D.C. is filled to the brim with transportation startups and the latest one to get thrown into the mix is Split, a ride sharing service that aims to lower transportation costs by putting multiple customers in a car together. Just like a fancy adult car pool. While split is only operating in a few neighborhoods in D.C., we had the opportunity to chat with CEO Ario Keshani and marketing manager Sara Pierce about their goals, what led them to start Split, and the algorithm behind it all.
BYT: Take me back to the beginning. How did you guys all come together?
Ario Keshani: So it was a rainy day and we were sitting looking out the window… No, I’m just joking. Before Split, I was working at a transportation company called Transdev. They do all different kinds of transportation, everything from busses to trains to taxis to airport shuttles, I’m sure you’ve heard of super shuttle before. Being in a transportation company, and watching companies like Uber and Lyft have such an impact on the world of transportation gets you really thinking about what the next steps are. What’s the future of this space? What does the transportation world look like in a couple of years? How can you be the next one to innovate? How can you be ahead of the curve? So obviously if you look at the taxi and the sedan industry they didn’t really innovate. Uber kind of sucker punched them.
I personally did a lot of soul searching, what is this industry? What is it going to look like? At that time we were thinking, what is the next step? What’s the next evolution? How do we stay ahead of the curve? We came up with a bunch of different ideas we were looking at, one of which ended up being Split. So Split, basically is a smarter shared ride service. What that means is we’re an on demand ride service, like Uber and Lyft, but we have a dynamically routed and instantly booked, and constantly thinking algorithm that finds other people along the way. You’re actually sharing your ride with other passengers that are on the way, or generally going in the same direction as you. It;’s a really efficient system because it gets cars off the road, it reduces pollution, it reduces traffic. It makes it a lot cheaper to get around, our prices are about half, or less than half, the cost of a taxi.
The idea can up and we started thinking, “How can we execute this?” at the same time we were doing a lot of research and found another startup in Finland that had been working on the same problem, called Ajelo. We reached out to them, started talking and realized that there is a real opportunity here for us to join forces, create a startup, and execute this. They had been working on the math side of the problem, fundamentally, it is a math problem. Figuring out who should be in what vehicle and going in what direction is a really complicated math problem the “traveling salesman problem.” They had been busy solving it for the last three years. So we decided to join forces and we needed money to launch the startup, so because of the relationship with Transdev, we were able to get them to be a feed investor. They invested a significant amount of money in an A round. So we raised a big A round and we merged forces with this startup in Finland and we created Split back in November of 2014.
The idea was take the work that the guys in Finland had already done, start building on it, and turn it into a viable product. We started working on this in November of 2014 and our app went live May of 2015. Part of what we focused on while building the app was figuring out, “What are we? What is different about us? Are we just a cheap taxi service? Or are we more than that?” We created a mission that really drives our decision making everyday. We’re trying to make the world a better place ultimately. That’s what we’re really shooting for.
We started in D.C. because it’s a city that’s very forward thinking when it comes to transportation and city planning. D.C. has the lowest rate of car ownership in the US. It’s got a great Metro system, a great public transit system. Every single transportation startup or app is in D.C. We were the first bike share city in the U.S. We have so many different things here in D.C., people are really forward thinking when it comes to transportation, It’s one of the main reasons we launched in D.C.Our goal is to expand beyond D.C. and to help change the world.
For me the dream is someday making it to places in the developing world that have real traffic problems. Like Johannesburg or Nairobi, or Sao Paulo. Those are the kind of places where I get really excited and my team gets really excited. That’s where we can really impact people’s lives.
You talked a little bit about your competitors, like Uber, and they’ve gotten a lot of flack for not taking care of their drivers, especially when it comes to insurance. What do you folks do for your drivers? What is it like to be a Split driver?
I’m really happy you’re asking that questions because it is one of the things that differentiates us from any other company. We have a set of core values that we created in addition to our mission statement, and they drive the decisions we make as a team. We realize that the drives are critical to our success. We want our drivers, essentially what is often the case with Uber and Lyft, we don’t want them to be living paycheck to paycheck. We don’t want them to be struggling to put bread on the table. The drivers that we bring on our team are committed to this project with us, They are trying to help us build an awesome service. They’re the ambassadors. They are the front line. They have a direct line to me and the entire team. They have an open door and can come to us at any time without an appointment and talk to any of us when they need it. They’re invited to all of our team events and are in constant communication with our team abou their needs and our needs. All of our drivers have commercial insurance, we felt that was very important. What we never want is for an incident to happen and for a driver or passenger to not know if they’re going to be okay. We want to do things the right way. We also have a $1 million policy in addition to all that.
You mentioned expansion and all of the cities you would love to hit. What’s the schedule for expansion in D.C.? You guys are only operating in a few neighborhoods right now.
Yeah, when we started out in May we were going from Georgetown to Union Station and from Chinatown to Columbia Heights and we’ve already expanded to three new neighborhoods, Navy Yard, Capitol Hill, and H St… and also to Petworth. We want to cover D.C. as quickly as possible, and also, as soon as we reach the suburb, provide our services to places like Arlington, Bethesda, and Silver Spring. We don’t know whether we’ll ever reach the end of the expansion, we want to keep expanding as fast as possible.
I’m just looking at your map right now and you don’t cover my neighborhood! What a bummer.
Where do you live?
I live in Edgewood.
We’ll be there in the not too distant future. Promise.
Sara Pierce: Fun fact, we have a secret pick up point at Mess Hall.
Oh really? Why do you guys have a secret pick up there?
So Mess Hall has been a partner that we’ve worked with and we’ve provided a lot of shared rides to their events. When we started out they were way out of our pickup area, and we’re getting closer and closer. The pickup point there still exists. So you can book from there.
So we’re going to keep expanding, but it’s a challenge. We have to manage our supply and make sure we’re covering all the demand. What we don’t want to do is add Edgewood and Brookland and not be able to serve it. That said, one of the key ways we know where to go next is from feedback from our customers.
Sara: It’s the first of its kind and we want to do more… Fun fact, Atlas Brew Works reached out to us last week and they really want Split their, so we’re looking into putting a secret pickup point over there as well. It gives us the opportunity to do some cool things with some local businesses.
How did you guys choose the initial neighborhoods?
So there was a little bit of intuition. Sara is a local, she was raised in Montgomery County, so was I, and I went to college in D.C. So knowing the city well, we thought a lot about where would we find the most density of people working, living, and having fun. What we also found while doing our research, and I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I think that over 50% of taxi rides begin and end in those areas.
How do you see Split changing in the future?
Our first long term goal is to make getting around the city and cities easier for people. That’s not a big thing. That’s no big secret. But we have a lot of ideas about how we can do that and how we can do other things to make cities better. One really easy example is deliveries. Back in another life I started a food delivery startup in New York and what caused us to fail was that delivering food same day costs a lot of money. It killed our business. We ran out of money because we were spending so much on deliveries. We’re building this algorithm, and we’re continuing to work on the algorithm thats finding parts on a route where people are overlapping and you can actually do the same thing with packages or with meals or with documents or whatever. Anything that needs to go from one place to another, we can find the best route for it while having it overlap with someone else’s best route at some point along the way and keep that price low. Instead of paying $8 or $9 to get something couriered, you could pay $4. That could be a huge differentiator.
So we’re thinking about those kinds of things, but really it comes down to we’ve built this really complex and amazing algorithm, and we want to try to find ways to apply that algorithm to different things in the city where we can make life easier, better, and affordable for people.
What was the biggest lesson you learned about forming your startup?
I can say this pretty comfortably, it’s a lesson I’ve learned over and over again in my life, and that is the company you’re building is nothing more than the people you’re building it with. Recruiting and bringing on the best people you can find is absolutely critical to being successful. That’s not just smart, hardworking people, that means smart hardworking people that care about what you’re doing, who get what you’re doing, who are devoted to it, and want to help the company accomplish its mission. I’m honestly really proud to… I was going to throw in a little, “Unfortunately, our team is not great,” but I’m really proud to say that our team is amazing. Everybody on our team.. except for Beth maybe… [laughs]. No, I’m joking. Everybody on our team is really committed to this. We all try to do things the right way and make a difference in the world.