StartupTalky is one of the strongest online entrepreneurial communities in India and engages with several professionals who are doing great in their lives and have achieved the impossible. To share their learnings and inspire as many people as possible, these 'StartupTalkers' will be featured in StartupTalky's "Know the StartupTalker" series.
One such StartupTalker is Dhruvam Thaker. Dhruvam is the founder of 'The SMART Taxi'. You will learn a lot from Dhruvam Thaker's journey in his own words!
Dhruvam, Tell Us Something About Yourself.
I was born in a middle-class family in a small town named Jamnagar (Gujarat). 3 months after my birth, we shifted to Ahmedabad, where I grew up. My childhood was engulfed in Indian music as my father was fond of singing and playing the harmonium.
According to my parents, I was very calm, patient, a good observer, and full of deep understanding. On the other hand, I was very shy in nature and apprehensive of interacting with others (excluding my family members). I loved playing with toys, mainly cars and trucks. I used to spend hours playing with them without craving for company. As I was growing, playing cricket interested me; it groomed me to converse and connect with people. The cricket fraternity in my society had a dearth of left-handed batsmen and since I followed this style, it gave me an advantage when it came to being selected for the local team.
Coming back to the present day, my father is a retired government bank employee, my mother is a homemaker, brother is a graphic designer and painter, and my sister is a commerce graduate. My siblings have hearing and speaking related disabilities. My wife is an architect and I have a kid who is 3 years old.
Talking about academics, I was good in studies and usually ranked amongst the top three in class till the 9th grade. My family enrolled me in a Gujarati medium school from kindergarten due to financial constraints. The school was close to my home and was a well known one. When it was time for me to start the 10th grade, our financial condition had improved significantly. So I shifted to a new school which was far from my place but better than the Gujarati medium school. I managed my travel to and from this school by cycling. My father has spared no expenses in giving me the best educational facilities.
My academic history and inclinations compelled me to take up science in senior secondary school. It was my dream to become an engineer and another reason to pursue science stream. However, everything shattered when I failed in the final exams of the 12th grade. My parents were disappointed. I was stressed and gloomy; the feeling that the society's assumption of me had changed engulfed my thoughts. It was difficult for my parents to see me this way. But they pinned their hopes on me and asked me to join a diploma course based on my 10th grade results. I agreed and secured an admit to Nirma University, one of the most reputed institutions of Gujarat. I was back!
The innate passion for automobiles and machines never left me and spurred me to opt for mechanical engineering. I performed exceptionally in each semester, and was awarded a silver medal for standing second in the entire university. I was actively involved in co-curricular activities but didn’t secure any awards. The consolation participation certificate was more than an award to me; I've always considered participation more important than focusing on the result since it brings valuable experience.
Staying idle was never a choice for me, so I started doing part-time jobs with short tenures. Each of those tenures taught me some life lessons which I recall, apply, and follow every day. Thanks to the campus placement drive, I had a job in my hand from a well known MNC in Bangalore, that too before completing my diploma! My mother was hesitant as it meant moving away from Gujarat. It was my father who ultimately convinced her and I landed in Bengaluru in 2008.
Planning ideas and executing them was a skill I was passionate about from my college days. Hence, I selected production planning as a function. Staying in Bengaluru was heaven for me; it was poles apart from Ahmedabad from a weather perspective. I had troubles communicating with the locals in the initial days. However, I learnt Kannada, the native language of the people from Bengaluru and overcame this obstacle. My office colleagues helped me a lot in learning Kannada. In a span of 2.5 years, I was well versed in Kannada, and despite leaving Bengaluru in 2013, I still find it easy to communicate in Kannada which is evident from conversations with my ex-colleagues from Bengaluru.
During my professional journey, I always believed in one variable: change. I was constantly looking for opportunities where I could try my hands on something unexplored, something different. Many times, I was responsible for troubles that halted the entire production line! On the other hand, successful efforts have proven as head turner for the organization. My senior was a source of support and encouraged me to explore. Seeing my curiosity to learn, he enrolled me in activities related to process improvements, production re-engineering, 5s, Poka Yoke, Kaizen, ISO, etc. I was enjoying this since I was a catalyst for bringing changes in my organization.
In the year 2010, I got married to a girl who was my school friend, and she joined me in my Bengaluru journey. An architect by profession, she chose to focus on her career post marriage and got the opportunity to work with a reputed architecture company. In the year 2012, I first felt the need to do something of my own. But lack of courage dissuaded me from taking any step. In 2013, I got an opportunity from a well-known tower infrastructure company for a position consonant with my past experience. The position was in Ahmedabad. I wanted to stay with my parents and did not waste any time in accepting the role.
I never fathomed the shift in my motives and aspirations the relocation to Ahmedabad brought. I joined the company and was aligned with its culture and pace after a few arduous days in the beginning. During those days, my inner voice kept nagging me to get serious about my own venture. I kept neglecting it, subduing it with other thoughts or by focusing on the job. I discussed it with my family but they asked me to focus on my full-time job and regular income rather than taking the risk of starting something from scratch. On the other hand, I was gearing up to go for it! Finally, my inner voice superseded my fear of failure and other self-created mindset barriers one day. I resigned from my job without informing anyone. When 15 days of the notice period remained, I apprised my wife and told my parents about it a week earlier.
A disaster was in the making because of me. I was bombarded with questions about future plans and goals and I did not have a clear answer and repeated the same line, "I want to have my own startup." As usual, some of my friends, society members, and colleagues started making fun of my decision. But this time, the negative comments were only adding fuel to my fire. Despite heavy resistance from each direction, I began.
What Does The SMART Taxi Do?
The future is all about delivering a unique experience and not just delivering a service. We understand this very well! The SMART Taxi—a call based taxi service—is about creating the best in class cab riding experience, specially crafted for business class people and corporate companies.
We achieve this by providing well-maintained cabs loaded with state of the art features and driven by well trained, courteous professionals. We have observed an upward trend in demand of Indian consumers for the best quality services. There is a class of people ready to pay premium charges to avail such services, and they are our targeted audience. All our cabs welcome customers with a defined welcome speech followed by soothing music for a relaxing ambience. Moreover, we offer water bottles, cookies, snacks packet, and chocolates to our customers as part of their package.
Our cabbies (drivers) are trained and tested in terms of behavioral skills and driving skills to add value to the overall customer experience. With us, customers can customize the experience by making it richer and prestigious as per their needs. This is possible by the addition of WiFi connections, Amazon kindle, cold drinks, magazines, and many other features. We do constant market research for adding more and more features in our list as per the market trend for enhancing customer experience.
We offer cabs for hourly rental and outstation. Hourly rental is best suited for roaming within the city and starts with hiring cabs for 8 hours/80 KM. Outstation journeys are traveling outside cities for one or more days. The SMART Taxi was launched in Ahmedabad with one cab on Sep 16, which I was driving. Today we are an aggregated company with 60+ best-performing cabs; this includes a mixed portfolio of Sedans (Dezire, Etios, Xcent, and Amaze) and MUV ( Innova, Eartiga, and others). We are present in 7 cities: Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot, Jaipur, Pune, Indore, and Bhopal, and have a strategic time-bound plan in place to expand to other cities of India.
When And How Did You Come Up With This Idea?
It all started in 2012 when I was associated with an MNC and traveled in taxis. I was noticing every aspect of ride hailing and it wasn't up to the standards for what the customers were paying. Poor car condition, rude behavior of the drivers, etc. were some of the factors persistent across all of my rides. On the contrary, traveling in flights and staying in hotels were fantastic experiences.
One day while traveling back from Bengaluru via flight, an idea struck me through a a single liner, "what if a taxi could offer hospitality like the airlines and the facilities of a good hotel?" I started analyzing the prospects and gathered the courage to launch this idea. It took me 4 years to finally go for it and that's how we started The SMART Taxi.
How Did You Come Up With The Name And Logo Of Your Startup?
As the entire concept was articulated by a single line, "A cab offering hospitality like the airways and the features of a reputed hotel", I was clear on the fact that our logo would have to capture all the elements. Secondly, it was all about a cab smart enough to understand customers’ expectations.
To make a perfect combination of the above two key requirements, I along with my brother (who is a graphic designer) made around 22 rough sketches, with various design combinations, fonts, colors, and styles. We selected smart taxi as a name which turned out to be very common when we googled it. To distinguish it from the others, we put 'smart' in upper case to highlight it and added 'The' as a prefix to the name since it reflects supremacy and uniqueness.
Finally, it came down to the last and the most important word, 'Taxi'. We wanted to keep the taxi flavor alive in the logo, and thus, selected yellow and black as the color combination with a badge on both the sides. We wanted our brand to exude the comfort and hospitality of the airways and applied bird wings vector on both the sides to reflect it.
Tell Us About Your Business Model?
We are a cab aggregation company mainly targeting B2B customers. We onboard cabs of individuals or fleet owners like the other companies. The only thing which differentiates us from them is our process. We do not keep any hatchbacks in our portfolio! Sedans and MUVs are the only two car segments we invite for the initial screening.
All individual cab owners and fleet owners have to cross five steps of the selection process to get on board and drive for us. It includes every minute step: verifying the vehicle condition, testing the cabbies (driving skills, behavior with the customer, their capabilities to handle physically challenged, senior citizen and pregnant women), and taking telephonic interviews to test their understanding. Without clearing it, one cannot join us. It’s a clear process which we have been following from the day of inception with a zero compromise policy. To put it precisely, after completing all formalities, only 1-2 out of 5 cab applicants finally on board our venture.
Next, we keep an optimum number of cabs according to the city load and distribute sufficient amount of business amongst them to keep them motivated. We also monitor cab occupation ratio constantly and hunt for new cabs (from a database of cab owners collected from campaigns). We start inviting new applications only if there is a rising trend in demand. We have kept our on-boarding process short, crisp, and fast enough so that it takes only 3 hours to get a cab join us without skipping any part of the evaluation.
Being a bootstrapped startup, we take help of online platforms like Google form for cab registration application and WhatsApp for communication. Coming to the profit sharing strategy, we pay our partners according to the market rates deduced through thorough research. We apply our margin on the rates and charge the customer accordingly for providing a high-quality, safe, and unique cab riding experience. We form an agreement with validity from the cab owners and fleet owners about their understanding on the prices, service and payment terms, cancellation terms, penalties, etc. Moreover, we make sure that we pay inline with the agreed rates and time frame (which is paid within 30 days of trip completion) without a single miss, directly into their bank accounts.
To maintain transparency, we provide computer-generated statements every fortnight to all associated partners which specify the executed trip details, payable balance, and the payment made. On request, we also provide them a crisp summary of how much business they have done with us, how many rides we have assigned to them, how many they have accepted, and how many they have completed. Customers can book our cabs by calling on 8238883335. We have a centralized customer booking center, and from here we delegate the bookings to local cab partners or fleet owners associated with us. Currently, the entire process happens over phone calls. Post finding a suitable vehicle, we communicate the cab details to the customers (at least 10 hours in advance). Likewise, we communicate the trip details to our cab partners. Both of these communications happen through WhatsApp.
What Other Options Do Your Customers Have? And How Are You Different From Them?
We compete with all the cab companies who operate in the corporate domain but mainly with Car Club, Avis, Orix, etc. We differentiate our service in terms of the features offered as well as the prices. Some of the features and customization options we deliver to our customers are not offered by the other players. In terms of price, we have positioned our self a bit lower compared to them, and this gives us the added advantage in capturing market share quickly.
Many people have a misconception about us that we are another platform like Ola or Uber which is not the case. I don't blame them because both these companies are dominating the Indian market at the moment. However, there are fundamental differences between us. A few of them are:
- Their core business is for traveling from point A to point B within the city, whereas we majorly operate outstation journeys.
- They have hatchbacks, sedan and MUV as vehicle category to offer but we operate only with sedans and MUVs.
- They provide app-based service whereas we are call based.
- Their major business comes from individual customers whereas our clientele is the corporate segment.
- They target the masses whereas we operate for a niche population.
How Did You Acquire Your Initial Customers?
We started with one cab which I was driving for the initial few months. Being the creator of the concept, it was easy for me to explain the audience and give them real information. We got our first customer through Just Dial. During the initial days, I was attending customer inquiry calls, responding to them, and driving them to their destinations.
Our core focus on customer experience means our customer isn't hesitant to pay slightly higher than the market rate. From there on, referrals started floating in through word of mouth publicity. In parallel, I started hunting for the right cab partners who were willing to join me in this venture. From one we became three, then seven, then twelve, and our cab quantity also increased. This gave us the confidence to enter into the corporate segment (B2B).
What Is The Revenue Model And Who Are The Sources?
Coming to revenue generation, we pay our partners according to the market rates derived from deep research. We apply our margin over it and then charge the customers (who are mainly B2B) for providing the best in class, safe, and unique cab riding experiences. For the corporate segment, we mainly pitch to corporate companies (from small scale to large scale organization), hotels, tour operators, etc. to cater to their cab requirements.
We do it via direct walk-ins, referrals, social media platforms, or by sending promotional emails and messages. We are a bootstrapped startup. On the mentorship aspect, I would like to mention three names: the late Mr. Himanshu Chudasama, Mr. Gagan Gupta, and Dr. Anu Gupta for their kind support in guiding me through some of the toughest turns.
How Did You Meet Your Team (Co-founders), And What Is Their Background?
Our company is a proprietorship firm. As a team, there are two individuals (management graduates) who support me as business consultants in the core areas of our business— strategic planning, marketing, accounting, cab onboarding and business expansion, customer help desk, and booking center. Our core strength is our ground team i.e. the fleet owners and cab owners associated with us. They are the people we have taken utmost care in selecting and they are delivering an experience as per our set standards, 24X7.
What Were The Challenges You Faced In Your Journey And How Did You Overcome Them?
Leaving a well-paid job after serving well-known organizations for eight years to start a venture was the first challenge. It was followed by social pressure from my family, society, friends, and relatives to take up a job again. The second challenge was to make cab partners agree to deliver a rich experience rather than a simple service. I have walked on streets and selected the few who were able to understand the concept. And then I trained them.
From a financial aspect, after launching the startup in 2016, it wasn't easy being a married guy having a nine month old kid, two siblings with disabilities, and family to take care of. I was surrounded by several responsibilities and liabilities.
I remember the time when it was Diwali the next day and I had only Rs 400 in my wallet with nothing in the bank account. I literally had to drive 23 hours on that day to eke out the expenses; we managed to get sweets and crackers for my son and the family. After entering the corporate segment, a large payment we were to receive was delayed by 2 months. On the other side, to continue hassle-free ground operations, we had to pay our partners on time. It created a situation where we were left with zero balance in the account. Self-belief, patience, and persistence kept us going despite the obstacles.
Where Do You Want To See Your Startup In The Coming Years?
Our vision is to become 'India's no. 1 cab company in customer satisfaction' by 2025. Our further plans are tied to team building, marketing, product innovations, investment, expansion, and we're diligently following it.
What Technology Stack/ Entrepreneurial Hacks/Online Tools/Services/Apps Do You Use In Your Startup?
We use Google Form for cab partner registration, conducting market surveys, and customer satisfaction surveys. We use LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram for brand awareness and hiring. Moreover, we have a confirmed business account on WhatsApp which we use to communicate with customers and cab partners across the cities where we have a presence.
We use MailChimp for email campaigns. And for professional emails, we use office 365. We also let our customers share their residential locations via Whatsapp and forward the same to our cab partner along with other customer details and trip information to allow them to reach the customer's place without making a single call . To track our cab partners' location, we have experimented with a free app called Life36, which allows us to view real-time location of individuals. For accounting, keeping track of the trips, invoice generation, etc., we use a subscription-based mobile app call "Vyapar".
What Do You Look For In A Candidate Who Aspires To Join Your Company?
- Passion to do something new.
- Ability to present the correct picture, rather than presenting a manipulative one.
- Accepting mistakes and the ability to learn from it, and to develop a future course of preventive actions.
- Appreciating others for their contribution.
- Time management.
- Value for commitment.
- Brand loyalty.
What Are Your Strategies To Build An Awesome Work Culture In Your Company?
I personally believe in creating a workplace which is safe and where everyone has the freedom to speak. Secondly, appreciation for doing something good is required so that people feel motivated. The appreciation may be small or big depending on impact, but it should be there. We are planning to introduce "thank you" cards which will be of a small piece of paper with "thank you" written on it. The motive behind this is to thank people for their work—both direct and indirect. The person who is giving the card and the individual receiving it are assigned some points. The person with the maximum points will be rewarded.
What Did You Wish To Become When You Were 15?
When I was 15, I wished to become a renowned engineer who creates an innovation that changes history!
Any Quote/ Advice That You Would Like To Share With Budding Entrepreneurs?
- There is no substitute for hard work.
- Success comes after failures, and failures come after success. The only thing which keeps you going ahead is your passion for not giving up and your faith in yourself.