What do you get when you combine technical know-how, a love of Teslas, and an MBA? You get Brandon Beard, the founder of Drivr, a Cincinnati-based ridesharing company with a difference. You get the convenience of Uber with the luxury of a Tesla and the personalised service of a chauffeured car. 90% of this project is powered by WooCommerce and WooCommerce extensions straight out of the box. But it’s helped by a very smart investment into the 10% that “glues” those extensions together and customises them specifically for Drivr.
This interview is packed as full as Brandon’s schedule! He has so many great insights for other entrepreneurs, along with advice on how to structure your business. He has turned a side hustle into a half-million dollar investment in cars, running a thriving ride booking service, and employing several people both part time and full time.
Oh, and did I mention, all the cars are Teslas, bringing luxury along with the convenience and consistency offered by Drivr. Not bad. Not bad at all.
I spoke with Brandon as business was ramping up for the spring/summer social activities, that magical time when everyone in the Northern Hemisphere comes out of hibernation and starts to think about the outside world again.
Ali: I’m really interested: how did you come up with the idea of doing this?
Brandon: Sure. So, I got my personal Tesla in 2013. It was a graduation present to myself for graduating business school. After I got the car and was done with business school I realised I have a whole lot of time on my hands that used to be dedicated to school. I kind of got a little bored and was like “what do I do?”
First thing I did was to go work for Tesla for a brief period. I was one of the first people in Cincinnati to have a Tesla. While at Tesla I met my co-founder. We started playing with the idea “how do we make money with the cars?”, [asking] “How can I basically offset this payment on my car?”
The idea came about “let’s put it on Uber”. The more we thought about it the more we realised Uber wasn’t the right mechanism for the cars just because, you know, [the Tesla is] a luxury sedan. It’s a premium car. What we did is we basically come up with the concept of building an Uber-like setup where people can use a phone to request a ride either on demand or, something Uber doesn’t offer, we allow people to pre-schedule their stuff. We created a complete booking system based on the WooCommerce Bookings engine [which allows] people to schedule their rides.
What we found is, out of the majority of rides, 90% of them were pre-scheduled 3 or 4 days in advance. People were actually methodically thinking about their schedules and that’s what they loved about the service. Instead of trying to remember to book a car in the moment of need, they were booking in the moment when they were actually making their plans. “I’m going out to dinner, or I’m traveling out to the airport. I need to get a ride across town because the doctor says I can’t drive after my appointment”. Something like that.
Basically, we were like, how do we make sure to meet all the needs and create a system to do this? We were thinking about all the different ways that we could engineer a system and write code and all that stuff. My head developer suggested: “let’s just look at WooCommerce, let’s see how far that can get us”. So we started playing with it, and looking at it, and [found] it does 90% of what we need. Instead of focusing on building that 90%, [we] spent all of our energy on that 10%. Building the “glue” that makes everything work. Building the specialised connector plugins behind the scenes that connect everything together to allow WooCommerce Bookings to send webhooks out to our other systems that tie into our calendars and talk to the cars and all sorts of things.
Ali: That’s fantastic. I love that you’re able to use WooCommerce for 90% and focus all your attention on the 10% specific to Drivr’s business.
Brandon: I come from a background of product management and software development. I spent 10 years in the field so far. I’ve seen apps developed for – and by app I don’t necessarily mean on a phone – just software applications developed for 50 or 60 thousand dollars and some as much as 5 or 6 million dollars. It all depends on what goes into it and what kind of effort.
When I was scoping out what was needed, what the core, the real raw functionality would be, I was looking at this: “this thing’s going to cost anywhere from 50 to 100 000 dollars if we wrote it from scratch all on our own, got all the integrations working”. It would have been a pretty hefty bill. We tried to bootstrap it, knowing the cars themselves were going to cost us a lot of money.
So we said “okay, how do we do that?” WooCommerce basically provided us that avenue. I think we have $1500 in WooCommerce plug-ins and probably 3000 hours in glue – in the 10% aspects – [there’s] probably 3000 hours of dev in that.
Outside of that we have our app. We have native apps on the phones. Those are AppPresser’s. It’s basically WordPress loading inside of a native wrapper and it still uses all of the functionality that our site has, that we leverage from WooCommerce. So we didn’t have to build a separate transactional engine that talks to the web. It’s all one thing. It helped us go from 0 to 1, and [then] 1 to 2 very quickly.
Ali: Yeah, exactly. That’s fantastic. So how did you choose WooCommerce, was that from a process of scoping out its functionality, or did someone suggest it to you?
Brandon: My main developer, they use it fairly frequently in the development shop that he’s at. I’ve used it before. He was telling me it’s going to do a lot. It’s going to handle a lot of the stuff we don’t want to write, and as I started looking at it and started looking at all the different extensions I was fully confident in his ability to write secondary plug-ins that would connect everything together that I needed connected. Once I took a look at all the different extensions that were available I was sold. I was ready to say “let’s go”.
Ali: That’s great. What made you decide to make the leap into this business? What was the motivation?
Brandon: I’m a builder. I like to build companies, build products. I’ve never really had anything that was solely my own. I’ve always built inside of other companies. After being done with business school it was just kind of the right time. I had the right ingredients all in one place. I had something that was a new cool car. It still is; everybody loves the car. The technology was easy enough to use. It allowed me to create easy-to-use technology for our end users as well as for myself. The right people were looking for new opportunities in our area that I could get the right people on board to help me grow and build the business since it was a secondary business for me.
We started in August of 2014. We had a site, by the tail end of October, kind of a first-gen iteration. Come February of 2015 we basically integrated WooCommerce Bookings and got everything up and going. In those short months we went from 1 car to 4 cars. [A]t that time I was all in, in February, ready to go and get things moving forward. Then in May we had our app. We spent many hours trying to figure out “should we write our app ourselves”. It would be much faster. At the end of the day [we thought] let’s just leverage what we have and keep moving forward.
Ali: Okay. Do you own the cars or is it like Uber where you have people that own their cars and drive?
Brandon: Nope, I own the cars. Right now we’re still at 4 cars. We have about 25 to 30 per cent capacity left. Then we will be on to ordering the next cars. We’re working on getting 1 or 2 SUVs, the Tesla SUVs, but we’re very far [down] on the list on those so [they] might be a while.
Ali: What do you think makes you different from Lyft or Uber? What’s your point of difference?
Brandon: Our point of difference is really the value and consistency. When you look at us in terms of value both from a dollar standpoint and a “what you get” standpoint in comparison to an Uber Select or and Uber Black we tend to be right on par with Uber Select, and we never surge. We never have dynamic pricing. It’s always the same per mile rate.
From a consistency standpoint it’s always a Tesla, it’s always a professional driver coming to get you. All of our drivers are trained. They know the cities. It’s always going to be a very high-class white glove experience. Most of our drivers go way above and beyond. [S]ome of our drivers go out and get our clients champagne. If they’re going out to dinner they enjoy a nice little glass of champagne on the way to dinner. You’ll probably never get that in an Uber or a Lyft.
Ali: Certainly never get it in a taxi.
Brandon: Certainly never get it in a taxi. That’s the other thing. I’m [not really] trying to move in and squeeze out Uber and Lyft. I’m with Uber and Lyft; we need to get rid of the taxis. There’s a better way. When you look at the Cincinnati region we are cheaper than a taxi to get anywhere in the city.
Ali: That’s one of my questions actually, how do you maintain the price competition while running an all Tesla fleet?
Brandon: One cost we don’t have is fuel. We’re never paying for fuel. That affords us a certain level of price competitiveness, because we don’t have to worry about fuel, we don’t have to worry about oil. We really don’t have to worry too much about a lot of maintenance costs that a lot of other vehicles have. That’s kind of why we love the Tesla. That’s why I bought my Tesla to begin with. The ongoing maintenance is really not that much on Teslas, other than tyres. So that affords us some price competitiveness.
The other piece that affords us price competitiveness is the technology. If I don’t have to pay a person to take an order and do all that kind of stuff I can take the price down. [That], along with economies of scale [from bigger clients with people all in one office].
Ali: Right, exactly. Economies of scale come along with the investment you’ve put into on top of WooCommerce as well. Once it’s done it’s done, right?
Brandon: Yeah. Our glue. I love calling it glue because that’s really what I look at the stuff as. It does so much for us. [This is] the process: When someone creates an account, logs in for the first time on the app, [WooCommerce Coupons] generates a 50% off promo as soon as they register for the first time. Then, they go through the booking process. And we custom wrote that piece in conjunction with WooCommerce Bookings, particularly the “to and from” destinations stuff where it looks up on Google Maps and calculates the mileage and all that kind of stuff.
Once it calculates the mileage and they go in and place the order, we fire off a whole bunch of different mechanisms that say “send a text message to the driver in the car that a new order came through”. “Send a text message to the customer”. “Send an email to the customer”. “Add it our shared Google Calendar that shows up in the cars”. Then, if it’s scheduled in the future, 30 minutes prior, fire off other whole set of rules. “Remind the client we’re coming to pick them up. Remind the driver that he actually needs to get there, and where he needs to be”. It fires off text messages that do that and then once the order is complete “send all the transactional data into our accounting system”. “Send all the raw transactional data into a data warehouse”, where I can begin to slice and dice the data and tell where our customers are coming from, and how much the average spend is, and where it would be beneficial to market more.
Ali: Wow. There is just so much magic going on behind the scenes.
Brandon: It’s a lot of time-based rules. Where do we send this data, when, what does it look like when we send it there? We use WooCommerce to do a lot of the heavy lifting. We use Zapier to do a lot of the API to API calls. We didn’t have to write a lot of the in between stuff, we just had to understand the logic that we needed to write. We use Quickbooks for accounting, and Cyfe reporting for analytics and measurement.
Ali: Interesting. What did you do at business school? Was it an MBA?
Brandon: Yeah. I went back for my MBA. Basically came out of that with the understanding that most people who are doing startups and starting businesses really don’t have any idea about the business aspect. They have a great idea but no idea about the business aspect. I spent a lot of time making sure that I understood about the business aspect, surrounding myself with people that [understand] the product so that I could build something that was successful and scalable.
Ali: That’s fantastic. I was wondering about how you find your customers. You mentioned slicing and dicing the data to find out where they come from. Do they find you? Is it organic? Do you market a lot?
Brandon: Yeah, it’s a combination. We do a lot of “pay per click” on Google to basically get the segment of people looking for taxis and airport transportation. That’s basically the top end of our funnel. In conjunction with my business VP and general manager, he runs our business development stuff. He’ll go to larger scale clients such as US Bank or Third Bank; some of the big institutions that we have here that have a lot of people in one office. He’ll go to them and see “okay, how can we get your people who travel? Who do we need to talk to? What kind of program can we set them up on?” Then those people end up using us in two capacities. They use us for their travel and then they also use us on the weekends for the personal [trips].
We use the Braintree Payments gateway and we separate out the personal and business stuff by card so people can see what’s on what card, etc. It makes life a little easier for them to keep business and personal separate with one account.
Ali: Sounds great.
Brandon: In addition to that we do social media. We do email marketing. Then just general awareness. We try to be at a lot of different events, like, we go to wedding shows. We go to just about every silent auction and charitable event. We try to donate trips and rides for every charitable event we can get into.
Ali: Is that part of marketing push or is that part of your ethic that goes along with having the green side of the Tesla fleet?
Brandon: Both. It turns out it’s great marketing. I built the company with the one per cent rule. In theory, once I have profit, I would give away one per cent of my profit. We don’t have that yet, but we will. I would give away one per cent of my profit, one per cent of my product, and one per cent of my company’s time back to the community. Right now we do that through the one per cent of our product and the one per cent of our time back into the community.
Ali: Do you think that having that kind of green fleet is the drawcard for people or is it the luxury side of the Tesla fleet?
Brandon: The majority side of it is the luxury, but the green and the community driven aspect is definitely a draw for a certain amount of people. But the majority of it is the luxury and consistency. People really just want to know that their car is going to be there at that time and they don’t have to worry about it, to the degree that people actually call us. “Hey I’m just calling. I do have a ride scheduled, right?” Yes, you do have a ride scheduled. They will be there.
Ali: I was just thinking about the level of uncertainty that can be associated with calling a taxi. You never know if you’re going to make your appointment, and Uber or Lyft don’t have scheduling.
Brandon: I understand, and people ask “why wouldn’t Uber or Lyft just create scheduling?”, [and] they very well might, but I highly doubt it, because scheduling creates a level of complexity. We could throw any kind of mathematical formula behind it that we wanted to, but there’s just no way to account for half of the variables that happen. While we’ll build a schedule out, we’ll auto-assign the car to the drivers and everything, and the rides to the cars, and all that… at the end of the day if a traffic accident happens and slows somebody up by 10 minutes and he is really stacked up, we shuffle everything around and say “well you’re closer, you go do this. You’re closer, you go do this…” and try to shuffle things around to make sure we pick everybody up on time.
We’re fairly good at that. That’s where scheduling at the scale of Uber becomes really really complex. That’s why I’m not trying to go after [Uber], I’m trying to build a sustainable company. We’ll probably get to ten cars here in Cincinnati and then at the same time we’re already looking at other markets. The plan is to be multi-market with 10 cars in each market in about another year.
Ali: I totally get the complexity thing. You’d have to do that manually, and that’s expensive.
Ali: Do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs, those people who are thinking about starting out? Do you have anything that you wish you had known or that you’d like to tell yourself?
Brandon: Projections are wrong by at least 50%. I’m really good at projections and I’m always off by 50%. I’ve learned that over many years of doing products. The numbers are going to tell you one thing. Just half it immediately and start from there. If it still makes sense, then you’re good.
As well as, reinventing the wheel can happen, but there’s no need to. There’s a lot of great technology, a lot of great things out there that you can leverage to get 80 [or] 90% of the way there. Instead of spending 30,000 hours developing and designing and doing all this work to get something that you feel is brand new off of the ground, use existing technology, use existing frameworks that are out there to get your 80 [or] 90%, and then spend 3,000 hours really honing in on the 10% that’s going to make your business work. That’s a huge key. If I’d had to spend another 100,000 dollars on just the development costs this thing would probably not have worked.
Ali: Exactly. Use WooCommerce.
Brandon: Yes. Use WooCommerce. Use WordPress, any platform that you’re familiar with is always a great place to start. Me personally I was familiar with… a CMS called Mod X.
That’s what I originally intended on building the site on. Then my developer guy was like “We can get so far with this”. Okay, let’s go. Don’t be afraid of software as a service. [We use that] not [for] our email but [for] our ticketing system.
So when people ask us questions, instead of just going to a general email box it goes into a ticketing system. We use FreshDesk for that. We use QuickBooks online for our accounting. We use GetFeedBack for our feedback loop mechanism for our customers. We use Zapier for that API to API communication. All of our text messages use Twilio.
There [are] services already out there, and yeah you’re going to spend a little bit of money per month to make everything work but it’s so much better than writing it from scratch. So much better, because you don’t have to worry about the actual code. You don’t have to worry about the core function of sending a text message. You don’t have to worry about that actually working. It just does. As long as your code’s making the call it’ll fire.
Leveraging those things as much as you can helps speed things along much faster.
Ali: Do you think it’s your background in software or your training in business that helped you to understand the value of pulling those things together?
Brandon: I think that [it’s] my background in all three – software, marketing, and business – [that helps] me kind of bring everything together. If a software guy [had] written this by himself, he probably would have written it from scratch, wouldn’t have understood the value of the 90% : 10% rule. If a business guy did it he probably would have [opted for] a minimal viable product from day one and had no frills and it would have been okay, but it wouldn’t have been a good app.
With the marketing, tying the business and the marketing and software all together into one, I said “Okay, here’s what we need. Here’s what the customers expect. Here’s what we’re going to deliver, and here’s how we’re going to do it”. We’re going to do this for the first three months. We’re going to see what we learn, then we’re going to develop the app. Then we’re going to add some of the new features in the app, and we’re still doing that to this day. We’re actually getting ready to release some new enhancements to the site/app.
That’s the other cool thing. Because we’re on WordPress and because we’re on AppPresser for the app and everything we do to the site automatically gets into the app without having to resubmit it to Apple. We’re getting ready to release some cool stuff in the app that basically ties it into the business functions.
Ali: Okay, wow. It’s kind of mind-blowing that this is your side hustle, so you have your permanent job and this is really involved, and you’ve got a lot of plans.
Brandon: Yes. It takes a lot of my time. It probably takes a good 60 hours a week on my part just to keep everything moving forward. And then I have 60 hours a week in the normal stuff.
Brandon: Then I have to sleep somewhere in between.
Ali: I was going to ask about that. When do you sleep and how much coffee do you drink?
Brandon: I don’t drink any coffee.
Ali: Oh wow.
Brandon: I tend to only drink, if I drink, soda and caffeine, it’s only one bottle a day at most. I sleep for maybe 6 hours a night if that.
Ali: Well I’m impressed. You must be young.
Brandon: My ultimate goal, you know, everyone wants to retire, live on the beach, whatever. That’s nice, I’d love to do that. But a mentor of mine once told me “you have a finite amount of days and hours on Earth, and you spend the first 30 years of your life learning what you can learn”. By the way, I’m only 34, so I spent about my first 30 years learning. He said “what you do with the next 30 to 50 years is you need to act for 10 to 20 years, specifically do stuff. Then spend the rest of your time teaching everybody how you did, what you did”.
Ali: That’s really cool. That’s when becoming the guru on the mountain kicks in, right?
Brandon: Right. You need to have the elder people up on the mountain where you go up and visit them, and they tell you how great of an idea it is, or how insane of an idea it is. I tell people all the time, [when] they ask “[so] anybody that wants to buy a Tesla can go and do you did”. And I say yes they can. They have to be clinically insane, but yes they can.
After doing this interview with Brandon, I became acutely aware of how much time I must waste, because I’m not convinced I have an extra 60 hours in my week to start another project. If and when I do find that time (and maybe you are thinking of finding that time too), then Brandon is certainly leading by example of how to succeed at a side hustle. I think the key takeaways here are to leverage existing tools and products to get you 90% of the way there (i.e. use WooCommerce or something like it!), your projections will always be wrong, and make sure you give your customers what they want.
Brandon figured out what Drivr’s customers wanted by slicing and dicing the data to see where they were coming from and what they were asking for. The idea of being able to book a chauffeured Tesla at a competitive rate is certainly very attractive. The idea of having an unlimited subscription to a Tesla service is even more attractive, and it sounds as though there are already a bunch of amazing plans for the future.
And finally, by combining all the right ingredients (Teslas, software, and business), Brandon has really been able to “drive” his company’s success. Oh, come on, we all love puns 😉