A conversation about smart transportation and how to make decisions under stress: an interview with founder Andy Zheng
Most of us are familiar with the deadening exhaustion of waiting for a taxi — especially on a rainy day. Trotting forward in the queue one slow step at a time while a taxi slides up, one by one, picks up a passenger, and drives away. Half an hour later (sometimes longer), you finally get to the front of the queue, and slump gratefully into your seat.
To Andy Zheng, this experience is not just about personal angst; it reflects broader social and economic inefficiencies. To tackle urban congestion, he is launching an on-demand taxi-sharing app which gives passengers an easy way to share a taxi and split the fare.
The burst of epiphany — that treasured “a-ha” moment — emerged during his doctorate study at the University of California (Berkeley) where he cross-pollinated concepts from one system (electrical loads) to another system (commuting).
“There are many lessons we can learn from how the electricity market works. Electricity has peak and off-peak demand, and Singapore has double the capacity of our peak demand just to be safe and careful. However, all this idle capacity leads to capital costs, and the extra generators spread the cost over the electricity they provide — this is why the electricity cost is actually higher than it should be.
In a similar scenario for the taxi industry, we may need more taxis or other for-hire cars in order to meet the peak-hour demand. However, all these cars will also be running during off-peak hours, and it will increase the cost for society at large.
There is an awful lot of extra taxis cruising empty on the roads during off-peak hours. It is damaging to the taxi drivers’ income and it is also damaging to Singapore in view of energy efficiency. We don’t have any oil — we import all of it — and now we are just wasting this energy on the road.”
Before jumping straight into a solution, Andy recruited a team to collect data:
“We surveyed 15 taxi stands in the Central Business District for one week from Monday to Friday. There are about 140 taxis leaving each taxi stand from 6:00PM to 8:00PM, and 80% of these taxis only have one passenger. When we saw the data, we were surprised at how inefficient we are currently.”
On-demand taxi-sharing is still a relatively new concept, and one of the challenges to being a “first mover” is getting the ‘green light’ from the government:
“Currently there is no regulatory framework for how the fare should be charged when sharing a taxi, so we are seeking clearance from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in Singapore. Starting from 1st December 2015, every (3rd party) taxi-booking app in Singapore has to get a license from the LTA to operate.”
Time waits for no one! Entrepreneurs need to be flexible. Noticing the delay in getting regulatory approval, Andy has set his sights on other cities that might be more ready for the taxi-sharing solution.
“The original plan was to pioneer this innovative solution in Singapore first, and then market it globally. Now, due to this regulatory situation, instead of implementing this taxi-sharing solution in series, I am putting things in parallel by looking at other cities that may have more risk appetite for innovation.”
Entrepreneurs battle myriads of challenges, and what makes an entrepreneur distinct is their attitude toward unexpected twists and turns. Andy has a very pragmatic view of the hurdles.
“Some difficulties are a matter of grade: A, B, C, D, but some are pass or fail. What can make you fail– in my experience — are policies. If the government tells you you cannot do something, then you cannot do it.”
The trick to navigating rocky waters is staying focused.
“One very important reason why our company still survives today is that, as a founder, I don’t take “no” for an answer. I need to face a series of No’s before finally accepting that the door is closed and I can’t push it open.
If somebody says “no” to me, I might go around him, or approach him again with new information: “Hey, we have updates. Shall we talk again?”
Staying focused requires an unwavering sense of mission and, above all, a dogged sense of responsibility.
“What keeps me going is believing that we can deliver a positive impact to people. There are real pain points out there, and we are trying out a solution.”
How does Andy feel about the risk and uncertainty?
“As you can see, I am taking a risk — a huge risk — but I think it is worthwhile. How often can you have something original that addresses a problem people feel strongly about?”
The magnitude of risk can overwhelm anyone — but not an entrepreneur. Andy only operates from a sphere of inner zen and calm.
“I do not make rushed decisions — especially when important decisions come up. In those situations, I will create a preliminary plan before speaking with my partners and say: “Hey, this is my plan. What do you think are the pro and cons? What is your idea?”
During the meeting, I will take notes, and while exercising or during tai chi, these ideas settle into a more impartial view of the proposal and solutions.
Of course, every decision always includes a calculation of risks and returns. Once you make a decision, you need to stick to it.”
Most importantly, no matter how busy the startup and how urgent the tasks, Andy forges the will-power and self-discipline to take care of his physical and mental fortitude.
Running a start-up demands a very volatile lifestyle. An important responsibility to your team mates is that you have to keep fit, so I run three times a week. I consider it my job to go running, and make myself go no matter how tired I am. Even if it is just for five minutes, I have to get out and go there. On the days that are not filled by running, I do tai chi before sleeping.
Why tai chi?
Tai chi makes me feel peaceful. Sometimes, when surprising news comes to me and I am upset, I will do tai chi to keep calm and this helps me realize: “Man, I may need to play tai chi with the other party…”
Thanks Andy for such a beautifully honest perspective of what it feels like to be an entrepreneur and to do something so incredibly difficult, which is getting an idea off the ground into reality. (http://aspiringcitizens.com)
Andy Zheng used to have a hotdesk at NUS Enterprise@Blk71. For more information about Blk71, you can visit www.blk71.com.