Peeling the OYO onion, one hotel at a time

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“After conquering India, OYO makes a mark in China” screamed the headlines.

“OYO debuts in Malaysia and Indonesia” followed soon after.

Next UAE.

Then the UK.

And now the USA. And Japan.

Importance of setting the limits

It appears that OYO’s ambition knows no limits. Flush with a billion-dollar treasure chest courtesy SoftBank, the Indian budget hotel platform seems to have set its sights on nothing less than global domination. In its own words, OYO wants to be the “number one hotel chain in the world”.

The numbers behind this quest are big.

Yep, trillion.

Billions are for plebians.

OYO is no plebeian. It is a veritable giant.

If you believe the company’s “report card”, OYO is the “largest hotel chain in India and the third-largest in China”. In fact, OYO is so big that it is “~12X the size of the second-largest player in the Indian hospitality market”.

Big numbers, alright.

But while big numbers work well in PR headlines, the fact of the matter is that you can’t build a business with big numbers. To get to a big number, you need to crack “small numbers”; fight it out on the ground to build a business.

Not top-down, but bottom-up

In the case of OYO, this is by winning over independent budget hotels one at a time and adding their rooms to its inventory.

The jury might still be out on whether OYO can make it’s business model work at an aggregate level. At a country level. The answer to that question will be revealed only after the funding dollars have played their part and the dust settles.

But this bottom-up approach that OYO must take to build its business gives us an immediately verifiable way to assess its business model. A narrow and clearly-focused prism that can shine a light on whether the company’s unit economics is working and whether a profitable business model is not just possible but inevitable.

So how does one go about doing this?

Well, OYO provides us with a starting point.

OYO’s self-scored “report card” contains one chart that is particularly interesting (reproduced below). This chart explains the unit economics of OYO’s business model from the perspective of a hotel owner—specifically touting that partnering with OYO delivers a 16X increase in earnings.

In a sense, this is a staggering claim—far more meaningful than big round numbers that make one’s eyes glaze over. A 16X increase in earnings for a hotel owner effectively makes OYO’s value proposition a no-questions-asked slam dunk. Every hotel owner in India should be queuing to sign up with them.

But is this claim true? Is it verifiable?

That is what Ken set out to ascertain.

We spoke to multiple hotel owners who have tied up with OYO. They had a lot to say. On the pulls and pressures of doing business with Oyo. Understandably, most owners were reluctant to share real numbers as that could be construed as confidential business data.

We finally found one entrepreneur who was ready to talk. Not just talk but open his books for The Ken to take a look at.

It is moot whether this one owner is representative of all the hotels that OYO has tied up with. For all we know, there could be many hotels and hotel owners out there who have had the opposite experience and are largely positive about partnering with OYO. But even then, the hotel owners who did speak to us represent a set of real-world instances that are not only useful anecdotally but offer a unique insight all on their own.

As such, we did not reach out to OYO, choosing instead to use the prism of these owners, their experiences, and the financials and communication with OYO to which we were privy to examining the nuances of the OYO business model at a micro-level.