Interview with Sam Ryan, co-founder of the Zeelo startup
Some of the most creative ideas come to people in the back of a taxi or while riding on a bus.
There’s no telling how many business concepts came from the backseat of a cab, but one thing’s for sure: few of those ideas are about how to revolutionize the transit experience itself.
That’s not the case for Sam Ryan.
The difficulties that come with booking a ride and getting to your destination have always presented themselves as opportunities for him.
And it all started with a cab ride while he was still a student.
After taking separate taxis to meet up at the same bar, he and a friend, Barney Williams, set out to find a way to improve the process.
Sam Ryan and Barney Williams, co-founder of Zeelo
The available services did the job: they got them from Point A to Point B.
And yet, there were some inefficiencies built into the system that could be smoothed out.
That insight led to their first business: a taxi booking and sharing platform designed specifically for students.
It was kind of similar to Uber Pool, but for communities.
You would share rides with other students, or a friend of a friend, or a friend of a friend of a friend.
Like all good innovators, Sam and Barney built a solution for a problem that bothered just about anyone but that no one was even trying to solve.
Once students saw that ride booking could be so much simpler and more convenient, their service caught on.
And it wasn’t long before it got the attention of the major players in the field.
We grew that service to five cities across the U.K.
And then in 2014, we sold it to Addison Lee in London, which at the time was Europe’s largest private car hire service.
Stepping Out on His Own
Selling to Addison Lee is the kind of career move that might only happen once in a lifetime.
But Sam and Barney didn’t stop there.
Instead of putting their feet up on their desks and enjoying the comfortable job they earned, they decided to keep moving forward.
Selling the company wasn’t just a great business opportunity, it also gave them a window into the world of transit – and how it could be improved.
We spent two years there, which was kind of a fascinating experience because we were on the inside of a business that was being disrupted by Uber.
After two years at the company, Sam and Barney left once again to start their own business, this time with their new CTO, Dani Ruiz
This time, they aimed for something bigger.
They had already streamlined the booking process for taxis.
Now, they set their sights on private coaches.
So many digital disruptors focus on delivering value to the individual, but that doesn’t always translate to giving value to groups of people.
We watch Netflix alone instead of going out to the movies, we sit in the backseat of an Uber instead of riding on a bus, and we’ll Airbnb in a small, private home instead of staying with other guests at a hotel.
Sam and his team wanted to disrupt transit, but in a way that brought people together instead of isolating them.
They came up with a new concept: a platform that served groups and strengthened their sense of community.
That concept is now Zeelo, a ride booking service that offers stress-free travel for large groups.
And those stresses were very real.
Zeelo was really born out of the frustration of travelling – travelling between cities, travelling to the airport, travelling to work, travelling to events – and getting really frustrated with public transportation.
Public transportation options just are not designed around your needs – they’re very much designed around a fixed infrastructure.
Designing a platform built to serve riders would mean reinventing communal transportation entirely.
If you were going to design a new network, you certainly wouldn’t design it the way it is.
Just sticking a digital interface on top of the existing system wouldn’t get rid of all the friction and inefficiencies.
Groups chartering buses would still have to gather at an inconvenient, out of the way location;
put up with convoluted trajectories;
and spend way too long waiting in line.
So, they did what all ground-breaking innovators do: built their service from the ground up.
Educating the Market
They had a great idea. But the newly formed Zeelo team knew that having a great idea isn’t enough.
The concept is completely new, so people aren’t necessarily in tune with it yet.
Transit has been operating in the same way for so long that riders have just become used to the inefficiency and inconvenience that come with it.
Sometimes, that means gritting their teeth through the long, draw-out process and making compromise after compromise to get their group where they want to go.
But often, it means not using transit at all.
Traveling to an event as a group is an incredible bonding experience, and it can sometimes be as memorable as the event itself.
But when people decide to go to a football match or a music festival together, they usually don’t end up travelling as a group.
The available transit options are a headache and simply aren’t worth the work.
So, most people choose to travel separately, even when they have a shared destination.
To deliver a superior travel experience, Zeelo first has to overcome a difficult obstacle: getting past those deeply ingrained travel patterns.
It’s about trying to educate the market and trying to change habits. Around 60% Zeelo customers normally drove the route instead of using a transport service.
We have a big challenge: convincing people to even try us in the first place. Working with different communication methods, attempting to educate the market, and trying to get users to refer their friends – it was more challenging than we thought.
Zeelo’s target customers aren’t clean slates.
Riders have decades-old transportation habits and attitudes, and breaking them is not an easy feat.
Nor is popularizing an idea that completely changes the way they get around the country.
Thankfully, Sam is no stranger to the hard work that goes into getting a business off the ground, growing it, and helping it succeed.
I have the benefit of running and starting our own business a couple of times now. And I think a lot of the time it’s just about getting there and learning by doing – learning the hard way, by operating and making mistakes, and by fixing those mistakes and learning from them.
But Sam’s success wasn’t just built by the sweat of his brow – he also had great people in his corner.
It should come as no surprise that the man who is quickly revolutionizing communal transport is humble enough to acknowledge the important role others have played in getting him where he is today and getting him where he wants to be tomorrow.
I try to get a good set of informal advisors, mentors, and investors in place, and we can lean on them when we need advice.
Although he and his team have moved on from their earlier roles at Addison Lee, seeing the way the industry works up close has been invaluable for the work they are now doing with Zeelo.
While Zeelo is a much leaner company and the innovative work they’re doing is quite different than the services they provided while working at their old company, there were important lessons to be learned from the time they spent there.
I have been lucky to have had two years operating experience at Addison Lee, where they have the experience of transporting tens of thousands of passengers a day.
You learn a lot about running a business at that scale.
And also, more fundamentally for our business, you learn how to do operations and how to focus on customer experience when you are building a product at that scale.
Lessons for New Entrepreneurs
Starting and running multiple businesses taught Sam a thing or two about being an entrepreneur.
Now, he wants to share some of those lessons and encourage others to take their careers into their own hands.
For one thing, he wants to do away with the typical image of the self-employed business person: the middle-aged guy who quits his dull, dead-end job after twenty years to dust off the old business plan they had sitting in the desk drawer and start their own company.
That, according to Sam, is jumping into the game way too late.
My advice to those who want to start their own business is to do it as early as possible in your life. The less dependency you have, the less risk you take on.
I think being young and naïve about what you’re doing is a great thing.
But that doesn’t mean entrepreneurship is only a young person’s game.
It’s really more about having the right mindset, the right attitude, and being willing to take the plunge.
Even if you’re leaving a comfortable job, just go and do it. Nobody’s going to penalize somebody just for going out and trying something.
So, I think there’s no time like the present.
You should just go out and do it.
There’s another stereotype about entrepreneurs that Sam wants to do away with.
We often picture them as lone geniuses, working on something in the garage or spending weeks alone in the basement building a prototype on their laptops.
If you ask Sam, he’ll tell you that image is totally misguided.
Make sure that you have a great team around you, that you get a co-founder or a set of co-founders.
If you’re working alone in your basement, you’re not likely to revolutionize any industries, or even get your product off the ground.
Working alone means a lot of things – frustration, lack of motivation, and no one to correct your blind spots.
But the one thing it almost never means is being successful.
It’s impossible to do it on your own. You’re crazy if you do it on your own.
You need really, really strong people all around you. People that complement your skillset and who share the pain and share the hype.
A Formula for Success
If there is a formula to Sam’s success, it’s a simple but effective one.
The best entrepreneurs and startup founders are, at their core, people who know how to find problems and seize opportunities.
That’s what Sam and Barney did when they set out to improve the ride booking options – first for students looking to get around town, and then for groups looking to travel longer distances.
They also didn’t rest on their first success.
Selling to Addison Lee could have been their last major career move, but they knew that there could accomplish more if they took a risk and launched a new service.
Finally, Sam’s success is a reminder of the importance of building a high-quality team.
No matter how great your insights, creativity, and talent, you need to be backed and supported by people who will help you move forward, not hold you back.