When COVID-19 spread around the world, millions of people went from buying necessities in stores to having them delivered to their homes. In India, an informal service economy grew into 200 million people whose jobs are on the road. Unfortunately, without the certainty of a regular income or the monthly check required to get a loan, they often can’t afford the vehicle they need for their work.
Ghoom, a Harvard Innovation Labs venture founded in 2018, has risen to this need. Their platform provides an electric two-wheeler and battery subscription that helps customers find work or triple (even quintuple!) their earnings. Ghoom has helped more than 10,000 people match their spending with their income by choosing the subscription that fits their needs and the battery option that works for them, whether charging in their at-home power socket or swapping a charged battery at partner locations. Their ecosystem of vehicles, batteries, and charging options helps customers get on the road without adding significant emissions!
Ghoom is based in New Delhi, where it has the only e-scooter partnership with the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, the largest and busiest metro rail system in India. Ghoom is currently in its seed round of funding.
Read on for our talk with Ghoom founder and Harvard Business School alumnus Aishwarya Kachhal!
Harvard Innovation Labs: What inspired you to start Ghoom?
Aishwarya Kachhal: Our vision is to make mobility more affordable, accessible and sustainable. I believe that the most significant contribution that startups can make is by identifying with the life and the problems of the people of the community. India is the largest democracy in the world but it’s in the bottom ten when it comes to equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities. 90% of the working population does not have formal employment. They are the backbone of this country and keep the country moving. A personal vehicle substantially improves their earnings and quality of life.
Before Ghoom, I spent close to a decade setting up a business which made communication affordable and sustainable. A large part of the job was to clean up the third largest diesel consuming system in India after the railways and the army. I wondered, how can I use this expertise to have a larger impact? I travelled through Asia, Europe, and the Americas to understand the fledgling electric vehicle ecosystem. And that’s where I thought of the impact that electric vehicles can have on a country like India, which has 20 of the most polluted cities in the world.
But if you were to ask me what inspires me now? That would be the teachings of Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business school professor who taught how small companies can disrupt large sectors and industries. The theory of disruption, and even the term ‘disruption,’ are attributed to Clay. I’m personally inspired by his work, his teachings, his life.
HIL: Has Ghoom changed over time since you first conceived of it?
Kachhal: Quite a lot. While our vision has been the same, our route toward it has changed significantly over the years. Only 13% of India has access to personal mobility. We wanted to change that with our electric vehicle and battery subscription offerings. We started with a clear go-to-market strategy, by servicing students at metro stations, university towns, student housing, and the like. We were doing fairly well. In fact, February of 2020, just before the pandemic, was our best month. Then the pandemic happened, completely shutting us down for months. The next six months were the toughest that I ever faced.
Luckily, we were listening to our customers and looking at our data. That’s how we ended up re-discovering the informal gig economy sector, which was a much larger market with very strong demand characteristics. We realized that earlier our business was about substituting one mode of transportation for the other. Now, we are about creating new consumption by turning non-consumers into consumers of mobility. So while the first Covid wave completely shut us down, in the fiercer second wave of Covid, we actually flourished. A lot of what we are today is because of the Harvard Innovation Labs. Incubating at the i-lab is the best thing that could have happened to us!
HIL: Yes, that’s a significant pivot, from serving primarily students to serving gig economy workers! What (if anything!) surprised you in the process of developing your venture, especially during the pandemic?
Kachhal: Lots! We started with a focus on getting the GTM right in the large market of transportation. Transportation is the second largest personal consumption category after food in India. While we met with initial success, we realized that it wasn’t a market where we were creating habits. Our retention was always challenged.
The pandemic forced me to remember why I started up. It also delivered the greatest lesson of my life, the humility of being an active listener. From “we know it all,” we got down to listening to our customers. Active listening is one of our values now. We’re now following the Sean Ellis framework. We ask our customers if they would be disappointed if Ghoom ceased to exist tomorrow, and the answer is a resounding yes. That gives us great validation that what we are building is making a difference in people’s lives.
HIL: You know, in Philadelphia, where I live, a popular car share service shut down during the pandemic. A friend of mine has a newborn granddaughter she takes care of several times a week, but she’s frustrated that public transportation takes so long, and that she has few other options for getting to her daughter’s apartment. Since the car share shut down, she’s considering buying a car. A service like Ghoom would be so helpful for her.
Kachhal: That’s true! However, your friend is lucky because she has the option of buying a vehicle, amongst other options. Think of the pain of someone who needs a mode of transport to make money but doesn’t have the money or doesn’t get a loan.
Let me put it this way, everything is moving towards digital. And this digital revolution is creating two sets of people. One set is demanding goods and services at their doorstep, and the other is delivering these goods and services. Everybody talks about the first part because that’s naturally very exciting and visible. The second part is where we want to make a difference. While many people are lucky enough to stay at home and work from home, our customer is somebody who is making the world move. They deliver meals to you on DoorDash, fix your air conditioning, or bring you an Amazon package. They are the people we are building Ghoom for.
HIL: What is next for your venture? What are some next steps for you, and how do you see Ghoom growing?
Kachhal: Our next step is to scale the platform. We want to onboard vehicle and battery owners that make our model asset light. We are already a unit margin positive business. Of course building world class technology and a team is a continuous process.
We are building a global company out of India. We are out to disrupt vehicle ownership models and energy as a service with subscription of electric vehicles. We are creating a platform of electric vehicles, batteries and charging in New Delhi, one of the worst polluted cities in the world.
HIL: What is the climate impact of Ghoom, and why did you decide to focus on electric vehicles?
Kachhal: India has ten of the twenty most air polluted cities in the world, though only 13% of the country has a personal vehicle. Imagine if we were to have 35-45% penetration on fossil fuels, something that you see in similar Asian countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia!
I firmly believe that access to a personal vehicle can only be improved through shared clean electric vehicles.
We were an EV company from day one, even though EV tech was nascent and still is! I believe in the theory of disruption hypothesis, that small companies can disrupt large industries by focusing on low-end or new-market footholds.
HIL: What keeps you motivated as you develop Ghoom?
Kachhal: I’ll give you a story! In the second wave of Covid, my entire family and I were hospitalized. To my surprise, I received “get well soon” texts from my customers. I realized then that what I’m doing is making a difference in people’s lives. And that’s what keeps me motivated.
At heart, I am a problem solver. What keeps me going is the challenge of building a technology driven business around electric vehicles and batteries that can change the world. We’re just getting started!
Ghoom is part of our series of profiles on ventures in the inaugural Harvard Climate Entrepreneurs Circle, a global cohort of Harvard students and alumni actively working on solutions that tackle climate change. Want to learn more about what businesses are doing, can do, and should do to confront climate change? Check out the BEI Climate Rising podcast, hosted by Rebekah Emanuel, Director of Social Entrepreneurship for the Harvard Innovation Labs.