Across the urban centers of Karachi, Rawalpindi/Islamabad, and Lahore, Bykea has become quite a common name. Whether you want to get to work quickly or you want bun kabab delivered from Burnes Road, it’s your app.
Launched by Muneeb Maayr in 2016, it was the first application to bring the concept of bike-hailing. The name has interesting roots too. “It was meant to be a marketplace so there was the ‘buy’ angle and then obviously at the center of it was a ‘bike’ so we got to Bykea,” he explains.
What does it do? Currently, the company is offering ride-hailing, shopping, and immediate delivery services, a blue-collar job portal, ticket-finder among others. That’s a lot to do in one go, no? But Muneeb’s plans are even more ambitious. He wants to make Bykea a hyperlocal marketplace. Wait, what?
Basically a marketplace, but limited to a given locality. Still confused? Let me try harder: imagine you open Bykea’s app and there you have a list of all the shops in your locality, from dhaba to doodhwala. In other words, a sort of Foodpanda but not for restaurants. Rather, with all the neighborhood shops.
But Bykea is operating in a fiercely competitive market. While Uber has launched UberMoto, the company doesn’t seem particularly serious about making grounds here, bike or otherwise. But that’s not the case with Careem: Pakistan is their prized country and they are committed to cashing in on the bike market. And most importantly, they have the money to burn! Whether it’s the regular promo codes or Shoaib Akhtar taking you on your first ride, Careem has been aggressive right from the beginning. How does Bykea hope to stay then?
“We have intense competition in our ride-hailing, true. But that’s just one of the things we do. Bykea delivers anything for you, and we are launching a dedicated catered food service for working people. Then our job portal is also quite popular actually,” Muneeb clarifies.
How do they make money? It’s commission-based. Bikers are charged a certain percentage on each ride. But with a race-to-the-bottom competition marking the ride-hailing industry, Bykea is finding itself in a tough spot with those cash flows. The falling rupee and rising fuel prices aren’t helping either. Currently funded by Ithaca and JS Capital, Muneeb is also open to acquisition. “We don’t mind being bought, as long as it’s meant to grow the company further,” he says.
Muneeb was the CEO of Daraz where he felt his role was rather limited. “Rocket Internet gives you a budget but steers the broader direction of the company itself. My role was merely that of an executioner so I wanted something of my own, where I would have control over the product I was offering,” Muneeb recalls.
One thing that puts the company at odds with the wider startup scene in the country is its target market. While most go for the well-to-do, the upper middle classes, Muneeb wants that small trader in Jodia Bazar who wants to track the delivery of his good or that paanwala in your neighborhood. Makes sense then that they have an Urdu app.
“We knew what we were doing would be considered uncool. Bykea wasn’t meant to be a hip app: it is supposed to solve a very real problem that confronts the bulk of the Pakistani population,” the CEO tells Dawn.
His intention to bring the neglected into the tech world is surely appreciable but it also makes things very risky. Unlike other companies, Bykea doesn’t have tech-savvy elites who are quite enthusiastic about being part of the fourth industrial revolution. Rather than tapping into the market, they have to carve one out.
“We are a local startup competing against two heavily-funded foreign companies, and yet the tech is almost similar. And we haven’t marketed ourselves much either, except for growing our supply,” says Muneeb.
And that lack of consumer-capturing is echoed by two Bykea riders I talked to. According to them, the company actually pays better than Careem but there aren’t enough rides, except for the peak hours. Muneeb, however, is dismissive of both these points.
“It’s not that we pay our riders better, but more so that most of our transactions are settled in cash. There aren’t many promos either. So there is more immediate take-home pay after every ride. In fact, I believe Careem actually pays a bit more all in all but a lot of it is received at the end of the week,” Muneeb explains, candidly.
“As for the rides, the issue is not lack of demand. So far, it has consistently exceeded supply. But we haven’t been able to streamline the two. A lot of rides are canceled because the rider finds that it’s out of route or that bill will be paid out of wallet. We are working on an update so the rider will be able to see the wallet amount and drop-off before accepting the ride so that issue will hopefully be solved soon as well,” he adds.
The fact that they have around a million downloads so far does give credibility to Muneeb’s claims about the demand.
But in a country where half of the population is left out of the extremely convenient and pocket-friendly bike-hailing due to cultural limitations, Bykea’s gains, no matter how extraordinary, would still fall short of their true potential. And Muneeb realizes that well enough.
“We can’t radically transform the culture but we are trying. We are in talks with a female rider to open a biking institute for girls here, who will then join us as riders,” he says, adding “but I believe the first step is to bring them into the income-generation process. And there comes in Bykea’s logistics through which we can help them set up home-based businesses.”
Muneeb is also wary of how the tech startup scene is panning out in Pakistan. “It’s more buzz than actual inventions. There are only a few investors, with negligible international attention, and how things are going, we don’t know if the techies themselves will stay. If they don’t see a return on their investments, they might end up joining the business process outsourcing firms and make much more money,” he notes, pessimistically.
Whether their catchy name does more to grab market share in one of their business areas or short-sell the services they offer remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: Muneeb is convinced that bikes could be the ultimate troubleshooter for all our city troubles, be it commutation, food delivery, logistics among others.
This article was originally published in Dawn.