Quazi Zulquarnain launched and currently leads Uber in Bangladesh. Prior to Uber, he headed Kaymu Bangladesh, a Rocket Internet owned e-commerce platform that subsequently merged with Daraz to form Daraz Group, which eventually got acquired by Alibaba in 2018. He has also spent seven years working in the nexus of private sector development and investment advisory with the International Finance Corporation in Bangladesh and Vietnam.
Since joining Uber in 2016, Mr. Zulquarnain has been instrumental in spearheading the launch of Uber in Bangladesh and subsequently growing the service to 100,000 drivers in two and a half years. Uber was officially launched in Dhaka in 2016 with one service UberX and a team of three people. Today, about 205 people use Uber app every minute in Dhaka and Uber has built a solid portfolio of services.
In this immensely insightful interview, Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader sits down with Mr. Zulquarnain to learn more about his journey to what he is doing today and to dig deeper into the state of Uber’s business in Bangladesh, contributors behind Uber’s phenomenal growth in Dhaka, Uber’s ambition in Bangladesh, Uber’s strategy going forward, how Ubermoto is doing, his take on growing competition in ride-hailing space, culture at Uber, some of the biggest lessons he has learned from his journey and much more.
This was a much longer interview, so we had to break it up into two parts. This is the second and the final part of the interview, you may read part one here.
In terms of competition, moto is a much more competitive market than cars. How are you doing on the moto?
You could actually say that. It is a competitive market. We are growing extremely fast on the moto. We are the single largest moto market in the Uber Universe in the world. Dhaka is like the motor capital of the Uber world. Obviously, this segment is growing very fast and a lot of people are putting money into it and the price point is very attractive for consumers. It solves a specific need because you could get somewhere really fast when there is high traffic.
However, I don't see moto or any single product as the end game for us in Bangladesh. I view ourselves as a portfolio player where you can open the app and find seven things which you can't find anywhere else.
Uber's focus across the globe is on ensuring that you have an immense selection - whatever I need there is something there for me in Uber. That's our focus in Bangladesh market as well.
We don't concentrate on a single product play and instead concentrate more across seven or eight things which can give us an advantage in the market.
If I ask the same question again, how are you doing on moto compared to the competition in the market?
It is very hard for me to say how we are doing compared to our competitors in the market because we don't have industry-level data. Like I said I'm very very satisfied with the growth of moto as a product. I would say that growth has been beyond expectation for me as well. We have indexed a lot of time in doing helmet distribution and safety things. We have done quite an excellent job at being able to get you a moto ride on time. We have built immense supply liquidity on that product.
My sense is that we are very strong in that space. like I said I can only tell you what I already know. We are the largest motor market in the Uber universe. I don't have data about the local market so I can't comment on that. What I can tell you is that we are doing very well on every conceivable metric.
If you look at the numbers like drivers on your platform, you have 100,000 drivers on your platform, what percentage of them are strictly moto and what percentage of them are cars?
I don't have those numbers on the top of my head right now but our business on both segments, cars, and moto, are significant and solid and both are growing very fast.
Obviously, moto is a kind of a product which is easier to get into as a business because the investment and other requirements to get into this business relatively lower. Overall, we add more than a thousand drivers across these two segments. The split is almost 50-50. For me, when I see more than a thousand people joining our platform daily after two and a half years it means we are doing something right.
You are in three markets now Dhaka, Chittagong, and Sylhet. Apart from Dhaka, how are you doing in the other two markets?
I always say this: Bangladesh has a way with pleasantly surprise you. If you put together Dhaka, Chittagong, and Sylhet and the total addressable market in these three cities, 22 percent of the population of these cities have used Uber for at least once. That for me is super exciting because your product-market fit is so exciting that one-third of the population of these three biggest cities used your product at least once. A lot of them are returning users.
When you look at that number, what you see is that a significant percentage of our riders use our product for daily rides/use. Almost 12-13 percent of our users use uber daily. For me that's exciting. That we are becoming a reliable transportation option for people. We are replacing ownership of cars because people are using us for commuting to and from work. For me, those are like exciting things.
Sylhet is still so new. We just launched there. Chittagong has exceeded my expectation with regards to how big and good it could be. I hope it will continue to surprise me.
How do you think about the overall ride-hailing market in Bangladesh in terms of total market size, how the market has been evolving and the future?
There are two ways to look at this. One, how your own market and your consumer base is growing. On that front, I'm more than happy how that growth is taking place for us in Bangladesh market. Like I said earlier, in November 55 people were opening the Uber app every minute and in February it became 205. That actually shows you that growth is strong, which also means that the market is growing very fast. The number of people using our product is growing every day. And that goes back to the selection.
If you give people enough options to select from, some way or other they will opt in to use your product. The more things you give people, the more opportunities people have to use you. However, I think the opportunity is pretty huge in the market. With more and more people investing in this space and with the growing competition, I think it would serve all of us better and grow the total addressable market faster.
If you have two-three players all investing at the same time, the market grows much faster. This is something that we have seen in every other market and I think this will be the case in Dhaka as well. I'm more than happy with where our business position in this market and what we are doing. I firmly believe that our way is so far the right way.
It is very tough in our market to get the numbers because data is hard to come by. One of the reasons being in many markets transactions take place digitally and you get a large number of anonymizing data and you could tell how big is the market and so on. But that's not the case in our market because the majority of the transactions happen in cash. As a result, it is hard to talk about market size and all that objectively. People will give you numbers for different reasons but objective numbers are hard to come by.
One thing I could tell is that the market is bigger than what people usually estimate. I kind of compare us to markets like Mumbai and Delhi in this region. Because these are markets that started before us and are similar to us in many ways. It is a good way for me to observe where we are today and if I look at Mumbai or Delhi after two and a half years of operation, we are significantly ahead of them.
For me, that is where I know that we are successful. These markets are similar and Dhaka has been outperforming all of those cities consistently. We are among the biggest cities in Uber universe globally. So this is where I feel I have objective measures of success. For me, that's the way I would look at it. As I mentioned earlier, 25 percent of this region's growth is coming from Bangladesh this year and that is huge.
However, I don't think a lot about how big this market is at this point in time because there is still a lot of room to grow. This is still the early days. Two years from now you can talk like this is where it is. But right now if I look at internal numbers, it is exceptional.
How does your operation work? How do you collaborate with your regional and global team? For example, if you want to develop a local feature, how do you do that?
We are a global company which brings a lot of benefits such as sharing experience and expertise and information across borders. Since we are a global company, we pay a lot of importance to building things at scale for a global audience. That does not mean that we don't pay enough importance to local operations. In terms of operations, everything is fully local. Uber Bangladesh is a company built and managed 100 percent locally. People in the team are all Bangladeshis.
We are still like startups in many ways where we have the freedom and need to hustle to be able to do things and execute things on your own. At the same time, we have the opportunity to banking on the power of our global operations to ensure we adopt solutions that have been used in markets like Mexico, India, Saudi Arabia and so on. I think it is incredible that you have that big benefit of looking into that global operations and looking into challenges and problems that exist in these markets and then adopt solutions that worked in those markets.
I have learned so much about the business of ride-sharing just by observing and talking to people from these markets. When we launched we spent a lot of time speaking to Brazil because Sao Paulo has similar demographics like us. You would not know these unless you speak to these people.
My sense is that Uber gives you that global opportunity to connect at a global level with a structure and hierarchy that's so flat that you can reach out to anyone and you can come back and adopt those principles here locally. I think that's one of the strongest aspects about us as a company that we are able to harness the power of global operations and use that to build and scale locally.
That's obviously a great advantage but how far could you make things locally? Say, for example, you want to launch a feature in Dhaka, could you do that? If I frame this way if you want to add a local train to your portfolio, could you do that?
Operationally we have complete freedom to execute on our own. It is not very difficult. I think we can. We don't have a tech team in Dhaka but if you look at certain features such as moto, it is a product that is not in many markets but we have built it for Bangladesh with different challenges and operational issues. For example, intercity, that's not a product that we have in many markets in the world.
We have tailored these products for Bangladesh market. We saw that there is a need for these services and solutions and we have taken the initiative to build them. So there is a lot of room where if you have ideas you can test and run them. So yes, we can do that.
It is an innovation playground. We try to harness the power of global operations to solve local problems and challenges. Problems are often not that unique.
When we see a problem we then look can we solve these problems using or adopting a solution that has been used in some other markets. Probably not the exact same solutions but can we take lessons from there. We are well placed to do that.
As I mentioned, we are a very flat organization. We have access to resources across the globe. When there is something that needs to be solved, we discuss it closely and then find a way to approach it and find a solution for it.
You mentioned that car ownership has declined for the first time in six years, which should be good news for all of us. But there are research findings that ride-hailing companies are contributing to the congestion and car influx in the roads. This is something that has been widely discussed in the US as well in Bangladesh. How do you respond to that? Do you think that ride-hailing companies have a role in the growing congestion in cities where they operate?
I'm very confident about what I mentioned. I feel that ride-hailing is a real solution to traffic congestion in the cities. We are actually solving the traffic problems in the cities by improving vehicle efficiency.
But if you look at the number of motorbikes in Dhaka and overall cars in Dhaka, it has increased significantly and we have numbers about growth in terms of motorbike sales and all that. Do you think the sudden influx of the number of cars in the street has anything to do with ride-hailing companies?
No. I don't think so. People have been coming to Dhaka for various purposes since the dawn of time. So when that happens certainly it contributes to the growth of the vehicles as well. I don't think we have played much of an important role in this. Rather I think we, launching in cities like Chittagong and Sylhet, would help people from these cities to stay in their cities thus helping reduce traffic to some extent now that they have opportunities in their localities.
I would argue that we have not added new cars to the street rather we have helped improve the utilization of cars. The point is that each vehicle is now utilized much better. Previously, a private car that you have would probably serve you and your family alone but when that same car is on Uber, with that same asset, you could serve a lot more people meaning the overall utilization of the car has improved a lot.
With a marketplace like Uber, your rate of utilization goes up and you can serve more people with the same resources. I don’t think people are buying cars to put them on Uber. I think these cars would have been here regardless of us existing in the market. The advantage of us being in the market is that we are now ensuring better utilization of resources. That's my strongest view. I believe if you have slightly longer term view, it’s already established in other markets that Uber has always contributed to lowering private car ownership.
Do you have Uber pool in Dhaka?
No. we don't have the pool in Dhaka yet. More importantly, if you look at the average speed in the cities, it has not actually gone down after our launch in Dhaka. It has remained stagnant because there is always a natural growth rate of vehicles.
Do you plan to launch Uber Pool in Dhaka?
We do want to launch pool in Dhaka. If you ask me about the plan, then we don't have one at this point in time. We don't have a timeline in mind yet. It is a product that I believe will work in Dhaka. I would love to see Uber Pool here.
My experience with people's mentality is that people adapt very fast when you have the right incentives in place.
What is your relationship with your driver partners? In many markets, you have been dealing with challenges around how to define your relationship with your driver partners whether they should be treated as employees or mere contractors?
In my view, it is quite clear that each of these drivers partners is micro-entrepreneur in my view. That they are driving on the platform on their own time and on their own decisions and ways. I feel like Uber as a platform creates more micro entrepreneur than many organizations because it allows you to access opportunities that you would not have been able to access otherwise. 53:13
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned?
For me, the biggest lessons is that marketplace businesses are the future. Especially in a market like ours where there is a huge population and a basic lack of infrastructure if you have technology that can connect those two pieces there is no reason you would not be successful.
Some people think that it is only technology but it is a mixture of technology and operation that can build a solution that can affect the lives of millions of people at scale.
These can be applied to every industry where you have similar problems – a lot of people and a basic lack of infrastructure. When we were launching Uber in Dhaka, many people were skeptical about it. Although I was completely convinced, you sometimes get influenced by people. But when we finally launched I was amazed to see the product/market fit at work. I think if people could identify and work hard, there can be Uber for everything.
In terms of life, one lesson is that you have to work hard. That’s the only lesson. You have to work hard and smart. There is a thing that if you work smart, you don’t need to work hard but that’s not true. You have to work smart and hard. One of the core values of Uber, when I joined, was, you work hard and you work smart.