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Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

The high road to making logistics human

Rivigo’s Deepak Garg on how the truck startup’s tech-backed relay model helped them drive through the lockdown

Like many chief executive officers, Deepak Garg, co-founder of trucking startup Rivigo, was running late. But it gave us time to take in the lively décor of his Gurugram office, which we visited before the company shifted to the work-from-home setup due to the pandemic. After months of remote working, they’ve recently returned to the physical office. The workplace design mirrors Rivigo’s line of business: intersection of trucking and technology. Every floor is marked with a milestone resembling the ones on highways. Meeting rooms are named after national highways. Trucking imagery is interspersed with references to tech. “We turn truck into code," reads a poster.

Yet when Garg took us into his workspace, the look and feel was distinctly corporate: a traditional L-shaped desk, with chairs, paired with a round meeting table, and accompanied by awards. “I debated whether I should be sitting out there in the open, or here. I realized that open offices don’t actually work that much because you can’t do meetings there and you can’t do confidential calls there. So I thought maybe this is better," said Garg, 39.

“This space is also used by colleagues for meetings when he’s travelling, which is quite often", added co-founder Gazal Kalra.

WHAT ART REFLECTS

The office’s most defining feature is not its layout, though. It is two works of art. The first one is a surreal portrait of Garg, showing a collection of imaginary winged trucks emanating from his head into a jewelled night sky, where Planet Earth floats, with India marked in prominently in red. The work was a gift from his wife Priya, who had it commissioned when the company was young, and has turned out to be prophetic.

“The small India painted red on a world map is very symbolic. I talk a lot about how India will be a superpower, and it’s not just now, it’s since college. The flying trucks refers to ‘air shipment on road’ because Rivigo trucks actually ply faster because of the relay model," he explained.

Rivigo prides itself on a relay model which allows its drivers, referred to as “pilots", to drive shorter distances, hand over their trucks to colleagues at designated pit stops, collect another truck, and come home every night, rather than driving the same truck for a longer journey of weeks or months. Technology serves as a backbone to enable this baton-passing efficiently.

Finally, the night-sky is emblematic. “I meditate, I talk about the universe and cosmos, and I do it a lot more now. I did not do it back then. Now I connect with all of it."

The painting captures Garg’s vision for Rivigo, especially his often-stated desire “to make logistics human. “Traditional transportation logistics involves a lot of drudgery. A truck pilot for example, typically, comes home after months. Our mission is to bring him back home every day through the relay model, so it’s a big global innovation when we started this. We have now stabilized that model, thousands of pilots are coming home everyday," he said, adding more professional stability has had a multiplier impact on the pilots’ standing in society, leading to greater financial inclusion too.

A print of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ in Deepak Garg’s Gurugram office, the Rivigo founder, and a portrait of him commissioned by his wife when the company was just started
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A print of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ in Deepak Garg’s Gurugram office, the Rivigo founder, and a portrait of him commissioned by his wife when the company was just started

The lockdown has validated the relay model, Garg explains later in a follow-up phone call post the lockdown. As restrictions ease more by the day, demand is picking up and margins are reasonably healthy, he clarifies. Some of the biggest challenges have been on the tech and product side. “Operational complexities on the ground have gone up and tech teams have been working 18-20-hour days as customers expect the same quality of service," he points out.

BACK TO THE OFFICE

The second artwork in the office, also gifted by Priya, is equally significant. It is one of Rudyard Kipling’s most famous poems, “If" beginning with the memorable lines, “If you can keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, and make allowance for their doubting too…" Garg says he “connects a lot with it. I often refer to this, in good or bad times."

Both works of art serve as a metaphor for Garg’s business life: one captures his strategic vision, and the other captures the daily challenges of execution—of which there are many.

Rivigo has been questioned for not being able to raise enough capital, for not being able to provide the fastest service or a truly differentiated business model, for not approaching profitability, and for having too much management churn. Enough criticism to warrant turning to Kipling for daily sustenance.

Garg tackled the charges, when we first met before the lockdown. First, funding. “We have been well funded for the last five years for the ideas, initiatives and execution we are doing. I think this whole notion is misplaced that we have not been able to raise enough. We raise as much as we need. Last year, we raised $85 million. And we have enough capital and horsepower to lead our initiatives," he said.

Second, being able to fulfil its claims of the fastest service providers.

“It’s a journey," he admitted. “We operate on 21 major national highway routes where we give the fastest service. Others, we are not yet the fastest. Over time, the market is huge. And it’s a 10-20 year commitment to change the lives of 100,000 pilots and build a large logistics powerhouse in India. We’re only five years old and it’s unfair to say in that five years you’d be the fastest all across. For any material, high-quality idea, my sense is that it takes about a decade to build the right kind of service, cost, profitability, all of them together."

Third, whether his model can be replicated, for example, by substituting two or three drivers in a truck and getting them to take turns to drive. “Our entire philosophy has been to cut down on inefficiency and stoppages on the highway with unscheduled stops. When a driver runs from Delhi-Mumbai, even if there are two drivers, they will stop to eat and for bio-breaks. They will drive fast in stretches, at 80-90 kmph and risk their lives, but they will also stop for a couple of hours. Our truck does not stop. Every driver just picks up the truck, and drives for the next four-five hours, hands over and we cut down on the inefficiencies over the next four-five hours. The guy is fresh. Just takes a stop at the pit stop."

Fourth, profitability. “It’s my personal and solid intention to make the company profitable. I believe that’s the right way for Rivigo to scale up from here on," he said.

Fifth, churn. Garg sighed as he explained that “churn is a continuous process at any new age company," and that different people are required at different stages of evolution, whether “day zero to one, or from one to ten or from ten to 100." As the company operates at a certain size and scale, those people who “like the phenomenon of the adrenaline phase of startup culture, they leave and join those 0-1 and 1-10 kind of companies."

Garg captures the growing pangs of any startup founder, translating founder’s intentionality into execution reality. In this case, illustrated by a creative painting and an iconic poem.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.

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