Tech Talk: An app to help you find cheap rooms

Updated September 08, 2019

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Ghumo Chief Vision Officer tries his luck at building the Uber for short-term rentals in Pakistan.
Ghumo Chief Vision Officer tries his luck at building the Uber for short-term rentals in Pakistan.

Planning that outstation trip with the old class fellows but don’t have a place to stay? Or, are you going for a business trip and want better experience than that boring hotel? A new tech startup has found an opportunity in exactly this problem.

Ghumo.pk is a Karachi-based startup that is trying to create an online marketplace for short-term accommodation. Similar to Airbnb, home owners can put up their rooms while renters can discover properties and book them there and then.

The process is quite simple: go to the website, choose between homes and serviced homes, select the city and start searching. You can then filter the listings by date availability and price and then do the booking, by either paying in full or 25 per cent of the total amount upfront. The portal has a number of integrated payment options including cash pickup through a third-party logistics partner, Jazzcash and bank cards.

Meanwhile, for mezbaans (as the hosts are called) it’s a five-step procedure which starts with entering room details, amenities, location, prices and uploading at least five pictures.

The Ghumo model, in its current form, is very similar to what Airbnb and Booking.com already have in place. And that raises the question: what exactly is so unique about a local player that the international giants can’t pull off?

“They don’t understand the Pakistani market and don’t even have a physical presence here. In contrast, we have a customer service team on the ground and much easier process for hosts. Plus, their prices are also in dollars which makes them very expensive and price sensitive, especially with the devaluations over the last one year,” explains Chief Vision Officer Aun Ahmed.

But even a cursory search of the portal’s listed properties shows that most o these are priced over Rs3,000. With those price points, how do they even plan on penetrating to the mass market? Wouldn’t an Oyo-like model (standardising existing budget hotels in service along with online discovery and booking) that reduces the cost to less than a Rs1,000 be better suited in the country where affordability is the primary mover of demand?

“Absolutely, but the hotels market is much bigger in India. In Pakistan, Rocket Internet’s Jovago tried its hand at building a hotel booking platform and even got some 3,000 odd listings but soon realised that the total supply here was still not enough to do sustainable business. It’s different for private homes though where the supply side is more abundant, and that’s where we’d like to eventually implement the Oyo approach in order to reach the mass market,” says Ahmed.

But that’s for the long term and would require loads of money. Until then, what is the more realistic market they are targeting? “We are looking at properties priced around Rs3,000 for now with our primary focus being Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad at the moment,” shares Ahmed.

The startup has two-pronged income stream as they charge both the demand and supply sides a flat three per cent commission on every booking.

Ghumo was launched just this June by Aun Ahmed, who had been renting properties in the US through Airbnb before returning to Pakistan in 2018. He is joined by Atif Bin Arif -- an entrepreneur in the local tourism space — as Chief Brand Officer and Muham­mad Abdullah Khan — a recent graduate — looking after strategy and operations.

Up until now, the venture has been funded by the three co-founders but they want to change that. Aun and co are looking to raise a seed round worth $750,000 through a consortium of local and foreign investors. “We are trying to gather quite a large syndicate since we are looking beyond money as well. We want partners who can bring relevant experience and connections with them,” the co-founders say. This money, if scored, would primarily be channelled towards marketing and building a bigger team while as far as tech is concerned, the trio is confident that it can handle three times the current load.

Among the local players, there is a similar startup by the name of Let’s Home which is trying to replicate the Airbnb model but in northern areas, particularly the scenic spots around Gilgit-Baltistan, which is where the founder is from. While weak on tech, they do have a stronger connection with and understanding of the local dynamics.

And in the Pakistani market, that generally matters more than any website or smoothless interface. However, for the time being, Ghumo’s biggest challenge comes not from any other startup but the fact that a lot of Pakistanis still aren’t willing to open up their doors to guests because of security reasons. Let’s see how these guys change that culture, if they do!

The writer is member of staff:
m.mutaherkhan@gmail.com
Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, September 8th, 2019