An Open Letter to Bhavish Aggarwal

Some suggestions on winning the supply side race

Rohith Salim
Jan 31, 2017 · 6 min read

Hey Bhavish,

First off, let me congratulate you on everything you have accomplished so far with Ola — you organised a disorganised market and created economic opportunities for people along the way. While I also use Uber and have plenty of friends who work there, I am rooting for Ola to win in India — anything less would be devastating to the Indian startup ecosystem.

I had a pretty crappy experience with Ola recently but I am not here to seek retribution. The point of this letter is to start a dialogue on how I think Ola is setting itself up to fail based on its current strategies related to managing drivers. My recent experience simply provides anecdotal evidence to what I have been feeling recently.

Last week, my Ola driver asked me to get out of the car halfway through my trip to the Airport. While my driver should shoulder some of the blame, it would not have come to this extreme situation had he been treated better by your team at Ola.

The crux of the issue lay with the Rs. 120.00 that needed to be paid as a toll on my way to the airport. I was under the impression that it would be paid for by the driver and the money would be deducted from my Ola-money automatically. The driver wasn’t so sure so I went ahead and called the Ola customer support team.

Excellent customer service! My customer service rep was well-spoken, polite and answered all my questions. He even spoke to my driver and assured him that the money would be deducted from my Ola money account.

Just to be sure, my driver then decided to call the driver support line and his experience was completely different. He was asking questions only to have the person on the other side scream at him.

At that point, the driver asked me to book another cab to the airport. To his credit, he was extremely helpful through this entire process. He spoke to my new driver, gave him our exact location and even waited with me for my next ride to come along. He seemed like a decent human being — he just seemed tired of being treated like a third-class citizen by the company he works for.

Sir, jab aap ne company ko phone kiya, unho ne itne pyar ke saath aapse baat kiya. Yeh mera farz hain aur main apna kaam raha hoon. Woh mere saat waise kyon nahin baat kar sakte hain.

I am not one to complain without offering a solution. If it isn’t obvious already, your company definitely needs to change how it treats its drivers — revamping how your support team talks to your drivers is a start!

Similar to the eCommerce war between Flipkart & Amazon, you are not going to be able to beat Uber on price — that’s a fact.

However, your business has an intrinsic advantage that most eCommerce businesses do not have. Yours is a supply-constrained business. While features like the RateCard, Ola Select are great for locking in demand, I believe that ride-sharing company that wins the supply side race will win the market.

Now, what can you do to lock-in supply? Incentives based on performance is the easy thing to do. However, you will once again be left competing with Uber’s deep pockets if you follow this strategy.

I have some other ideas. I speak to almost every Uber and Ola driver I meet and most want pretty much the same thing. The top 3 wants that I keep hearing are:

  1. Learning English
  2. Sending their kids to a better school
  3. Sending money back to their parents

Now that we have identified their wants, let’s think about what you can do to address these wants.

Learning English

Drivers hear the upper class in this country speak English and view this language as the means to a better livelihood. At a more base level, these individuals seek to up-skill themselves. Can you create a driver up-skill program at Ola? The V1 version of this program could focus on areas such as English proficiency, basics of financial literacy etc.

Be prepared for some drivers to churn out seeking better opportunities because of the value this program added to their lives. This is a good thing! If it really is that good a program, there will be people waiting in line to become Ola partners.

Sending their kids to a better school

I am curious, has anyone at Ola actually mapped out the current schools that the drivers’ kids go to? Are there any patterns? Can you do something to improve the infrastructure at those schools? So much so that drivers themselves feel proud to be working for a company that cares so much for their children’s education.

Taking this approach is a lot more difficult than simply offering educational credits to drivers (basically another form of incentives). If you manage to pull it off, you will be satisfying a much more base want these drivers have — providing their kids with a better life than what they had.

Sending money back to their parents

Most of the drivers I have spoken to all come from small villages outside of Bangalore. I haven’t lived in any of these villages so take my advice here with a grain of salt.

What exactly are the drivers’ parents spending money on? Food & Groceries? Healthcare? A solar lamp? My suggestion is understand the baser needs of the drivers’ parents and try and tackle them directly. Put the extra effort and measure the results. Does it improve loyalty and driver happiness?

Tackling some of these problems may seem like a herculean task but the best part of the solution is that you may not need to tackle them directly. You could partner with some of the various social enterprises out there specifically focused on improving the livelihood of rural India. For example, if the drivers’ family are hoping for better lighting or clean drinking water, try and create a partnership with ESSmart and offer their products at a subsidy for those parents whose son is an Ola partner. The extra mile always makes a difference in my opinion.

You don’t need to look outside our borders to seek inspiration from companies that excel at keeping their employees loyal and happy — watch this video to see how Tata treated it’s employees.

The health and welfare of our employees is the sure foundation of our prosperity

— Jamsetji Tata

I believe that focusing on at least some of the points I mentioned above will lead to a larger and more loyal supply network. If you can achieve that, you really don’t need to worry about Uber or any other competitor out there. You will control the supply!

I know what you must be thinking. Does it make sense to spend so much on your drivers?

All valid questions and here are my answers to that. Run a small test in a tier-II city and actually measure the loyalty and productivity of drivers over a medium term horizon. Tweak and expand out this experiment based on what you observe. It’s not one of those experiments where you may see a direct ROI in the short term; however, the long term value could be enormous.

Self-driving cars are the future but it is going to take a while before it overcomes all the technology challenges and regulatory issues to finally launch in India. Even your counterpart at Uber, Travis Kalanic, agrees with me. You will need to fight off Uber and turn a profit well before that time approaches.

I am not suggesting to turn a blind eye towards profits and keep drivers happy at all costs. Far from it. However, I really do believe that the best way to actually make Ola a thriving business is to focus on supply side happiness.

Lastly, if you think all of this is BS, you should at least change how your support team speaks to your partners. Nobody likes getting shouted at while asking questions.

Best regards,
Rohith Salim

Thanks to Govind Chandrasekhar and Nikhil Joshi

Rohith Salim

Written by

Basketball fan, startup enthusiast and CMU Alum. Product Manager @Oyster. Formerly @renttherunway, @yelp, @microsoft.

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