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Oyo Scales Back as SoftBank-Funded Companies Retreat

MUMBAI, India — Oyo, once one of India’s fastest-growing tech start-ups, is now rapidly scaling back.

In recent weeks, Oyo, a budget hospitality company, has pulled out of dozens of cities, cut thousands of hotel rooms, started laying off employees and slashed other costs as it faced pressure from its biggest investor, the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, to curb vast operating losses.

The retreat has been swift and sweeping. In India alone, Oyo has lost more than 65,000 rooms — or about a quarter of what it had offered to travelers — since October, according to internal data from current and former employees that was reviewed by The New York Times. This month, Oyo also stopped selling rooms in more than 200 small Indian cities, according to company documents and one current employee and one former employee.

The moves come on top of more than 2,000 layoffs around the world, which Oyo began rolling out last week, according to six current and former employees. Before the cutbacks, Oyo had about 20,000 employees in 80 countries.

Oyo said some of the data obtained by The Times was inaccurate but declined to be specific. In an email to employees on Monday, Ritesh Agarwal, the company’s chief executive, said Oyo was focused on sustainable growth and profitability — which meant layoffs.

“Unfortunately, some roles at Oyo will become redundant as we further drive tech-enabled synergy, enhanced efficiency, and remove duplication of effort across businesses or geographies,” he wrote in the email.

The Economic Times, an Indian publication, first reported in December that job cuts at Oyo were coming.

Oyo’s actions are part of a broader pullback by start-ups funded by SoftBank. Armed with a $100 billion fund known as the Vision Fund, SoftBank has shoveled money into start-ups across the globe in recent years. That has given many young companies fuel to expand, often with little thought for profit.

Last year, some SoftBank-funded start-ups began running into trouble — most notably WeWork, the office space company, which failed to go public when investors began questioning its losses. WeWork ultimately ousted its chief executive and slashed its valuation to less than $8 billion from $47 billion.

WeWork’s fall led to questions about other start-ups that SoftBank had financed and whether those young firms could make money. Last month, the dog-walking service Wag underwent several rounds of layoffs before SoftBank sold its shares at a loss. The construction start-up Katerra, another SoftBank-funded company, also cut its staff.

This month, layoffs have gathered momentum at start-ups that SoftBank had invested in. The South American delivery service Rappi and the San Francisco car-sharing start-up Getaround said they were laying off employees. Zume, a company that used robots to make pizzas and had been valued at $2 billion, cut more than half of its work force. It also stopped making pizzas.

Some investors and start-ups said they were now approaching SoftBank’s Vision Fund cautiously — or, in some cases, avoiding it altogether.

“We have advised almost all of our companies to steer clear,” said Josh Wolfe, an investor at the venture capital firm Lux Capital who has been critical of SoftBank’s strategy. “Everyone else was fearful to say the emperor had no clothes.”

SoftBank declined to comment on Oyo and other start-ups in which it has invested.

Mr. Agarwal founded Oyo in 2013 to organize India’s small independent hotels into a chain. The company markets rooms online and takes a cut of each stay. Mr. Agarwal, who has become a business star in India, has said he aspired to make Oyo the world’s largest hotel chain by 2023, displacing Marriott.

But as Oyo tried to expand globally, in part pushed by SoftBank, it spent heavily on incentives to attract hotel owners and customers to its site. That resulted in losses in India, where Oyo has said it will lose money through at least 2021.

Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s chief executive, began investing in Oyo in 2015. SoftBank and its Vision Fund now own half its stock. While Mr. Son has called Oyo a jewel of his fund and urged it to grow quickly, he has since changed his stance.

As Oyo’s losses have mounted, senior leaders at the company have told employees that SoftBank had demanded that it become profitable on a basis known as EBITDA — earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization — by mid-2020, according to current and former employees.

In another sign of SoftBank’s shifting position, Yahoo Japan, which is half-owned by SoftBank, pulled the plug in November on a Japanese apartment-rental venture with Oyo. Most of the Oyo employees involved in the Japan venture have been laid off or relocated, current and former employees said.

Oyo faces other troubles in India. On Friday, the Indian income-tax authorities visited the company’s headquarters just outside New Delhi, requesting reams of documents. The tax department and Oyo said the government was examining whether the company was properly withholding and remitting income taxes on payments to vendors.

The Times reported this month that Oyo had offered thousands of unlicensed hotel rooms and sometimes offered free rooms to government officials to deter enforcement. The Times also described how some Oyo employees worked together to commit fraud against the company.

In his email on Monday, Mr. Agarwal said the behavior described by The Times would violate the company’s code of conduct. “We take all the allegations very seriously and are looking into each and every one,” he wrote.

To stem losses, Oyo has also cut back on staff and supplies such as mineral water and cleaning fluids in the hotels it runs itself, according to the current and former employees. Oyo staff members managing some of the hotels have been instructed to save more money on electricity bills by switching off lights, elevators and even boilers for hot water, they said.

Morale has plummeted among thousands of Oyo workers globally, current and former employees have said.

Prabhjeet Singh, an Oyo business development manager who left the company in September, said employees who criticized the company ran a greater risk of losing their jobs.

“It’s a culture of silence,” he said.

Oyo’s reputation has deteriorated so much in India that other employers are reluctant to hire its former workers, said Mr. Singh, who has been unable to land another job.

“They look at me as if I’ve done a crime working at Oyo,” he said.

Vindu Goel reported from Mumbai, Karan Deep Singh from New Delhi and Erin Griffith from San Francisco.

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At SoftBank’s Jewel in India: ‘Toxic’ Culture and Troubling Incidents

NEW DELHI — Oyo, a start-up that offers budget hotel rooms, has grown into one of India’s most valuable private companies and aims to be the world’s largest hotel chain by 2023.

But at least part of Oyo’s rise in India was built on practices that raise questions about the health of its business, according to financial filings, court documents and interviews with 20 current and former employees, as well as others familiar with the start-up’s operations. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the company.

Oyo offers rooms from unavailable hotels, such as those that have left its service, according to the company’s chief executive and nine of the current and former employees. That has the effect of inflating the number of rooms listed on Oyo’s site.

Thousands of the rooms are from unlicensed hotels and guesthouses, its executives have acknowledged. To deter trouble from the authorities over the illegal rooms, Oyo sometimes gives free lodging to the police and other officials, according to nine of the current and former employees and internal WhatsApp messages viewed by The New York Times.

Oyo has also imposed extra fees on hotels and declined to pay the hotels the full amounts they claimed they were owed, according to interviews with hotel owners and employees, emails, legal complaints and other documents viewed by The Times. Some hotel operators have sought to file criminal complaints against Oyo, which said it withheld payments primarily over the hotels’ customer service issues.

“It’s a bubble that will burst,” said Saurabh Mukhopadhyay, a former Oyo operations manager in northern India who left the company in September.

It would also be another black eye for SoftBank, which is Oyo’s biggest investor and owns half the start-up’s stock. Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s chief executive, has hailed Oyo as a jewel of his company’s $100 billion Vision Fund, even as he recently wrote off billions of dollars on other investments like WeWork.

“This is the only company which went global at this scale from India,” Satish Meena, a senior forecaster for the research firm Forrester in New Delhi, said of Oyo. “But as of now, there are serious doubts about the business model.”

SoftBank declined to comment.

Ritesh Agarwal, Oyo’s chief executive, acknowledged in a recent interview that some of his company’s room listings included hotels that it no longer worked with. He said Oyo left those listings up and marked them as “sold out” as it tried to woo the hotels back.

Aditya Ghosh, Oyo’s head of India operations, also said in an interview that many hotels lacked required licenses, leaving them vulnerable to the occasional government raid. He denied that Oyo gave free rooms to officials.

Mr. Ghosh dismissed what he called “noise” from hotels about extra fees and nonpayment of bills. “The disagreement is about the penalties we charge on customer service failure,” he said.

He added that nearly 80 percent of Oyo’s employees had been at the company for less than a year, so training has been a challenge. “We have just grown very, very fast,” he said.

Founded in 2013 by Mr. Agarwal, then a 19-year-old student, Oyo set out to organize India’s budget hotels, which have traditionally been small, family-run enterprises. The company coaxes the hotels to become Oyo-branded destinations that list exclusively through its website; it then markets those rooms online to travelers and takes a cut of each stay. The start-up also runs some hotels itself.

Oyo is trying to expand globally and now offers more than 1.2 million rooms in 80 countries, including the United States. It employs more than 20,000 people and has raised more than $2.5 billion in funding. Mr. Agarwal has become a business star, hobnobbing with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.

But as Oyo has grown, its losses have mushroomed. The company expects to lose money through at least 2021, according to recent government filings. Some efforts to expand in countries like Japan have flopped.

In December, SoftBank and Mr. Agarwal put another $1.5 billion into Oyo to accelerate its expansion. The funding, negotiated over the summer, valued the company at $8 billion.

At the same time, two other big investors, Sequoia Capital and Lightspeed Venture Partners, reduced their holdings. The venture capital firms, which both hold board seats at Oyo, sold $1.5 billion of their stock — about half their stakes — to Mr. Agarwal. He borrowed money to buy the shares and paid the venture firms a price that valued Oyo at $10 billion.

Lightspeed and Sequoia declined to comment.

The current and former workers said that Oyo was never an easy place to work but that pressure increased over the last year.

Mohammad Jahanzeb Gul, who joined the start-up in January 2019 and supervised 23 Oyo properties, said that during the nine months he was there, he sometimes spent all day and night in front of a computer to meet deadlines.

“The culture is really very toxic,” he said.

Mr. Mukhopadhyay, who began working at Oyo in August 2018, said employees were under so much pressure to add new rooms that they brought hotels online that lacked air-conditioning, water heaters or electricity. He and eight others said their managers had asked them to engage in a monthly shell game of briefly inserting these unavailable properties into Oyo’s listings — complete with fake photographs — to help impress investors.

Mr. Ghosh, who left the India job this week and joined Oyo’s board, said that some hotels open in stages and that “there is no padding.”

Saurabh Sharma, who worked for Oyo from 2014 to 2018 as an operations manager, said the company sometimes deliberately withheld payments from hotel owners — a practice that half a dozen other current and former employees also described.

In some cases, they said, the start-up wanted to squeeze the hotel owners into renegotiating contracts that it deemed unprofitable. In others, Oyo wanted to save money and figured that most owners would not press for full payment.

“If 1,000 people shout, we will pay 200,” Mr. Sharma said Oyo managers had told him.

In a police complaint filed in November, Betz Fernandez, owner of the Roxel Inn in Bangalore, said Oyo owed him $49,000 and acted with “intention to cheat and cause wrongful loss” by charging him for nonexistent guests and refusing to pay the contracted minimum monthly payment. Oyo said the dispute was in arbitration.

Oyo’s oversight of its workers was also sometimes so lax that employees brazenly stole from it, said four people who were involved in the start-up’s fraud-fighting efforts.

Because Oyo hotels are popular with unmarried couples looking for places for their trysts, one scheme involved workers at properties run directly by the start-up colluding to keep the guests checked in after they left. The workers then cleaned and resold the rooms for cash to other guests and pocketed the money, the people said.

Oyo has conducted surprise raids at some properties, seizing employee cellphones and checking rooms and records for evidence, they said.

An Oyo spokeswoman said it investigates all fraud accusations and had in some instances fired employees.

Executives have also asked employees to paper over troubling incidents, some workers said.

Mr. Mukhopadhyay said that one night last June, a long-term guest at an Oyo-run property in Noida, near New Delhi, called him. She said three men had raped her in her room.

The next morning, Mr. Mukhopadhyay and another Oyo employee were summoned to the police station, where they pleaded with the guest not to register a formal complaint. Oyo’s legal team also instructed them not to tell anyone about the incident because it could hurt the company’s image, he said. The guest withdrew the complaint and moved out.

In a telephone interview, the guest confirmed Mr. Mukhopadhyay’s account. Oyo disputed some details and said any decision to file a complaint was up to the guest. The Noida police said they had no record of a complaint.

To placate the authorities over unlicensed properties, Oyo managers also gave the police and other government officials free rooms on request, current and former employees said. They said the details were recorded in dedicated WhatsApp groups, one of which The Times reviewed.

Mr. Ghosh said, “We do not encourage or involve ourselves in any kind of bribery or graft.”

Mr. Mukhopadhyay said Oyo’s growth practices contributed to his decision to leave.

“There’s something called integrity,” he said. “I can’t compromise on that.”