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Shuttlers.ng: I spent N150,000 meant for my rent to build the first website – Damilola Olokesusi speaks on how it all started

When you compare the cons and pros, you’d nearly forget about wanting to be alone in a car. You look at the cost and the inflation in the economy, things are getting so expensive and the income is not increasing so if you want to balance your daily expense and monthly expense, you’d also look at how you can balance the cost of your transportation daily.

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Damilola Olokesusi founder and CEO, Shuttlers
Damilola Olokesusi, founder and CEO, Shuttlers

Damilola Olokesusi is the Co-Founder and CEO of Shuttlers, a transport & tech company startup currently revolutionizing the way professionals and organizations commute in metropolitan cities like Lagos.

Few days ago, Shuttlers announced a $1,600,000 seed round and its plans to scale operations into other cities across Africa.

This new investment round was led by VestedWorld, a Chicago and Africa-based investment firm with Interswitch, Rising Tide Africa, Launch Africa, EchoVC, CMC 21 & Alsa, ShEquity, Five35, Consonance Investment, CcHub Syndicate, Sakore, and Nikky Taurus also participating in this round.

Before we delve deeper into Shuttlers’ next moves, let me tell you about the brain behind the innovative startup; that is Damilola Olokesusi.

She has a Bachelors’ Degree in Chemical Engineering from University of Lagos with experience in process engineering and investment management. Yes, you read that right. Damilola’s passion to solve social and economic problems in her community birthed Shuttlers.

Shuttlers’ platform enables professionals and organizations to share rides in corporate buses to and from work. With Shuttlers, users book trips along fixed-routes at 60-80 percent lower than ride-hailing services and without surge or peak pricings which is the first of its kind in Nigeria.

This solution is contributing to solving the menace of traffic in Lagos as young professionals can now join comfortable AC-buses with other professionals. This will not only reduce the daily commuting stress for professionals but also reduce traffic congestion and carbon emission. 1 bus can remove 14-29 cars from the road). Damilola will tell us more about this later in this interview.

Over the years, Damilola has won competitions and awards such as Demo Africa in Nigeria, Unreasonable institutes Award for Digital & Tech award at the Women in Africa Contest in Morocco in 2017 and Award for the best Idea at the Aso Villa Demo Days where she had the opportunity of meeting the Presidents Vice president of Nigeria and Mark Zuckerberg.

She has also won grants from Institutions such as Airtel’s Sahara and GEM-WorldBank and Ford Motors Company.

She launched an initiative called Shemoves shuttles which is an all-female shuttle sponsored by Ford Motors company which has impacted 600+ female professionals by turning their commute time to learning time.

She is a member of Lagos hub Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum where served as the Vice curator of the hub in 2019/2020. She is part of the Harambean Team for 2018 cohort; an Alliance for highly educated young African socials business and political entrepreneurs attending leading universities in Asia’s Europe and North America.

She is a Forbes30under30 2019 Recipient for Technology. She was also selected by the UK government for a technology exchange in 2020.

In this interview, Damilola tells us how she is poised to continue to bring about innovations in the technology and transportation sectors as well as other sectors in Nigeria and around the world.

Damilola Olokesusi founder and CEO, Shuttlers

Damilola 

Briefly tell us how this dream started

It’s a combination of so many things. I’m not used to the hustles and bustles associated with Lagos life. My first experience with danfo driver (commercial bus drivers) was when I came to Lagos for my diploma exam in the University of Lagos (Unilag). I was quite shocked just walking to the bus stop and people jumping into the vehicle even before it stopped. I wondered why the people behaved like that.

When I joined the school, I got used to all the hustle and bustle but because you don’t really need to move around in Lagos when you’re in school, I forgot about all that problems.

In my third year, we had a very long strike so I had the opportunity to go for a series of entrepreneurship training and this launched me into understanding how people start companies, ideas, creating value, problem-solving. I did some courses in DLA, I attended some programmes and this was in 2009.

By the time I came back to school, I had a total mind shift. Before going into school, where I studied Chemical Engineering, the plan was to work in an Oil and Gas company. I had elderly siblings who told me I was very good at Mathematics and chemistry; okay study chemical engineering so you can work in an oil and gas company.

But by the time I came back from ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) strike to school, that dream had changed. I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I wanted to be able to solve more problems, create value and I learnt that the money I’m trying to look for, solving problems would naturally attract it.

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As engineering students we had to do internships. In my fourth year, I interned in an oil and gas company and then I enjoyed the staff bus system of going to work every day.

Fast forward to leaving school and getting my first job, that kind of service wasn’t available so I experienced all over again, the same thing I went through in my first year at school. I also liked to look good so I’d wear my white t-shirt in danfo buses and then people would tell me my shirt is stained or I would forget my change with the conductors. It was always a horrible experience every single day going to work.

I then realised that just a few organisations could afford staff buses for their employees. What then happens to those who weren’t able to afford cars; and Uber just came in but it was too expensive. How would I, a young woman, be able to afford such a service every day. I was stuck with using only danfo.

Travelling out of the country was a breaking point. I went to Dubai and saw first-hand what it meant for a citizen to have a smart transportation system. I used their train system, their buses and it was just mind-blowing.

By the time I came back to Lagos, I didn’t want to use public transportation, I mean; I’ve already experienced something far superior. I reached out to friends and realised that it was a common problem especially for female users because we are the ones that always have challenges of comfort or harassment inside the bus or by the bus stop. To also back track, one of my sisters was a victim of one-chance so that fear is also in me though she’s alright now.

The whole tech economy where we can create something that everyone can have access to, both smaller organisations and individuals can book buses in advance, track buses on an app, and enjoy the bus.

What was the response of your family when you switched from possibly working in the Oil and Gas sector to becoming an entrepreneur?

It was more difficult for me because I’m the last born and I have older siblings who I can even refer to as parents. My parents were civil servants for 25 years so they asked what was giving me that confidence of saying I wanted to become an entrepreneur and it would make sense in this part of the world? One of my sisters said this idea can only work in Silicon Valley but not here.

There were lots of pushbacks, but I eventually had a meeting with them to ask for a chance. They were my first investors that I had to convince to support me for just one year because I needed mental support as well and if it doesn’t work, then I’d start looking for a job.

The first N150,000 was the money for rent my mother gave me which I used for the first website. My family supported me but it was a lot of back and forth. My mother was always telling our family pastors to all please pray for me but now they are super proud of their child.

You used your rent to build your first website? Please explain that…

I already paid the landlord but didn’t get the house, I was scammed. I got the police involved and they were able to retrieve N150,000 for me. Rather than searching for another house, I squatted with a friend and used the money for the website.

Since 2018 till date, do you regret taking that first step…?

It has actually been hard. Sometimes I imagine why I’m doing what I’m doing, especially when the challenge becomes so hard. But I also remember the successes that we’ve had as a company. It’s a roller coaster so yea, at the beginning it was tougher, it wasn’t as if I had any benchmark, I didn’t have any money to fall back on. It was either it works or I go back to the labour force. It was almost like a do or die affair.

It was a frustrating journey at the beginning but it got easier when we got people to believe in us. Our first partners, customers, corporate customers, and when we won the Aso Villa Demo Day in 2016, the office of the Vice President did a programme and we won. That was one of the first indications for my family to say okay, there’s something here.

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We got the first grant from Airtel, Sahara, World Bank and then we got a grant of about $80,000 from Ford Motors company. These made us a little bit more confident that we are on the right path and this development further solidifies that we have something solid here, and we can literally build a mobile company right from our local backyard here.

What are your immediate and long terms plans following the recent fund raise by Shuttlers? What are the next cities you aim to expand into?

It’s Abuja and we are already there. We will have an official launch in a few weeks. We are currently onboarding some prospective customers. We’ve been there for over two months now and the work has even started before this announcement.

So it’s expansion and growth for us, as well as some key identified areas here in Nigeria.

Can you give us some feedback from the users in terms of sharing rides?

Initially there were some push backs because it’s like a lifestyle change. There is the affordability factor, for instance, if you want to enjoy any kind of AC service from Iyana-Ipaja to VI, it’s either you drive your car or you use a ride-hailing service. What is that cost? Right now, if you want to use a ride-hailing service, you’d probably spend between N5,000 to N8,000 depending on the time of the day and if there’s a surge, just one trip. Also, you know what you’d go through driving all the way every single day.

But on Shuttlers, it’s just N750 and you’d enjoy the comfort of the seat which is not wooden, the AC and you don’t have anyone such as pickpockets trying to steal anything from you. The drivers are professionals and they drive in a professional and orderly manner. No one is shouting or harassing you on the bus.

When you compare the cons and pros, you’d nearly forget about wanting to be alone in a car. You look at the cost and the inflation in the economy, things are getting so expensive and the income is not increasing so if you want to balance your daily expense and monthly expense, you’d also look at how you can balance the cost of your transportation daily.

So I think the cost outweighs that yearning to be alone in vehicles.

In addition to that, what are other competitive advantages you have that would boost investors’ confidence?

We are not in our idea phase, we are not trying to use this money to figure things out, we’ve already figured them out, we have a working model and we are already profitable.

What we are trying to do now is to scale that working model. We are not trying to figure out if it’s working or not, we’ve proven that it is working and have a model that is easy; we are now automating that model, that’s what we are using this funding for. That’s the confidence that we have and that’s why they (investors) are backing us.

In terms of talents, which is not easy to get in this market, how are you handling it?

One of my many skills to pat myself on the back is that I’m really good with people. Once I identify great people, I know how to attract and maintain them. I would tell you for a fact that right now I have the best team and before, what we didn’t have was resources. For you to have great talents, you must be ready to also pay them industry standards salaries.

This funding will also support the drive to attract solid talents to help us build this global shared mobility platform we are trying to build.

As a corporate body, how can we access your platform?

There’s a link on our website; www.shuttlers/business where you sign up your company and immediately, a customer service will get in touch. We have two products we sell to corporates. It’s either pay per seat which is the winning product. Before Shuttlers, there was nothing like that, we pioneered that product where companies no longer have to buy buses or lease buses.

For instance, if you have just 50 staff and they live in 10 different locations coming to VI, you don’t need to lease 10 buses to bring them to the office. All you need to do is buy 50 seats on our platform.

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Another thing that we also do is you don’t need to pay 100% for your staff. If you don’t have that budget, you can subsidise. If your budget is just N500,000 or N1,000,000 monthly, you can subsidise. We’ve seen that very effective, once you’re able to take off about 20 to 50 or 70% off the load of every ticket for every staff member that drives retention on our platform. So it’s one of our winning products and for B2B.

And the fact that we have a dashboard where the admin can track their staff buses, they can check a utility dashboard, they have a report, computer technology also backs the products we sell to B2B.

When COVID struck lots of companies adopted the hybrid work model. Has this in any way affected your business model?

Despite the COVID-19 last year, we still grew 2.5 times our previous revenue. This was because we targeted companies that were essential workers, that had to go to work and we positioned ourselves as the safest form of transportation system. People took extra measures on disinfecting our buses, compulsory use of nose masks, what you couldn’t get on public transportation, people got on our platform.

That drove adoption by B2B clients last year.

Shuttlers team

Shuttlers team

In terms of post-covid, where people had gone hybrid, we realised that people are not sitting down at home even though they are “working from home”, there’s traffic every single day and we wonder where people are going to.

We created a solution called Shuttlers Community where you can access Shuttlers services wherever you’re going to, no matter the location. We do a daily service right now but where we are going is to build a service where every hour or two, users can access a Shuttle service close to them, either within their estate or community, starting with gated areas to help them in terms of safety. That’s how we are navigating around the new normal for professionals.

The likes of GoKada, ORide, and Max.ng had issues with the government. Have you considered going to the government before they come to you?

Our model is built around having partnerships. We liaise with friends at LAMATA, LBSL and the ministry of transport. We are in talks with them

Currently, there’s no policy that addresses this special type of solution but we are currently working with them to curate something for us.

If given the mandate, what are the things you’d do differently to address transport chaos in Lagos?

I always clamor for private-public partnership but I don’t know if this will work. Once you get the private sector involved and the government can ensure the policies, roads, security, access to these infrastructure and all are favourable for the private sector they would deliver.

Private organisations are always looking for how to make investments out of their own funds and if they are properly regulated and not extorted, there would be more structure and I can see that working already. Lamata is doing a hire purchase structure where private companies are supposed to buy those vehicles and run them.

Number one thing is, if we can have public-private partnership in all forms of transportation, not just roads but ferries and other forms of transportation that can reduce the weight on road transportation.

Another thing I always say is urbanisation. If other neighbouring states can develop their own cities, you would not see graduates from all over the 36 countries always wanting to come to Lagos.

If for example, Ibadan, Ogun state, Anambra or other states are developed, people would not always want to come into Lagos. This will reduce immigration and reduce the load on the infrastructure the government has put in place for Lagos State.

The third thing is the support of startups. The government needs to show that they are supporting startups so investors would not be afraid to fund these new companies because of the policies put in place by the government.

Thank you for your time, Damilola and keep innovating

Thanks for having me.

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