We encourage the entrepreneur inside the rickshaw driver: Autowale COO Janardan Prasad

Autowale is one of the few dial-a-rickshaw companies in India that has not just survived in this industry but shown profits as well, underlines Autowale’s COO, Janardan Prasad, in a telephonic and email interaction with YourStory. The company raised 0.5 million USD as angel fund last year using which it grew in Pune, and did a pilot in Bangalore as well, he reminds. “We have served 75000+ customers so far, and are on the verge of breaking even. This entire journey has been a mix of ups and downs for Autowale team but we are focussed on making Autowale a profitable venture in India.” Read on.

Janardhan Prasad and Mukesh Jha

Janardhan Prasad and Mukesh Jha

What lessons have you learnt as an entrepreneur in terms of strategy?

Different companies have different challenges and strategies; what works in one industry doesn’t work in another industry. As an entrepreneur, listen to everyone, but pick your own path, and make decisions that are best aligned with your industry. Keep experimenting, and keep correcting your mistakes. For example, we were growing very rapidly in Pune and Bangalore, but at a very high burn-rate. We controlled that by pulling the right triggers and turned it profitable within 6 months. Now, we are more confident about our business.

Why did Autowale pull out of Bangalore after pilot?

After we grew significantly in Pune, we did Bangalore pilot to validate if Autowale’s dial-a-rickshaw model would work in other Indian cities as well. Once it got validated, we didn’t launch it commercially, because we need bigger set-up to serve entire Bangalore, which we’ll do with our next round of funds. After successful pilot in Bangalore, we focused on making Pune profitable. As an entrepreneur, we have to experiment all the time. Kind of business we are in, we have to go live in a city to study a city and its commuters.

Your key dial-a-rickshaw metrics.

This is a billion dollar industry in India, with millions of rickshaws on road running very inefficiently. We focus on serving more and more customers and making this system efficient by increasing driver utilisation and reducing empty running. We increase driver’s earning potential by 2X. More than 20% of our drivers make more than Rs 25,000-30,000 per month that creates a very strong engagement with drivers. We also reduce empty running by batching the trips better for drivers; our empty running is 30%. As far as we know, radio-cab average empty running is 40% in India.

On the use of funds.

We used funds to create a sustainable business, since it was a new sector. Last year, we focussed on growth and were burning at a very high rate, and this year we focussed on profits as well. At Autowale, now we do much more revenue than what we were doing earlier, with half the team. If we continue growing at current pace then we’ll be breaking even next month and would be ready for the next phase of growth. That’s what we wanted to achieve with angel funds that we raised last year.

Do you see oversupply of drivers in cities?

Autowale always has more demand than it can serve, I hope it continues like that. Going ahead also, we don’t want to induct all the drivers, we just want to work with a few good drivers and engage better with them. We encourage the entrepreneur inside the rickshaw driver and align our business goals with their goals. We work with drivers who believe in change and want to grow.

How does an auto-rickshaw driver comes on board?

We conduct interviews of drivers to check and test his skills and intentions. We are also very focussed on the compliance part of it. All the drivers are authorised by RTA and have valid licence, permits, insurance, and meter passing. Through this, we make sure that the customers trust the service, and that we are not setting wrong expectation for other drivers.

Your experience with social media.

If your social media page is adding value to your business in terms of brand, marketing, monetisation, etc., then focus on that. If you are not able to monetise your social media platform, then you can focus on alternative sources of communication. For example, in Autowale, after a certain point, we realised that our customer segment is not very active on FB, and even those who are active are not able to give constructive feedback. E-commerce companies have to focus a lot on social media; but a company like Autowale should have a different communication channel for customers, e.g., having relationship mangers for loyal customers.

Any preconceptions about rickshaw drivers that proved wrong?

Before we started Autowale we were warned that rickshaw drivers are tough to handle, they are mostly uneducated and dishonest. But as we started interacting with drivers, we realised that most of them are honest and they have ethics and value system. We mostly work with drivers who have families to take care of. Our drivers want to live a respectable and comfortable life, if we give them right platform to perform better.

What role has media played so far?

Media plays a very important role for any business. They write encouraging stories, spread the word around really fast, and bring a lot of credibility to a company in various stages of growth. All businesses owe a lot of customers to them. However, when industry (or other companies in similar industry) is not doing well, they can play a better role in encouraging those who are still making it happen, instead of evaluating survivors with scepticism.