He was 18, he says, and three months after arriving to take English classes at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, he was already nearly broke. The few thousand dollars he had brought with him was going fast. His student visa didn’t allow him to work, and his family was not in a position to help.
“I had no idea where I was going to sleep,” says Azamovich, who prefers to use his middle name. Now 30, he is cofounder and ceo of the fast-rising online housing service 4stay, which specializes in furnished room and apartment rentals on flexible terms, especially for students and educational institutions in the us and, increasingly, beyond.
Azamovich, however, had grown up amid adversity. He was 2 years old in 1991, the year Tajikistan achieved its independence as the Soviet Union was dissolving. This was followed by a seven-year civil war, during which Tajikistan’s economy collapsed. After the war, his father, an engineer, and his mother, a seamstress, worked hard and invested in a popular local furniture business. It was enough to send Azamovich to a private school in Khujand, but not enough to help him pay the rents in Washington, dc, one of the most expensive cities in the country. Yet he credits his parents’ resilience during their crises with fueling his own resolve.
Soon he found a way to sell toys and Christmas ornaments at a nearby mall. Then he worked at a pizza shop for minimum wage. He worked on his English, and he cut his expenses by transferring to Northern Virginia Community College (nova). He struggled to make ends meet and pursue his studies for three years.
One evening during Ramadan in August 2010, Azamovich attended a neighborhood iftar, or fast-breaking dinner. Also attending was nova Vice President Paul McVeigh, who told Azamovich he was looking to hire recruiters to bring more students to the college from Central Asia. Would Azamovich be interested in drafting a proposal for the job?
Azamovich invited a friend from high school who had also come to nova, Faridun Nazarov, to collaborate. McVeigh took them on, and they soon began helping prospective students from not only Tajikistan but also Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan come to the college.
He earned enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment. There, he realized that with the landlord’s approval, he could sublease the extra room. This he says was the idea that ultimately led to 4stay: a furnished room he could rent out with no separate deposit, no separate utilities—no surprise costs, and only for the time needed.
Azamovich and Nazarov began connecting the students they were recruiting with furnished rooms for rent, and they soon founded stp (Studying The Planet) Housing Solutions. Word spread, and they also began helping students from Africa, Europe and other parts of Asia come to schools in 15 states. They were finally making enough money to cover more than their own rents.
“We tried to rent out empty spaces using Airbnb. I also used Craigslist and business-to-business partnerships, targeting students and scholars and filling that gap for medium and long-term housing,” he says.
He earned his associate degree in business from nova in 2012 and transferred to Strayer University for a bachelor’s degree in economics with a minor in information technology. He graduated in 2015.
Stp, too, was finished.
“It couldn’t be sustained,” he says, mostly due to the lack of flexibility in the lease terms of its rentals.
“I failed four times,” he says. “However, all those mistakes became an asset for me, as experience.”
In 2017 Azamovich put up $150,000 of his own cash to launch 4stay.com as a flexible-terms online marketplace designed to connect students to furnished apartments or rooms in multifamily settings, family homes or apartments, all on terms that avoided upfront security deposits while providing renters’ insurance and utilities.
Today, 4stay boasts more than 200,000 listings, 80 percent in the us. The company has relationships with more than 400 mostly educational institutions, including 260 colleges and universities. Among 4stay’s corporate backers is Plug and Play, which has also invested in Dropbox and PayPal. His revenue scheme is a simple 10 percent fee per transaction.
I failed four times. … However, all those mistakes became an asset for me as experience.
This year, when covid-19 hit and sank reservations on major hotel and private accommodation sites such as Booking.com and Airbnb, 4stay has remained above water thanks to its focus on medium- and long-term accommodations.
“We are literally left with almost no competition,” says Azamovich.
Other online businesses that serve a similar population, such as Off Campus Partners and MyRentHero, are doing reasonably well also. Azamovich credits 4stay’s flexible, one-stop approach as key to its growing edge in the industry, but also calls attention to the company’s core commitments “to take care of students,” and now to connect and pair them with “older generations unable to pay for the constantly increasing costs of living alone.”
At present, 4stay has fewer than 20 employees, most of whom work from home, and last year the company clocked $26 million in booking requests. It has also raised more than $1.7 million from angel investors. Its recent partnerships include New York’s Columbia University, the Kaplan International chain of language schools and StudyPA, which runs on- and off-campus housing for state universities throughout Pennsylvania.
Syedur Rahman, nova’s current vice president who manages the international student program formerly headed by McVeigh, describes Azamovich as a “young but very enterprising young man” who helped nova expand its program quickly and efficiently.
“We take a lot of underserved and underrepresented students and make them aspire to dream big,” Rahman says. “Akobir was one of those students. He took the initiative and expanded it into a major operation.”
In addition to life as a busy, young ceo these days, Azamovich has worked with the American Eurasion Congress—a nonprofit he helped establish—to provide medical supplies, food relief and education to people in need in Tajikistan through MoBoVatanem (We Stand with our Motherland), administered through the Embassy of Tajikistan in Washington, dc. It’s from these good deeds, as his late father once advised him, that the “blessing of others will flourish you, like the water flourishes a flower.”
The Potomac River can still remind Azamovich of the Syr Darya and of one of his earliest dreams, “to serve humanity through technology.” It took, he says, “perseverance and desire—qualities you get from your parents.” With that, he reminds himself and others to “follow your heart and prove to yourself that you can accomplish your goals while doing what you like.”