Lebanese entrepreneur Ali Halabi wants to make real-time carpooling with traffic navigation a possibility.
His app, Volt, which has been active for two years in Istanbul, connects drivers with passengers all taking the same route.
Despite public transport in Istanbul being comprehensive and efficient it is still not on a par with cities like Moscow, London or New York, said Halabi. “If you want to move with convenience the car is still the number one choice, but at rush hour it’s hell.”
According to Halabi they are “truly the only solution for traffic, because filling empty seats during traffic [time] is the best way to reduce this problem.”
Currently only operating in Istanbul’s inner-city, Volt charges users 0.2$ for every kilometer traveled. Payment is done via in-app transfer, with Volt charging 20 percent commission. “We’re 70 percent cheaper than a taxi ride,” Halabi told Wamda.
In the last few years, several regional entrepreneurs have launched carpooling apps in an attempt to reduce road traffic, but they either work on a scheduling basis, like Dubai's Carpool Arabia, or on a taxi-sharing concept, like Amman's Waselny and Cairo's PieRide.
"Programming the app was a very big challenge, because there’s no scheduling aspect, and it's all map-based, geo-based and on-demand,” Halabi said.
The app also allows users to track other drivers and passengers within a 2km radius.
Volt has had 19,000 signups so far with around 3,000 active monthly users, and recently they secured an undisclosed investment from Wamda Capital, Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP) and two angel investors from Turkey.
Three big challenges
Aside from technical challenges, Halabi faced two huge barriers: he was launching in a country where English was rarely spoken, and he was strapped for cash.
He had to work hard on his Turkish language skills, but now heads a team of seven Turkish colleagues.
Then there was the fact that he had no technical training himself, so had to take on the high cost of outsourcing the design of his app. "I asked my friends [abroad] for help. They have an app development agency based in Turkey, and they're very expensive."
However, using his skills as a sales and marketing manager, the founder managed to talk the agency into charging $15,000 instead their standard $100,000 to $150,000. Equity shares were offered.
It took the team six months to complete the design.
When it came to finding investors, he also found challenges, mainly with his own background. "It took 38 rejections and seven months to get the [first] investment," he told Wamda. "It's honestly much easier for investors to invest in you if you have a CTO, than if you were this P&G guy trying to build an app."
Halabi believes though that his ability to hustle was what won over investors in the end. "By the time I met investor number 39 [he] was like: 'ok, you were able to make ends meet and build this.’ I’m not a technical guy and I was able to build a technical product.”
Despite having a user base of 19,000 Volt hasn’t actually officially launched. As an app that relies of users generating momentum he is waiting for that to speed up. “We need to build enough momentum to truly launch as an on-demand marketplace,” said Halabi.
In order to do this Halabi created a gamified system in the app that tracks the kilometers driven by each subscribed driver, regardless of whether they have passengers or not. These kilometers then generate mile ‘points’ that can be swapped later with gifts. Volt currently has five Turkish sponsors involved.
Halabi is confident that his app will gain momentum by the time it launches, which he estimates will be a year from now. "Istanbul is a city of 16 million people, and a strategic target audience of 1.8 million," he said.
No plans for MENA
While other apps are keen on expansion in the region, such as Carpool Arabia, who told Wamda they’ll be heading as far as South Africa in the coming five years, Halabi has no plans of expanding to the region. "Our priority right now is to grow Volt in Istanbul and reach a certain level of ‘defendability’ [proof-of-concept], and then this will be an easily replicated concept wherever our business case gets established."
There are many factors to be taken into consideration, he added, such as the level of smartphone and credit card penetration, car congestion, and the driving cost.
In the long run, Volt's vision is to work without drivers altogether and become the operator of autonomous driverless cars that pick people up and drop them in their shared destination.