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Ekar – Self-Drive Mobility Company Is Reinventing How People In The MENA Region Access Transportation

Ekar is the first self-drive mobility startup in the Middle East, allowing consumers on-demand access to a network of vehicles accessible for rental and lease subscription.

If, like me, you find the cost of having a car too much, and need a car for only a few hours or once in a blue moon, then ekar is for you. Enabling you to drive a car without owning one, ekar is the Middle East’s first self-drive mobility startup, offering users on-demand access to a network of vehicles available for rent and leasing subscription. Through its mobile app (available for both Android and iOS devices), users can pay by minute, hour, day, or weekly, or even opt for long-term monthly rentals, which will include fuel, complimentary public parking, insurance, maintenance, and 24-hour customer support service.

Simply download the app, register with a valid UAE or KSA driving license, and an Emirates/Iqama ID or passport, and you will soon receive a confirmation email from the ekar customer service team. Then, it’s just a matter of you locating the nearest ekar vehicle around you- you don’t need to visit a rental shop, customers can pick up and drop off at any location in the UAE. Furthermore, unlike traditional car rental companies, ekar’s promise is that you only pay for how long you’re actually using the car.

Launched in 2016, the idea for ekar was kicked off when founder and CEO Vilhelm Hedberg noticed a gap for the car sharing industry in the Middle East. The original concept was simple: provide cars to cabin crew working at Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways. “This homogenous group lives in accommodation towers with empty parking bays, as cars are expensive and nonsensical for people who spend most of their time working out of country,” Hedberg says. “I named the company “ek’-ar with Emirates in mind!” Starting off with a 15-vehicle pilot program with Etihad Airways, and then onward to an operation with 100 car-share vehicles and a partnership with the UAE’s Roads and Transport Authority, and fast forward to five years later, ekar has now evolved to become a growth-stage startup that has over 2,000 cars under management, with a target to reach 10,000 cars by the end of 2022.

ekar is currently operational across seven cities in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with plans to expand to Thailand and Malaysia this year, followed by Turkey and Egypt in 2022. The platform connects fleet owners and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) with a seamless, digital rental and leasing platform that was built in-house. While vehicles like Nissan Micra, MG ZS, Mazda 6, Mitsubishi Attrage, Peugeot 3008, Chevy Spark, Ford EcoSport and Hyundai Accent, and more available on the platform, Hedberg is especially proud to note that it is the first car share company worldwide to provide Tesla vehicles as an option on its app. “These accomplishments are a far stretch from our original problem, namely, to provide cabin crew with inexpensive mobility,” notes Hedberg. “Needless to say, the scope of the company has grown significantly, but our vision has always held true: to improve the way people consume transportation.”

According to Hedberg, ekar doesn’t have a direct competitor to its service offering in the locations it operates in. “There are a number of small startup companies that provide carshare, subscription leasing, peer-to-peer, or other forms of personal mobility,” he says. “However, there are no companies in the region that have a personal mobility super app that incorporates all of these products… ekar is in a league of its own, as is demonstrated by our radical growth and fundraising.” He’s got a point there- as a venture capital-backed business, ekar has raised over US$32 million since its inception, with investors including Polymath Ventures, Al Yemni Group, and Audacia Capital. At the same time, ekar currently services more than 250,000 members, who have cumulatively booked over 1.5 million trips using the platform.

But all of this came to an abrupt halt when the COVID- 19 crisis struck. In March 2020, Hedberg recalls how ekar found itself “grounded” with hundreds of cars across its operating cities parked and not in use. The upside of this period was that it gave the team the time they needed to further build ekar’s technology. “The decisions we made over the first four months of lockdowns, were the most important in ekar’s history, and as a result, ekar is now well on its way to becoming the largest self-drive mobility company in the world,” Hedberg reveals. “We understood that a monumental change had to happen within both the company and the mobility industry in general to cater to “the new normal.'”

By focusing on ekar’s tech infrastructure, Hedberg and his team executed a pivot of the company from being a B2C enterprise to a B2B2C one, which was announced in November 2020 as a new product called the ekar Fleet. What it did was extend ekar’s software-as-aservice platform to third-party car rental companies, thereby allowing them to list their vehicles on the ekar app, and thereby benefit from increased fleet utilization, contactless rental process, and tracking of vehicles in real-time. Consumers, on the other hand, found themselves greeted with a lot more options in any particular area. In May 2021, the startup took it a step further by partnering with CarPro, a rental fleet management platform, to allow rental car companies with over 500,000 vehicles to utilize ekar’s Mobility OS within its fleet management software.

As for what’s next, Hedberg highlights ekar’s recent breakthroughs have been in the platform’s dynamic pricing, as well as its predictive AI-driven fleet management. “Using in-house algorithms, the ekar data and tech teams have been able to improve our booking percentages over 30%,” Hedberg says. “We now also provide predictive pricing that intelligently applies real-time discounts to ekar vehicles, depending on demand cycles and other real-time factors such as weather conditions and special events. The systems are incredible!” And given all that the company has accomplished so far, it does seem like the future is bright for ekar. “Our growth over the last year has been phenomenal, and we anticipate even more radical growth as we launch peer-to-peer carsharing later this year,” Hedberg concludes.

‘TREP TALK: ekar founder and CEO Vilhelm Hedberg’s tips for entrepreneurs

1. Perfection is the enemy of progress. “Aiming for perfection is a fool’s journey. It’s an unattainable goal, and by the time you think you’re close, you’ve either missed the opportunity, or allowed for competitors to eat up market share. Strive for good, because good is good enough. I’d rather be a major global business that has a good product that I can continuously iterate, than a small business aiming for perfection in a local market.”

2. Be customer-focused, not competitor-focused. “It’s easy to get caught up with looking over your shoulder at your competitors, but put on the horse blinders. You’re in a race, no need to look left or right, just keep your eye on the finish line. Focus on what you do best, and let your competitors scratch their heads trying to figure out how to match your accomplishments.”

3. Back your ideas with data. “Quite simply, avoid as much as possible making any decision that isn’t data-backed. At ekar, we have over 1 million data records daily; this allows us to predict outcomes more precisely, thus avoiding needless extra work or mistakes.”

4. Be careful about who you surround yourself with. “Drive is infectious. The five people that you spend your time with are a reflection of you. If your friends are physically active, smart, and entrepreneurial-minded, then you are in a good place. If you spend most of your time lounging on the couch playing video games with your friends, then chances are you will have a hard time reaching your entrepreneurial goals.”

5. Work smarter, not harder. “We’ve probably heard this a million times before, but it’s a mantra that I practice religiously in my life.”

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