CEO Dhruv Agarwala on How REA India Reached Traffic Leadership, the Size of the Prize and Industry Disruption

March 21, 2024
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As CEO of REA India, Dhruv Agarwala heads up one of the most ambitious projects in global real estate: becoming the outright number one player in the most populous market in the world.

In fairness to him, he isn't doing it alone. REA India consists of three major brands in Indian real estate (Housing.com, PropTiger and Makaan) and has the backing of the Australian portal giant and News Corp asset REA Group.

Yet, three full financial years after being acquired, REA India has yet to reach profitability.

What is Dhruv working on to achieve profitability? How does he see the hyper-competitive Indian real estate industry as a whole? And what makes a real estate portal so sticky that it generates revenue even when its consumers aren't moving house?

I asked him these questions (and more) at the recent PropTech and Portal Watch conference in Bangkok...

 

Hi, Dhruv. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a CEO?

The disadvantage is that when it comes to your business, every problem is your problem. Staffing, morale, finance, product development, key metrics, everything comes back to me and many pressures come with the job.

But on the other hand, as a CEO you're externally facing. You get to go to conferences and events and meet interesting people. The advantage of going out, and interacting with folks allows you to get multiple viewpoints and ideas. Every time I come to a conference like this, for example, suddenly so many interesting thoughts get triggered for what one could do differently with the business in the near future and the long term.

 

Let's set some context for our readers. What is the history of REA India?

I co-founded the business back in 2011 as PropTiger. In 2014, News Corp invested in our business, and in 2015, we bought a classifieds platform called Makaan.com, which we have now sunsetted.

In 2017, we bought housing.com. In 2020, News Corp and REA acquired us fully. And that brings us to today.

 

Tell us about your (long) journey to market leadership.

In late 2019. we had circa 50% of the market leaders in terms of audience—we were number three or four in terms of share of app downloads, and even our app rating was not amongst the best.

Today, we have 1.2-1.4x of the nearest competitor. So we've gone from being a follower to a leader by market share. We also receive around 45% of total app downloads and are the top-rated app on Android and iOS, ahead of all of the competition.

We achieved a leadership position back in October 2021, so it's been two and a half years of sustained leadership since.

But if I'm being brutally honest here, I wouldn't call 1.2-1.4x traffic numbers as real market leadership. It's a challenging situation for all of us in the Indian housing market.

The question is, which one of us breaks out and becomes the clear market leader? That's what keeps me up at night!

As we've seen with other countries, once you've broken out as a clear leader, that's when you start getting a bigger share of total revenues and profit pools etc. That is what we're trying to do, is reach that critical mass. That's my number one challenge today.

 

How do you drive quality given the massive market size in India?

The key is to have traffic growth coming to your core pages—the listings pages where real conversion takes place.

I realised that in an organisation of our size and scale, my job is to take a step back, drive strategy, and then ensure that whatever we do daily is in sync with this strategy.

If the strategy is not clearly defined, you will have ill-defined objectives. It's all about driving people's mindshare and focusing on the metrics you want to change—that's been our secret sauce.

But to be a clear leader, we need at least 2x or more of our nearest competitor. That can only happen on the back of a relentless focus on quality. Once we have the best-in-class consumer experience, high-quality leads, and happy customers, you have low churn on your platform, we will build stickiness on both the consumer side and the customer side.

 

Can you go into more detail about the need to build a sticky product, and how to achieve this?

As we know, real estate is a low-frequency use case.

We've launched Housing Edge, where tenants can pay rent to the landlord using a credit card. That gives stickiness because you come to our platform every month to pay your rent.

We have products including lending or borrowing for home improvement. You don't use it all the time, but there is a need for that outside the traditional buying and renting cycle.

We have home services, packing and moving services, and plenty of different things which get people back to the platform at times other than when they're buying and renting. This allows us to drive deeper engagement.

Meanwhile, when people log in, sign in, and save properties, we can send them app notifications and reminders that match their search behaviours to reengage them. These sorts of products and services are becoming a normalized part of the real estate experience globally and can be seen across many emerging and developed markets.

 

Tell us about the Housing Premium product.

Housing Premium is a product that monetises property seekers, and this type of product can be seen in other markets such as Germany.

Essentially, some consumers come to our platform looking for curated listings, because they don't want to spend their precious time sifting through listings on their own. Premium lets us charge seekers to see those curated listings.

It's a very interesting product. It's early days, but we are still experimenting with it. I think it's a great product for the long haul.

There are challenges with that product as well. While it's a good service for seekers, and some people are willing to pay for it, many others get annoyed and ask us why we are charging for a better user experience—"why would we pay you for that?"

Once you are a clear market leader, I think it is easier to introduce this type of product than when you're not a clear market leader. That's sort of what the debate is in our head.

The jury's still out in terms of where it goes for now!

 

Isn't this too aggressive on the user's wallet? It's easy for someone with 'CEO money' to justify the charge...

I don't think it's too aggressive. We do not charge a hefty fee for the product. If I look at this product as a consumer, I'd be very happy with it because I have limited time and I'm grateful that someone can do the heavy lifting for me.

Nevertheless, we are operating in a price-sensitive market in India and we are mindful of that.

It is early days for the product and we are still piecing together whether there is a conflict impacting the consumer experience and therefore how we want the product to look in the future.

What I can say, however, is that we are seeing month-on-month growth in this product. So in that sense, there is a demand for it. I think it can be a good additional revenue stream as Scout (in Germany) has demonstrated.

 

REA India has yet to achieve profitability. What sort of timeframe are we looking at here?

Firstly, we're part of a listed company so we cannot give forward guidance.

Nevertheless, the size of the prize is massive and we believe that you have to invest if you want to win in that market.

There are lots of dynamics in an emerging market. We are not running in a one or two-horse race, there are multiple players all spending money, branding aggressively, all trying to capture this market once and for all.

I think it merits investment with a slightly longer-term view, and that's why we keep investing.

What we have told the street is that FY23 will be the peak of EBITDA losses and that we will continue to progressively bring down our losses. If you see the first half numbers that we have announced, EBITDA losses have gone down relative to H1 of the last financial year.

 

And finally... What isn't the industry talking about that it should be talking about?

In India specifically, we are embroiled in a competitive battle—who will break out and become the outright market leader?

However, the bigger question is being mostly ignored. With emerging technologies such as AI, will somebody come from left field and disrupt all of us?!

Meanwhile, in a more developed market context, I think a lot of market leaders who have such leadership and such a disproportionate share of profits and revenues—maybe they need to be asking "Is someone going to come after us?" It's bound to happen. I wonder if there may be some complacency—and we need to stay aware of this threat.

Life continues to move from offline to online. Social media, Meta—is this a risk to our businesses?

When it comes to AI, I think boardrooms need to spend more time discussing how 'do we stay on top of this?' But in fairness to the industry, I think we are doing this already—as demonstrated by this conference. I'm sure we'll find solutions.

Finally, I think we have to ask ourselves, "Have we truly made home buying as seamless an experience as buying something on Amazon?" I don't think so.

Something we don't talk about across the board is the nature of the transaction. Today we have titles coming online, the blockchain, digital escrows and more all coming together, so I think that over time we could realistically end up having that experience.

I think we need to talk more about the transaction collaboratively and transparently to get to a situation where we can all have an Amazon-like experience in real estate.

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March 21, 2024
Harvey is an experienced property journalist and copywriter. He has written about the property industry since 2015, starting at The Property Franchise Group in the UK, before moving to Spain to work for Spotahome. He has blogged for the private rented sector, ghostwritten for UK property experts and written case studies for franchise owners around the UK. Harvey joined Online Marketplaces as a News Editor in 2022.

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