“PUBLIC TRANSPORT HAS TO BE ACCESSIBLE TO ANYONE, ANYWHERE.”
Millions of US citizens live in metropolitan areas where they have virtually no access to public transport. Especially in neighbourhoods beyond affluent areas, the state of infrastructure and public transport networks is often poor, even though mobility solutions should be accessible and affordable for everyone.
With the help of the New York startup Dollaride and their app, people can take advantage of shuttle services within the New York metropolitan area at affordable prices. This means that gaps in local transport can be closed effectively. Also, Dollaride drivers can generate a secure and stable business income. And that’s not all: Most recently, they were awarded $10M by the NY State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), with the goal to electrify 100 “dollar vans” in an effort to make transportation not only more affordable, but also more environmentally friendly.
These recent wins have been an important step in the right direction for the team at Dollaride. Mobility experts Su Sanni and Chris Coles launched the startup in 2018. Since then, they’ve served over 40,000 rides through their app and mobility service. Together with their six-member core team, the two partners and longtime friends, based in New York City, went through an exciting startup journey.
So, who better to tell us about their valuable experiences than the founders themselves? We interviewed Su Sanni, the CEO and an alumnus of URBAN-X, MINI’s startup program, about his reasons for founding a company, important founder skills you should develop, and using your passion to solve big problems.
SU, TELL US: WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CLICHÉS ABOUT STARTUPS?
I think the biggest cliché is that startups are fast-moving or high-growth companies. A fast-growing company is not the only way for a company to be successful, or to grow over time. You don’t have to necessarily grow fast to deliver returns to your shareholders and your team, or to deliver a good product and service to customers. There are lots of examples where you can slowly but methodically grow and reduce risks. I appreciate that there are lots of different ways of building a company. But for entrepreneurs, it’s a cliché to think that just because you’re building a startup company, it’s going to be a fast-growing high-tech business.
WHAT IS TRUE ABOUT STARTUPS?
That you’re wearing many hats. This means that ultimately when you start a company, you’re going to be doing the work that should be done by multiple people. That work will inevitably fall on the shoulders of very few people - the founders and core team.
IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT "FRIENDSHIP STOPS AT MONEY". BUT ON YOUR PAYROLL IS YOUR FRIEND CHRIS COLES.
Chris and I complement each other well. He is a software engineer and I have extensive sales and business development experience. He’s the technical product leader on the team, and I’m the business leader. So, our division of labour is also clear and complementary. Fortunately, we are friends and have enjoyed pivotal life events together, too. We both have had two children each and have gotten married or engaged while building Dollaride together.
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA TO FOUND DOLLARIDE?
Commuting as a child in New York City and learning from the family business led me to build Dollaride. My two uncles have built commuter van businesses serving riders in Brooklyn and Queens for nearly 30 years. The NYC-specific phenomenon of “dollar vans”, which are private shuttle services for public transport, shaped my idea, and my local neighbourhood experience with public transit certainly sharpened it. Because I had lived experience with the problem, I was eager to research, test and validate potential solutions. I felt passionate enough about this problem to prioritise it above other interests and opportunities. Fortunately, I was able to convince Chris and other experts to come along for the journey.
WHICH EXPERIENCE AS A CHILD HAD SUCH AN IMPACT ON YOU THAT YOU FOUNDED A STARTUP YEARS LATER?
At 6.30 am, 7 o’clock in the morning at 7 years old I was travelling to school by myself but having the worst commute because it always began with this long, cold and lonely walk to the subway. And, especially living in East New York, Brooklyn, where it was very dangerous in the 1990s and I never felt safe, that made an impression on me. Transportation was important to not only my livelihood but how I perceive the world. I remember what it was like to live in a transit desert. And I knew intuitively that not everyone lived the same way.
AND TRANSIT DESERTS ARE…
…places where people have remarkably limited access to public transportation. So that could be that they are living too far away from the subway or need to wait more than 15 or 20 minutes for the next bus. In these places, people can’t really rely on public transportation because it’s too infrequent or unreliable for them to commit to.
BUT HASN’T A LOT CHANGED IN THE LAST FEW YEARS?
There’s still a lot of room for improvement here because people’s experience with public transit greatly affects their attitudes toward the topic of funding or investing in public transport. Consequently, the disparity between people’s experiences also reflects how public transport is underappreciated by more affluent groups who don’t have to rely on public transport, whereas those who are public transit-dependent tend to skew towards low-income and are generally less active and influential politically. So, while we all may be aware of the connection between mobility and job opportunities, our advocacy for public transit isn’t representative of its usage and importance to its core customer base.
“I REMEMBER WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO LIVE AS A CHILD IN A TRANSIT DESERT. AND I KNEW INTUITIVELY THAT NOT EVERYONE LIVED THE SAME WAY.”
HOW CAN YOUR STARTUP HELP TO MAKE A CHANGE?
We have a product that’s a mobile application that taps into a network of drivers, known as “dollar vans”, throughout New York City. This network is composed of hundreds of independent commercial drivers who own their own vehicles but basically operate along fixed routes around the city picking up and dropping off passengers for only two U.S. dollars. Through the Dollaride app you can find a driver, identify a route and hop in that vehicle to head to your end destination through that route. As I said not long ago in an interview for Stripe (editor’s note: a financial infrastructure platform for businesses): What we are doing is creating infrastructure for the informal transit world. We want to make transportation accessible to anyone, anywhere. Starting with the people who live in transit deserts. I’ve structured our business to be second to the driver earning a living wage. I wanted to really help the drivers be better business owners first and foremost.
WHY DO YOU ALSO OFFER THE ELECTRIFICATION OF VEHICLES?
We are one of very few companies worldwide that focus on bringing modern tools to underserved markets in the transportation or electromobility space. Worldwide, there are millions of drivers in small fleets who cannot afford to purchase or finance expensive, new electric vehicles. Moreover, our cities currently lack sufficient EV charging infrastructure. We believe there is a lot we must do to bring EVs and charging stations to underserved markets. It’s in the underserved markets where you have the biggest potential for financial growth and savings, as well as fewer competitors. It’s very important for Dollaride, and for society, that we support the underserved because I think our future actually depends on it.
AND HOW DOES DOLLARIDE EARN MONEY AT THE END?
In the past, we earned money by collecting 20% of each ride fee, as well as charging corporate clients for access to our software and mobility service, which essentially was a service contract. So those two revenue streams were how we earned money: transactional fees from rides and then service contracts or recurring subscriptions with clients. How we’ll earn money in the future will be through subscriptions with drivers and fleet owners, and from service contracts with corporate and government clients. The difference here is that in the future, we are not going to be collecting a fee per ride. We will focus on only earning money through B2B products and services.
IN 2022 YOU PARTICIPATED IN URBAN-X, A STARTUP PROGRAM FROM MINI, WHICH FOCUSES ON SHAPING THE CITIES OF TOMORROW WITH SUSTAINABLE AND FORWARD-LOOKING IDEAS. WHY DID YOU THINK YOU WERE A PERFECT FIT FOR THE PROGRAM?
The relevant program resources and focus on cities made URBAN-X a perfect fit for Dollaride. I was motivated by the access to a community, getting to know other climate tech and mobility founders, as well as the expert advisors and mentors in the program.
HOW DID THE PROGRAM UNFOLD FOR YOU?
It included weekly check-in calls, where we were held accountable for goals, status updates and action items that helped accelerate our business. We gained access to experts-in-residence (editor’s note: URBAN-X team that advises the startups) who helped us develop strategy and execute projects related to fundraising, business development, and product design. It taught us to leverage and learn from the ecosystem of hardware and software mobility startups whose solutions affect the built environment. We did not develop a new product during the URBAN-X program. However, we still leverage URBAN-X as a resource for building our business.
AS A CEO OF A STARTUP YOU PROBABLY ALSO EXPERIENCE MANY UPS AND DOWNS. WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE FOR ENDURING UNCERTAIN TIMES?
My advice would be to seek the insight and experience of people around you who’ve gone through the challenges of what looks like uncertain times to you. I don’t think there’s really anything that I’m doing personally as a co-founder that hasn’t been done before in some way, or in some shape or form. Even if it’s in a different industry. I don’t let uncertainty frazzle me, because I always remember there are people around me who’ve overcome this specific challenge. I appreciate that if I can learn from them, then I can actually be more focused and resilient. Also, I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies, and I listen to lots of podcasts about famous founders. I’m interested in how rulers and leaders from history have gone through uncertain times. I also advise studying history, and focusing on the founders and people who have come before you and mastered their own challenges.
THE CEO OF DOLLARIDE REVEALS WHICH SKILLS COULD HELP YOU TO BUILD A STARTUP, AND HOW YOU AS A FOUNDER CAN STAY MOTIVATED.
It’s important to maximise the scarce resources you’ll typically have in the early stages of your startup. It’ll distinguish you from less-disciplined founders and competitors in your market.
2. CLEAR COMMUNICATION.
Choose an understandable, effective written and verbal communication style. This helps founders extend their impact by clearly addressing and motivating the people around them to do their best work.
3. ADAPT, LEARN AND REINVENT.
Successfully navigating the startup experience requires an extreme level of adaptability - nothing stays the same.
4. A POWERFUL WHY.
Your solution can and will probably change far more often than the customer’s problem will. So, if your motivation is directly linked to a healthy obsession with the problem, then your motivation will be consistent even while your ideas change.
5. TAKE IT PERSONALLY.
If you truly care about the customer, solving their problem will become more personal and will provide you with endless motivation.
6. TEAM UP.
Build your company with a co-founder or core team that shares your passion and interest in the problem you’re trying to solve. Your team’s success and progress can be an enduring source of motivation.
URBAN-X is the platform for founders reimagining city life. Founded by MINI in 2016, URBAN-X partners with startups to build bold technology solutions for a sustainable planet. Breaking from traditional startup program moulds, URBAN-X provides entrepreneurs from Seed to Series B with individualised and tailored support that accelerates growth and builds successful businesses for the next generation of climate- and city-focused innovators. At the heart of its platform, URBAN-X offers world-class engineering and design resources; industry-leading investment capital; a global network of investors, policymakers, corporate strategies and end-customers; and exclusive educational content for a global network of founders.
They offer a custom-tailored journey to get product-market fit through an intensive and immersive program, both virtually and at the headquarters in New Lab in Brooklyn, New York.
URBAN-X works closely with BMW iVentures and BMW Startup Garage to connect teams to internal resources where appropriate. If you want to learn more about URBAN-X, click here.