SoftBank is doubling down on India, quite literally. The Japanese tech powerhouse, flush with billions from its extremely lucrative Alibaba investment, is today confirming that it has led a $210 million investment in Ola, an Uber-style service in India that aims to use technology to shake up and dominate the car-for-hire and wider transportation market in the country.
The news comes at the same time that another Indian e-commerce business, Snapdeal, is announcing an investment of its own from SoftBank, a $627 million round, and is apparently part of a much bigger plan by SoftBank to invest up to $10 billion in Indian tech companies in the next several years. Other investments in India include mobile ad startup InMobi and Bharti.
“Since SoftBank’s foundation, our mission has been to contribute to people’s lives through the Information Revolution,” Masayoshi Son, Chairman and CEO of SoftBank Corp., said in a statement. “We believe India is at a turning point in its development and have confidence that India will grow strongly over the next decade. As part of this belief, we intend to deploy significant capital in India over the next few years to support development of the market.”
This Series D round is by far the biggest round Ola has raised and takes its total funding up to nearly $277 million.
Other investors in this latest round include previous backers Tiger Global, Matrix Partners and Steadview Capital.
Just as Uber has stormed the transportation market across the U.S. and a number of countries outside it, Ola has been steadily building a business at home.
It is now live in 19 cities, launching 9 in the last two months. It currently has 33,000 cabs in its fleet and the main focus now is to bring in more drivers into its fold. “We are making a big investment in getting drivers to become entrepreneurs,” Anand Subramanian, Ola’s marketing head, said in an interview. As with Snapdeal focus on building its business in its home market, this is also the main aim for Ola for now: “The focus will be predominantly in India,” he says.
If you’ve ever been to India, you will know that this is no small feat and one that has been tackled from other directions. Take a sometimes-chaotic road system, and add a variety of road users that range from cows and elephants through to rickshaws, auto-rickshaws and cars and busses, and you start to get a picture of where an organised car service might come in handy for those who can afford it.
“We are thrilled with the pace at which we are growing,” says Bhavish Aggarwal, Co-founder & CEO, Ola, in a statement. “Ola is at the forefront of the mobile internet revolution in India and Softbank as an investor and a strategic partner with its global network, brings in a lot of relevant experience and knowledge of this domain. We will continue to build towards our vision of transportation as a seamless and ubiquitous service in every corner of the country and focus on the driver ecosystem to enable micro entrepreneurship and skill development at scale.”
Ola currently has up to four different classes of cars for hire — based around size options — and like any disruptive car network with big ambitions, it has been dabbling in extending the network of drivers to transport more than just people, recently delivering sweets during the Diwali holiday.
“The core of what we are trying to build is a great nerve center, something extremely reliable and safe that can extend to a lot of different things, even if right now we’re mainly trying to solve transportation,” Subramanian says.
Ola has also been clever in coming up with ways to meet the specific needs of users in India. For example, it was the first to offer a prepaid wallet for passengers, helpful for those who do not use payment cards. “India is a very different market, with a lot of local dynamics compared to western countries,” Subramanian says, “and that makes it challenging and exciting.”
We see a lot of Uber-toos in different markets today, but Ola was the first mobile app to enable cab booking online in the country. Now of course it has a lot of competition from all sides, including from Uber itself. No comment, only a nervous laugh, from Subramanian on whether Uber has made any overtures to Ola.