This is the second post in my Startup Diaries series.
I started FindAuto along with some of my college classmates back in 2013. The idea was to connect customers to nearby auto-rickshaws easily using modern technologies. This was before Ola or Uber (or any smart cabs) were available in Kerala.
The idea for the startup came during one of the walks with my grandfather in my second year of college (~2011). He used to get tired unexpectedly sometimes and we’ll need to head back to home as soon as possible afterwards. However, sometimes we would be in the middle of nowhere and I would have a hard time getting an auto-rickshaw to go back. Since it was not possible to walk till the nearest rickshaw stand (which could be 1-2 kms away), we would have to wait till an empty rickshaw passes by. This could take 15 minutes to half an hour at times.
This was an obvious inefficiency. Rickshaw drivers were sitting idle in their designated stands while prospective customers spend so much time waiting for them in the near vicinity.
Creating the MVP
I participated with couple of my friends for an hackathon (55444 hackathon by Innoz) in Bangalore in 2011. We created an ‘SMS app’ PoC of the idea which works as follows:
- You text your “<source>*<destination>” to our number
- We find the closest rickshaw near the source (using Geocoding using Google Maps API).
- We reply back with the contact number of the driver
We were selected as one of the top 10 apps shortlisted for the final round of the hackathon. However, the PoC was pretty crude and had many practical limitations and flaws.
In the beginning of our third year at college, IEEE Communication Society Kerala Section partnered with Startup Village to support select student projects financially and through expert mentoring. Me and my friends submitted 4 ideas, of which ‘SMS Vehicle Locating Solution’ was selected.
At that time, most rickshaw drivers did not have smartphones. One of our primary design constraints was to support such drivers (and customers) through the use of SMS and geocoding. We had multiple design reviews over the next one year which helped us further refine our idea. The funding helped pay for our domain/hosting costs, SMS gateway costs etc.
At the end of third year, I had an opportunity to intern at TEC (Technology Entrepreneurship & Commercialization center), Ohio State university through LabX and Startup Village. I came off really inspired and wanted to do something really impactful.
We decided to register a company and productize our ‘SMS based vehicle locating’ idea. We started building a customer facing mobile app and website for the service. We initially fixed on the name ‘EasyAuto’ but realized that a similar offering had tried and failed in Bangalore couple of years back. We finally ended up registering the domain ‘findauto.in’ and a partnership firm ‘Smart Transit Services‘ (me and my friend & co-founder Venki as partners). WebOpx, a design startup from our college, designed the ‘findauto’ logo for us.
My classmate Rajath Thomson created the following really nice and short explainer/promo video for us:
In preparation of our launch, we started traveling all around Trivandrum in our bikes talking to rickshaw drivers and ‘onboarding’ interested drivers on our platform. We managed to sign up about 250 drivers.
We knew that our product adoption suffered from a chicken-egg problem. For drivers to be active in the platform, they need frequent trips. For customers to use the platform, they need to get connected to drivers when they make a request.
To jump-start the system, we came up with an idea – a full blown public launch function with media coverage. We will get a surge of customer trip requests which will engage the 250 drivers signed up with us. That will start a virtuous cycle which pulls in more drivers and customers as it goes.
We started reaching out to a lot of celebrities to participate in our function. There were many turn downs initially. However, with the help of a few contacts we managed to get Dr. G. Madhavan Nair (Former Chairman, ISRO) and Shri. Maniyanpilla Raju (popular film actor) to be our Chief Guests. I’ll always be indebted to their kindness.
We booked a hall at Press Club in Trivandrum, where top political or celebrity figures usually address the Press.
We got Syam Annan, who used to run a photocopy center near our college and drive auto-rickshaws part-time to volunteer for a real-time demo of service at the launch function. We also got senior members of the IEEE Kerala Section fraternity to participate in the function. The launch went smoothly.
Post Launch Reception
Our plans seemed to be working initially. A lot of newspapers and websites covered our launch story. We started getting many requests for trips from customers.
However, we found that our drivers were not responding to those customer requests. In the spirit of doing things that don’t scale initially, we started manually calling drivers and trying to connect them to nearby trips. We also released a quick update to our service through which drivers didn’t need to reply via SMS, but could simply give a missed call to our number to show their willingness to accept a trip.
Still, we could not get our drivers to respond to customer trip requests. After couple of weeks of unfulfilled trips, our customer requests also started fading away.
Our college ended couple of months after our launch. Everyone in the findAuto team started joining different companies based on their campus placements. The company suffered a silent death.
However, me and Venki did not give up. We were in touch with the EasyAuto team who had attempted a similar service in the past. We decided to partner with them to try and launch the service in Bangalore with the addition of a smartphone application for drivers so that we have GPS based tracking etc. available in services like Uber.
We had incubated our company in our college incubator and had secured office space. With the help of my brother Rohith who also came onboard, we hired a full time developer (our classmate Mithun) and also managed to get 3 interns (Joseph, Pratyush and Rohith KP) from our college itself. They started working on the driver side app. We also integrated with a telephony service (KooKoo) in order to bridge the call between the driver and the customer without either party having to share their numbers with each other, in the interest of privacy.
We were planning to launch in Bangalore sometime in December 2014. Our driver app was nearing completion. I would travel on some weekends from Hyderabad to Bangalore to catch up with Venki and the EasyAuto team. However we faced challenges in acquiring drivers in Bangalore. We tried talking to the rickshaw union leaders in order to get their support. One of them asked us for a bribe of 10 lakhs in order to extend his support. We did not have that kind of money to spare nor the inclination to support that.
The final nail in our coffin was put by Ola Cabs, when they announced that they are extending their platform to support rickshaws as well, in early December 2014. They had millions in funding. They were offering each driver 50 Rs. on top of regular fare as incentive to complete the trip. They were also discounting the customer’s trip cost in order to drive adoption. We realized that we didn’t stand a chance. We finally pulled the plug on the idea then.
Overall, though we did not end up achieving what we set out to do, there was immense learning for everyone involved. Apart from the technical aspects of mobile and web application development, I also learned the challenges in co-ordinating and guiding a distributed team towards building a product on time, challenges in customer acquisition etc. It was a really fun ride. 🙂