P&Q’s 2021 Top MBA Startups: Smartworks, Northwestern Kellogg

Startup: Smartworks

Founders:  Neetish Sarda, Harsh Binani

MBA: Kellogg School of Management, 1Y (2016)

Smartworks is India’s largest provider of agile flexible workspaces, with a footprint of over 4.5 million sq ft across 31 locations in 9 metropolitan cities. Catering to more than 400+ clients, Smartworks is home to many global enterprises, SMEs, and high-growth start-ups alike such as Amazon, Microsoft, Samsung, Starbucks, and Byjus’. The company has scaled rapidly (3x annually since inception) while ensuring profitability for the last two financial years. In the last quarter of 2019, Smartworks raised US $25 million funding from Singapore’s real estate giant Keppel Land Limited in the Series A round.

We create a holistic experience for member companies by offering cost-effective solutions and a technology-driven environment in large campus-like (standalone) facilities that cater to the needs of today’s workforce and business dynamics.

In just 5 years, Smartworks has emerged as the second-largest player in terms of market share in India, and become the undisputed leader in the enterprise flex space.

What led you to want to solve this problem and launch this specific company?

Our exposure to the U.S. & Singapore market where we were exposed to “future workspaces” and higher levels of employee engagement, made us evaluate office spaces back home in India. Experience of visiting traditional offices across India and noticing features like poor design, aesthetics, low employee energy levels, limited flexibility, and dysfunctional employee culture reinforced our belief that the commercial office space in India needed disruption and a mass-market affordable solution.

So, we decided to bring the same experience to India. While India’s office space market hadn’t seen significant disruption in decades, we were the first ones to identify the market for managed space services for the enterprise segment in India. By identifying unbranded developer properties, we were able to create a more organized branded supply and generate superior margins while delivering significant savings to our occupiers.  We had to face the initial challenges of convincing enterprise clients to move into our flex spaces, though they were reluctant, we soon reached success. Since then, there has been no looking back.

How has your MBA (generally) helped you as an entrepreneur?

Prior to my MBA, my stint at McKinsey Chicago honed my problem solving, communication, and client-facing skills while exposing me to different work cultures and interesting complex problems across the US and Europe. Kellogg amplified my learnings multi-fold by pushing me outside my comfort zone and elevating my own self-awareness levels. I focused on entrepreneurship at Kellogg and learned foundational entrepreneurial skills in a structured manner. Real-life case studies, student treks to the Bay Area and guest speakers from various startups were the hallmarks of my experience. Particularly, the New Venture Development class enabled me to kickstart one of my first startups while still in school, which allowed me to learn a number of valuable lessons, with minimal risk. I had the privilege of learning from some of the best, world-class professors like Professors Mohan Sawhney and Carter Cast, who I continue to stay connected with and get advice from. Finally, the phenomenal peer network I gained at Kellogg, especially within the entrepreneurial community, broadened my horizons to the opportunities to come.

Generally, my Kellogg MBA helped me to develop some of the most essential business management skills that helped me to take the plunge. A huge advantage of completing an MBA as an aspiring entrepreneur is that you can exit the experience with a solid, workable idea for your startup ready to apply the skills you’ve acquired on real ground.

What were some of the most valuable entrepreneurial aspects of your MBA program? Did Kellogg help you to launch Smartworks?

The Kellogg community is a place where, as a student, I was encouraged and inspired to pursue my entrepreneurial passion. At Kellogg, we were offered a vast ecosystem of resources that supported the unique needs of innovators [as students] both inside and outside the classroom. I took several classes from Professor David Schonthal (faculty director of Kellogg’s Zell Fellow program), coupled with the resources provided by the entrepreneurship program, mentorship sessions at 1871, learnings from guest speakers, and multiple entrepreneurship classes, that all helped me to feel prepared to do this in ‘real life.

I really enjoyed my leadership and coaching classes which pushed me to reflect and develop as a leader and entrepreneur.  Most importantly, Kellogg’s immersive learning environment with phenomenal global and diverse peers drives a constant flow of dynamic ideas, leading to true change with lasting impact- and it still has a great impact on me.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur? When did you realize entrepreneurship would be the best path for you?

I feel confident saying that most aspiring business school graduates want to start up their own business someday; and while most MBA holders successfully secure gratifying & high-paying jobs, only a few choose to start their ventures post-grad. And in that sense, I consider myself fortunate that I have experienced both worlds.

Before my entrepreneurial journey with Smartworks, I was working with the world’s premier consulting firm, McKinsey, in Chicago for more than five years. Born into a business family and belonging to a vibrant entrepreneurial community, I had always aspired to come back to India and build an innovative scalable business.

Coming back to India after spending a few months at McKinsey post-Kellogg, I was very fortunate to find a visionary and passionate partner, Neetish who founded Smartworks. The sector was gaining traction and we found it ripe for disruption driving me to take a spirited plunge.

How has the pandemic impacted your startup?

Positively after a slow start to the financial year, we have extended our market leadership and are well poised to capitalize on the strong macro demand in the industry accelerating the growth of coworking and flex space in India.  Covid-19 and subsequent restrictions brought about unprecedented challenges for the office sector; corporate occupiers were forced to adopt work from home practices and reimagining their workplace strategies. Major real estate decisions were delayed, hampering demand. While there was an initial slowdown in the year 2020, but demand spiked as companies started looking at flexible workspaces as a viable option for expansion, business continuity, and hedge against future uncertainties.

However, we weren’t impacted much as we cater to a different segment – large enterprises with a constant focus on the bottom line. We benefited from market consolidation and a stable business model, enabling us to capture additional market share and increase our market leadership. We had healthy growth despite Covid-19 and given the strong macro headwinds for the industry, we’re ready to capitalize on growing demand.

What is your advice for future MBA students wanting to use the B-school experience to launch a company?

The business school experience will surely empower you all with all of the essential tools and foresightedness you need. This will not only prepare you for your entrepreneurial journey but will also help your company sustain and thrive even in a market that is so cutthroat with the competition.

Additionally, I want to emphasize the fact that to best use your learnings from an MBA experience, you should always re-build your new capabilities that are essential for on-going innovation of new market and consumer dynamics, particularly for solutions to challenges facing new businesses and focus on building your network with the rich pool of students and alumni which will certainly help in growth and open new avenues for you.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.