What rolled out as a secret Facebook group providing delivery services to known people today stands as a company valued over $100 million and it is safe to say that anyone who knows how ride-sharing in the local scene has changed the way we look at commuting knows about Pathao. In light of this revolution, Persa Sanjana Hussain got into a conversation with Hussain M. Elius, the CEO of Pathao to know more about him and how the million-dollar business idea came into being
With the advent of Pathao in 2015, commuters started to believe that beating the intimidating traffic was possible. This platform catered a simple solution to traffic through motorbike rides which the audience couldn’t anticipate would be this needed and loved. Zooming through the densely populated city Pathao capitalized on motorbikes to take commuters from point A to B not only in a short time but also at a cheap rate. And as the bikes zoomed through, people’s faith in seeing this as a solution grew stronger by the day.
On how the idea was brought to life, Hussain M. Elius, the CEO of this exponentially growing business says, “Before Pathao, I was still doing my MBA. I really didn’t have a plan, we tested out a lot of different businesses to see what people want. Pathao was the sixth project that worked wonders.” Even though it seems like Pathao scaled up almost effortlessly, you don’t have to look too far to understand that there was a lot of effort put in the back-end.
“We started off as an e-commerce delivery company in late 2015. E-commerce was just emerging in full swing and delivery services were rare back then. That Is how the name came into being, we wanted to make sending things easier,” says Elius, depicting the small start of a glorious project. The hurdles that came along were big too. He exclaims, “The early days were very difficult because we didn’t have a lot of people or money. It was just me and the co-founder Adnan and three delivery agents. On some days I had to deliver the products myself which is why today I have a more holistic view of how things work.”
Despite having grown in leaps and bounds, this subsidiary of Pathao still accounts for a large chunk of the profit. In fact, Elius shares, “It still is the largest e-commerce logistics business in the country, but due to its b2b nature, it receives a lot less attention than our consumer-based services. Yet it is the most profitable part of Pathao.”
Carved out from the delivery service idea, Pathao bike rides started in 2016. “Because of the traditional office hours, we were like you know what, we have all of these rides and people who didn’t have much to do before 12 o’clock and after 5 o’clock. That is when we thought harder to come up with our ‘eureka’ moment. It occurred to us that people need to move to so why to limit ourselves to just products?” This occurrence was immediately executed into action through a diligent team and visionary leaders. They resorted to ride-sharing through Facebook and WhatsApp groups and manually and personally went up to ask friends if they needed rides to reach their destinations.
But the internet evolved and so did the problem, which brought along the opportunity to create an application. Despite being a skeptic of whether people would use the application the CEO had full faith that if people really need something they will find a way to use it once it was offered it into the market.
On explaining why this was a much-needed solution Elius precisely backed it up with some basic statistics. “The average speed in Dhaka traffic is 7 km/h which is only slightly above walking speed. It’s slow and congested. The public transportation system is inefficient and ineffective. There are only 3000 buses in a city of 18 million people. People needed something fast and cheap,” he says. It was clearer than ever that the application needed to happen. “In the first few months the app wasn’t that great. It had a number of bugs. Plus, no one really knew Pathao. Brand recognition was at a bare minimum. But we constantly improved.”
The improvement, however, was extremely intricate, effective and fast in nature. Elius proudly says, “We improved our services and got new riders on board every day. It was super-exciting because we were growing in every direction. What set us apart is not just our service and technology but our strong operations and reflexes to react.”
Many questioned the new ideas and the execution logic, but he persisted to bring forward a solution that people were not familiar with. He adds, “A lot of people had different opinions than mine, but that is natural. People have a different way of looking at things. For me, to truly recognize what people need, you need to see what they are willing to pay for.”
Entering a market dominated by Uber-a globally established player, was no easy feat. He agrees by saying. “Our competition had a better product than we did. It was already being used by so many but we delved deeper. People just didn’t want to commute in luxury; it was more of a secondary need, the primary being the need to beat the traffic and move faster at an affordable price. We never claimed to be the first ride-sharing company but perhaps we were better at executing. We were more consumer-driven.” He claims on always making the business proposition consumer-centric. As a case in point, he says, “To this day we don’t have a website. More people use mobile phones than computers. We focus on such insights because we want to make it easier for the people, we work for it every day.”
The phenomenal success of Pathao inspired new innovative additions. September 2017 marked the launch of Pathao Pay which is a digital wallet Pathao food was also launched in 2018. “It took us only three months to become the market leader. Once again we were able to identify the uncatered need and understand people better. That’s our strength and that is what we leveraged.”
The visionary kept on acing launch after launch and stuck to his mantra of trying things out to see what works. He elaborates, “Testing is integral in finding out about customers. Spending money on a survey is not even close. People say different things on paper. Sometimes you have to show people what they need rather than just pitch on pen and paper.”
The toughest challenge till date He answers that the most challenging hurdle continues to be finding the right people. “Not only is our business novel but is very different from the rest. I was lucky that I got to start with the people who had the same vision as me.”
While weaving this wonderful story of a company which only went up and up the CEO shares that “thousand rides a day” was the most precious milestone in this thrilling journey because just six months prior they were doing 10-20 rides per day. He exclaims, “That is when it really felt surreal. I told myself that, hey! you know what, this is happening, it is real and it is big!” However, he is quick to add, “It is easy to get lost in the exhilaration but you need to remember that you have to go further ̶ as far as you can go.
The glint of this wonderful personality is easy to spot within just a minute. Elius admits that he was a nerd during his school days and that he had like two to three friends. After I express my respect for nerds jokingly, he claims that nerds will rule the world one day.
He emphasized on having grit as the single most important thing to succeed. “People who have grit will wake up every day and continue to strive ̶ even if they don’t have skills. At times grit is all you need to persevere in the long-run. It will get you to get up and fight all that tries to stop you. Even when you fail, you keep moving forward-the key is to never stop.”
When asked him about the thumb rule to taking such risky decisions, he answers rather casually, “They key to making a good decision is to make a lot of bad decisions If you make a 100 bad decisions, you learn and you are closer to making the right one.” He believes that creativity doesn’t just come to a person and neither is it the most important trait. “If I wanted to do the most creative thing, I wouldn’t come up with Pathao. ” That answer, I feel, truly sums up why some of the most important solutions were far from complicated, in fact, they are often the simplest with just a fresh perspective as a backdrop.
Now it is only fair that I ask this knowledgeable person about an issue that I feel is very close to my heart. I quickly ask him about what we can do to take women forward. He replies, “Women have to continue to gather the courage to take more chances and push boundaries. It’s easy for me to say this I know, but women have come so far and they have done it gracefully. Though it’s still not enough. We all have to do this together. Men need to support them and women have to continue to push forward. It’s a continuous process and it will take time, not to mention an immense level of collective effort. It’s a struggle but we must not give up.”
He adds, “The world will never be perfect ̶ it’s a fool’s errand and we will never reach perfection, no matter how hard we try. But it is having the growth mindset that counts.” He advises people to push their think and not be happy with the status quo. “Push yourselves. Just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that they need to be that way. Think of making it better, there will always be room for it”
On an ending note, I can’t help but ask him “What next?” He answers that there is a lot to develop. And that many things are still under testing, for example, Pathao Tong. “We also want to do something for the Facebook merchants operating online. In short in the future I would like to build more synergy so that together all the subsidiaries leverage each other. There is a lot to look forward to,” he expresses with anticipation.
This or That
Movies or Books- Books
Indoors or Outdoors: Indoors
EQ or IQ: IQ (“That was a hard one,” he says)
Caliber or hard work: Hard work
Tea or Coffee: Coffee
Elius: No cats or dogs? Come on!
So this one’s special- Cats or dogs: Cats for sure.