Global executive picks L.A. as world center for urban mobility

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - SEPTEMBER 07, 2017: John Rossant, who heads LA Commotion, a multi day transpor

John Rossant is founder and chairman of the nonprofit NewCities foundation and creator of LA CoMotion, a big urban mobility conference and festival that’s attracting an international crowd to the Arts District Nov. 15-19.

A former journalist who has organized and produced conferences around the world, including the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Rossant, 62, intends to make LA CoMotion a world-scale annual event. He recently moved with his family from New York to Los Angeles.

Family influence

I grew up in Manhattan. My father was a journalist at the New York Times. We would religiously read the New York Times at the breakfast table. It was a very bookish household. My outlook on life was formed by early reading.

When I was 17, I applied to the University of Wisconsin, where my girlfriend was going. I fell in with students from completely different backgrounds than my own. I think people who grow up in New York often forget how insular New York is to the rest of the country and the rest of the world.

After my freshman year, my dad ended financial support following a big disagreement — and I probably deserved the punishment. I had to drop out for a year, lived in a cold water flat in New York. I worked as a messenger on Wall Street and cleaned mouse cages at a lab. I was on my own financially. Not fun, but it taught me how to survive on my own.

The Cairo spark

When I returned to college, I saw signs for an Arabic course. The calligraphy was beguiling and I said, why not. When I graduated, I won a U.S. State Department fellowship for intensive training in classical Arabic in Cairo. I found myself in this huge, very foreign, exotic, wonderful city. This was clearly the spark that ignited my fascination with cities and how cities are organized.

If the ultimate iconic car culture city could change, any city in the world could change.

— John Rossant on Los Angeles

My first job was in Saudi Arabia, at the English-language Arab News. It was a truly alien place for a journalist back then: an absolute monarchy, a tribal system. Nobody quite understood what a Western journalist did, and I think most people thought I was a CIA operative.

Copines Françaises

Back in New York after a year and a half in the Arabian desert, BusinessWeek called me up one day and said they were opening a Paris office. Would I be interested? I said, “ummm … yes …”

The editor asked me if I spoke French. I told him yes, of course. He said OK, you’re heading to Paris next week. Let’s just say my French was pretty basic so I had to learn on the fly. I had French girlfriends and I forced myself to go to lots of French movies. That worked.

Later BusinessWeek moved me to Rome to cover Italy and the Middle East. I had to learn Italian, of course, and that’s where I was lucky enough to meet my wife. In 1991, I covered the first Gulf War.

After that I was back in Paris as Europe editor. I was at a working lunch in Paris with Maurice Levy, the legendary CEO of Publicis, the big French advertising and public relations firm. He invited me to his office. We had a long discussion of French history and American relations.

Levy was clearly looking for someone who could speak French, who knew about communicating with the Anglophone world. The digital onslaught was just beginning and I didn’t see a bright future for print so I made the decision to leave BusinessWeek. I was made head of communications and public affairs at Publicis.

Digital tsunami

The very week I joined Publicis, Rupert Murdoch made a prescient speech in Washington where he told assembled newspaper and magazine editors: “You’re all going to be out of a job. There’s a digital tsunami coming.”

I immediately recommended that Publicis launch a high-level conference on the future of media. I cut a deal with Prince Albert of Monaco to create the Monaco Media Forum. I developed a real passion for bringing smart people around a table to talk about issues.

For several years I was in charge of producing the famous World Economic Forum in Davos — and I started to gain a reputation as someone who could put together these kind of events.

At the same time, I was more and more fascinated and preoccupied by cities, the development of cities. A majority of the human population was moving to cities. At the same time, the digital revolution and the Internet held out the promise of radically reorganizing cities. For the better.

L.A.: Where it’s at

I created a nonprofit foundation, the NewCities Foundation. Our big annual meeting has now been held in Paris, Sao Paulo, Dallas, Jakarta, Montreal and Songdo, a very successful new city near Seoul, [South] Korea.

More and more, though, I saw that the huge disruption sweeping over the mobility and transportation sector would impact cities everywhere, and I saw a need for a global gathering on urban transportation.

I read Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Mobility 2035 transportation plan and was impressed. If the ultimate iconic car culture city could change, any city in the world could change. So why not anchor a global mobility conference in Los Angeles? L.A. in particular and California in general are emerging as the center of smart thinking about mobility.

Take a leap

When I look back, it’s important to trust your instincts and leap into the unknown. You have to kind of just take risks with things. It’s a lesson that’s hard to impart to your children, because risks sometimes don’t turn out so well.


Urban Ladder to launch home interior solutions in April

The home interior solutions service will be launched in Bengaluru and then rolled out in Mumbai in couple of months, before being extended to other cities where the firm operates. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

The home interior solutions service will be launched in Bengaluru and then rolled out in Mumbai in couple of months, before being extended to other cities where the firm operates. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Bengaluru: Online furniture store Urban Ladder will roll out home interior solutions in April, a category that the company estimates will contribute about 15% of its revenue in the next year, said a senior company executive.

The move, which is expected to support Urban Ladder’s target of achieving revenue of Rs.800-1,000 crore by March 2017, comes at a time when furniture e-tailers are building additional layers of services on top of their core competencies to maximize use cases for the existing customer base. The service will be launched in Bengaluru and then rolled out in Mumbai in couple of months, before being gradually extended to all the 19 cities where Urban Ladder currently operates, said co-founder and chief executive Ashish Goel.

The initiative is being led by Parag Shah, director of category management, and Prakash Deep Maheshwari, director of strategy and new home solutions.

Urban Ladder has set up a 70-member team to work on this vertical and will investRs.12-15 crore to grow the category in the next 12 months. The company plans to fulfil about 150 projects a month and is exploring partnerships with real estate developers since new home buyers are the primary target audience for this service.

While consumers can choose from the repertoire of products currently available on Urban Ladder across categories, the company will partner with third-party vendors or brands for pieces such as floorings and wall paints—categories where Urban Ladder doesn’t deal in currently.

“This business has better margin structure, but it is very tough to scale. About one-third of our senior management bandwidth is working on urban interior solutions,” said Goel.

The move is expected to significantly boost Urban Ladder’s revenue as well as margins.

While industry experts peg the average order value for furniture at Rs.15,000-20,000, a home interior project could cost more than Rs.5 lakh.

After an almost two-year long slowdown in the real estate sector, home sales rose about 15% in the October-December quarter to 78 million sq.ft from the preceding quarter across India’s top 8 property markets, according to Liases Foras Real Estate Rating and Research Pvt. Ltd.

Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) was the highest contributor of sales of homes both in the ultra-luxury and luxury categories—the latter being in the price range of Rs.1-2 crore.

To be sure, online furniture stores, like Urban Ladder (Urban Ladder Home Decor Solutions Pvt. Ltd) and Pepperfry (TrendSutra Platform Services Pvt. Ltd) have been rolling out additional offerings—be it big order value items, such as modular kitchens and furniture, or low-ticket size categories, such as home decor.

While higher value products help boost value of goods sold, which in turn surges valuations, categories such as home decor, which are priced lower, are targeted at facilitating repeat purchase—helping in customer retention.

“A customer who buys furniture, will buy other home-related products. So, the message is, if you are buying furniture, we will take care of some of your other requirements. This also helps to retain existing customers as it is not easy to get repeat users in this category, at least in the short-term,” said Harish H.V., partner at Grant Thornton India Llp, a financial advisory.

Urban Ladder’s move comes at a time when smaller rivals, such as HomeLane (Homevista Decor and Furnishing Pvt. Ltd) and (Home Interior Designs E-Commerce Pvt. Ltd) are offering end-to-end home solutions and design consultation to customers.

HomeLane has raised $4.5 million (about Rs.30 crore) from Sequoia Capital and Aarin Capital while has so far raised $8 million from Jungle Ventures,Bessemer Venture Partners and Helion Ventures.

India is home to about 170 start-ups in the segment, who have together raised over $280 million from investors, according to Tracxn, a start-up tracker.

Urban Ladder and Pepperfry, with $77 million and $128 million, respectively, in their kitty, are the most heavily funded companies.