Finding Rahul Yadav

If the events of the last few months convey one thing about Rahul Yadav, it is his age. At 25 years, the co-founder and former CEO of Housing.com has been described as visionary and immature, straightforward and twisted, large hearted and cantankerous - all in the same breath. He has given away all his wealth, estimated at close to Rs 70 crore, and fought with directors, investors and peers.

In the month since his dismissal, Yadav appears to be reflecting on his behaviour, planning a comeback and even looking for a girlfriend. Based on an update on Facebook, he currently has money to survive for about 45 days. He has declined most requests for interviews, including several for this report. The only exception so far has been a conversation with women's magazine Femina, in which he admitted to being impatient and expressed a wish to mend relations with investors.

The undiplomatic dropout from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay has a dedicated body of admirers. On Facebook, he has over 45,000 followers. Within two days of seeking messages from those interested in dating him, he received "170+ pings" and "30+ repeated pings". According to data accessed on social media analytics site Topsy, there have been over 9,600 tweets about Yadav in the last month compared with 77 for Sachin Bansal of Flipkart, the poster boy of e-commerce.

The "establishment" can't stand disruptive Yadav. That's perhaps because he is an outsider, the challenger from the "other" India.

That place is Khairthal, a small town in Rajasthan's Alwar district. Its claim to fame is that it is a mandi for onion and mustard. It's a busy town with schools, shops and petrol pumps. Dish antennae sprout from every roof. Yadav's single-storey house is at the beginning of the town in a less crowded area. The road to it is kuccha, though the house isn't modest: there is a boundary wall, windows are fenced with iron grills and a black plastic water tank sits on the terrace.

Rahul Yadav’s brother, Khushal, and mother, Saroj Devi, at their house in Khairthal;
Inside, it's nothing like the plush Mumbai penthouse Yadav vacated when rent began to pinch once he was jobless. At home are his mother, Saroj Devi, and younger brother, Khushal. His father, Bhoop Singh Yadav, who retired from the merchant navy, is at his farm in Alwar.

The house is bare and basic with plastic chairs and folding beds. In one of the rooms is an old 21-inch television set - a far cry from the 50-inch TV Yadav had in his Mumbai living room. An earthen pot of water rests on a stand in the main hall that has three rooms opening into it and a flight of raw brick stairs, almost unfinished, leading to the terrace.

The family moved to Khairthal from the nearby Bansur village before Yadav was born because there were no schools in that village. Saroj Devi, who speaks in a heavy local dialect and has hardly been to school, was determined that her three children should study. Yadav's older sister is now a teacher and brother Khushal, who bears a close resemblance to him, has done BTech from Ajmer.

Like Yadav, he too wants to launch a startup and is looking for a good idea. "I know it will not be with him (Yadav) because he will not set up any business with his family or friends, though he is willing to help with money and ideas," he says.

Yadav, he says, was always a loner, doing his own stuff, thinking his own things. "He was also naughty. Jo man mein aaya, kar diya (He'd do whatever came to his mind)," Khushal adds. "Till he was in Class VIII, his teachers would summon me and complain, 'Your elder brother doesn't have books and is not interested in doing his homework. What are we to do with him?'"

But something changed in Class X and Yadav surged ahead. The answer to this transition lies in one of the oldest public schools in Khairthal: Indra Happy English School. The principal of the school, M P Khurana, and his colleague and wife, Indra Pal, remember Yadav well. "He was bright but always distracted and mischievous," recalls Khurana.

Khurana would have toppers teach their best subject to fellow students on the last day of every month. "One day, I handed the chalk to Yadav and said, 'Why don't you teach mathematics to the class today?'" he says. "From that day, Rahul just wouldn't let go of the chalk," recalls Indra Pal.

the classroom at Indra Happy School in Khairthal where principal M P Khurana (seen in the picture) taught Yadav. The toppers sat in the front row. Yadav sat in the fourth
Yadav left Indra Happy School after Class X because it did not offer mathematics in senior classes. He then moved to the nearby Government Higher Secondary School. It's a sprawling complex with classrooms lining two sides of a huge ground. Here, Yadav would sit on the floor and study. The teachers here don't remember him.

When he scored over 90 per cent in the Class XII exams - "and 97 per cent in physics, chemistry, mathematics," says Khushal - he decided to go to Kota and prepare for the IIT entrance exam.

"It wasn't an easy transition," recounts his mother. That was his first step out of home and he would get homesick. "Sometimes he would cry and tell me that he wouldn't be able to make it," she says. "But Mummy would encourage him to stick on and say, 'What knowledge will you get at home?'" adds Khushal. The Career Point coaching institute in Kota where he had enrolled also gave him a sizeable discount in fee on account of his high score in Class XII.

Yadav made it to IIT-Bombay - the first person in the 25-km radius of Khairthal to do so.

It was behind the dusty door of Room 243, located at the very end of a long corridor in IIT Bombay's Hostel 8 that Housing.com had its beginnings. Yadav was among 12 co-founders, all from the institute, who worked day and night to build the website. "He would be cooped up, away from everyone, thinking up ideas," says Faisal Ansari, a junior who stayed in the neighbouring room and later joined the real estate startup.

While at the institute, academics slipped in priority for Yadav, a student of metallurgy. Yadav, whose schooling was in the Hindi medium, would often skip lectures, partly because he could not cope with writing in English and partly because he was disillusioned by the quality of teaching. "But he liked gaining knowledge. The night before an exam he would be studying a topic that was not in the term syllabus. And sometimes if the concept was not clear, he would bunk an exam and continue studying that topic," says batchmate Hemant Gupta.

Professors from the metallurgy discipline do not recall anything about him - he clearly failed to impress them.

Going by accounts from friends, he was more interested in hostel activities and would listen to Parliamentary debates. Although he kept mostly to himself and a tight circle of friends, Yadav's influence grew after becoming class representative in his second year.

As part of his election manifesto, he formed an SMS group to inform students about lectures and started exambaba.com, a portal for exam papers of previous years.

The portal was something people imagined would be hard to execute, but the site Yadav and a team of three created became a rage. Explaining the popularity of exambaba.com, which now exists in the institute's peer-to-peer sharing network, Yadav had noted, "Teachers in IIT are busy with their own research work. Sometimes they would just change the header and give an old paper."

Another of his adventures that is part of IIT lore now is how he hacked the database of Domino's after one of its employees forced Yadav to pay after a late delivery. The incident, for which he was first admonished, won him free pizzas and a request to upgrade data security at the chain.

Having dabbled in 3D animation and painting, Yadav developed an eye for design. To understand how web pages work, he downloaded one and dissected its components rather than just learning by theory. The unbridled Internet access at IIT Bombay further stoked his curiosity in web-based ideas.

He developed Recharge123, which gave merchants who did mobile top-ups a unified recharge portal. These merchants had previously maintained separate balances with each service provider. The venture had a turnover of Rs 1 crore in its first year of operations, according to details on the blog of Anil Shanbhag who was lead developer. Margins, however, remained low, prompting its sale to a larger player. The decent amount earned in that deal supposedly prompted Yadav's decision to leave IIT without finishing his degree.

His family had no idea. "Once, when I asked to see his degree, he laughed and said, 'What will you do with my degree?'" says Saroj Devi with a half-smile on her lips. "Yes, why does he need a degree when he is not going to do a job? He's going to start something of his own," adds Khushal. "Even so," his mother interrupts gently, "he should have got the degree."

For many IITians, the instinct on graduating is to extend college life by finding work that lets them live in Powai, Yadav had noted. The problems some had faced while looking for a suitable place had spurred the idea for Housing.com. It stood out from competitors by offering map-based search, verifying leads and sending its own teams to click photographs of properties.

The validation of his idea came in 2014 when the company received an investment from Japan's SoftBank which took its valuation to Rs 1,500 crore.

All was going well till Yadav chose to express his staunch and unwavering views. Diplomacy or managing stakeholder expectations is Yadav's weak point. Hemanth Goteti, one of the angel investors who helped launch Housing.com, says: "When we pushed (Yadav) for anything he did not agree with, he would say 'don't waste my time'. Angels sun lete hai, bade investors nahi sunenge." And that is what caused his ouster last month.

But that only elevated Yadav's status amongst his admirers. At the office of Omnikart - a B2B industrial goods startup incubated at IIT Bombay - there is palpable admiration for the ousted CEO. "He may not be a good speaker but he is a good strategic player," says Ansari who set up Omnikart. The young IITians, whose boisterousness morphs into shyness in the presence of strangers, have no doubt their hero will return with a bigger idea. "He has to," Ansari says with authority.

Yadav's family appears nonplussed over the tumultuous developments in his life. Did it come as a shock to the family when he gave away his shares worth crores? Saroj Devi smiles as Khushal says, "He keeps giving these shocks; Mummy is quite used to them by now. He started Housing.com with nothing. And look where he took it."

Yadav last came home during Diwali. But this time he might not, says his brother, because he is trying to put together a new venture. He lets out that Yadav might travel abroad to speak with prospective investors.

Yadav's recent Facebook post hinted that he is up to something. It read: "All Indian internet companies put together My next venture. Let me show you a good game this time! Not to earn money but just to show you guys that it can be done. And that too without sweating much! #ýGameOn". Indeed.


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