“Be Ready to Slog it Out!”

Syed Karim, the CEO at Caravan, speaks about the private busses aggregator platform him and his team have built from the ground up. He also speaks about the challenges they faced during their initial days and his company’s future plans 

Tell us about your company.
Caravan is a value-added aggregator of privately-operated buses in U.A.E with the mission of helping employees find the best private bus for their work commute.

What services do you offer on the market? Who is the target audience?
People who are looking for a private bus for their work commute are currently struggling to find them because the private bus operators are offline. As an aggregator, we bring all the information about private bus operators, such as timing, pricing, pick-up locations, drop-off locations onto our platform.

By engaging with Caravan, people can now find the best private bus immediately instead of slogging through dodgy classifieds, Facebook groups, and so on. In addition, we take care of the biggest doubt that passengers might have when it comes to selecting a bus operator — Is he operating legally?

We only work with legal bus operators who understand the rules and regulations of the industry and have been in the market for years thus guaranteeing safety and trust for the passengers. We are currently developing a mobile application (launching soon) that will make it super easy for the passenger to find, book and use a private bus operator. On the supply side, we help operators market their routes, improve their operations, standardize the quality of service to subsequently improve their top and bottom line.

How did you startup? When did you startup? How did you arrive at the idea behind your company?
My interest in urban mobility sparked off during my final year at college in 2013 when I created a ride-sharing application. I learned a lot about technology, mapping platforms, and APIs that can solve mobility problems and even though the ride-sharing application was never formally launched (since ride-sharing is a legal gray zone in UAE), it planted the seed for Caravan.

Life went on but I was always chewing on this problem. I boiled it down to a single question: “How can we reduce the number of cars on the road?” I noticed these white Toyota Coasters and Mini-Vans scooting all over the city and got curious about them. They had a sticker highlighting their route and contact info and I started digging more into understanding the background.

I learned a lot about the private passenger transport industry, including the laws around them and noticed that there is an immense opportunity here to create and capture value. We did pivot a lot on the business model and approach but earlier this year, we finally started seeing traction and knew that we were onto something.

Tell us about your team? How many members? Who is involved in the day to day operations?
We are currently five full-time team members and two part-time members.

Did you come across any challenges during the initial days?
We came across ONLY challenges during the initial days. From starting off with universities and schools as a B2B SaaS platform to product development to pivoting into the current B2C model, to marketing, and so on. What we’ve learned is that in a startup, challenges never go away but instead evolve into different challenges. Currently, our biggest challenge is hiring the right people and that takes the biggest chunk of my time.

How is your company different from similar companies on the market?
Luckily, as a first mover, we don’t have any similar companies in the market but we understand that copy-cats will emerge and we are working on building up our defensibility. Currently, we are quite proud of the network and strong relationships that we have built with over 70 bus operators.

When did you join the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre?
I joined Sheraa towards the end of 2017 when I had nothing more than an idea. I got selected in their “Ideathon Program” and after graduating from that, I progressed consistently through the rest of the programs as we managed to keep up our growth in line with the offerings. To date, I’ve been through the “Pre-Seed Build” and the “Pre-Seed Launch” Program and just recently graduated from the “Seed” Program.

What made you join the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre?
When I made the decision to start a startup, I had read up a lot about entrepreneurship and startups but I didn’t know how to practically get things rolling. Sheraa, as a government-funded incubator, based out of the American University of Sharjah, had the quality and brand name that was very attractive and the team was very kind and supportive.

In what areas has Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre helped you in your startup journey?
Sheraa offered everything that a first-time entrepreneur needed, from working space, to access to events, to high-quality workshops. It was a perfect starting point for us and we are happy to be closely involved with them.

What are your future plans with your company? Any new markets/target audiences you plan to reach?
We are currently raising our seed round and we are very fortunate to count Wamda Capital and Falcon Network as part of our investors. We are looking to expand into Abu Dhabi very soon and hit aggressive milestones that we have set for ourselves. The vision is to expand all over the MENA region and eventually crack the massive markets of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Be ready to slog it out! Startups are one of the most fulfilling and challenging ventures that you can undertake. It is an amazing journey and despite the incredible highs and lows, I can’t imagine a better vessel for personal growth than starting a new business. Be humble, engage as many people as possible, don’t take the comments personally, and more than anything, fall in love with solving the problem because that will take you further than any other source of motivation.


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