Ola is run by a team of twenty-something millennials, but you wouldn't know it from their strategies

The stories of start-ups run by those who became adults in the twenty-first century.

Started out of a bedroom in December 2010, Ola was the brainchild of millennial founders Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati. Pranay Jivrajka joined the founding team seven months later, and in July 2011 the team was five people strong – they had also hired a couple of call-centre operators to manage calls.

What was the vision then? To serve Mumbaikars and provide them with a superior transportation service. The vision remains strong even now, only the scope has changed to serve the mobility needs of a billion Indians.

Back in 2010, the founding team identified a clear gap in value: thousands of cabs were lying idle as unused inventory across Mumbai. Operators charged a bloated amount for each trip to make up for idle time and customers ended up paying through their nose, irrespective of whether they travelled 10 or 40 kilometres. Besides, service was poor and delays were commonplace.

The team wanted to bridge this gap, and initially started off with bookings over the phone. It wasn’t easy though. Bhavish’s parents were unhappy that he had put off a promising career in research and was starting a “taxi rental company”. But the drive (pun intended) to create something of value that could redefine an entire industry to benefit a large number of customers was strong.

The founding team reached its first milestone early in 2011 when they closed ten bookings in a single day (to put things in perspective – Ola booked about 700,000 rides daily in October 2015). They tested out a point-to-point service model with a unique device tracking each cab. This was still an offline model though.

Later, in 2011, Ola migrated to an online system wherein the team resorted to real-time tracking and this pilot was frozen in January 2012. Multiple events followed in quick succession: Ola expanded to Bangalore and Delhi in April 2012, launching its flagship cab service in those cities in a short time span of twenty-one days. The consumer app which millions of Indians now use on their smartphones went mainstream. The pivot to an on-demand model happened quickly thereafter (which is why you can now book an Ola in a matter of minutes through your app).

The pace of growth at Ola has been intense: as of this writing, Ola had over 300,000 registered vehicles on its platform. Ola acquired competitor TaxiForSure in March 2015. The advantage of building a networked digital platform is that it is conducive to experimentation, and can be utilised in more ways than one.

A steady stream of innovative launches have both strengthened and leveraged the aggregator’s massive web of networked vehicles. These include Ola Auto (booking an autorickshaw through the app), Ola Kaali-Peeli in Mumbai (hailing the famous black-and-yellow just got that much easier), Ola yellow cabs in Kolkata, Ola Money (the mobile wallet that you can use to book not just cabs but also other services), Ola Share (a social ride-sharing feature), Ola Prime (Wi-Fi-enabled taxis) and Ola e-rickshaws.

Autonomy and accountability

For someone who manages a large team of millennials, Pranay Jivrajka is extremely grounded. During our telephonic tête-à-tête, he listens intently, is patient and takes pause occasionally to think through responses. He is quite proud of the fact that his team has had the lowest attrition over the last three years (revealed after much prodding). The secret sauce to building a coherent millennial team that sticks together over time? Autonomy.

“How can I come up with a solution to a problem that is solved better by someone who is interacting with a stakeholder, on the ground? My job is to give my team the freedom to both think clearly and execute objectively. Teething issues are best resolved by those closest to the action,” explains Pranay.

This does not mean that Pranay does not hold his team accountable for results. “I spend time with my team members – more with some than with others, until we are both confident of each other’s abilities. Once trust is established, I don’t interfere unless my support is needed for execution.” This kind of “autonomy support” – where Pranay is available when required, and not breathing down everyone’s neck all the time, produces the desired results (rapid growth and a bundle of cool innovations since Ola’s inception are all proof of this) and leads to greater satisfaction among team members as well.

It is easy to confuse autonomy with independence – autonomy doesn’t mean you are holed up in a cabin, working by yourself all day. It means being in control of the choices that you believe may be essential to reach your stated goals. You could be autonomous while at the same time continuously collaborating with others to produce value for your stakeholders.

To drive the point home, Ola does not clock time for its employees. An outcome-focused work environment means that millennial employees are endowed with dollops of ownership, share in the decision-making process and, like Pranay Jivrajka did in IIT, work towards a stated goal that is much larger than them.

A challenge big enough to pursue

When Ola designs its services, it caters to meet the high expectations of the discerning Indian customer, while at the same time meandering through an extremely complex market environment, routinely engaging with stakeholders like driver unions and multiple agencies. Yet, Ola views all of them as essential stakeholders, each with a different set of priorities. With a razor-sharp focus on the outcome (usually some version of digitally enabled, disruptive customer service), the team at Ola operates keeping in mind the interests of all involved.

In Pranay’s words, “Problem identification is key. Do we have a challenge that’s big enough for us to pursue? Once we have this identified, we create a roadmap with aggressive timelines, chalk out responsibilities, and go about executing it with fervour.”

For example, Ola scaled up its cab services from twenty to over a hundred cities within a matter of months. This required depth of understanding of the infrastructure capabilities of each city. During the time of roll-out, some cities supported only 2G connectivity, so the tech team went back and designed a version of the app that could work seamlessly even in smaller towns with minimal access to 3G and Wi-Fi networks.

This kind of deliberate push to look for meaningful problems requires promoting an inquiring mindset, one that is not averse to experimentation to find the right solutions. Once a big enough challenge has been identified, team members immerse themselves completely in the task, and relentlessly work towards achieving the stated outcome.

Perseverance and passion to stick through ups and downs require a certain level of grit and determination. Solutions may take some time to materialise, but the journey itself can be rewarding. One reason for this is that because Ola is a digital service, the feedback loop for engineers and developers is almost immediate, and making course corrections along the way becomes that much easier. An engineer could figure out the impact of a new app feature and redesign it in a matter of hours or days, not months.

Although it has grown several-fold since its formative years, Ola has retained its sense of agility and nimbleness by embracing the yin of high autonomy and balancing it with the yang of accountability. An outcome-focused ethos that places top priority on achieving results is the driving force that powers the Ola juggernaut.

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The incredible engineering that can save your life in a car crash

Indian roads are among the world’s most dangerous. We take a look at the essential car safety features for our road conditions.

Over 200,000 people die on India’s roads every year. While many of these accidents can be prevented by following road safety rules, car manufacturers are also devising innovative new technology to make vehicles safer than ever before. To understand how crucial this technology is to your safety, it’s important to understand the anatomy of a car accident.

Source: Global report on road safety, 2015 by WHO.
Source: Global report on road safety, 2015 by WHO.

A car crash typically has three stages. The first stage is where the car collides with an object. At the point of collision, the velocity with which the car is travelling gets absorbed within the car, which brings it to a halt. Car manufacturers have incorporated many advanced features in their cars to prevent their occupants from ever encountering this stage.

Sixth sense on wheels

To begin with, some state-of-the-art vehicles have fatigue detection systems that evaluate steering wheel movements along with other signals in the vehicle to indicate possible driver fatigue–one of the biggest causes of accidents. The Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is the other big innovation that can prevent collisions. ESP typically encompasses two safety systems–ABS (anti-lock braking system), and TCS (traction control system). Both work in tandem to help the driver control the car on tricky surfaces and in near-collision situations. ABS prevents wheels from locking during an emergency stop or on a slippery surface, and TCS prevents the wheels from spinning when accelerating by constantly monitoring the speed of the wheels.

Smarter bodies, safer passengers

In the event of an actual car crash, manufacturers have been redesigning the car body to offer optimal protection to passengers. A key element of newer car designs includes better crumple zones. These are regions which deform and absorb the impact of the crash before it reaches the occupants. Crumple zones are located in the front and rear of vehicles and some car manufacturers have also incorporated side impact bars that increase the stiffness of the doors and provide tougher resistance to crashes.

CRUMPLE ZONES: Invented in the 1950s, crumple zones are softer vehicle sections that surround a safety cell that houses passengers. In a crash, these zones deform and crumple to absorb the shock of the impact. In the visual, the safety cell is depicted in red, while the crumple zones of the car surround the safety cell.
CRUMPLE ZONES: Invented in the 1950s, crumple zones are softer vehicle sections that surround a safety cell that houses passengers. In a crash, these zones deform and crumple to absorb the shock of the impact. In the visual, the safety cell is depicted in red, while the crumple zones of the car surround the safety cell.

Post-collision technology

While engineers try to mitigate the effects of a crash in the first stage itself, there are also safe guards for the second stage, when after a collision the passengers are in danger of hitting the interiors of the car as it rapidly comes to a halt. The most effective of these post-crash safety engineering solutions is the seat belt that can reduce the risk of death by 50%.

In the third stage of an actual crash, the rapid deceleration and shock caused by the colliding vehicle can cause internal organ damage. Manufacturers have created airbags to reduce this risk. Airbags are installed in the front of the car and have crash sensors that activate and inflate it within 40 milliseconds. Many cars also have airbags integrated in the sides of the vehicles to protect from side impacts.

SEATBELTS: Wearing seatbelts first became mandatory in Victoria, Australia in 1970, and is now common across the world. Modern seatbelts absorb impact more efficiently, and are equipped with ‘pre-tensioners’ that pull the belt tight to prevent the passenger from jerking forward in a crash.
SEATBELTS: Wearing seatbelts first became mandatory in Victoria, Australia in 1970, and is now common across the world. Modern seatbelts absorb impact more efficiently, and are equipped with ‘pre-tensioners’ that pull the belt tight to prevent the passenger from jerking forward in a crash.

Safety first

In the West as well as in emerging markets like China, car accident related fatalities are much lower than in India. Following traffic rules and driving while fully alert remain the biggest insurance against mishaps, however it is also worthwhile to fully understand the new technologies that afford additional safety.

So the next time you’re out looking for a car, it may be a wise choice to pick an extra airbag over custom leather seats or a swanky music system. It may just save your life.

Equipped with state-of-the-art passenger protection systems like ESP and fatigue detection systems, along with high-quality airbags and seatbelts, all Volkswagen cars have the safety of passengers at the heart of their design. Watch Volkswagen customer stories and driver experiences that testify its superior German engineering, here.

This article was produced on behalf of Volkswagen by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.


Two Goa students design a computerised Braille teacher

Two computer science students from Goa's BITS Pilani campus have invented a device that aims to improve literacy among the visually impaired.

In September 2013, after a Project Mudra, a Braille "dicta-teacher" that they believe can teach the Braille alphabet to visually impaired students who do not have access to special schools or teachers.

Their device connects a Raspberry Pi computer to a Braille hardware set – a palm-sized box with six pegs that move up and down under a user’s fingers to indicate a particular Braille letter or number. On a pair of attached headphones, users can simultaneously hear the name of the letter they are feeling.

The aim of Project Mudra, say Dawle and Srivastav, is to address the low literacy levels among the 39 million visually impaired people around the world, 20% of whom are in India. “Only 10% of the visually impaired in the United States are illiterate,” said Srivastav. In India, the literacy rates are much lower, says Srivastav, “because there is a serious lack of qualified teachers for the blind”.

Added Dawle, “While a teacher has to teach one-on-one, our device automates the repetitive process, so that users can learn Braille even in the absence of a teacher.”

The Mudra device is still a prototype that Dawle and Srivastav will be testing and improving all summer. The model is scalable from single characters to words, and from just English Braille to Braille in Indian languages. For now, Mudra has two modes: an ‘auto’ mode in which the machine plays out the alphabet sequentially for the user to memorise, and a ‘browse’ mode where the user can speak a letter or number into a microphone and it is translated, through Google, into Braille on the pegs.

The estimated cost of each piece, if produced in larger quantities, is less than Rs 10,000. “We are planning to partner with non-profit organisations in order to get logistical support for large-scale manufacturing and distribution of the device,” said Dawle and Srivastav, who were in Canada two weeks ago to showcase their invention at Pycon, an international programming conference.

Many Braille users believe the device is an interesting initiative but cannot really make up for the dearth of teachers for the blind.

“Learning the Braille alphabet is not difficult – the challenge is in improving finger sensitivity and speed of reading texts,” said Sam Taraporevala, a sociology professor at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College and director of the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged.

Taraporevala did not wish to comment on Project Mudra directly, since he has not used the device, but specified that teachers are essential to hone a first-time Braille learner’s sensitivity to tiny dots. “Students are always made to do pre-Braille activities, such as learning how to sort smaller and smaller objects,” he said.

Sandeep Singh, a visually challenged assistant professor of English at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, believes it would be essential for a dicta-teacher like Mudra to use needle-like pegs of the same size as all standard Braille, since tactile memory cannot make adjustments for different-sized dots. While Dawle and Srivastav's prototype uses much larger pegs, they will scale it down to standard Braille size when they release the final product.

“The concept of the device is definitely promising," said Singh. "It could be useful as an added learning aid – perhaps a fun revision tool for children.”

Photo: Aman Srivastava and Sanskriti Dawle

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