PickMe is a sensation that has been gripping the nation ever since its inception. Leaving aside the awesome rhyme you just read, the organization has improved in leaps and bounds for a startup that launched in early 2015. We had a chat with the man behind PickMe’s success Jiffry Zulfer on how it all began. So sit back, make yourself a nice cup of coffee and make yourself comfortable.
This is the story of PickMe.
Born from the dot-com burst, this is when Jiffry started his entrepreneurship adventure. He started out by building mail servers for companies in the days of dial-up in 1998 and 1999. There was no ADSL and leased lines were not exactly wallet friendly. He then started a company called Zee-labs and a hosting company called LK Space. Then he went to work for Microsoft for 2 years in Business Development. When he left he founded Anything.lk, not to mention a matchmaking company called Jeewana.lk.
In 2011, the technology behind Uber piqued Jiffry’s curiosity. Not to mention the amount of traction is was gathering as a startup. It incorporated GPS, GIS, not to mention a good business mind. He introduced the idea of bringing a concept like that to Sri Lanka to two others: Faththi Mohammed and Mohammed Gazzaly. Together with Jiffry these entrepreneurs made the management who are currently managing every aspect of the company.
“If a company does well, everyone does well.” – Jiffry Zulfer
With the management in place, their next hurdle was to build a prototype. Naturally they encountered their fair share of roadblocks with sleepless nights and countless google searches.
An example of a roadblock was with the GPS Processor in the phones for their GPS meter. Jiffry went on to explain about the GPS meter used by competitors such as Uber where it basically plots the map, location and figures it out via Google Maps. PickMe, on the other hand, is different. It’s the same principle, but they rely on GPS satellites rather than Google Maps.
Uber or any other company will plot the GPS location and give it to Google to measure the distance, from which your final bill is calculated. So it’s not a live meter. PickMe relies heavily on the GPS satellites in order to provide a live feed and also calculate your fare/bill in real time. So now you know how the principles behind PickMe’s meter operates.
By December, they had their prototype.
Having finished the prototype they proceeded to take random tuks on the street to perform a road test of the app. Marine drive was their favorite road thanks to the internet coverage with pockets having 4G in some and some with areas having no data. They knew that there would be inaccuracies when using Google Maps and some of the roads in Sri Lanka are yet to be mapped. Taking all these into consideration, they have worked hard to minimize GPS spoofs in order to get the most optimized route for your travel.
“When it comes to funding you need to be picky.” – Jiffry Zulfer
What good is a working prototype if you don’t know what it’s called? After countless debates and arguments, it was decided that the prototype would be called “PickMe”. After all, that’s what you tell someone to do when you want to go somewhere right? Once they had a working prototype and a brand, they went out to seek funding.
Jiffry went on to explain that picking the right investors is the key to a successful business model. They picked the name and brand, the next step was to pitch the brand to their investors. With that regard, Ajith Gunewardene, Ruchi Gunewardene (now Director at PickMe (Digital Mobility Solutions Lanka (PVT) Ltd), LOLC IT and Interblocks were the investors. Each investor was brought in for a specific reason. For example, Ruchi was the marketing guru and gave his feedback for the app. Interblocks was brought on to handle and process payments and LOLC IT was brought on to handle the leasing aspect.
With the money in hand, they started expanding their team. Once they got the money they fixed a few bugs and went to the market. They went to every cab company possible and said they had a platform and invited all the companies to join them. However, many of them got cold feet and declined the invitation fearing the disruption of the foundation of their business. The smaller cab companies didn’t have this fear, wanting to expand decided to join the company.
Revolutionizing the tuk industry
Jiffry’s master plan was to change the tuk industry. This is where we need to take a look at the darker side of the Sri Lankan taxi industry.
“We talk a lot of good things about Singapore and that perspective comes from the drivers. The picture of Singapore is born from the taxi drivers. PickMe believes if we don’t respect tuk drivers then they won’t help create such a great perspective.” – Jiffry Zulfer
Visiting cab/taxi companies revealed just how inefficient they are. For example, the offices house massive boards of Colombo with magnets marking cabs in each area. When you call the hotline, they just move the magnet. Your taxi arrives late? Well, that’s because the companies provide an inaccurate ETA. Then come the excuses from drivers themselves, ranging from the “We got lost” excuse to the “punctured tire” excuse and countless others. Now you know why these cab companies are inefficient.
In addition, the drivers didn’t get respect, they work hard and yet the system was inefficient. Furthermore, Jiffry revealed that many of the drivers aren’t actually from Colombo. Some of them earn abroad and upon returning to Sri Lanka, purchase a taxi via 90% or 100% lease, thus investing their savings and obtaining a loan and come to Colombo. But once they are in Colombo, they are bewildered and thus don’t know what to do.
For example, if one were to venture to the areas of Town Hall or Galle Face area around midnight, one would see a whole lineup of taxis with their drivers sleeping inside their vehicles, simply because these locations house public toilets. So they wake up early morning, get ready and go on off to work. This is the part of a taxi driver’s life that people are not aware of. Furthermore, if they can’t pay back the loans, they risk losing their only source of income as their taxi gets repossessed by the leasing company.
PickMe saw this hidden side and wanted to change.
With the launch of the public beta, the company was hoping for a lucky streak. There was no guarantee that their prototype would work, all they had were some assumptions. Despite having the partnership and 50 vehicles, they spent 2 months doing an alpha test spotting bugs and training their drivers.
Once the approval from the app store came, they released the app and initially promoted it via word of mouth. It was a slow launch because they didn’t want too many drivers or customers breaking the system. The 20th of June 2015 saw the launch of the public beta and launch test. It was a hit.
The challenges of rapid growth
As usage grew, they realized that they needed to scale. They started out with PHP backend and they started their move to Google’s GO. Now they need to make a decision regarding their database. Currently, the team consists of a data scientist and hardware engineers but they still have a requirement for specialists to join them.
Jiffry further explained the culture they wanted to build inside PickMe. Based on the founding management of Anything.lk where he was previously employed, Jiffry enlightened us that having a very open culture significantly improved the organization’s performance. Thus, he wanted to implement this culture to PickMe as well. Be it a CEO to a CTO to a Clerk to a Tuk driver, anyone can learn from anyone and talk to anyone. Jiffry went insofar as to make sure that even the glasses were changed so that anyone could see what was happening inside the office.
Building this culture though has been a challenge thanks to hyper growth PickMe has seen. Their first office was at Retreat Road when it became too small they moved to Shrubbery Garden. When that office became too small they finally settled in Asoka Gardens where they are now. Jiffry describes this constant need to move as, “a nice problem to have”.
Then in October 2015, Uber came to Sri Lanka. Tensions were running high. But Jiffry and his team knew what they had to do. Dillydallying is not something that was encouraged at PickMe. Constant vigilance was key to ensuring that you were at the top of your game, regardless of the challenges that came your way.
“As long as we solve the local problem we’ll be fine. You need to move very fast. People need to think fast to be entrepreneurs.” – Jiffry Zulfer
Startups were the key to improving a country’s economy, Jiffry explained. With that regard, if a country doesn’t promote startups, you will face a scenario where a foreign power would come into the country and take all of the profits for itself. We should be proud of our startups, he added. With an industry of this magnitude prevailing in our country, one wouldn’t exactly be too keen to let it all go to foreign competitors.
Today PickMe has 18 companies that have partnered with them.
The driver registration process is simple. Drivers come with documents they need (driver’s license, insurance, billing proof, and police reports) and then proceed to:
- They train the drivers to cover aspects such as the device, etiquette when speaking to passengers, the situation, and even to treating the passenger
- They get the phone
It’s not all roses and rainbows, though. For example, the app uses a feedback system based on the passengers experience with the driver and the journey. From that alone, a total of 200 drivers were removed from the system for failing to meet the required standards. Clearly PickMe was setting a standard for a new type of taxi.
There is also a registration fee for the driver. A total of Rs. 3,500/= is the registration fee for tuk drivers, Rs. 6000/= for nanos and sendan drivers in addition to a monthly commission taken from the drivers earnings. The commissions are 5% for tuks, 10% for nanos and 15% for sedans. There is also a referral programme incorporated.
Growing fast, yet agile at heart
Despite PickMe being a company in a state of hyper growth, it’s still as agile as any other young startup. This is something that became evident to everyone very recently. A few days ago, we saw heavy rains arrive and devastate large parts of the country as they caused floods, which displaced thousands.
Immediately after the reports of flooding came out, PickMe leaped into action and offered its technical skills. The app was updated almost instantly to accept aid donations, help send Navy boats to rescue people and assist the Air Force in airlifting flood victims in critical conditions. Both the Navy and Air Force were impressed by the technical knowledge PickMe brought to the table.
By being an agile startup that provided exactly what was needed, PickMe helped save lives. According to Jiffry, the boat service alone helped the Navy rescue approximately 200 families. Needless to say, PickMe was one of the many heroes we saw during this crisis.
Today – Colombo. Tomorrow – The whole country
Going forward they want to attract the best talent and expand their team. They want people with a can-do attitude to take the start-up journey. It’s not only drivers that they are searching for, they are also looking for good coders. With regard to hiring new employees, Jiffry explained how there have literally been instances where people would walk in and in 10 minutes they would be hired.
Overall, the journey has not been an easy one. The team at PickMe has seen their fair share of ups and downs. But they have endeavored and their endeavors are indeed paying off. PickMe is certainly being picked up as a hot topic. According to Jiffry, there are a number of additional elements that the team is working on. Guess we will just have to wait and see.