Cloak and dagger—opening up
I’ve always been a rather private person. I rarely open up and often keep most things very close to my chest. Whether or not intentional, this undertone of secrecy — even if there isn’t really something to be secretive about — has passed on to the aura of this company.
This introductory note is an attempt to open up. We’re doing great work at Tilt and reaching exciting milestones. I believe it’s the right time to start communicating.
Let there be light — how it all began
Early in 2015 (my first year in college), Shashank and I started Jellyfish, an honestly ridiculous idea to raise money for the “technology company” that we really wanted to build. We spent four months trying to sell merchandise to college events and although we eventually failed, it got me hooked on to the idea of building an organization.
A large part of my time in college was spent debating at events. Debating taught me a lot. I was good at it and it paid well. It was at a Model UN conference held in Chennai towards the end of 2015 that the idea to build a software for conferencing came up. If you have been to a MUN (or witnessed similar conferences), you know how much paper is wasted in chits and how much time is lost in manually maintaining the rules of procedure. The novel idea was to do the entire thing over laptops and mobile phones.
We had built a good network during the first year and a half in college. This helped us build our first team. We called ourselves 42 Labs (initially Project 42), inspired by Deep Thought and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We rallied together a bunch of developers and a team for public relations and had our first meeting on the stairs of the architecture building. It would be another month before we were able to convince our college into giving us a small room within the campus that we could all work out of. This room would go on to become the 42 Labs headquarters for the next eight months.
Around the same time that year, the leadership group at SRMMUN was eager to implement meaningful technology at their upcoming conference. After a few days of discussion, it was agreed to have the product ready by February for SRMMUN 2016.
Working with a passionate team was an absolutely thrilling experience. Building a product was wildly different than building a project. We named the software Cher Ami after the World War I pigeon that saved the American 77th Division. After almost three months of development and testing, we launched Cher Ami at SRMMUN 2016. Cher Ami was used simultaneously by over a thousand people for three days with zero downtime. It was a grand success. We witnessed how a few lines of code and good marketing could change how a thousand people communicated. The entire experience was nothing short of exhilarating.
We tried selling Cher Ami to other conferences and even attempted to pivot to tuition centers and classroom communication. But aside from the one-off deal that worked out, no amount of sales could fix the lack of infrastructure at most conferences. Within a few months, we realized that the ecosystem was already crowded with too many leads leading to dead ends.
Reinventing the wheel — bicycle sharing
It was at about the same time that Shashank and I bought a bicycle because we had classes at different times during the day. The next morning as I rode the bike to class, the potential of a well-designed bicycle sharing system hit me. If the two of us could comfortably share a bicycle, could this be extrapolated to the entire campus?
I had always held an enthusiasm for good transportation solutions and the entire team at 42 rallied behind the idea of building an automated bicycle sharing system. The second half of 2016 was spent prototyping, building proofs of concept and testing an array of hardware components. Building a hardware product was significantly more difficult than making software. It was slow moving and needed a more meticulous approach. This meant two things:
- The number of people on our team had to increase. Lots of code had to be written, electronics needed to be designed and the mechanical process had to be worked out. Integrating these critical parts would also involve a lot of testing.
- We needed money. There was a lot of R&D to be done. Buying components and fabricating prototypes (especially in small quantities) was expensive.
Finding smart individuals was easy — college was filled with them. We just had to find them with the right recruitment campaign, and we did.
The problem of funding was a hard nut to crack. The solution we arrived at was to get the college to fund the project. It was going to be deployed on campus anyway. It took almost six months of report making, meetings and convincing to get the administration to release our first seed investment by way of a capital subsidy. During those six months, the money I had saved up from debating came in handy and kept the project going.
By December 2016 we had transitioned from being called “The Cycle Initiative” to “Pedal”. We had manufactured our first set of stations, landed a sponsorship of fifteen cycles from Mach City, built v1.0 of the mobile app and had written most of the supporting software. Getting such a large project right took countless hours of collaboration, rework and discussion. Ask anyone on the team and they’ll immediately tell you about the innumerable sleepless nights when the 42 Labs task-force assembled in a dingy room on the top floor of a short building to try and change the way an entire campus commutes.
Surely you must be joking! — getting legal
Getting incorporated was a big decision that we took rather easily. Everyone knew that Pedal had potential. But more importantly, I knew that this was what I wanted to do. It took a lawyer and a few weeks of legal waffle for us to be christened Feynman Technology Pvt. Ltd. after one of the most inspiring minds of the 20th century.
Once in a blue moon — Digital Impact Square
Tucked away in the quaint city of Nashik is one of the most amazing spaces for startups today. DISQ is an open social innovation platform designed to enhance the lives of citizens. It was a pure stroke of luck that they visited SRM scouting for startups to bring under their umbrella.
Mr. Hasit Kaji (Head, Digital Impact Square and VP, Special Initiatives at TCS) visited our campus to find college students with an entrepreneurial bent of mind. We fit the description. After spending close to a month engaging in discussions about Pedal with the DISQ team and visiting the facility in Nashik, we were signed on in December 2016.
At DISQ, we were introduced to a world of design thinking, agile methodology and rapid prototyping. It was invigorating to have these tools help us redefine and streamline the questions we asked and the solutions we developed.
At the same time, we began working with the Smart City and Municipal Corporation to see if piloting Pedal was possible within Nashik. We compiled a detailed feasibility study after spending vast amounts of time on the streets talking to citizens and surveying the city. Early in January 2017, we received approval from the NMC to set up a Pedal station.
The deployments in SRM and Nashik were set up in close succession to one another. The two-station deployment at SRM was unveiled in February and the single station at Nashik was inaugurated in April. The findings from these pilots would prove to be invaluable in the decisions we took in the months to follow.
Part I — ground zero
A bicycle sharing initiative was bound to be welcome in a college like SRM. Traversing the campus under the humid Chennai sun felt like a walk through the Sahara desert. Aside from walking, there were only two other reasonable options — pay the auto drivers an exorbitant amount or opt for the shuttle bus and travel like sardines in a can.
Prior to unveiling Pedal, the PR team came up with really innovative stuff to get students hyped up. From an inverted bicycle to a video with Yatharth posing as a madman, we pushed for an abstract and intriguing marketing campaign.
Our pilot at SRM was inaugurated on 12 February 2017 by Dr. C. Muthamizhchelvan (Director, SRM University) and Dr. G. Murali (HoD, Mechatronics Department). We strategically chose the most frequented locations on campus for our two-hub deployment — one being opposite the food court and the other beside the academic building in the adjacent campus.
The deployment at SRM was the first time we had taken our prototype out of the lab. It had undergone rigorous testing but had never been used by real users. The pilot at SRM helped us answer two questions:
- How do people interact with Pedal?
Would they try and sit on a bike while it was locked into the station? Would they take selfies with it and put it up on Instagram? Would they be curious and immediately try to download the mobile app? Turns out the answer to all those questions is a yes. We figured out early on that understanding the user was just as important as getting the tech to work.
- Did we build the right tech?
We knew it was highly unlikely that we would get the tech right the first time. Our stations needed to be more user-friendly, they took too long to set up and manufacturing was not streamlined. However, getting started helped us understand what went wrong and what we should focus on for the next round of R&D. Despite these shortcomings, we had a bigger learning — automated vehicle sharing works. If we got the tech right, people could have a shared mobility solution with zero human intervention.
The SRM pilot proved that shared bikes had huge potential. We just had to figure out how to tap into it.
Part II — तुम्हाला जायचं कुठे?
Being from Bangalore, it’s very hard for me to fall in love with another city. The allure of cities like Mumbai or Hyderabad never really got to me. However, Nashik was different. From the historic Pandavlini caves to the contemporary iconic vineyards and the ancient Panchavati Temples, this tiny city has something for everyone.
Nashik has a vibrant cycling community comprising of thousands of people as well as a large number of manufacturing industries. It was perhaps the best city for us to test and develop our entire bicycle sharing model.
Golf Club Grounds, a huge jogging track in the heart of the city was chosen as the location for our pilot. It was inaugurated in April 2017 by the Hon. Mayor of Nashik and the Hon. Commissioner of the Nashik Municipal Corporation. The focus here was on offering low-cost shareable bicycles to fitness enthusiastic citizens who came to walk and jog in the park.
In a span of sixteen months with just 10 cycles in operation for 8 hours a day, Pedal had over 2,000 registered users. Our users had taken 18,000 rides in total and had cycled for more than 8,000 hours. We collected invaluable data about usage patterns that helped us reach even more users by tweaking our pricing model, organizing outreach events and pursuing inventive marketing strategies. We also regularly updated our hardware and software to test new updates and features with our users.
Data and statistics aside, what I am proud of the most is that we were able to make a difference in peoples lives. Having last ridden a bicycle over 20 years ago, 67-year old Manik Ladha rediscovered her love for cycling on a Pedal bicycle. Krish, a 13-year old boy learned how to ride a cycle on one of our bicycles. Most moving was our encounter with Pooja and Vaishavi, a deaf and dumb mother-daughter duo who used Pedal because it was automated and needed no human interaction.
The pilot in Nashik turned out to be more than just our first commercial venture. It was a massive experiment that helped us test our product and business model on a demographically diverse user base who helped us validate every step that we took. We kept the Nashik city administration, the cyclists association and our manufacturing vendors in the loop on every new development and learning. This helped us build a model that made sense for not just the end user but also for all the other entities involved in the process.
During the course of our pilots in SRM and Nashik, we asked a lot of questions, collected endless feedback and iterated constantly. It was now time to take everything that we had learned and go right back to the drawing board.
Outside the box—re-imagining our technology
A wave of dockless bicycles hit the streets of China just as we dove into our fresh R&D cycle. Companies like Ofo, Bluegogo, and Mobike were deploying millions of dockless bikes across the country and were raising huge investments at eye-popping valuations. The key question for us was whether to follow the wave and go dockless — an approach that our pilots and research didn’t point to — or stick to our research and continue designing a low-cost modular dock-based solution.
We reached out to a company in China that manufactured dockless bicycle sharing locks and got one into the lab. We spent a lot of time understanding their costs, the dockless business model and whether this could be the right fit for Indian ecosystems. We decided to stay away from dockless due to two primary reasons:
- We didn’t own the technology. The vendors in China manufactured the locking hardware and managed the servers leaving very little room for customization. We knew that technology was the heart of the solution and it made no sense if we didn’t own it and understand it inside out.
- We could always get into dockless bicycle sharing at a later stage. It would take no more than two months for us to start operating a dockless bike-share system. The sheer number of companies that have ventured into dockless bicycle sharing in India and across the globe is a testament to how easy it is. Additionally, aside from bike-share, the dockless wave also pointed to a future in e-cycles and e-scooters. We wanted to think one step ahead and build a technology that made sense to Indian ecosystems with a longer-term vision.
The next five months of development resulted in what we believe is the most low-cost dock-based solution for shared mobility. We spent weeks redesigning the electronics, streamlining the manufacturing process and revamping the software. We have a patent pending on the technology and have field tested the prototypes with over a thousand users before getting into production.
We redesigned our software and mobile apps to cut down costs and still retain the ability to scale efficiently. The new app had gamification baked into it to acquire, engage, and retain users. Users also got to use our newly introduced pre-book and mid-ride locking features.
Carpe Diem—our first client
The Tata Motors campus in Pune is a short three-hour drive from Nashik. It is a perfect example of how an organization brings together design, production, and values to build products that reach billions of people. It was inspirational because this was exactly what we are aspiring to do.
The campus has over 18 kilometers of wide, tarred roads and enforces a policy that restricts personal motor vehicles from entering the premises. All employees and blue-collar workers park their vehicles outside the campus and commute internally via the shuttle bus or on foot. Over the few days that we spent surveying the campus and talking to employees, we found ourselves walking long distances or waiting at bus stops for the shuttle to arrive. We realized that the Tata Motors campus would really benefit from an eco-friendly and simple transportation alternative — Pedal.
Working closely with the administration, it was decided that a pilot of five cycles would be deployed at the Imagineering 2017 event in December. The pilot was inaugurated by Dr. Gopichand Katragadda, the then Group CTO for Tata Sons. A particularly memorable experience for me was taking a bicycle ride with Dr. Gopichand right after he unlocked a cycle from the Pedal station. He joked about how everyone would now be on time for meetings thanks to Pedal. I laughed, unable to believe that I was speaking with one of the most iconic leaders in the Tata Group.
The pilot at Tata Motors in Pune was a grand success. Employees took over a thousand rides in the first two months. Within three months of launching the pilot, we got formal approval from the Tata Motors administration to scale up to 30 bicycles across six stations.
We learned from our time working with Tata Motors that ecosystems were more than willing to invest in greener commute solutions. All they needed to see was real value. We had invested time into understanding the campus and into building a truly meaningful model for the ecosystem. As a result, for the first time in eighteen months, we had a paying customer.
Thanks for all the fish—rebuilding the team
I recall being woken up at 3 am on a weekday by a very excited Shashank during our first year in college. He wanted to discuss an idea he had to revolutionize the sport of Tennis. This has not been an uncommon occurrence in my seven-year-long association with the guy. Whether it was a re-imagining traffic technology in school or trying to sell merchandise in college, we had ventured into a lot of projects together. 42 Labs and Feynman Tech were no different.
A month before the pilot in Tata Motors kicked off, Shashank spoke to me about wanting to leave the company. Over the months that we had been working on Pedal, this topic had come up a few times. It was hard for me to comprehend (still is, sometimes!) why someone would leave right when we were making our first sale. There was nothing that indicated that there was no scope for growth. His reason was that he was passionate about writing code and Pedal was a hardware-centric project that needed him to play a management role. To me, being someone who advocates passionate work, this was entirely understandable. We structured a phase-out plan, he transferred his half of the company and we parted on good terms.
Through that month there were a few other changes to the team. Some members quit because they wanted to take the college placement route (the bane of working with students!) and we had to let some go because our vision for the product had grown. By the end of it all, the team was down to just two people — Sudhir and me.
This period was by no means an easy time. The entire Tata Motors deployment-from product design, fabrication, and electronics to vendor management, content generation, marketing, commercials and operations-was managed by just two people. These were a long, tiring and sleepless two months. All the same, we managed to pull it off and it was worth it.
It was through this period that I realized it was important to build the right team. Execution is often more important than the idea itself. We had an interesting vision for sharable mobility. All we needed now was a passionate team who believed in it to make it happen.
Meet the Crew —core team
- Daksh Shah
Daksh was pursuing his B.Tech in Computer Science from NIT Surat when I first pitched to him the idea of Pedal and asked him to join us. I knew that he was self-taught and enthusiastic about writing meaningful code. He had already mentored under senior engineers from a couple of large tech companies and contributed to a lot of open source projects. Although he was eager to get on board, he couldn’t get his college to allow him to join us in Nashik. It was extremely disappointing and we decided to put a pin in it.
Fast forward to December 2017 (exactly as our team size was dwindling), I found out that Daksh was dropping out. He couldn’t take the endless cycle of outdated textbooks and irrelevant exams. He wanted to build quality software at scale, not get placed as a junior developer in some lackluster consultancy. I called him immediately and two weeks later he joined the team as our software lead. Over the last ten months, he has re-written our back-end and led all software level decisions. Honestly, we’re very lucky that he decided to drop out when he did.
2. Sudhir Metaliya
Meeting Sudhir was a sheer stroke of luck. He was recommended to us by one of our electronics vendors during a casual chat. Sudhir had quit his job at L&T to build personal projects. Within 24 hours of pitching to him, he had signed an agreement to work with us for a month. It has been over a year and he’s still here, leading and owning our entire hardware R&D. Because he has worked on more projects than one can count, he has an excellent practical understanding of electronics. He’s the reason our technology went from prototype to product.
3. Rachit Parikh
We met Rachit through DISQ’s talent identification process. He was fresh out of college, had interned in South Korea and had spent a large part of his college days building cars. Rachit quickly took ownership of product design and manufacturing. Without him, we wouldn’t be able to manufacture our hardware at scale. Within a span of three months, our product costs were down by over 30% and we had streamlined our vendor management from sourcing to assembly. In the last month alone, we have manufactured 10x more than in the cumulative history of the project and we’ve met every single deadline only because he made it happen.
The team that we have formed together has been instrumental to our growth in the last few months. I know they believe in the impact we’re trying to create and that they’re in it for the long haul. While we’re still actively looking for talented folks to join our company, the core team we have now is a great starting point.
(Think you’re the right fit for what we’re trying to build? Drop us an email at email@example.com)
That which we call a rose — The rebrand
The evolution of our company is best tracked through our pitches. Over the last two years, we’ve made hundreds of pitches and every time we tell our story, the narrative evolves a little. Our pilots, our R&D process, the external market, and our customers constantly drive us to keep innovating our product and evolving our vision.
Over the last few months, the entire “Pedal” brand just didn’t feel like it encompassed what we’re evolving into. We chose Pedal when we started because it made sense— a simple name for a bicycle sharing system for college students. As our mission evolved from bicycle sharing to creating a platform for shared mobility, we realized that our brand needed to change, too.
Our brand needs to reflect what we believe in. We want it to communicate who we are, what we stand for and what you should expect from us in future. We know that shared mobility, electric vehicles, and the sharing economy—all have huge potential. We’re not just another bicycle sharing service — we’re here to revolutionize the shared mobility space.
On that note, welcome to Tilt!
The unforgiving minute — conclusion
This entire post is us putting our best foot forward. The process of building this company, while exhilarating, has had its fair share of poor decisions and mistakes. There have been instances where we ended up saying the wrong things, building the wrong tech or hiring the wrong people. It’s very hard to know what the future looks like and harder still to be undoubtedly sure that our prediction is right.
However, here’s what I do know—we’re a young, driven team with the zeal needed to make this happen. We’re ensuring we rapidly adapt to what the market is telling us and are not overly emotional about evolving.
All that said and done, it’s still possible that we’ll fail. Most startups do. But in no way does that mean we’re not going to give this our all. In two short years, we’ve consolidated teams, negotiated agreements, crafted business models, bid for tenders, pitched to mavericks, innovated technology, piloted relentlessly and dreamed ambitiously. The story so far has been quite an adventure. I’ve learned so much and am grateful to so many. Great things are never too far away and I can’t wait to see where this road take us.
This post was authored in November, 2018.