All companies face challenges. But when your company is built upon the premise of putting large groups of people together in small spaces, the challenges become even greater in the age of COVID-19.
But Ruben Schultz, co-founder of Swoop, appears more than up for the challenge. Swoop is an online platform for group transportation. For vehicle operators, which are mainly small mom and pop shops, Swoop makes it easy to run their business. For customers, think Airbnb, but instead of getting accommodations, you can easily book a group vehicle (limo, party bus, charter bus) with a professional driver. Perfect if you need to move your team for a tradeshow, a family for a wedding, or a group of enthusiastic wine drinkers from one vineyard to the next.
Founded 4 years ago, the company has seen solid audience growth using its technology platform to facilitate group transportation. Now, the team must adapt to a new marketplace environment to continue their success.
LA Startups (LAS): For starters, tell us what Swoop is all about?
Ruben Schultz (RS): Our tagline is ‘Get There Together’. We make it really simple for you to book transportation for large groups of people. So think about all kinds of vehicles, mainly SUVs and all the way up to charter buses and everything in between Coaches, limousines, everything like that. You go to our site or use our app, and book any kind of transportation you need for large groups.
So if you have an event with a hundred people and you need 10 vehicles or 10 buses, in the past it’s been super hard to book transportation because there’s not one centralized place to do that. And there’s no technology involved. So what we’re doing with Swoop is building that technology, like a SaaS platform for vehicle operators to run their businesses.
And then on top of that we also have a demand generation arm where we generate leads for these small businesses by partnering with big businesses like Google. If Google has any type of transportation needs, then they’ll book it with Swoop and we’ll forward that need to any of the small operators that can provide the service. So we facilitate that relationship as well and own the entire buying experience with our technology for companies.
LAS: How did you discover this opportunity?
RS: This is an industry that’s been overlooked. It’s very outdated. You have all of these small operators across the U.S. that own anywhere from three to five vehicles and their businesses run on pen and paper. And that makes it very difficult for any customer to book any type of transportation easily.
One of the other co-founders is Amir Ghorbani. Amir’s parents actually own a group transportation business. So this is a problem he was seeing again and again in his parent’s business. Then he also realized that vehicle utilization was only 4.9%. So the vehicles were just sitting there the whole day not doing any work or providing any revenue. So we put together a team to approach this opportunity differently. We thought, ‘why don’t we solve this?’
LAS: What’s your role at the company?
RS: I’m one of three co-founders along with Amir and Pete Evenson. Right now I’m focusing on new business and operations. So think about any transportation business, there’s a lot of the nitty-gritty, like just making sure the logistics and things are on time. Then there’s all of our marketing and PR, and I also lead the hiring and people efforts.
LAS: Sounds like you’re doing a lot. Is the ‘start-up’ mentality different than when you worked at Google and Facebook?
RS: Today we’re at 13 employees. It’s a small team comparably, but really, really growing fast. The biggest change and it sounds kind of generic, is that your motivation switches because you have ownership. Facebook and Google do an excellent job of making you feel part of a larger mission, but it’s still not quite the same. The type of energy that you bring every day is different. If you’re not doing it, no one’s doing it. And that kind of pressure tends to make you much more focused.
The other nice thing is that you feel the impact more because you have other people relying on you. You feel responsible for all 13 other people because you know them very, very well, right? You spend a lot of time with all of them and now you have this responsibility. And I think those are very healthy motivating factors for me. It feels good to work on something that has the potential to have a lot of impacts.
LAS: You and your team obviously had this really clear vision. Tell us how that translates into helping the end customer.
RS: We basically have two customers: We have the operators who own the vehicles, but we also have the people who book transportation through us. So if you and your family go out for a winery trip and you book one of our vehicles, you’re our customer and so is the operator that owns the vehicle. So the goal is to stay very close to both these customers’ needs at all times.
So take during COVID-19. Right now we’re updating operators on how to get the PPP loan. We tell them how to clean their vehicles extra carefully. We tell them how to help with partitions and all these kinds of things to make travel safe for passengers. It extends beyond tech and into relationships.
And the same thing on the demand side, right? With customers like Airbnb who book through us all the time, we’ve been chatting with them throughout this entire event, seeing how we can support them. We’re all really focusing on getting back to work, and providing better solutions. It’s the key to business.
LAS: Tell us a story from your early days that other people can learn from.
RS: Our first office was literally in Amir’s garage with vehicles all around, literally a garage startup. I would do all my investor calls sitting in one of the vehicles. So I would be on camera and you would see leather seats in the background, right? Once even a driver got in and started driving the car. And I had to tell him ‘Hey, Whoa. I gotta close a deal here first!’
If you’re truly passionate about it, you’ll work anywhere to make it happen. It’s a process and you have to be able to roll with the punches.
LAS: You’re all about group transportation. But with COVID-19, groups aren’t really a thing right now. How are you approaching that?
RS: You don’t really want to hide anything or fake anything. People are not moving much right now, and definitely not in groups. So we share that with all of our operators. Sometimes there is no silver lining. And I think in a world where everyone has access to the same information, it’s especially important that you stay honest about what’s happening.
But there are also different ways of framing it. I think the underlying opportunity is that the industry is seeing a vehicle utilization of 4.9%. That’s a lot of unused time. So I think if you have assets just sitting there 95% of the time, there’s an opportunity, right? And what that means in terms of increasing that vehicle utilization is that first, obviously, we have to get back to moving people. But it’s also very easy to repurpose these vehicles to move goods, to deliver items, to deliver groceries. And that’s kind of where this COVID-19 story comes in. We have to think creatively about how the vehicles are used in new ways.
Increasing vehicle utilization is really a big hairy goal. In any business, right before you want to optimize something, you first have to have a really good understanding of what’s happening today. Right now we’re really just focused on understanding what these vehicles are doing today so we can improve capacity in the near future.
The nice thing about being a small team is that you can move much faster. Once you have a huge ship or business, it becomes harder to adapt quickly. Some people say you should never waste a crisis, and it’s actually been a good forcing function to discipline the team. You are forced to focus on what really matters. And I think that that’s something that you should embrace, even though it hurts.
LAS: So even in crisis, the core mission remains the same?
RS: It has remained the same. The key thing that’s happening at Swoop is that we’re really, really focused on building this technology, the SAS tool for operators, so they can run their business super efficiently and be more profitable. And we’re always focused on better serving the customers who need group transportation.
LAS: Tell us a little bit about why it’s so important to stick to your mission?
RS: We kind of touched on this, but your mission should be solving a problem for people. And if you’re not obsessed with that, then you’re going to get distracted, which means you’re probably not doing the best thing for your customers. I think that’s one way to think about it. So you need to have some kind of North Star that defines you.
Airbnb for example is an excellent company. They have a great mission of belonging, right? And now with COVID-19, they need to solve difficult problems. But they can, because they have a direction. They have the team. Even with all the lay-offs, they remain solid.
LAS: Is that North Star hard to maintain when scaling up?
RS: Definitely. You need to respect the meaning behind your company. Even going from 4 to 13 people was challenging. Imagine going to 1000. So we write down our culture as we scale, so the culture can scale with the organization. We want it ingrained in the DNA of the organization, while also remaining a little bit flexible to adapt to change.
LAS: What advice would you give new entrepreneurs?
RS: The COVID-19 crisis has reminded me that if I change my mind on something, it means that I’ve learned something. It’s often how quickly you learn, how many iterations of learnings you can go through as an organization, that predict success. The more you really work on that, or the more you reward learning, that’s where a lot of speed comes from.
And if anyone is building a company, my advice is to solve a problem for yourself. Like in the case of Amir, he was solving the problem for his own operation. That’s how Swoop started. Then we built something that was really good for 5 or 10 people that they loved. Then we were able to build that out into a much larger audience. That’s how we found success.
LAS: Tell us about a book or something else you’ve found inspirational in business?
RS: I love the book Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight and how he built Nike. I find myself rereading that a lot, especially the last chapter. It’s a really good reflection and tells you it took him like 20 years to build Nike after years of struggle. He couldn’t get a business loan. And it just shows the real grind, and it’s never this linear story to success, you know, which you often see in memoirs.
LAS: Any last words for the aspiring entrepreneur out there?
RS: There’s one thing I’ll say. If you solve a problem right now, a real problem, I think it’s a great time to start a business. If you’re a student right now or if you’re just coming out of college, I think right now is a really, really interesting time because you’ll learn to be resilient. And resilience is a main key to success. So those are my parting words for entrepreneurs. Don’t let this strange time scare you.