Tireless host

Every effort times ten — that’s how Ankita Sheth built an empire of homestays

“I am a baniya buddhi“, claims Ankita Sheth proudly when you ask her about her entrepreneurial journey. Referring to her Gujarati-Jain origin, the founder of Vista Rooms says entrepreneurship is in her blood. Raised in a joint family, she says it teaches you compromising, sharing and giving. “Plus, with so many people, you inculcate different value systems,” she says.

But, she did not always compromise. Encouraged by her father to pursue all her dreams, she has been a go-getter. In fact, she challenged the traditions of her conservative family, which had different rules for girls, and demanded to be treated like her brothers. The rebellious streak continued even after her marriage, when she retained her surname.

After completing her MBA in 2006, Sheth donned many hats in many industries. From being an HR executive at Stanton Chase and then Boston Analytics to being management intern for Hyatt Hotel’s kitchen operations, she has always been keen to learn. Between the various gigs, she also started her HR consultancy firm and an import-export business. But, it was never enough.

The turning point came when she joined OYO in 2014 as the head of acquisitions and hiring. “They were extremely focused and aggressive about growth. If you went in thinking that ‘x’ could be achieved in a given time, at OYO you had to achieve 10x,” shares Sheth. Her six-month tenure at OYO laid the foundation for her future venture.

Sheth founded Vista Rooms with Pranav Maheshwari and Amit Damani in April 2015. With an investment of Rs.3 million, the founders kicked off their ground operations by hiring 30 employees within 10 days. They worked at a ‘10x’ pace. They enlisted budget hotels on the newly launched platform, mainly from Tier-II and III cities. “We were addressing a need in the smaller cities, when many hotel owners didn’t know how to sell online,” she explains.

Sheth was constantly on the ground, assessing hotels and meeting new people. In small towns, hotel owners would question her abilities, only because she was a woman. “They would judge me even before I started speaking,” she says. During such grueling times, Sheth says her husband, Kunal Kapoor, has been her constant cheerleader, even though the company was born just a few months after they tied the knot.

Adventure seeker: Sheth after receiving her flying course certificate

Within six months, Vista Rooms had 400 hotels across 45 cities, which quickly expanded to 1,000 across three countries including Sri Lanka and Maldives. “We were second to OYO then,” she says. But, they soon realised they were getting operationally heavy. Profitability seemed elusive. Nevertheless, Sheth’s belief in ‘always be hustling’ kept her going.

Family that travels together: Sheth with her parents in Scotland

They tweaked their business model and forayed into luxury villas. This time, they decided to focus only on the Indian market and shuttered their budget hotel business by the end of 2017. The challenge now was to train caretakers of properties to ensure a ‘luxurious experience’. Besides teaching them how to groom themselves, they also had to train them to interact well with guests. Vista Rooms has also started refurbishing and standardising homestay properties, when the owners are unavailable. This includes reworking the interiors, and upgrading the property with the right linen and cutlery, the cost of which is borne by the owner. She says their ‘Marriott of homestays’ has been built by running every property through 1,000 checks.

Sheth founded Vista Rooms a few months after tying the knot with her husband, who has been her cheerleader

Today, Vista Rooms operates 400 homes and manages assets worth over $200 million. Sheth adds that they are operationally positive. Managing a team of 200, out of which 40% are on-ground across cities, Sheth barely gets time for a break. But, she isn’t complaining; this was everything she wanted. “If it is something that you love doing, you’ll never find it tiring,” she says and shares that she continues to follow her mantra of doing everything ‘now’. “Even small departmental changes, execute fast, fail fast and move on,” she signs off as her baniya buddhi refuses to rest.

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