One day, Oren Shoval wasn’t able to get a seat after waiting for a sherut, a shared taxi running along a fixed route in Israel. He called his friend, Daniel Ramot, and asked, “What if you could use a smartphone to book your seat in advance and change the route?”
The two friends, who had met in the Israeli Air Force in the 1990s, often discussed different business ideas like that. Then, in 2012, after that phone call, they co-founded Via, an dynamic platform for on-demand shared rides with the vision to reinvent the public bus. Today, Daniel serves as the company’s CEO and Oren as the CTO, and the company operates throughout the U.S. and worldwide, with more than 100 partners, including cities, public transit authorities, universities, corporate campuses and organizations of all types, that leverage its technology to transform public transit and other infrastructure projects.
On Tuesday, January 21, 2020, as part of the Cornell Tech @ Bloomberg Speaker Series at Bloomberg’s Global Headquarters in New York City, Bloomberg Television’s Scarlet Fu discussed with Ramot Via’s first routes, how it partners with municipalities, and entrepreneurism.
Ramot moved to the states to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience. He spent five years collecting, analyzing, presenting, and managing very large datasets, all the while learning to tell a compelling story about that data. “Everything we do in life, in the end, we’re telling some sort of story, whether it’s to our investors or to our employees. And by story, I mean that we’re taking the data and trying to present it in a way that’s compelling, that will make people want to work with you, invest in the company, or partner with you,” he said.
He then worked at the biotech company D.E. Shaw Research, where he learned about creating a culture, building a team, and hiring talent. While he used this knowledge and experience to build Via, Ramot attributes much of Via’s success to his strong relationship with Shoval. They decided that Shoval would lead the technology team in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Ramot would manage the business in the U.S. Despite their responsibilities, Ramot and Shoval are almost interchangeable.
The First Routes
In 2013, Via ran its first route along York Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Second Avenue subway had yet to open, and New York City’s vast public transit system was very limited because of its slowness and fixed routes. Ramot spent weekends asking people in the area if they would use a shared transportation service.
“It turned out that people were regularly willing to get into strangers’ vans for free,” said Ramot. “By the time they got out of the van, they had downloaded the app and were members.”
Some of these first riders also became Via’s early investors, as the company grew its two-sided marketplace with drivers and cars on one side and passengers on the other. Matching the two meant drivers weren’t sitting around, and riders had short wait times. Via employed data and algorithms to determine where to run routes to capture demand. Paying drivers was a priority, which meant vans needed to be filled with riders paying fares.
“We had this exacerbated problem of not only needing enough drivers and passengers, but having to scale very, very quickly,” said Ramot. Larger zones created more routes and allowed for faster growth. The zones also created financial complexities that made it challenging to balance between investment, quality-of-service, and vehicle utilization – without adding to traffic congestion.
Via slowly expanded by adding one avenue at a time until their cars provided service throughout New York City’s five boroughs. Then, it launched in Chicago and Washington, DC. “That’s when we started to say, ‘Okay, we now have something that’s working, and it’s working at scale,’” said Ramot.
The Right Partners
Operating within the transportation industry’s existing regulatory structure can be extremely limiting, especially when innovations are often regulated out of existence. The idea of dynamic routes for buses wasn’t new, but transit organizations have not always been open to new technologies and ideas. Via’s intent is not to disrupt existing transit systems. Instead it collaborates with transit authorities, cities, transit operators, corporations, and universities by providing technology that powers transit systems.
“We see ourselves as enabling transit systems to be better, to be more efficient, to be more effective, to move more people, frankly, to beat the private car,” said Ramot.
City officials weren’t willing to purchase Via’s software though. So, in 2017, Via donated its software to CapMetro, the transit authority for Austin, Texas, to replace an antiquated dial-in van service and to create the city’s digital infrastructure for transportation. That opened the door for relationships with other municipalities, like Arlington, Texas, which didn’t have a public transit system for its residents. Via provided Arlington with the software, vans, and drivers, effectively becoming that city’s transit authority.
Today, Via has about 115 partnerships in 22 different countries where the company either provides its software to or runs the transit service for the city.
It’s Really About Time
Before pursuing entrepreneurship full-time, Ramot and Shoval decided to learn what they could about transportation. They started by submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the City of New York requesting GPS data for taxis, which they used to run simulations. “By the time we left, we had a very high degree of confidence that we could do this, and we had money lined up. In some sense, we reduced our risk,” said Ramot.
An entrepreneur’s most valuable resource is time, though, and one can’t move fast when working on an idea part time. “While you’re reducing the risk of leaving your job, others who are bolder are moving much faster than you, and when you finally make the jump, you’re behind,” said Ramot.
Not being fast enough creates risk, which is a fallacy that people tend to miss. “You could choose the right idea, but if you’re slow, you’ll still lose,” said Ramot.
You can watch the entire discussion below: