Can This Man Win the Battle for Commuters' Hearts?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the wheels on the road are changing.
By Sanjena Sathian
Indians have always loved jobs in technology. And for years, there have been a few prestigious options, including landing a gig at Infosys in Bangalore — or heading west to Silicon Valley to make your fortune. But today, there’s another way: Get yourself employed by one of the many global companies touching down in India — and help translate the country for them. That’s the position Raghav Gupta is in, as the country manager for the French ride-sharing service Blablacar.
You’ve heard of Uber, surely, and Lyft; in India there’s also Ola Cabs, and in parts of the U.S., Sidecar. The point is: It’s a crowded landscape. But Blablacar purports to occupy a unique space, as a long-distance operation that follows more of an Airbnb model than the Uber system. Say you want to take a several-hour trip between cities: London to Cambridge or, in India, Mumbai to Pune or Bangalore to Chennai. You could get a train ticket, which in parts of the world is expensive and in India is inconvenient, or a bus — not so comfy. Or you could log onto the app for Gupta’s company to see if anyone with a car is going that route. If you like their profile and they like yours (Airbnb style), just stick your digital thumb out and hop on board.
Delhi-based Gupta is delighted by his time with his own trips, meeting a former member of the merchant navy who’d encountered Somali pirates, and a 65-year-old who’d finagled his way through this modern app. He’s proud of the 1 million people who’ve booked seats in 700 cities during Blabla’s first year, and the chance to displace the world’s largest train network. It’s a sign of the change afoot in this region; across South Asia, people pile into group taxis, or mothers pack auto rickshaws full of a half-dozen kids to send them off to school together. In India, specifically, Gupta believes, “People don’t think of the sharing economy as different from day-to-day life.”
Many will tell you … that a trust economy doesn’t work in India.
Indeed, investor Tarun Davda at Matrix Partners says there’s a big opportunity for solving the nasty commutes between Indian cities — dealing with traffic, logistics are “extremely hard.” Many have tried, he adds. It’s a good time for companies like Blablacar, too: The technology to make startups like this work is out there and seeing increasing adoption, says Preeti Anand of consulting firm Zinnov.
But there’s a cultural wrinkle here: safety. Many will tell you, citing something like the struggle eBay (which didn’t comment) had in India or the now infamous case in which an Uber driver raped a passenger, that a trust economy doesn’t work in India — and trust “may serve as a spoil card” for the company, Anand says. Women may be especially cautious about sitting in a car with a crew of strangers. Blablacar will learn what many global companies discover upon entering an emerging market: One can’t simply strive in, swashbuckling and arrogant thanks to an international name. Each new country requires a localization, a unique sensibility.
And here’s where Gupta comes in — not to mention his peers running operations in Blablacar’s other emerging markets, like Brazil. He tells me the company is highly aware of the safety question and last month rolled out government verification for drivers. He’s likewise full of talking points about Indian habits, explaining that the story line for Blablacar in the U.K. is “you can travel cheaper”; in the developing world, it’s “you can travel at all.” Gupta, of course, will also face the same issues sharing-economy companies are dealing with worldwide — like regulations and liability, which Anand says India has little infrastructure to deal with.
Gupta’s personal career growth has prepared him for the specifics of this job. Raised in Dehradun by parents who ran a clothing manufacturing operation, he returned to India eight years ago after time abroad, like so many successful business types here. He did an MBA in France and worked in London. And he’s crossed industry lines: A former consultant at Booz Allen & Company, he holds an engineering degree and spent much of his life working in fashion retail. (He’s dressed pretty corporate when we talk, and is well-groomed, but sans Vogue-esque flamboyancy.) He stayed on the business side, and worked with some international companies landing in India.
He muses, at one point, that in some ways a global company is a less desirable employer than an Indian counterpart. They’re “slower than Indian companies,” and regional businesses can focus on one market, making them more agile, he says. But one might argue we’re entering an age when that distinction will become slowly eroded. Indeed, Davda thinks Blablacar’s task may end up being solved by an international behemoth — Uber’s pool function — or possibly homegrown Ola.
For now, Blablacar remains the new kid on the block; it hasn’t started monetizing in India. Gupta says he thinks that’ll begin late this year or in 2017. But as the race goes on, the activist phrasing comes to mind, albeit in a different context: The global is local, and vice versa.