablecloth atop it. The wi-fi can be horrendous, the projectors may or may not work, and there will never be things like white boards. Hotel infrastructure is never geared for office requirements. That’s because such professional meetings or conferences are not part of their everyday. But when you rent an under-utilised space, all these things are taken care of. Because, remember, it is an office space.”
In the first five months, the site only had 18 ‘BreathingRooms’ on offer. But now, with a year’s time, it has expanded to include 320 spaces in all spread across Pune, Mumbai and Bengaluru.
The business is entirely self-funded at the moment, and, according to Sanghavi, profitable. He will eventually look to raise funds, but for now, he says, the aim is to build and improve the platform, covering other cities and making the most of the idea’s potential.
AJITSINGH TAPASVI RUNS Yogisthaan, a sprawling 8,000 sq ft estate in Bengaluru which houses a yoga studio, a health food cafe, and rooms for visiting guests. Tucked away in a quiet bylane of Bengaluru’s Indiranagar area, it is popular among people looking for an alternate and healthy lifestyle. Much of its space is always in use, the rooms let out and the health cafe packed. Except for the yoga studio. Yoga classes end by eight in the morning and resume only after seven in the evening. Through the rest of the day, except for the occasional event or workshop held there, the space lies vacant. When Sanghavi learnt of it, he had an idea. Why not put it up as a ‘creative’ meeting room? “I was like, ‘Yes, why not?’” Tapasvi says. “It is practically unused otherwise anyway.”
Now for two or three times a week, movable chairs and desks are brought in, and the yoga studio converts into a meeting room for professionals. “We get all sorts of people—IT people, entrepreneurs, businessmen. And many of them like it so much that they come later again, either for meetings or for a snack at the cafe,” Tapasvi says.
When Sanghavi first set up Breathing Room, it only offered cabins and meeting rooms. But now, it has begun offering single desks, board and training rooms. The firm has also started renting out unconventional spaces like yoga studios and art galleries, which he says remain largely untapped as an opportunity. “Spaces like art galleries have an exhibition for a few weeks or so. After that, for long stretches of time, they just lie there unused.”
As the concept picks up, he believes, there will be all types of commercial workplaces signing up. “We are not going to get into homes or home offices anytime soon, but we are open to all sorts of professional commercial spaces. Music recording studios, film studios… maybe they were built for one thing, but are now available for something else… We plan to get into office offsite destinations, say a property in Lonavla or Mysore, where employees from an office can chill and brainstorm. The potential is really limitless,” he says.
In the past one year, Sanghavi has seen all kinds of space being used for all sorts of work. Boardrooms and reception bays have been rented out for recruitment drives. On another occasion, a shrink used the platform to book a private area where she could conduct a session with one of her clients, a housewife. Once, it was used by a bank to poach a top executive from a rival bank. A few weeks earlier, Sanghavi got another unusual request. A film crew wanted to book an entire office over a weekend to shoot an office scene. “Why will you build an office set, or look hard for something that might somewhat fit in?” he asks. “You could just as well log in, scroll through, and rent one.”
The Wealth Issue 2016: For the full list of portraits of the Smart-up Generation, click here