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INTERVIEW: SIXIT BHATTA, TOOTLE NEPAL

Nepal’s motor vehicle act was passed in 1993, what now seems like eons ago. From one look outside your window into the chaotic Kathmandu street: a congested amalgamation of cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, dogs and cows alike, it is not difficult to imagine how the paradigm of transportation in the city today has changed from almost 25 years ago. And the change is all but over. It might take another half century for us to see self-driving cars in our streets, but with new technology like Tootle, the future seems closer every day.

In the likes of Uber, Lyft and Ola, Tootle aims to revolutionize the way we perceive modes of transportation in Kathmandu. Working with the philosophy of ride sharing and bringing technology to the forefront of the entire process, Tootle, which is exclusively for motorbikes, pairs a user who needs to get somewhere with a rider heading the same direction.

We interviewed Sixit Bhatta – CEO and cofounder of Tootle, to hear his thoughts on the journey with the startup so far, and his take on the larger issue with transportation in the valley.

Tell us a little about the start of Tootle, how did everything start?

If you look at the idea itself, it is not a new idea. We have to acknowledge that fact, it is done by Google and by Travis Kalanick. But even before that, it was not Travis’s idea. He got the idea from a James Bond movie; have you seen Casino Royale? Daniel Craig? He takes a ride when he is on the train, and who knows maybe James Bond didn’t get the idea there too. The first rides in the world were shared. The idea of sending the man to the moon, it was not the brainchild of NASA.In fact, our very own Laxmi Prasad Devkota had actually written it in one of his poems. Similarly, the idea of electric cars, was obviously not pioneered by Tesla. So, coming to the point, the idea is not very new.

It so happened that we were working on other cutting edge tech in the field of technology, and we hit our backs against the wall when we were hit by the earthquake, as it had effected the schools and technology we were developing. But then those resources had to be re-strategized and mobilized and our team were sitting in the office, pretty much bored. Tootle actually evolved out of boredom. We wanted to do something in regards to location based services, and one of the ideas that came up involved tracking the Sajha Yatayat. It lead us to create an app, the app itself was pretty rudimentary, and we tried to approach a few people but it didn’t work out, so instead we put our heads together to attempt building a ride sharing platform out of this. So, that is how we evolved over the course of time, and as we built the technology we discovered so many new things. We had to engineer the payment system, we had to think of so many new backhand tools and technologies that we needed to ensure our rides would be executed smoothly. So it definitely did not come from one Eureka moment, it is aseries of Eureka moments that we had after that.

And what were your expectations when you launched the platform? Was Tootle able to deliver what you hoped it would?

See, one of the things we need to understand is, whenever we come up with solutions, we need to realize the importance of it all. Technology is a great enabler to change human behavior. So what does Facebook actually do? You can chat and see what’s happening in your friend’s life, but ultimately it is changing the behavior through which we are communicating, how we are expressing ourselves to the world. And that is what we hope to achieve with Tootle. So we perceive Tootle as an enabler by which we tend to change human behavior.

And here, the behavioral change we want to see is the way people move from point A to B. And changing human behavior is extremely difficult, extremely challenging. Particularly as this is not an existing behavior, it is not normative to give a stranger a ride on your bike. Nor is it an existing behavior to take a ride on a stranger’s bike. So that behavioral change becomes a huge challenge. Now if you look at NGOs and the places where they are working, they spend millions of dollars on changing human behavior, teaching them how to wash hands and such.

Therefore, changing human behavior is very challenging, and when we include technology in the mix, it makes a whole new dimension. So we thought that this is the right behavior through which people should move, sharing our bikes and other modes of transportation. But this is not something that comes very intuitively into one’s mind, as when we think of travelling in the city we first think of our own bike/car and then taxi, and then micro, and then at the end tootle. So the real challenge is taking Tootle from the bottom of that pyramid of intuitive thought process ultimately to the top. So we want Tootle to be the first thing on your mind when you think of travelling, and that is the ultimate challenge. We are working on that and that behavior change takes a really long time.

Talking about behavioral change, how exactly do you and your team plan on bringing it about in the scope of Kathmandu?

It happens through a series of communications. There is no better way of changing human behavior than to communicate. The need is there: we are part of a huge community and the need to move from place to place is always there. But that need has to be triggered by the change in human behavior. And that particular aspect has to be well thought of in the way we design our technology and the way in which we make it more intuitive and easier for people to use. And the same philosophy has to also move on to the way we communicate, it has to be very coherent with the services that we render. It isa huge challenge from developing and designing technology to communicating and then rendering our services. So these are all very important factors.

And you see, the world has progressed a lot. Of course there are going to be issues and challenges. But as the entrepreneur, we do not focus on the challenges but instead we spend our time thinking of ways to convert those challenges into opportunities. We are not selling a product that we are produce ourselves, we are a platform by which two individuals connect to complete a ride. And these two individuals are not known to us. If we create a product ourselves, everything would be under our control, but here we are dealing with two individuals who are not under our control. And that can be a huge challenge.

Being Kathmandu, where the safety of driving a bike has always been a topic of debate, how do you ensure that your customers are in the hands of safe bikers? If there is a situation where there is an accident and a Tootle customer is involved, how would a situation like this be handled?

It is incorrect to say that it is completely not under our control. The technical aspects of it is completely under our control. We have a lot of information coming in from our users. If you are using Tootle, we know exactly where you are and with whom you are driving. Furthermore, we know what speedyou are travelling in and exactly where you are headed to. So we do have a lot of technology in place to assure the safety and security of all our users. So we have total control in terms of that, but in terms of behavioral aspects, like when you order a tootle but you’re not there on time or vice versa, that is what we cannot control. But we have plans to work on that later on by coming with some sort of method of incentivisation.

We are aware that tootle has made its app accessible to visually impaired people. Could you tell us more about how you came around to doing this and if you have plans for any further developments of such in Tootle’s future?

Here at tootle, it is very important for us to communicate what tootle is all about. On the onset, Tootle is about a ride, but if you look at the core values that we have, it is much more than just a ride. It is about the freedom to move.

And if you just gaze out of your window, you will find several people: men, women and children, who struggle to find a ride. After negotiating with several taxi drivers and micros, it becomes a huge hassle. And its not at your discretion as to where you want to go, it is at theirdiscretion where they want to take. So if you look at Nepal and in particular at Kathmandu, you do not have much of a freedom to move unless you own your own vehicle. So when you look at our demographics, you will see that most of loyal customers are in fact females. And that freedom is further curtailed on when you are disabled. So, Tootle is all about giving people a freedom to move, and that is our core value. Its also thehashtag we try to trend: “the freedom to move”. And what we felt was that we had done a lot of design work to make it accessible to the visually impaired, but it was to the semi-visually impaired. And soon we learnt that one of users posted on Facebook expressing his content with using Tootle, so we called him in and it turns out he was a visually impaired man and we took his feedback on how we can improve the experience. And after taking his feedback, we made the app fully accessible to the visually impaired

And actually, his story is very impressive. This man, actually being very learned, booked a ride to Chobar, as he just wanted a fresh breath of air. And once there, he asked the biker if he can stop for five minutes and get a breath of fresh air. Usually this wouldn’t happen in taxi drivers and other existing modes of shared transport, but the driver actually ended up taking a 30-minute break with him in Chobar and the two shared a cup of tea as well and they came back. And stories like these inspire and encourageus to keep doing the work we are doing. And what Tootle also enables is the opportunity of the users going the last mile. They can be delivered to their very own doorsteps, which is not possible in other situations. So, yeah we do provide a lot of rides to normal people but these are stories that inspire all of us here working at Tootle.

Not everyone might have the technology, like a smart phone or access to 3G/internet to use Tootle whenever they need. Is this a problem for Tootle?

Yeah, it is a problem but it is also a huge opportunity! No one is using the app becomes a huge opportunity rather than a problem, as we can make more people use it and help drive their behavior. That is definitely more of an opportunity. Its like if a shoe seller goes into a place where no one is wearing shoes. For the shoe seller, that is more of a huge opportunity rather than a problem.

 

When a similar app has been launched in the past, like Uber, Lyft and Ola, it has been met with widespread scrutiny and criticism from the already existing systems of public transportation. With Tootle, has there been any such negative reactions from taxi, micro and bus drivers?

The thing is, we are not a transportation company. We are a platform that allows people to share rides, and possibly make an income through those rides. What’s the harm if someone wants to make money to pay for fuel by giving these rides or what’s the harm if someone even wants to make a livelihood out of it. During the time of the blockade, everyone was giving each other rides and this process of ride sharing occurred very naturally in our community. And people were extremely happy about it, happy about the fact that Kathmanduities were coming together to help each other out. But we kind of don’t like it when people start making a little bit of money out of it, which is a shame! Everything we like changes into dislike when people make money out of it. In fact, the way I look at it, Tootle gives people who otherwise have a hard time getting employed and making friends a chance to do so!

In the coming future, what are some new features or technology users can expect from Tootle? What plans do you have for the expansion of the company?

You cannot stop technology. Today or tomorrow, things are going to be replaced. The drivers are going to be replaced, most of our cognitive skills are going to be replaced. That is how the human race has progressed over the years. We are just a small participant on that larger tide of technology.

We actually have a lot of features people are not aware of. When you book a ride, you can actually see where exactly your rider is in real time and how fast he will be arriving at your location. Voice notification is enabled in all of this to make it easier for the user. Furthermore, you can send your location information to your family or friends so they can track you in real time and see what speed you are travelling in. We are working on launching a brand new interface which is going to be more intuitive. Currently, the booking process involves eight steps and we are going to bring that down to three steps with the launch of the new interface. We also have long term plans of expanding to other cities, Pokhara probably being sooner than other places.

And do you see a future of Tootle where you will also utilize cars for ridesharing through your app?

If the market is ready, definitely. It is actually much simpler using on cars than on motorbikes. It depends on the market.

Any final thoughts you would like to share with us?

Ideas do not breed entrepreneurship, a long term vision does. Tootle is about the “Freedom to Move”. That is our brand promise. Freedom is a fundamental human right, and we are here to deliver it to every doorstep and every citizen in this city.

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