Social

When Aditya Cherukumudi, 26, moved back to Bengaluru last April from the US, he faced an unfamiliar situation in the city he had always called home. Nearly all the friends he had grown up with had moved out, either to study or work. That was when a universal reality caught up with him — making friends when you are in your 20s or older is not as much of a breeze as it used to be in college. “Everyone is working and ‘life admin’ can get in the way,” says Cherukumudi, referring to the drudgery of daily chores like paying bills that eat into your time. “You can’t always get out on weekends.”

Fortunately for Cherukumudi, a data analyst in sports data company STATS Perform, a friend introduced him to That Extra Step. The Bengaluru-based, yearold venture is on a mission to get people to socialise and have “good, clean fun” offline. They host invite-only, activity-focused get-togethers at a fee of `250-350. The idea is to help people build a community, at a time when we hardly know our neighbours.

Founders Harihara SS, 25, Shubha Somashekar, 32, and Abhay Toshniwal, 48, say they were partly inspired by their own experiences with urban isolation. “Your friends move out, everyone gets busy with their lives or there is a long commute involved to meet them. And more than any of these, there is social media, where you feel so comfortable sharing memes that you don’t feel like you miss the person,” says Somashekar, who was in retail operations before launching That Extra Step with her brother, Harihara, and their mentor Toshniwal, who used to run his own design firm.

That Extra Step organises frisbee mornings in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park, socials with games and movie screenings with quizzes, among others. “The activity is the excuse to get people together. The larger aim is for people to meet each other,” says Toshniwal.

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While Cherukumudi was figuring out how to make new friends in his hometown, Delhi-based architect Itika Khajuriah was slowly realising she was tiring of the same old routine of partying, which inevitably involved loud music and few real conversations. “Even at the house parties I was going to, there were no genuine connections.” The 26-year-old found herself returning home and spending hours scrolling through her social media feed. That was when she stumbled upon Aragma (Greek slang for chilling), which was started by a group of friends who wanted to promote “home-based chilling” with a limited number of people. Aragma’s plan is to get people to socialise at house parties where the focus is on games and activities, rather than alcohol.

That Extra Step and Aragma have come up as a response to the twin needs of tackling urban isolation and the desire among the upwardly mobile youth to experience something more than the usual pub-and-restaurant scenes that tend to dominate their social calendars. They are part of a growing cohort of ventures mushrooming in our metros, including Y Combinator-backed startup MyScoot in Delhi, Playace and Beatmap in Mumbai, and OpenOut in Bengaluru.

Urban isolation and loneliness are increasingly being recognised as a public health issue. There are a host of reasons for this, including migration to cities in search of jobs which uproots you from your support system. It has also been partly perpetuated by technology. Former US surgeon-general Vivek Murthy had called loneliness an epidemic, which has an impact on stress, anxiety and depression. Though opinion varies on whether it is an “epidemic” and on its impact, there is growing acknowledgement that this is a problem. Last year, the UK became the first country to appoint a minister for loneliness. An MP in Australia has proposed the country too have a minister of loneliness.

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Human Connect
It is important and essential for us as humans to connect with each other and socialise, says physician and psychiatrist Shyam Bhat, who heads Mindfit (part of Curefit). “Traditionally, there were many places where we socialised: marketplaces, clubs, libraries. Now think about how technology has deprived us of all of those: you read online, so you don’t need libraries; you buy online, so you don’t need to go to the market; neighbours don’t really speak to each other, families are more nuclear.” All of this, says Bhat, results in deprivation of genuine social contact, as opposed to transactional contact, which is what most workplace relationships are. The recent community-building initiatives in India, says Bhat, could possibly be an antidote to the isolation in modern life.

These ventures were born after the founders either experienced the problem themselves, as Somashekar says, or by observing it around them.

Like in the case of Suyash Sinha. While working as a consultant with BCG, a job which continuously took him to new cities, the IIM-Calcutta alumnus found himself wondering why it was so hard to find that one new friend to go to a movie or restaurant with. “I tried to find meaningful connections through classes and workshops. But the classes were so focused on the activity that there was hardly any room for conversations. Or people would be glued to their screens,” he says. Sinha and his IIM classmate, Sidharth Rawat, both 30, quit their jobs to launch MyScoot once they realised there were a number of people out there looking to connect with each other in places other than pubs and hobby classes.

MyScoot is designed as a platform connecting guests with hosts, like Airbnb. It offers a range of experiences from themed parties to get-togethers with pets usually in the hosts’ houses. “These days everyone is on their phone and seem super happy on their social media profiles. I was just looking to meet people without an agenda, organically,” says Swati Singh, a Gurgaon-based web development consultant who threw a Valentine’s Day singles party through MyScoot, for which 20 people turned up.

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What these ventures promote are a safe space to interact with a limited number of people, through shared interests and activities. Each has a process to screen guests to ensure safety, say the founders. MyScoot, for example, has a three- to five-step method, which includes phone calls to the guests, visits to the hosts and ratings and reviews. For That Extra Step, the fact that their events are alcohol-free acts as a filter in itself. “We are not against drinking but there is enough socialising around alcohol already,” says Toshniwal.

At the heart of it all is helping people make connections offline. As someone who preferred house parties to partying in pubs, Shrinivas Shinde says he launched Playace in 2017 to connect guests like him to hosts willing to throw parties at home. “But after a few house parties, we noticed people were coming for conversations over shared interests,” says the 32-year-old, who has worked in branding earlier. “People just want to be heard.”

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Some of these ventures are now looking at the next stage of growth. Beatmap, which has been in the space of curated social gatherings in homes since 2014, is pivoting to “something bigger and better” while retaining the underlying idea of building communities. “From the data and insights we have gathered, we realise there are ample opportunities to do more, in settings apart from houses,” says Pranika Borkar, head of strategy at Beatmap’s parent company, Kommune. In Bengaluru, OpenOut, is looking at relaunching after a three-month hiatus. Founded by Arun Rafi, 31, in 2016 to provide a platform for people new to the city to meet over a shared interest, OpenOut’s events principally revolve around food. The focus was on offering new experiences during the weekend rather than curbing isolation, says Rafi, who was with United Breweries before quitting to focus on OpenOut, He plans to relaunch with more events during the week.

While That Extra Step’s and Aragma’s revenue is through ticketing, MyScoot, Playace and OpenOut charge a commission from hosts and guests. Playace also earns through brand sponsorships. MyScoot is funded by Y Combinator and Lightspeed while the others are bootstrapped. Aragma is an exception. “We are looking at it more as an effort to build a community and are just trying to cover our costs,” says cofounder Aashish Thakur, adding that they do not see it as a business.

Not everyone who has entered these waters have found success. Dino, in Delhi, founded by BITS Pilani alumni Soumit Saha (28) and Sourabh Gupta (26) had to close down after hosting over 500 people at 80 home-hosted experiences. “Demand generation wasn’t the best and people didn’t seem to want to go to someone else’s house. Maybe we should have started in Gurgaon instead of Delhi,” says Saha, adding that he still hasn’t quite given up on his dream though he has joined a a food tech startup in the interim. “Honestly, I’m looking to revive it. Maybe after a year.”

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MyScoot’s Sinha says what is helping the concept of their startup is the acceptance of a shared economy. “I feel the world has warmed up to the idea with cab sharing, shared workplaces and coliving.”

Speaking about the problem and why they invested, Y Combinator partner Adora Chung says people universally want kinship. “The most obvious solution is the old-fashioned one that we already know works — get people to meet and do things together in person… Overall, we think solving this problem is quickly becoming an enormous opportunity.”

For the urban upwardly mobile who want to look up from their screens, these initiatives offer a realworld option. “It is nice to have something to go to every week with other people,” says Cherukumudi, now a regular at That Extra Step’s frisbee and potluck sessions in Cubbon Park on Sunday mornings.

Global epidemic
[“source=economictimes”]