Bangalore: Alok Goel spun his mobile phone in his hand, showing how the device functions as a personal assistant. He pointed to its eyes and ears, the pinpoint camera and tiny microphone.
“And it has a skin because you can touch and feel,” he said. “It’s a true person who is going with you in your pocket all the time.”
It is also the vehicle on which redBus, Goel’s company, is banking much of its future success.
Since its founding in 2006 by Phanindra Sama, the online booking operator has managed to solve many of the nagging frustrations for travellers in the nation’s behemoth, disorganized bus market. Those fixes have led to some 30,000 transactions a day, accounting for over Rs.600 crore tickets last year that brought in Rs.6 billion in revenue. It has raked in funding from top-tier investors Seedfund, Inventus Capital and Helion Venture Partners.
But for users of the website, which allows travellers to select from over 10,000 routes, problems still persist, explained Goel, the chief products officer who joined redBus in June 2012 from Google.
On a recent trip to Chennai, he was unable to find a pick-up point near his Bangalore home for a trip booked with his own company. He had to call the bus operator, an annoyance many other users suffer.
“Can we somehow leverage the capabilities of this device to solve all the problems for the bus traveller?” he asked holding his phone. “We certainly cannot solve the pain points on a desktop computer.”
Two months ago, the company launched its first version of a mobile application for Android and Windows phones following the release of its mobile website last year. The application received over 100,000 downloads in its first 30 days. “Within two months,” Goel claimed, “our mobile business has actually tripled.”
Around 70% of redBus bookings are made on the day of travel or one day prior. So many of the uncertainties and irritations—the location, schedule and operations of the buses—arise at the last minute.
Their mobile website, Goel admitted, does not readily address these issues. Users must type in requests, as they do on computers, with a far less accessible surface than an interactive application can offer.
Three weeks ago, his team unveiled a feature with the application following booking. A simple screen serves as a ticket. A GPS map appears, marking the bus arrival location. And the application offers advice tailored to the specific trip, culled from earlier travellers: on the climate in the destination city, whether the bus is equipped with water or blankets, and if it will stop for food—and even if the food is good.
On a sample ticket, one message popped up: “Remember to fully charge your mobile phone before the journey. There is not a charger on the bus.”
With applications making improving transactions, redBus is likely relying on its mobile arm to ease the burden on its seven call centres nationwide. The company hopes the mobile features will offer convenience to current users, and bring in more as well.
“A lot of Internet growth is coming from tier II and III towns. The first screen that users experience for Internet is a mobile phone,” said Goel. “We are reaching new consumers.”
Four years ago, when he was working in products for Google, Goel recalled being unsure of mobile penetration across India. For redBus, then a young start-up, putting resources into mobile would have been a risky gambit.
It has become far less risky. A recent report from Nokia Siemens Networks claimed mobile data usage grew 92% from December 2011 to December 2012. Although much of the growth was relegated to metros and the telecom region in southern and western states, the figures mean redBus has a growing number of pocket personal assistants to tap.
“Now we know that these devices are the future of the country,” Goel said. By adding mobile phones, he predicts the company will further corner its sector. “We can actually build up on the volumes we have right now and do these things much better than anyone else.”
The turn to mobile is not seamless. While the mobile offerings allow all the payments options of the website (credit and debit cards, net banking and cash on delivery), the company had to scrap portions of net banking because of browser limitations. Goel emphasized that finding a user interface designer to craft the redBus applications was “incredibly hard”.
And while mobile availability may be adding users at a fast clip, the company now nearly synonymous with online bus travel operations has only reached about a tenth of the market.
“Still, 90% of people go and buy a bus ticket from a small shop,” Goel lamented. “We have not yet solved the real problem.”
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