An oral history of Careem’s launch

One of the things Careem aims to do is to inspire other tech start-ups in the region.  So, we thought it might be nice to show that while Careem is now a large tech company, its origins were humble and in the very early days surprisingly low-tech. In their own words, the co-founders of Careem…

Magnus: After almost losing my life, I was looking for something to do that was meaningful and I bumped into Mudassir, an ex-colleague – we decided to create something meaningful and big together. We looked at healthcare and education and then the topic of transportation came up after it was mentioned as a problem area by some ex-colleagues at McKinsey. As a corporate client, it was a big pain to move around in the region – everything from having booked a car to having found a car, paying the guy, every part of the journey was challenging.

Mudassir: There was a problem with corporate transport and McKinsey was using a group of different providers in different markets and the reliability was low. There was zero tech involved which meant that the receipts were all paper-based and there was no way to classify expenses, plus we’d have to go to the ATM and draw out money to give to the driver – it was so manual that we thought, “this is the 21st Century and this is how transportation is working?”

Magnus At first we didn’t feel that this was really the big idea we were after and I wasn’t sure made sense. When you get a second chance in life is this really what you want to do? But the more we looked at it the more we realised that this has the potential to do something meaningful and good. We decided to call it Careem – a play on kareem, the Arabic word for generosity –  just so it reminds us about the values of being generous.

Magnus: The first thing we did on day one was to write down our values. Together we came up with the whole notion of building an awesome organisation in the region, for the region, that can inspire others with our world-class conduct, our people, our tech, and that is something that we still aspire to.

Magnus: From the early days we realised that this platform has the potential to simplify and improve lives of customers across the region. But more meaningfully, to support the lives of Captains, not only giving them a job or an income opportunity but also giving them respect and care and self-value, because the notion of a being a driver previously was not that great.

Mudassir: Magnus went to a hotel in Abu Dhabi where these limos were parked outside and he spoke to one of the drivers, who was from Bangladesh. It was the depth of the summer, he was only getting one or two trips per day and that wasn’t even enough to pay the cost of his car, then in these few months he started borrowing money and can’t send anything back home to his family who are then in challenging circumstances. And this guy lived the very tight conditions in Abu Dhabi with a room that has four beds and he has one shift on a bed – he didn’t even have a bed to himself. Literally 95 percent of the money he makes he wanted to send back home to his family and provide.

Mudassir: Education was very important to them because a lot of the limo captains are aspirational, they look at you and me sitting in the car with them and they want their kids to be like us, so a lot of their money was being spent on their children’s’ education. So that side of the story became a bit more apparent, and we started to see how we could be meaningful and help people’s lives.

Mudassir: Our first client was our ex-employer McKinsey, who was struggling with a transport problem, but we learned a lot about the billing and transport business very quickly. We made mistakes early on and you don’t realise that there are 20,000 things that can go wrong – from directions, to traffic, to the technology and lots of things we didn’t expect.

Mudassir: We learned the hard way and there were many failures that taught us a few things. That’s how we built the first version of Careem and it was a corporate car service working for corporate organisations. But over time people who were using the service started to use it for personal trips as well because at the end of the day, your client is not McKinsey, your client is a person who is sitting in the car who works for McKinsey and if he sees that the service is good he’ll use it the next time his family is going on vacation and needs to book a car to the airport.

Magnus: We started on July 22nd in 2012 and said that by September 1st we should launch. We ended up launching on September 3rd and back then it was a very humble product. The customers had to go to a website as there wasn’t an app, and they could make a pre-scheduled booking where you typed in your pick-up and drop-off address. It looked very smooth for the customers, but on the back end it was just basically an email that came to us and then we had a list of 20 drivers who we’d met and interviewed in a parking lot in International City. Every interview took about 45 minutes per captain, so we had spent a whole weekend interviewing potential captains.

Magnus: When the email came in we just started calling every captain on this list and asking if they were free. And because the bookings were pre-scheduled – in the early days you had to book at least four hours in advance – we had at least four hours to try and find a car. We’d send the Captain an SMS with details of the booking, but he had no app either so sometimes there were difficult locations. This was six years ago and if you tried to go to Jumeirah Village Triangle it was easy to get lost. So, we were guiding these Captains by phone asking what they could see and had they reached a roundabout yet and so on. It was crazy.

Mudassir: If there was a pickup from Jumeirah Village Triangle – which was known to be an are where we had problems connecting with customers – we’d tell the guy that the booking was at 8.50 when it was at nine because we knew that there was a high chance of him getting lost.

Magnus: Because there was no app yet, we used a code system via SMS. Sending a C meant he was coming, A for arrived, S for started ride and finally E for ended ride. He even submitted the distance of the ride by SMS based on the cars odometer. Then we started to automate things bit by bit. For the customers it looked like a very professional service, they got an SMS saying that the car was there, but under the hood is was incredibly chaotic.

Mudassir: We launched our first version of the app in February 2013 and what really saved the day on the consumer side of the business was that we had already worked with such demanding clients – where five minutes late was five minutes too late – we had built a lot of reliability into the service, but there were hacks and cracks in what we did as well.

Magnus: We never thought that it would be this big so fast. We were ambitious, but we ended exceeding our expectation. We also expected to have a total headcount of around 70 people by the end of 2017, [we currently have around 1,700] so we never imagined that it would be this big or such a platform for impacting on the lives of the people in the region.

Magnus: We always had this belief that if we do the right thing at Careem and do something meaningful then profits will follow. For me personally, I was not interested in the financial side – there are many things you can do if you just want to make money, but I wanted to find something that can feel meaningful for the region. We were both very aligned on that and it’s been the North Star from the beginning. Over the years the articulation of it has evolved a little, bit but the purpose of Careem is eternal and never finishes, and that’s to simplify and improve lives of people and build an awesome organisation that inspires.

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