With Uber In Its Rear-View Mirror, Ola Is Racing To Cover 200 Cities In India This Year

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Last year saw India’s taxi-hailing app war heat up after Uber landed in the country and SoftBank invested in top domestic player Ola. With the competition set to only increase this year, Ola has come out of the blocks quickly in 2015 after it announced that it is now present in 50 cities, with plans to reach 200 by the end of this year.

To give that expansion some context, Ola was present in 19 cities back in October when SoftBank led a $210 million funding round which valued the startup at $1 billion. All in all, it has expanded to 40 new locations — predominantly tier-two and three cities — in the past five months.

Ola originally projected that it would reach 75 cities in India by March, and it is now rewriting other targets it had set.

“We had planned to be in 100 cities by 2016, but that looks very achievable now so we should probably look at doing a lot more — maybe 200,” Anand Subramanian, Ola’s head of communications, told TechCrunch in an interview.

To further illustrate the impact of the SoftBank-led round, Ola’s CEO was shooting for 25 cities by the end of 2015, when I talked to him last July.

Another point of reference: Uber is in over 140 cities in the U.S., and just over 250 worldwide. So 200 in India alone is a lot.

“Our growth in smaller cities has been insane.”

Banglore remains Ola’s largest city based on customer demand, but, with its reach now extended into more rural parts of the country, Ola is pushing itself the first pan-India taxi-on-demand service.

“We’re seeing a tremendous response to our expansion,” Anand Subramanian, Ola’s head of communications, told TechCrunch in an interview. “Our growth in smaller cities has been insane.”

200,000 Rides Per Day

Four-year-old Ola and other domestic rivals got a massive headstart on Uber, which came to India in June 2014 and is in 13 cities at the time of writing. But Subramanian claimed that local firms have a different, more local approach than their international competitors.

Beyond offering a hotline and other ways to book a ride for those without smartphones, he points to Ola’s success in converting its drivers into “entrepreneurs” — that’s industry speak for those who own their vehicle outright.

Ola began offering financing plans — which give drivers better rates and packages to purchase cars outright — nearly one year ago, and it claims that 70 percent of the 60,000 drivers on its platform have used it. Uber introduced its own version in India in November, with the country becoming the first expansion of the program outside of the U.S..

Ola claimed it is adding 1,000 new cars to its platform each day, but it is cagier on raw customer numbers. Subramanian declined to reveal the number of downloads of its apps or its registered user number, but he did say it is serving 200,000 rides on its platform per day.

Additional Safety Measures

Ola has also been bulking up its staff numbers too, and it has close to 2,500 employees right now. There has been plenty of ink spilt on taxi app companies spreading themselves too thinly in a bid to grow their businesses quickly in India — that’s certainly one factor that may have contributed to the tragic rape of an Uber passenger in New Delhi last year.

That incident was a wake-up call for all of India’s transportation on-demand companies, not just Uber. Subramanian explained that Ola has taken a number steps to solidify the security and safety measures within its service, including the addition of a “second layer” of GPS covering all drivers.

ola cabs

He added that Ola’s presence in each city is matched by at least 10-15 staff (or more than 100 busier markets), while each driver has a dedicated account manager to liaise with.

In terms of background checks, he said the company is “working with authorities and police to ensure all drivers are verified, and other agencies for full life cycle checks”.

Uber similarly pledged to introduce additional safety features and work more closely with authorities, following a ban on unlicensed taxi-app services in New Delhi last month.

Another new addition coming soon to Ola is a dedicated service for female passengers, staffed by female drivers.

Subramanian said Ola Pink, which is currently in a limited beta in Bangalore, is not a direct response to the Uber rape incident, but rather a different choice for female customers. The service is likely to launch in more cities soon, but for now Ola isn’t saying too much more about it.

First Mainstream Advertising Campaign

Beyond expanding the scope and range of its service, Ola is looking to generate wider awareness of what it does. It is putting its new funding round to use with its first paid media push.

The ‘Chalo Niklo’ campaign — which roughly means ‘get me out of here’ — features national TV ad spots (including the clip below) and covers radio, print and outdoor media.

Subramanian said it is designed to highlight “the spontaneity that a customer demands for transport as a service” — and it is interesting to see that Ola is the latest tech company — following messaging app Hike, among others — to use offline, national channels to grow awareness beyond early adopters and tech fans.

As for working with SoftBank, Subramanian hinted that there is plenty more to come although he declined to reveal specifics.

“SoftBank brings phenomenal insight for emerging markets, support and network. We look forward to a lot of collaboration on their side,” he commented.

Uber’s In The Rear-View Mirror

With Uber putting the $2.5 billion-odd that it raised rom investors last year to took with aggressive pricing and promotions, regional players like Ola will certainly need all the tactical and financial help they can get.

Uber has focused on serving a premium audience in India to date, and to that end its service is present in India’s largest cities. Ola has responded to its rival’s aggressive pricing in India, but it appears to be accelerating its expansion as quickly as possible — backed by its recent funding — to get first mover advantage in India’s smaller cities.

Uber has serious plans for Asia, and India appears to be its primary focus in the region.

That’s all well and good for now, since Uber doesn’t have anything like that reach, but it is inevitable that the U.S. firm will spread itself further in India as time goes by.

While it is currently dealing with the repercussions of the New Delhi rape — including a delicate relationship with authorities, who were quick to issue a knee jerk ban of its service — Uber has serious plans for Asia, and India appears to be its primary focus in the region.

Its most recent $1.2 billion funding round was earmarked for Asia Pacific growth, and it is prepared to go beyond just serving high-end consumers. That’s evidenced by the recent launch of Uber Go, a chauffeured hatchback service that competes with India’s ubiquitous fleets of cheap auto rickshaws, and the (albeit forced) introduction of a payment wallet that lets customers pay with cash and other methods beyond just credit cards.

rickshaw

The diversity of its service and support for different payment types were two points Ola previously stressed as competitive advantages, but the U.S. company has caught up — and that’s what it will keep doing.

Ola may be ahead on overall geographical coverage of India right now, but this race is a marathon — albeit a marathon that is being run at the pace of a sprint.

Image of Rickshaws via Shutterstock