I recently parted ways with Tootle(the first ridesharing platform in Nepal), where I drove product and business growth under the position of CMO. Many of my friends wondered why I chose to leave the brand I built or nurtured like my baby. I felt like answering this once and for all summarising my journey and embracing the good in the goodbye. As Tootle turns two on (Jan 1st, 2019), also a moment for me to relive my memories of creating a brand that became a buzzword in the startup ecosystem of Nepal by the time I left.(Nov 2018)
Being in the core team
I have been involved with Tootle since its inception or let’s just say even before, when we were experimenting different other ICT projects like Edcrayon(classroom management system), Edquake(Application in response to DRR) and many other minute research projects. We were only 3 in the ground team back then.(Ayush, Bina and me)
Edcrayon was built with incredible hard work but when we introduced it in the market, it bombed. We identified several challenges that impeded us from obtaining the product market fit. The challenge we faced reminds me of a note from Michael Seibel(CEO, Y Combinator) where he mentions that when a product is only made from the anticipation of problems or situations within the mind of the makers and very less or none from the market or the primary customer, it turns into a creative novel. For Edcrayon, we could have pivoted but the team prioritized some other research in the pipeline so the product got shelved. However, we kept the lesson learned at the forefront of our mind and made sure those were reflected on the products we made later. I believe one main reason behind the success of Tootle(up to the growth stage) was the team who used history as a source of precautionary tales of what not to do.
It was in 2016 when I took a piece of paper and started jotting down names for the brand. Being a brand enthusiast, the brand name was of utmost importance to me. I wanted to craft a ridiculously sexy brand name, something that in itself was capable to become a buzzword. My mind was already set on avoiding some basic pitfalls like not restricting a name that addresses only a niche market, choosing a globally recognizable word, quickly memorable, in sync to the value proposition and something that can substantially hold the impactful stories.
There was a lot of brainstorming from the team. We were looking if this concept could be tested in electric vehicle segment, so idea like“Bijuli”(meaning: electricity in Nepali) came up. But we did not want to restrict ourselves to a niche market of electric vehicles, therefore, the name was not a serious go. Oddly enough, name ideas like“Cabio” came up too when there was absolutely no plan of launching this on cab services. Next option was“car.ma” which means in a car. From research-based evidence, we knew that the four-wheeler is a luxury segment in Nepal. Also, the ownership trend of four-wheelers is generally on a shared basis within a family which limits the option of sharing it with others for a ride. While two-wheeler segments are free-flowing here in Nepal. So car.ma was clearly a no go for the same reasons. The team also came up with a couple of other Nepali names that were very dear to us but the aim was to build a global brand and we did not want people to scratch their heads while hearing a brand name.
Meanwhile, my search was on and then one day I came across the word“Tootle”- whose literal meaning is traveling in a leisurely way. I felt that the name itself sounded like a jingle, was also something whose several forms could be used while devising marketing communications like tootling, tootle today etc. and no wonder its become like a catchphrase in Kathmandu valley now.
By the end of 2017, the product reached a milestone where the client taking the highest number of rides was a visually impaired person. Tootle then became a story of dream to people seeking assistive technology.
One fine day, one of our first client dropped in our workplace just to thank us for he found his freedom to move around Kathmandu valley via Tootle. It was then, Tootle became a story of freedom. Our brand promise “Freedom to Move” was derived from this story.
When it comes to women, we are aware of how vulnerable it can be while using public transportation in Nepal. Tootle became a story of hope when we had about 50% of female clients in Tootle by 2018.
My dream of translating a word into a brand and nourishing it with impactful stories came true. The Impact was what kept the fire in me burning to strive more despite all the chaos of running a startup.
Tootle became a sensation in Nepal by the end of 2018.
I feel content when looking back that I was truly devoted to work but it did come with a price. Although being in a complete state of frugality in terms of resources, I decided to do side projects to inject more funds and fuel Tootle’s growth. We successfully executed Oxfam’s Application project while working very hard for Tootle side by side. Thank you team(Ayush, Sujan, Ashma), couldn’t have it done without your efforts and dedication. I know I almost burnt us out but the depths of my heart will applaud our efforts lifelong.
While working for Tootle, there were endless nights when we had to take up work to home and the stressors of the day continued when you should be doing something else like reading a book, going out on a date, having some quiet time, family vacation, catching up with a friend, going to gym in a routine or whatever else you enjoy. But, the love of the product was so strong that we were ready for trade-offs.
Thank you, Dad, Mom, Pallu, Biraj and Bipin for being so understanding of my mood swings and time mismanagement while I chose Tootle over you sometimes and yet being there for me with open arms whenever I needed my sanity.
Changing the behavior
People often ask what was the greatest challenge of all while building Tootle? I think it is a long journey of perseverance and hard work. Now that the product has entered the growth stage in the PLC curve(not many startups in Nepal reach here), it might look like it came easy to us. The truth is no stage is a cakewalk. The early stage up to growth was not just about coming up with an idea, it was about putting in countless days and night of bringing together a business plan, developing a minimum viable product, validating the market, gathering the emerging market trends and developing strategies to cross the chasm and speed up the technology adoption process from early adopters to early majorities, applying grants and funds, fixing the unit economics, building the team and what not. Imagine having to pull all of that with bare minimum resources.
There were countless other challenges but the answer to“the greatest” has remained constant forever. It was bringing the“change in behavior” of people to adopt something new and make it a part of their daily lives. Ridesharing is not really a unique concept globally but in Nepal, it was a wholly new story. Selling an idea of using a mobile application to get a ride in a country like Nepal was like opening the Pandora’s box. Early in 2016, when we were validating this concept in different IT/Business Schools, there was a lot of friction seen even in the urban elite young segment. Self doubts definitely started to creep in but we passed the rough waters with team spirit and broke the habit. It is also vital to understand the technology adoption lifecycle. Geoffrey Moore’s Principle of Crossing the Chasm was a good guide for me to design a game plan for marketing a high tech product like Tootle.
Letting work do the talking
It was kind of fun for me to overhear people talking about Tootle in different public places. We had at least one student email every week to visit Tootle for their case study purpose. We were doing a lot of relevant business development activities and growing the online presence but the team at the ground level was staying low key because we believed in our work doing the talking. Making noises early on as a startup never occurred like a good idea to me. As we grow in impact, sooner or later we knew we would hit the right note and we did.
Whenever I attended an event representing Tootle, the growing stardom of the startup only reinforced the sense of responsibility in me to take the product to the next level. Honestly, when you work on building a product from scratch, it becomes like your baby. And very much like our parents exhibiting a special knack for making us feel like a child who needs to grow better no matter what age we become; for me, I was always looking at Tootle like a child that needs to keep on growing aptly. After returning from the event I would literally call up the CTO(Ayush) at midnight to make plans on how to improve the service because it wasn’t just our product anymore. It had become people’s brand that they rely on to make their lives better. And we couldn’t fail them.
I adore my memories of applying to several accelerator programs for funds like Slush Global Impact Accelerator, Seedstars World and GSMA because amidst all the chaos of running a startup, doing this simultaneously requires a great zeal and serious love for the product.
Applying GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator was like going through an emotional roller coaster since achieving the grant was a tough beat. We had to go through various stages of proposals, draft accurate milestones, define socio-economic KPI’s, forecast financials and pass a due diligence process to finally make it. GSMA was a milestone based grant which is why the reporting aspect was equally challenging. But there was a tremendous satisfaction when achieving those milestones since it was directly aligned with the growth of the product.
Wearing many hats
Although I was working under the position of CMO, my role was an amalgamation of different jobs. In the beginning, its also very obvious because working in a startup is not about having a singular job. I have stepped up in solving different product management problems, human resource issues, operational activities, customer service issues, worked as a designer, fund manager, photographer while other primary responsibilities of marketing and business development being intact.
In a sense, transitioning among roles makes us skilled and more adaptable which is an indispensable quality for life. But my personal take is that juggling hats must come to an end at one point. If not, the advantage will wind down and the disadvantages will significantly hurt the product. Proxy work is beneficial up to the point that it does not clog the work environment or compromise the quality of the service.
If a senior web developer is delegated the task of auditing finances, and having to diverge from their core responsibility at the growth stage of the product; then it will not just slow down the business performance but will also compromise collective output from the team overall.
Be careful not to Penny Wise Pound Foolish
There are many instances where I have seen startups, especially in Nepal, being operated in a“Penny wise, pound foolish” manner. I get that hasty spending in a startup culture makes no sense and spending in any shape or form needs to be orchestrated meticulously. However, there are certain urgent and important scenarios where spending a little more can bring about many folds of improvement in the quality of service that startups can provide. To categorize these urgent important lists, Eisenhower Urgent Important Matrix can be a great tool to get started with. Spending today to establish counter redundancies, processes, specialization and a creative workspace, is, in fact, a prudent investment.
Value of team
From being 3 in the ground team, we grew to 16 by the end of 2018. And by the time I left, the team size was about 35. In a startup scenario, you can make very few hires because of resource constraints which is why hiring is even more crucial. Being familiar with the product, processes, milestones, KPI’s, I generally initiated the hiring process from identifying the fit of people required to blend in a particular stage of the product, it’s brand value and vision. Seeking people with a learning mindset and a personality which elevates the team’s energy is of utmost priority to me.
However, on the hiring part, my derivation is that we can only delve into the basic requirements in a person; rest is dependent on a good leadership. A team can do amazing things under a good leadership. If the leadership goes sour, a good team can often flee with demotivation no matter how potential they are.
The team I built after me for Tootle, was/is one of my greatest achievement in my career. The relationship that I share with them is very mutual, I have led them but learned more from them. Even after parting ways, we share a bond of love and respect.
My article so far might have guided well that I have a huge emotional association with all the products I have worked for and especially Tootle. At this time, with the market validated, ground team setup, unit economics fixed, and support from GSMA, we have successfully led the product from an introduction to the growth phase. On the other hand, stability in the company is an ongoing process. I along with the CTO of Tootle, Ayush Subedi(the guy who wrote the first lines of code for Tootle and incorporated multiple robust algorithms to build a state of the art technology in a place like Nepal where building a tech product as such in-house with a minimum resource capacity is only a dream to many) left Tootle to explore our curiosity and creativity again via Moonlit Solutions.
Like they say“The creators may die but the creation remains.” The brand has to be bigger than all of us. I wish all the very best to Tootle. Happy Birthday Tootle and Happy New Year 2019 to all.