Trucker’s uber-cool idea

Ferry tale: Sudhakar Vintha’s Visakhapatnam-based Return Trucks serves as a platform that brings together truck owners and users for inter-city transport

Sudhakar Vintha’s Visakhapatnam-based Return Trucks serves as a platform that brings together truck owners and users for inter-city transport

A new business is driving into town, inspired by taxi aggregators — online booking services for mini-trucks and light commercial vehicles to transport goods within a city and beyond it

While working in Flipkart’s last-mile logistics division in 2013, Aravind Sanka noticed a demand-supply mismatch for intra-city trucks. Strangely, many companies like Flipkart struggled to find trucks to ferry goods even as several vehicles idled barely a few hundred metres away. Sanka, along with friends Pavan Guntupalli and Rishikesh Ramanath, spoke to over 400 drivers and 100 small businesses to discover there were discrepancies not only in vehicle availability but also rates. Drivers charged whatever they liked and there was no means to track the loaded vehicles. The trio then hit upon the idea of using technology to make intra-city logistics more transparent and less painful through their Bengaluru-based venture TheKarrier.

In Mumbai, IIT graduates Pranav Goel, Uttam Digga and Vikas Choudhary sensed a similar need and floated ThePorter — an online marketplace to book mini-trucks and light commercial vehicles for intra-city transportation of goods.

The boom in e-commerce, coupled with the needs of frequently relocating students and professionals has led to a spurt in the need for intra-city transportation — currently an estimated $10-billion industry in India, which a plethora of start-ups are eager to partake of. “We are aggregators. We don’t own assets (trucks, mini-trucks et al) and just connect consumers with owners,” says Goel, co-founder of ThePorter.

Bengaluru-based Blowhorn is another of these start-ups whose model is somewhat akin to online taxi services Ola and Uber. A customer looking to hire a truck should book either through an app or the company’s call centre. Based on the requirement, the nearest available truck is sent to the customer. The trucks typically have carrying capacity between 650kg and one tonne.

In truck with technology

In this business model, technology is the biggest ally. That’s how TheKarrier tracks vehicles and optimises routes. It has created one app for drivers and another for clients, mostly small and medium businesses. “The app for individuals will be released next month,” says Sanka. For now, customers use email, WhatsApp and phone calls to book trucks.

Pointing out that drivers wary of empty return trips usually prefer to idle than incur extra diesel cost on the empty run, Goel spells out a viable alternative. “We push them to do more trips by connecting them with users. The gains are efficiently divided between the customer and vendor, while we also take a part of it,” he says.

As the cost of owning and maintaining a truck remains fixed, a small additional spend on diesel fetches much higher returns. The income of ₹6,000 from a single trip increases to ₹18,000 from three trips, with only a few thousand rupees more spent on extra diesel. “We are not taking away anybody’s business. We are just using technology to better utilise the trucks,” Goel says.

Interested drivers can register with any of these companies, which rope them in after verifying their background.

Eye on the driver

It would be impossible for the drivers to mislead customers about their location. “We can track the driver location on a real-time basis, and anyone found lying is penalised and replaced by another driver,” Goel says.

Down south in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, Sudhakar Vintha failed to obtain a truck for three days to ferry some raw material to Visakhapatnam. That pushed him to establish a platform that brings together truck owners and users for inter-city transport. Vintha’s Return Trucks today ferries goods across India after bookings are made online or through its call centre.

“There are a lot of challenges as we are dealing with uneducated people. While customers are tech-savvy, having smartphones and internet access, the truck owners and agents are not. We are realising that mobile-based solution is the way ahead and are trying to handhold them during the process,” Vintha says.

As soon as a customer requests a truck, Return Trucks sends out bulk SMSes to truck owners. Interested owners bid through SMS, quoting their individual rates and load preferences. “The parties then negotiate and arrive at a price,” he says.

The rate card

Sanka’s TheKarrier offers two models. A point-to-point service is charged on kilometre basis — for a mini-truck this is ₹350 for the first 3km and ₹30 for every additional kilometre.

Some businesses such as courier companies that need vehicles for five-six hours are charged on hourly basis. TheKarrier retains 10-15 per cent of the transaction value. “Based on customer feedback, if the service levels are good, we reduce our charges,” says Sanka.

Goel’s ThePorter charges around 10 per cent as commission, and this will increase to 20 per cent after business grows, he says. Still at a nascent stage, the start-ups have no established business model yet. The rates are mostly customised for businesses. While Vintha charges a minimum of ₹500 and a maximum of ₹1,000 per transaction, Blowhorn charges ₹600 for the first hour itself.

Mithun Srivatsa, founder and CEO of Blowhorn, says his primary business comes from individuals shifting houses and people buying and selling second-hand goods. The second-hand goods market (excluding vehicles) is pegged at ₹88,000 crore and presents a big opportunity, he says. ThePorter daily undertakes 200 transactions in Mumbai itself and and 20 in Delhi, where it launched recently.

Goel says the company has two kinds of customers — ‘on spot’ users, who require the service within 45 minutes to an hour; and institutional clients such as courier and e-commerce companies, which bring in 60 per cent of the revenues. The individual to institutional ratio is similar for TheKarrier too.

Zooming demand

While none of these services own trucks, they are experimenting with branding the vehicles for greater visibility. “All our trucks have our name and number. That’s a part of the enrolment process,” Goel says. TheKarrier, on the other hand, puts its name only on the trucks it uses on a daily basis. Whether such branding will lead to business growth remains unclear to the start-ups at the moment. What is clear, however, is the growth in demand for their services. TheKarrier, which started in Bengaluru with 50 vehicles in December last year, now has 400. The number of monthly transactions has zoomed from 55 to 800. “We want to launch in Delhi and Hyderabad in the next two months,” says Sanka.

For ThePorter, the next frontier is Bengaluru, followed by Hyderabad and Chennai. “These new launches will happen by June,” says Goel.

The company’s monthly transactions are growing at over 50 per cent, even as it expands into the inter-city segment. “We have tied up with some big institutions. We are developing Mumbai-Delhi inter-city logistics and will start by mid-June,” he says.

As for funding, all of them are either bootstrapping or being funded by investors. ThePorter diluted 15 per cent stake in April to raise ₹3 crore from Kae Capital and is currently in talks for a Series A round. In November last year, Unitus Seed Fund led the seed round investment in Blowhorn.

The road ahead

Nowhere near profitability yet, the truck aggregators are currently building business and scale. “If we are trying for break-even then we are not trying enough,” says Vintha of Return Trucks. “We spent a long time identifying the model that would be scalable and viable, which is more crucial than clocking maximum transactions. We are still fine-tuning the model,” he adds.

Srivatsa of Blowhorn agrees: “Everyone is trying to figure out their own path. The most important step is to get a foothold in the market; it will take some time.”

Vintha’s marketing executives are reaching out to truckers, truck unions and even small businesses with the company’s GPS trackers and giving free demos.

Even as these newbie services focus on expanding their fleet, team size and user base, and hire IIT and IIM graduates to help grow the business, they know that their business will ultimately move on a single crucial factor. As Blowhorn’s Srivatsa explains, “Logistics is built only on reliability.” May the reliable service vroom ahead.

Published on May 29, 2015

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