“We’re an inter city carpooling platform, not a taxi service,” Raghav Gupta, the India Country Manager at BlaBlaCar emphasises to MediaNama. BlaBlaCar is in a country where the sharing economy is being likened to the traditional transportation sector: Ola and Uber are seen from the lens of taxi services, and are in the process of being regulated as aggregators of taxi services. BlaBlaCar launched in India in January 2015, and says that in the first 18 months, 3 million seats were offered via the platform. The company has 40 million members globally, but Gupta doesn’t want to share India specific data.
Excerpts from our conversation with Gupta:
People weren’t familiar with carpooling
Gupta: When we launched in India, long distance carpooling hadn’t been launched by any other company, so the first thing we spent time on was educating people because honestly, sometimes people would wonder “is this a taxi service?” or “how do we ensure safety?” And third they’d wonder how we meet the person (the offerer of the seat) and do they pick me up etc. People had concerns about trust and safety. Over the last 18-20 months that we’ve been live in India, both of these are largely solved for and our focus is on continuing to build usage and get more people to start using BlaBlaCar when they travel long distance.
A different value proposition in India, as compared to Europe
Gupta: On the car owner’s side, BlaBlaCar’s proposition is that they can save a significant amount of money by sharing empty seats given that petrol prices are quite high in India. We see our regular car owner members saving anywhere around Rs 40,000- Rs 50,000 per annum. On the co-traveller side, the value proposition is a bit different from what we have in Europe. In Europe, compared to a last minute train, BlaBlaCar is essentially about 50-60% cheaper.
In India we’re maybe 10-15% cheaper than a Shatabdi train ticket, but Shatabdi tickets are usually not available for the next day or 7 days. Here, we’re saying to people that you can travel at the last minute without worrying about the availability of a train ticket…
At the strategic value proposition, we’re much cheaper for a co-traveller in Europe than (European) public transport. In India we’re much more available, not necessarily cheaper.
On how BlaBlaCar deals with user privacy
Gupta: “We launched government IDs in India and we took it to Turkey, Mexico, and now we’re even taking it to Europe so learning’s been generated here and taken to other markets as well.”…”For user privacy from a privacy standpoint: one, the kind of info displayed on the website is shareable in the public domain. When a profile says that the user’s identity is government verified, we do not display the government ID. Those IDs are encrypted and stored securely on BlaBlaCar servers. When connected through Facebook, BlaBlaCar’s travellers cannot open the driver’s Facebook account or see their list of friends, which is the second part of the liability of individual consent.
Essentially the elements required to build digital trust and enable people to travel will be displayed on the website. If somebody wants to book a seat in my car, then they need to speak to me and once they book a seat, they’re able to get my phone number. But they don’t get the phone number till they book a seat because we don’t want a member to get spammy phone calls.”
How does BlaBlaCar verify that seats were actually occupied or taken?
Gupta: We’re a supply guide marketplace which means that the car owner member will offer seats on BlaBlaCar. Let’s say I offer 2-3 seats on BlaBlaCar and a co-traveller will travel with me by booking a seat in my car, we’ll know that in Raghav’s car, 2 out of the 3 offered seats were booked by these 2 people.
How BlaBlaCar monetizes in India
Gupta: Commission is how we will move forward. Typically, for most countries that we launched in the past, it takes 2-3 years before we started to monetise.
India is coming close to about 2 years and sometime next year we’ll start to monetise. The usage patterns and feedback we got from members indicate that we’re on track for monetisation. We don’t have ads on the platform, so essentially we charge for usage.
We charge a fee to the co-traveller when they book a seat in somebody else’s car and we currently don’t charge that fee in India… When somebody books a seat in a car, we know that the person has booked a seat. If it is a seat from Delhi to Chandigarh, the seat price might be Rs 500, our commission might be Rs 75 and we know that this person is gonna pay Rs 575 of which Rs 75 will come to us. The person offering the seat is not charged, only the one who’s booking.
The team in India
Gupta: India operation is run by a team of 30 people: 11 are based in India, others are based in Paris and London. Our products and technology work is centralised in Paris. Some elements of marketing and branding are centralised in London and some elements are based in India: marketing, partnerships, communication, customer service, member engagement.
Usage spikes: Holidays and weekends
Gupta: Last month (Diwali) was a very high usage period where usage went up by close to 100%. Usage will continue to be quite strong compared to last year, but we won’t compare since we started from zero. We see spikes during holidays, long seasons or festivals. For example, 15th August weekend, Dussehra, Diwali, Christmas, New Year’s. A lot of people who travel on BlaBlaCar are working professionals and we also see spikes on Friday, Saturday and Monday, because people typically go to family or friends over the weekend and come back on a Monday morning.
Government will set regulations once carpooling becomes popular
Gupta: When we launched in France, there was no explicit regulation for carpooling. Carpooling through BlaBlaCar became quite large and then the government explicitly defined it in the regulations and defined carpooling: if it’s a private car, it’s not a taxi, a car owner is going to make the trip in any case and they share the cost of the fuel. A similar trend is likely to happen in India as well.
We’ve been talking to the regulators and the good thing is that they really want to encourage carpooling because the benefits to society are quite obvious, in terms of traffic and emissions etc. Indian regulators told us that as carpooling becomes more and more mainstream, they expect to bring a specific regulation to support carpooling as well in India.
Although a lot of the regulations around taxi aggregators have been in the limelight, in case of carpooling, the level of support that we’ve seen has been very encouraging and that’s very good for us.
Price range is set
Gupta: We recommend the seat price based on the distance that a person is travelling. Car owners can raise it by 10% and reduce it by 50%. This cost is calculated on the basis of the running cost of the car, fuel, toll, maintenance etc. It is not driven by location but by distance.
On insurance and liability in an accident
Gupta: Since BlaBlaCar is a private car, a car owner is sharing his empty seats and costs with other people. The insurance of the car continues to hold as it would in a normal situation, so in case there were to be an accident, the insurance of the car would cover the car and its occupants as well.