Finding roomies in New York


Indian-American parents sending their children, and students coming into this huge metropolis, have to hit the ground running. Helping their millennial children navigate New York City and live in a safe place is one of the most daunting tasks facing parents, the students, and professionals venturing to live here. There’s a new app for that.

Technology entrepreneurship has become almost synonymous with Silicon Valley, but Ajay Yadav, 29, of Roomi, is growing the start-up culture in New York, recently winning himself a place on Forbes 2017 list of ‘30 Under 30’ in the Consumer Technology category.

Many other Indian-American millennials have been involved in efforts to bring Silicon Valley to the East. Reshma Saujani, a Democratic political activist, started Girls Who Code, a non-profit. And the city’s start-up incubators encouraged under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attracted a number of Indian-origin IT entrepreneurs. In August 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Indian-American Sree Srinivasan as chief digital officer, and among Srinivasan’s tasks is to attract startups, which he appears to be succeeding at, along with the enormous growth of companies supporting startups, like the website Digital.NYC, a database for start-ups, which lists 8,751 start-ups and 208 investors.

The story of 29 year-old Yadav’s road to a multimillion start-up, is a saga of overcoming severe roadblocks, including a spell of serious ill-health, which, in fact, helped him crystallize ideas floating in his head. “It’s no surprise that people have called Ajay the scrappiest entrepreneur on the planet, a title that brings a smile to his face,” his company says.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was Yadav’s inspiration at the lowest point in his life. Flat on his back with a collapsed right lung and six months of forced bed-rest, Yadav says he was thankful to get the time to read about all the great American entrepreneurs and startup gurus. His idea for Roomi came from personal experience, like many other great ideas.

“Millennials are all about ‘how to connect’ with people. You want to make sure you get to know someone before you meet them. We make that possible,” Yadav said about Roomi which has a stringent vetting procedure for people and rooms it lists. “We are constantly testing and adding more security to the platform.” That is like music to the ears of every Indian-American parent sending their kid to school or first job in the Big Apple. “When I see how our community has grown and the wide diversity represented, I’m so gratified to know that many people from my homeland are using Roomi,” Yadav told Desi Talk, but said the company could not provide specific data on Indians and Indian-Americans using the site because of privacy concerns and because there is no profiling based on national, racial, or ethnic origin.

With its hub in New York City, Roomi operates in 21 cities across the U.S. and Canada. And Yadav manages a team of 24 employees. Roomi has 750,000 registered users, and more than 200,000 rooms on the platform, and had around half a million conversations for rooms, he says. He won’t give out data on how many matchups were made but a Miami Herald report June 8, 2016, placed it at 50,000.

While now the head of a company that raised $6 million, Yadav once lived in a bachelor pad with two roommates in Jackson Heights, sleeping on the floor and living on less than $10 a day, eating bananas and getting the $5 thaali as and when possible while building his company.

The Delhi-born Yadav’s story on the road to entrepreneurship starts when he flunked the final year of high school twice because he was too busy “hustling” – buying old cell phones cheap at Gaffar Market near Hanuman Mandir, and selling them at a premium. When his father said he would send him to America if he passed, Yadav picked up his act and got through somehow. Then he took his SAT and TOEFL and landed up at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, when he was 17. While he liked his school, Yadav struggled to overcome his acute shyness.

“My English was so heavily accented, you could barely understand it. I had learnt how to say “Chicken Tender Melt” at the cafeteria and that was what I ordered every day for a month,” he told Desi Talk.

On a chance visit of a friend, Yadav locked on to the idea of coming to New York. “If you want to be someone, you have to go to New York,” the friend said. He joined the New York Institute of Technology near Columbus Circle in New York City.

Living here should have been easy with so many Indians around him, Yadav said. But to overcome his initial problems with accent and to quickly adapt to the new country, he said, “I forced myself not to limit my circle. In the first four to five years, I did not make Indian friends and spoke only English.”

In 2007, he got a small break when an acquaintance paid him $2,000 to build a website. He flew to Delhi and with his brother’s help, hired two people and set up a company to build websites. “In two years we built over 200 websites,” he recalls. At the age of 19, he had 35 people working for him in India. He started a second company, an online marketplace, at 21. “We grew that to half a million hits per month in two to three years,” he told Desi Talk.

Then tragedy (masking an opportunity) struck . In 2010, on a trip back from a birthday-bash in Florida, he couldn’t breathe. He had suffered a collapsed right lung and underwent three surgeries in a New York hospital. But the forced six months of bed rest that helped him pause to think and learn continued for the next three years, he said. “I focused on reading about start-ups in the U.S.”

Fast-forward to 2013, he was searching for an apartment. “It was really hard,” he said and the germ of an idea for Roomi was born. He checked with his dinner group of 25 friends and found 95 percent had roommates. Using ideas he was teaching while mentoring for Lean Startup Machine, an organization that advises early-stage startups during crucial growth points.

Yadav started with no money and used Google Docs Form, Twitter, and Tumblr to find empty rooms around the city, make them more “saleable” for renters by getting details and making the information easier to read. Yadav managed to build a clientele of a few hundred without any investment.

He then built an iPhone app between 2013 and October 2014, the iOS launched out of beta June 2015, and the Android and mobile web launched in early 2016.

He hired some help, and began to look for funding. All the while, he roughed it out in a studio apartment.

He was rejected by more than 300 investors, before a Canadian Angel investor handed him a $10,000 check. “It was like a million bucks,” Yadav said. That started a round of raising investments that ended with a tally of $2 million by June 2015. In February 2016, the company raised another $4 million.

Yadav recalls what his father said at a time when the family was penurious and he sold the gas cylinder to have money for Diwali: “I will make it. Believe in me.” Yadav said that inspired him to believe in himself.