Imagine standing at the bus stop for over an hour on a Monday morning, waiting for a bus to take you to work. Or even running after buses for a chance to get on, only to end up getting your shirt stained, even when the day is yet to get started. This is a regular experience for residents of busy commercial cities like Lagos. This is also the reason for Shuttlers – a “tech-enabled scheduled bus sharing” company
After travelling and experiencing systems of transportation in different locations, Damilola Olokesusi decided that the working class Nigerian deserved a smoother transport system, and founded Shuttlers. Speaking during the Nairametrics Business Half Hour, she explained that they started with a survey among workers and organisations.
“What we found out was that transportation was a challenge, and both individuals and organisations were trying to address the challenge differently. Some companies go as far as running staff buses at extra costs, just to ease the challenge for their staffs. It was based on those finding that we started in November 2015 with the first pilot,” she said.
With 6 individuals and one Small business that was willing to pay for the service, the team leased a couple of vehicles and started operations. They sold tickets for the seats and adapted a house to house pick-up system, but a few months of using this model, and it became clear that it was not profitable and they could not go far with it.
By January 2016, they applied for several accelerator programs and got into a couple of them. Olokesusi recounted that in the course of these programmes, she learnt more about business models, how to pitch. She also got some seed funding and grants for the business, plus some publicity and an angel investor that injected two buses to test out the routes.
With the new drive, Shuttlers resumed operations again, this time adopting a bus stop to bus stop service, with scheduled pickup times and defined routes. They also targeted more organisations as the pilot had shown them that sustaining the business on a strictly B2C model would be difficult.
“We got to the organisations and were able to get people living along same routes to subscribe for our service. Some companies were spending so much, sometimes hiring multiple buses to cater for staffs staying across different routes. But with what we were offering them, they could simply buy seats along those routes for the staffs instead of leasing and maintaining different vehicles. That reduced costs for them and makes funds available to us for a seamless operation. They can also subsidize or discount for their staffs so that the entire burden is not on them,” she said.
The B2B2C plan from Shuttlers include; a plan where companies split payment of transport fares with their employees whichever way they see fit; another plan where companies pay the complete fares of their employees and B2C, where individual customers pay fares themselves. There is a fully functional app where all the bookings can be made.
With the ridesharing platform, users simply have to download the app from the playstore, signup and fund the wallet. Next step is to book a ride from your closest bus stop to your destination, track the bus and hop on as soon as it gets to your pickup point. The simple steps save workers from having to hustle or run after buses in the morning and is also reliable and affordable compared to public buses where the fares go up relative to demand and rush hours.
Now, Shuttlers operates with an e-hailing license that covers its operations and has an onboarding process for vehicles and drivers. Besides the tests and onboarding procedures, there are routine daily checks on the buses, and quarterly maintenance schedules to see to the continued maintenance of the vehicles.
Shuttlers has over 100 unbranded and branded buses registered on its system and ploughs over 30 routes in Lagos with over 300 bus stops and sells more than 6,000 bus tickets daily (over 3,000 two-way trips).
For a startup based in the transport sector, the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting restriction on movements was going to take a major hit on operations. But about a month into the lockdown, Shuttlers realised that essential service providers still had to go to work and were in need of a reliable means of transportation. The scares of infection meant there was a reluctance to take public buses, especially since there was little or no adherence to the protocols.
Shuttlers thus stepped in to service the essential service providers, while strictly enforcing compliance to the COVID-19 protocols. They only reopened the service to other individuals and organisations after the movement restrictions were lifted and the government released clear guidelines for public transportation. Interestingly, they still experienced a surge when people started returning to the office as most people were still not keen on using the public buses.
One key challenge Shuttlers had to deal with in its five years of operation is funding. The business started with personal funds and support from family and friends and had to operate that way for a long time. In the tech space, it is still a bit challenging for first time founders and female founders to secure funding. Recently, Shuttlers crossed that hurdle when it raised $1.6 million in seed funding from several investors.
Olokesusi noted that this fund will be channelled towards expansion and growth in the coming months. “We have already made a presence in Abuja, so we are looking at using the funds to increase our scope to be a mass transit platform where people can access reliable and affordable mode of transportation they can trust. We will incorporate other modes of transportation like ferries, and small buses etc. and stay as aggregators and managers of the systems.”