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Amit Gupta of Yulu is riding the change

The founder and CEO of mobility startup Yulu tells Mint he is optimistic about the future of shared electric mobility in the post-covid world

Amit Gupta, founder and CEO, Yulu
Amit Gupta, founder and CEO, Yulu

In keeping with the times, I speak to Amit Gupta, co-founder and CEO of shared mobility startup Yulu, over a Zoom call. It is a follow-up to a meeting held over two months ago, when the world was still living “the old normal", at the Oberoi hotel coffee shop on Bengaluru’s MG Road. The coronavirus pandemic was remote, something happening in other parts of the world. We ordered freshly squeezed fruit juices and sat across a small table—barely 3ft apart.

Soon after, however, the pandemic started escalating in India. Life came to a standstill and this section of Lounge felt redundant at a time when most businesses had suspended operations or were unsure of how they would go on. It was only after the government announced certain lockdown relaxations in early May, permitting two-wheelers and other vehicles on the roads in some zones from 7am-7pm, that Gupta’s business kick-started again.

However, Gupta is quick to clarify that Yulu was not stagnant during the extended lockdown.

“February 2020 was one of our busiest months ever. It was soon after our Bajaj funding (Yulu raised a Series A round of funding worth $8 million, or around 60 crore, led by Bajaj Auto Ltd in November), we had just acquired 6,000 new electric vehicles and we were doing the highest number of trips ever," says Gupta about the company he co-founded in 2017. “We were in full velocity. And then the lockdown started. We had to shut down our operations. But soon after, we realized that being in the mobility business, we could be useful. So we reopened in a limited way and started reaching out to workplaces that were still open."

Sometime in early April, Yulu began offering its vehicles to essential workers such as medical personnel and banking staff, who were still commuting to work and were in fact stranded because of the lack of public transport. It also tied up with grocery suppliers and many of its on-ground maintenance staff became delivery agents for various companies. “It didn’t exactly compensate for the business we were losing but it did help in making sure that the enthusiasm of the team did not flag. We were in meetings all day, trying out different ways to continue to offer our services, to be flexible and useful," says Gupta. “I feel proud of the resilience our team has shown." The company has 150 office staff and a 400-member on-ground operations team.

Yulu offers two vehicles for hire through an IoT- and app-based solution: Yulu Move, a regular bicycle, and Yulu Miracle, a low-cost electric scooter. Pre-lockdown, it was operational in Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bhubaneswar and was on track to add more tier 1 cities and others under the Smart Cities Mission to its areas of operation in 2020. On 5 May, Yulu managed to restart operations in Bengaluru after city authorities gave it the go ahead—the number of covid-19 cases in the city is relatively low. They have since resumed operations in Delhi and Ahmedabad too.

It seems obvious that the lockdown period wasn’t one of rest and relaxation for Gupta but the soft-spoken and seemingly imperturbable CEO doesn’t sound particularly upset about that. “We faced several challenges, including difficult decisions such as salary cuts…but I am inherently optimistic. I kept myself calm and motivated," says Gupta, though he is reluctant to share revenue figures.

“Although working hours were actually extended when all of us were working from home, I am happy that I got to spend more physical time with my family and finally managed to break the ice with the guitar, which I bought several years ago. I did learn a few chords with my elder son as a guide," says Gupta, laughing. He also managed to stay in shape—in fact, he lost 4-5kg, a feat he attributes to eating healthy, home-cooked food.

When Gupta started Yulu in 2017 along with tech founder-turned-civic activist R.K. Misra, chief technology officer Naveen Dachuri and chief of operations Hemant Gupta, he had no prior experience of running a company in the transport and logistics sector, let alone one that would become one of the front-runners in shared electric mobility in India—a sector which can, potentially, be a game-changer in the way Indians commute.

In 2006, he was one of four entrepreneurs, along with current CEO Naveen Tewari, who founded digital advertising startup InMobi, which became one of India’s first unicorns (a company that gets a valuation of $1 billion). Over the next decade, the company rode the smartphone wave to become a leading global mobile advertising solutions provider. While he continues to be associated with InMobi as a co-founder, he stepped down from his executive role in 2017 to build Yulu.

“I had a good journey with InMobi, I was about to turn 40, and you may call it mid-life crisis or whatever, but there were some thoughts nagging me that there’s something left to be done," says Gupta. He had originally planned to retire by 40. “I had even told my wife, ‘the slog is only for a few years and after that we will go live in a beachside house’." But as he approached 40, he realized that wasn’t something he would enjoy at the moment.

“After some introspection and talking to mentors, I realized I was interested in making a difference in society and ended up thinking about solving this problem of traffic congestion and at the same time doing something about air pollution in our cities. And with that intention, I started thinking about mobility," says Gupta.

When asked if it was a difficult jump, he laughs: “Aasan tha, mobile se mobility mein aa gaye (It was easy, I jumped from mobile to mobility)." He may joke about it now but Gupta did his homework, and he realized two things: that globally mobility is moving from an ownership model to a shared model, and that the future lies in non-polluting vehicles.

“If you talk to any adult in Bangalore, outside of their girlfriend, boyfriend and spouse problems, the one thing they always talk about is traffic. It is so weird that we have to live this life," says Gupta. While the core idea behind Yulu is to make the urban commute more efficient and eco-friendly based on the three As of mobility—accessibility, availability and affordability—the products have diversified from the Yulu Move, a simple bicycle, to the Yulu Miracle. The GPS-enabled vehicles are traceable through a mobile app which allows users to locate and book a vehicle in their vicinity.

Most “Yulu Zones" (there are over 2,500 across the cities of operation) or designated parking spots for the sky blue two-wheelers are located in the densely populated central areas of cities or close to Metro stations. It is all about last-mile connectivity. “When we were designing the Miracle, we realized that 90% of two-wheelers in India are used by a single occupant. This helped us design the smallest, lightest vehicle possible without compromising passenger safety and comfort," says Gupta.

At 45kg, the Miracle can carry up to 80kg of weight and is perfect for short commutes or last-mile commutes from a bus or Metro station. A large number of users are actually service providers for other urban solutions companies: food delivery boys, young women who provide home salon services through aggregators like Urban Clap and Urban Company, and independent workers like electricians and technicians. It is also popular with young tech workers who live close to their places of work.

At 10 to unlock the vehicle and 10 for every 10 minutes of use, it is an affordable alternative to Ola and Uber cabs and easier to navigate in traffic. “Another huge plus point is that you don’t need a driver’s licence to ride it. It falls in a category of EVs below 35cc which you can legally use without having a licence," Gupta says.

Since it is a form of public transport, however, the company did need the cooperation of city municipalities—and it helped formulate policy for micro-mobility in Bengaluru, Pune, Delhi and Mumbai. How easy or difficult is it to navigate government systems, especially when it comes to permits and controls? Gupta says: “You would be surprised. They were chasing us."

It helps to have a co-founding team that includes members like Misra, who are experts in policy matters and government relations. “The thing is, we all genuinely believe this is big and it (traffic and pollution in cities) needs to be solved. And we had a gut feeling—just like I had a gut feeling with InMobi—that this is the right time for this problem to be solved and this team is best placed to solve it," says Gupta.

Yulu had planned to have 100,000 vehicles on the roads by the end of 2020. There are no guarantees any longer, of course, but Gupta is optimistic about the future of shared mobility. It’s a feeling shared by founders of startups in the same sector, such as Bounce, Vogo and Rapido. The demand for self-driven micro-mobility solutions will rise after the lockdown is lifted, they predict. “We will also see people moving from crowded public transport to self-ride scooters where the pricing is the same or lower than public transport," Vivekananda Hallekere, CEO of Bounce, told Mint in late April.

Gupta agrees. “In the short period that we have resumed regular operations, our business has bounced back pretty fast and much ahead of our expectations. Single self-driven vehicles have been found to be one of the best ways to commute in the post-covid world—and two-wheelers are safer than cars, which have 36 touch points as opposed to only four-five in our vehicles. And this is not just us saying this: Shared electric mobility has seen a jump the world over (since the pandemic)."

Yulu, it seems, doesn’t need a miracle—it already has one.

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