Work From Home or “WFH” is the latest trend, and it’s challenging to get folks to come to the office so much that the underlying sentiment is to quit rather than be confined to a desk space. WeWork has lots at stake, has prime-time real estate with 35 offices pan India, and is on a continually rising progress graph. We got Karan Virwani, 29-year-old CEO of WeWork India, with considerable stakes in the family-owned 3000 crore Embassy Group – one of the most influential names in Bangalore as a real estate developer. Ramesh Somani took him for a drive in the all-new Audi E-Tron in a stimulating conversation on startups, entrepreneurship, and everything in between.
Ramesh Somani: How did you get the idea from WeWork to get to India?
Karan Viirwani: It all started with my journey to starting my own business. When I was out of University, I started a hospitality business that is still running to this day, and we have a few restaurants around the city as of now. While I was doing that, even with the infrastructure and background that I had, it wasn’t easy to set up. When that happened, I went to work with my father and was training with him for almost two and a half years in the Embassy Group, where I just sat and listened to meetings and didn’t do anything significant but learn a lot.
I got considerable exposure to the real estate industry in India, and I saw that we were building a lot of office spaces for large companies. Still, no one was addressing any office space for smaller companies or startups or smaller businesses, and that’s where the idea of setting up smaller offices came into my mind.
Later on, when I was doing a lot of research, I kept reading about WeWork, and then WeWork came to India and looked for buildings for their expansion. That’s where we met, and that’s how we formed a partnership. It’s been four years since we first opened our first building, and I think we changed a bit of the country’s commercial office ecosystem.
RS: What has been your most significant learning in the Pandemic?
Karan Viirwani: I think regardless of what business it is, the pandemic has changed everyone’s plans. We went straight into controlling the costs, so we shut down all unnecessary spending, but we were lucky to get a round of funding. We raised about US$100 Million last year, just before the pandemic. So we had a lot of dry powder to survive these last two years. We managed the cash and kept as much of it in the Bank as possible. Lastly, we focussed on our people as much as possible, because finally, it’s the people who will bring the company back. Also, we’re lucky to have many good partners and build many good relationships over the journey. Unfortunately, many smaller companies left us, but many larger enterprises continued to stay with us today.
Ramesh Somani: You run WeWork as a separate entity. So tell us about that, how different you are from WeWork globally, and about your connections with them?
Karan Viirwani: I mean, now there are shareholders, and we have the brand name. So there is some amount of impact or connection. We’ve done it constantly since day one because we’ve focused heavily on building a profitable business. Even though we’re scaling very fast, we always keep an eye on making sure the unit economics are great. That allowed us to always have a business that made sense. Many people question the WeWork business model because of what happened globally. Still, if you spend time on the numbers and run this business with some discipline, it’s certainly a great business.
Ramesh Somani: What are the opportunities and challenges that you see now that work from home is coming? What do you think are the most significant opportunities and challenges ahead of WeWork?
Karan Viirwani: I think the world has a fun way of working itself out, and everyone would believe that the pandemic is terrible for us, but if you see what has happened, it’s changed everyone’s mindset on how to work and how the office needs to be treated. Earlier, people thought it was a must to have central headquarters, big offices, et cetera. But now people have realized that they want flexibility and want to be able to scale back. If something like a pandemic happens, they can reduce costs. I think coming out of this is an enormous opportunity for us. Right now, we’re probably going through the most significant threat of our business as there is no one coming to the actual office, but soon, we’ll hit back. If Zoom is a pandemic company, then I think WeWork will be the post-pandemic company for sure.
Ramesh Somani: What are the other technologies that fascinated you, and how tech are you? Also, what do you think of EV’s or particularly Audi E-Tron?
Karan Virwani: I’m very fascinated by technology. I think I was the first IT guy at WeWork. I think a lot about green tech; it has been fascinating to me, and anything that can help the environment to a more sustainable future is exciting to me. And about EV’s, I don’t think there’s any question about whether EVs are the future anymore and talking about Audi E-Tron, it is the first EV I’ve ever driven, and I’m going to remember this car for a long time. Also, what can I say about Audi’s? I’m a big Audi fan, it’s my favourite car company, and about E-Tron, it has an attractive futuristic design and luxurious interiors, and the driving experience is silently refined.
Ramesh Somani: What is the one truth you think people aren’t familiar with business and life on purpose?
Karan Virwani: I think people underestimate the value of really investing in a relationship long term. Some people always get transactional and always look at how can I gain something immediately from this relationship? I sometimes think just investing in a relationship without getting anything comes full circle at some point in life, whether it’s a year from today or ten years from today, that’s honestly something I’ve learned from my father.
Ramesh Somani: What do you think is one subject which all aspiring leaders should learn?
Karan Virwani: In today’s world, aspiring leaders should learn coding or anything related to understanding future technologies. Leaders and entrepreneurs should at least learn to understand it because leveraging that can be huge in the future because if you look at it, you are a customer of the future. Our kids are born today who grew up holding an iPad. So, I think coding should be taught in school, like a common language.
Ramesh Somani: One book that you keep reading or suggest to people, which is very inspirational?
Karan Virwani: I’m not such an avid reader, but I recently read this book by Ben Horowitz called The Hard Thing About Hard Things. And this has so many business lessons that I could relate to while growing a business that came about things, mistakes that I made, and how I should maybe handle certain situations better. I’m always following some entrepreneur or the other and trying to learn as much from that and more into youtube and watching videos.
Ramesh Somani: Are you into cycling? What are the things you do for fitness? And how do you keep yourself in such good shape?
Karam Virwani: I’m an early riser; I work out every day, and during weekends, I do lots of treks around Bangalore with my friends. I also like horse riding. We have one, which is an Embassy riding school. And so ever since I was six years old, I’ve been riding.
Ramesh Somani: How difficult is it to maintain a work-life balance?
It was initially tough to find that balance. But, I think for me, it’s not easy to say because work is a kind of life and life is a kind of work. It kind of merges in between because it’s something that we’re always doing, but I think the secret is having discipline, carving out time or taking particular time off in the year for family and people you love, or even taking a short holiday. That’s how I find it the easiest to balance.
Ramesh Somani: Every leader has to fail. The more they fail, the more they learn. Tell us some of your most significant falls? And how do you overcome them? What are the thoughts behind it?
Karan Virwani: I’ve had so many failures. Before WeWork, we had an online food delivery business, which I started through my hospitality and restaurant businesses. It was called Entree. If you look at it right now, it was a great idea, but it was not an easy task. It needs a lot of capital, and it’s more like you’re giving your life to that kind of mission. And that wasn’t necessarily my life’s mission.
We did gain a lot of popularity in Bangalore, but we had to shut down just for financial reasons. I think that was one of the most challenging conversations I had with the employees there and being upfront with them. I think that was one failure for sure. Still, I’m a believer that there’s no real thing as a failure. Even at WeWork, we constantly keep trying things, and failing, and learning from them. I believe you learned the most out of the losses, and we’ve learned a lot about what not to do.
Ramesh Somani: What does your garage look like? Also, what do you think about autonomous driving?
Karan Virwani: It’s all black. I have two Range Rovers and a lot of Audi cars. Now, many younger kids don’t even learn how to drive because they have Ubers and things like that. So over time, I believe autonomous driving will become a future.
Ramesh Somani: So where next and what next? What are your other plans? Karan Virwani: We have a lot happening. I mean, both within WeWork and outside. We’re going to grow the business; as I said, the opportunity we feel coming out of this will be vast and exciting. Also, on the Embassy side, we’re going through a significant merger with Indiabulls, which will take us through PAN India.
Ramesh Somani: What do you think of cryptocurrency and will you accept it?
Karan Virwani: Yes, that has the possibility of becoming a significant asset class within investment and a currency that people use, but I think it’s a bit of a bet. In India right now, it’s challenging, but once that gets better, there’s no looking back.
Ramesh Somani: Some life learnings such as entrepreneurship that you would like to share?
Karan Virwani: One is to stop worrying about things outside of your control. I think there are certain things you can control, and there are certain things you can’t. And a lot of people get stressed and worried about things that are outside of their control. So there’s no point in worrying about those and focusing on what you can control. Patience is probably good learning I’ve had over these last two years.
Ramesh Somani: How would you like your epitaph to look? How many desks did you sell that’s going to be on my tombstone? Karan Virwani: We have a running joke in the office where we always ask at the end, but how many desks? So maybe that, but I think it’s just to be known for someone, who always tried new things and outside of the box ideas, that would be enough.