An exclusive interview with Harsh Binani, Co-founder of Smartworks, India’s largest Workplace-as-a-Service provider
Today, we bring to you Mr. Harsh Binani is one of India’s most inspiring and motivating entrepreneurs. He is the co-founder of Smartworks, India’s largest workspace platform. Despite starting small, he believes in achieving the impossible. Harsh holds an MBA in entrepreneurial studies from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Illinois, and an Economics degree from Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. Additionally, he holds CFP (Centre for Financial Planning) designations in risk management, investment, and retirement planning.
Harsh Binani began his career by gaining experience for his bigger plans through his opportunities. Having worked for McKinsey, the world’s premier consulting firm, in Chicago for over seven years in real estate and management consulting, he has extensive knowledge of the real estate and management industry. Over his five years at Mckinsey, Harsh focused on insurance, infrastructure, and healthcare strategies. The experience of working in state-of-the-art workspaces overseas exposed Harsh Binani to his future goals.
Smartworks was founded in 2016 to reinvent workspaces and office experience. Establishing a traditional office is expensive, time-consuming, and often restrictive. In just 30 days, Smartworks provides a configured, tech-enabled, scalable, and affordable workspace ready to use.
Smartworks has recently been named in Asia-Pacific’s Top 500 High-Growth Companies 2022, a ranking by Financial Times.
In this interview, Harsh Binani talks about the philosophy behind Smartworks, plans, the innovation mindset, challenges, and an incredible journey during the pandemic. Edited excerpts:
Inventiva: Share with us the philosophy behind setting up Smartworks—a personal passion, a problem you identified, or a market opportunity?
Harsh: The journey of Smartworks started with reimagining the workspace. And then, it went into reimagining the workplace experience for its employees. Over the last six years, it’s been an incredible journey, building and growing the company to what is now- the largest workspace platform in India with a capacity of over seven million sq feet, spread across 11 cities, with approx 150,000 desks.
We had a very humble beginning when I look back because we were like any other coworking space player. We reimagined the workspace to make it amenable to large enterprises as they are the largest occupiers of real estate space in India.
Enterprise customers offer sticky revenues and long tenure. Today, we have Forbes 2000 /Fortune-500 companies set up their headquarters and satellite offices with us. Early on, we could sense an opportunity in the market and focus on offering an excellent office experience to clients rather than just selling a desk!
Our mission is to make working professionals effective in an enabling environment, happier at work, and reduce attrition. This is especially important in a post-covid climate, where coming back to the office is a struggle for large enterprises.
Now that we’re the country’s largest workspace platform, we’re also looking at adjacent business opportunities. As an outcome, we have a digital commerce company within Smartworks that caters to the needs of the employees/members who come to our campus. So, they start their day with the gym. Then they have a nutritious breakfast, do laundry, and do grocery shopping. We have everything within the campus provided by brands that operate under the simple philosophy of bringing your home chores to the office.
Besides that, our efforts on the technology front over the last few years have paid off handsomely. As rightly said, it takes decades for changes to happen, and sometimes decades’ worth of changes happen in a few weeks. Covid ensured the adoption of mobile-based apps, which have gone through the roof.
Inventiva: Was Covid a difficult phase for the organisation? What did you do, and what was the result?
Harsh: Covid has been a booster to our business. We’ve done more business in the last six months than we’ve done in the previous years. And every wave has accelerated the adoption of a hybrid workplace. Within the hybrid workplace where work from home, work near home, all of these trends blend together, and flexible workspace solutions such as ours have a very prominent space.
We were on a strong footing pre-pandemic, and we’ve been able to scale up very, very rapidly. After Covid, a lot of market consolidation happened. Many smaller players have weakened up, and the coworking segment, catering to startups and freelancers, is winding down.
Inventiva: Smartworks today is India’s largest managed space platform for enterprises. What’s the plan next?
Harsh: As the current market leader with the largest footprint and Enterprise client base in India, we want to make sure that we extend our market leadership and lead in every major micro-market where you have working professionals. Sixty micro-markets in India constitute 90 per cent of the real estate supply. Today we might have a 20 per cent market share, but we want to scale this up very quickly to a significant number. Today Smartworks can set a desk at a hundred dollars and still make margins.
Some players sell at a premium price, like 15,000 or 20,000 rupees, but still aren’t able to make margins yet, because of their cost structures. Because we lease huge buildings and can offer such a sizeable campus-like experience, we’re able to reduce our cost and pass on that benefit to our customers and make a margin at a significant base. Our ambition is to scale up in the short term and then go global, which we are already doing through our SaaS products. We also plan to expand to Asia and globally.
Inventiva: What new solutions or tech inventions have you been working on? Is it available as part of Smartworks’ overall offerings?
Harsh: We’ve created a remarkable space management tool that allows enterprises to manage their space better. That helps them gain visibility into who sits where and how many empty seats, allowing them to plan better. Our space planning platform, one of our most recent innovations, has picked up exceptionally well in the market.
Second, we have a mobile workplace app to access the buildings. Members/employees can use it to access the amenities, make seat bookings, and control access.
But the more exciting part of this proposition is that it has become a Super App. We’ve now done API integrations with some of the world’s best brands like Chai Point. Our members get their groceries delivered through our concierge to their desks, and we have partners like DusMinute who enable us to do this where they have dark stores within our campus. So, technology has emerged as the biggest enabler of office experience in managed spaces like ours.
Our primary differentiator is that we have more than seven million square feet of R&D space in India, which allows us to fine-tune and perfect our tech offerings. Nobody else can do it because all of these offerings take R&D and time before they become significant.
Inventiva: What major threats/opportunities do you foresee for this business? How do you plan to handle them?
Harsh: We just see possibilities and no threats. The only danger is that we will miss out on the opportunity if we cannot staff up to take advantage of the situation. So, to be honest, we’re very bullish about our expansion.
Inventiva: What is the best part of being a founder?
Harsh: The ability to make a positive difference in so many people’s lives while also giving back to society. Because, at the end of the day, if you’re continuously running on a treadmill for 16-18 hours a day, value creation is vital personally. However, we are driven by a specific mission that motivates us.
We want to make sure that when Indian professionals talk about their workplace experience, they exclusively mention Smartworks and how they feel smarter coming here and better utilised their days. Today, Smartworks might be 500-plus employees, but Smartworks
deploys close to about 3000 blue-collar staff. And as co-founder of a young company, it’s personally very fulfilling that you provide so much employment and give back by creating so much meaningful impact.
Inventiva: How would others define your communication style? Do you prefer to be close to your employees or maintain a healthy distance?
Harsh: We make sure that our employees have plenty of opportunities to interact with one another and that we communicate excessively. With teams spread out Pan India, we conduct townhalls and AMA sessions to ensure everyone’s on the same page. To encourage transparent communication, we have an “open door” policy.
We engage with our employees daily, and I believe that our communication style should adapt to meet the people’s demands with whom we interact. Some people require coaching, while others require some inspiration. However, it would help if you were well-intentioned at all times.
We’re proud of the achievements of our young workforce and how they have progressed through the ladder.
Inventiva: What’s your message for today’s youth who want to be entrepreneurs and their bosses?
It is a myth that entrepreneurs don’t have bosses. We are serving people. With high responsibility comes high accountability. My boss is my customer and my stakeholder.
So, if anyone wants to become an entrepreneur because they think they won’t have a boss, it is a myth. Eventually, if you don’t deliver and are not accountable, you’re doing a disservice as an entrepreneur. My broader message would be to push yourself outside the comfort zone. There wouldn’t have been a better time than now in India to be an entrepreneur. Live your passion. Enjoy bringing your idea to life and having the creative freedom to build from scratch. Build a world-class product. Ensure that you’re looking at all aspects of the business in a hands-on manner.
Inventiva: How do you manage your risk being an entrepreneur?
Harsh: My general philosophy is to play big or go home. I like taking risks, and I like making bold bets. As they say, No risk, no gain. You want to take those risks calculatedly, which is what we’ve done over some time. So I would say that risk management requires prudent management. There is this concept of risk-adjusted return.