Battle of the Bastards: Ola vs Uber version


It’s Game of Thrones in real life between two of India’s favourite ride-hailing radio taxi services- the home-brewed Ola, run by one of India’s most untiring entrepreneurs, Bhavish Aggarwal, vs Uber Tech run by Travis Kalanick who, in almost all terms, is the most revered and feared entrepreneur the world has ever seen.

Most of us know what’s been the success of Uber around the world and how it has managed to capture almost every market it’s present in. Ola, on the other hand, has stuck to being localised within India, quietly being led by a founder who’s known to take early morning flights to a new city each week in the early days, to set up shop there.

We try and do a little crystal ball glazing into where these two iconic brands will, or possibly should, head towards in the coming years.

But why ‘Battle of The Bastards?’

The reason why it’s now the ‘Battle of The Bastards’ is because both have a common ‘gene pool’ through Chinese ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing, which first killed Uber’s China dream and then acquired it while parallelly playing a global cartel game against Uber by getting an entry to Ola’s cap table. Kudos Didi, our Tyrion Lannister; you are a winner in either case of this outcome.

Now coming back to our Battle Royale: There’s a lot of speculation on what would happen to Ola with Uber and Travis refocussing on India, like a horse with blinders on (in this case $10-billion blinders).

Will home-brewed Ola survive? Will Ola raise its next round? Will Uber just deplete the cash out of Ola and acquire it for a song?

There’s been a lull before this storm. As an outsider it’s almost scary to imagine what the possible outcomes could be. Ola and its PR team have maintained stony silence on all questions regarding cash availability, recent spate of firings, TaxiForSure shutdown and some mid to senior level attrition. Uber India, which is pretty much faceless, has said nothing yet, but just like Amazon’s India story they know that there’s tremendous amount of cash backing them to go all out.

Winterfell homecoming

Clearly, winter has come and India is the new Winterfell of the world. The armies of Jon Snow (Ola) and Ramsay Bolton (Uber) face off in an enormous battle for control of India (a market that is pegged to hit over $10 billion in the foreseeable future).

As a reader you might question my decision of drawing a parallel with Jon Snow for Bhavish and the rather unpopular Ramsay Bolton for Travis. However, in this scenario it’s purely owing to the strength of the armies viz the cash on books of the two gallant warriors.

The ‘strategic’ tie-ups with Mahindra Group for Ola and with the Tatas for Uber are all just media hogwash. Ultimately, it’s the army (cab drivers) that will win the battle for one of them.

Going only by numbers, the Boltons (Uber India) can either go for the kill by deep discounting and turning the market away or, over time, suck the living supplies (cash) out of Jon’s (Ola) throat. In either scenario our home-brewed boy stands to lose. Yes, in terms of traction and fleet size Ola is the market leader but the case of Amazon-Flipkart battle has taught the world that deep pockets and good customer experience can rapidly swing market shares and consumption patterns.

Preparing for the battle ahead

Jon (Bhavish) knows this… He’s one of the smartest entrepreneurs India has ever produced. He’s not someone who will give away his Winterfell that easily and will be ready to fight to the hilt. It’s game on for this fiery and extremely passionate warrior.

Ola, in my opinion, is preparing itself for the battle ahead.  There’s no immediate cash crunch but if Winter’s here to stay for long it won’t hurt to shut down non-core activities (Ola Café, Ola Store etc.), fire some non-performers and concentrate on three basic things it learnt from the TaxiForSure deal- increase loyalty of your cab driver, provide efficient/cheap services (OlaShare), which Indians love, and lastly, in the most adverse of scenarios stick your head down and fight to the hilt (a highly valued/timed exit doesn’t hurt).

In my opinion, this battle will have the following implications:

  1. Casualties in the form of local rickshaw, taxi unions which, in all likelihood, would get crushed completely.
  2. A drastic pan-India change in consumption of transport via radio taxis; whereby questions on demerits of car ownership will soon arise.
  3. Increase in driver pay-outs and salaries, clubbed with a whole new class of skilled/unskilled employees joining the workforce and making a decent living.
  4. The A-game being played in the customer experience/support on both the platforms; leading to better customer experience.

Where is Sansa Stark?

At this moment the ‘Battle of the Bastards’ lacks a certain Sansa Stark. For those who’ve seen this episode from Game of Thrones know exactly what I’m implying here.

By now most of you know that I’m a Jon Snow admirer and love the underdog beating Goliath. The Indian startup ecosystem has very few Jons like Ola to bet on/to give them hope that when a large army of foreigners comes with a big cheque there is still a chance for a smaller Indian company to exist and, in some cases, beat that large bad boy. As a user of both platforms for a few years now, one can finally tell that in terms of tech, brand loyalty and perception there’s very little that separates the two. Ola’s maps and service and Uber’s localisation have both matured over the years.

George Soros, popularly regarded as 'the man who 'broke the Bank of England' (someone who I deeply admire for his gutsy ways) once said,

“Markets are constantly in a state of uncertainty and flux and money is made by discounting the obvious and betting on the unexpected."

All it takes is one deep ‘mad’ investor to arrive, like Petyr Baelish and the Knights of the Vale, for Bhavish (Jon) to defeat the Bolton (Uber) army. It’s happened in China and it sure as hell can happen here.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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