Zeelo CEO Sam Ryan Wins Coveted Industry Award

We couldn’t be more honoured than we are today to be able to announce that Zeelo’s co-founder Sam Ryan has won the coveted European CEO of the Year 2023 Award in the sustainable mobility industry!
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We couldn’t be more honoured than we are today to be able to announce that Zeelo’s co-founder Sam Ryan has won the coveted European CEO of the Year 2023 Award recognising Sam’s game-changing contribution to the sustainable mobility industry over the past decade.

Many don’t know this, but Sam began his career in ride-hailing, selling his first startup JumpIn to Addison Lee while he was still studying at university with his co-founder Barney. It’s here that they met their third founder Dani. Sam’s trajectory is fascinating. So this week we asked Sam to sit down with us and tell us a bit more about how his interest in technology and transport started, how it feels today to be running a global business which has recorded over 3 million rides booked on its system, and crucially… Why buses? 

Congratulations Sam on a well-deserved award we are all so proud of! Tell us what you feel sets Zeelo apart from the competition?

This is an interesting question because when my co-founders Barney Williams, Dani Ruiz and I started our journey towards achieving product-market fit six years ago, there was very little competition in our space. The market was dominated by smart taxis, which is where we had come from (in fact, we sold our first business to Addison Lee in 2014). Today, as Zeelo scales and operates across three continents specialising in smart bus commutes for frontline workers of household brands across the UK and the US, the competitive landscape has grown considerably. I actually view this emergence of an ecosystem today as proof of the enormous $40 billion market opportunity in the developed world.

There are countless reports about buses being a greener, much more efficient and less costly alternative to cars, but the adoption of an electric bus model has been slow because it requires a collective effort from various players. We know through our data that a modal shift from a fuel-powered car to a private diesel coach already reduces carbon emissions from road transport by a staggering 78%. Further to that, there are no infrastructure costs, as it’s possible for our clients to make the switch to electric buses for all their Zeelo services thanks to portable charging infrastructure provided by our partner Zenobe that resolves the problem of distance. In addition, electric buses for our services can be provided by our 200 operator partners should they wish to purchase fleets through a financing scheme on preferential terms which we have made available through collaboration with Zenobe and the UK’s largest electric fleet distribution partners Pelican, as well as training, taster trials and education on electric bus transport for regular commutes. In addition, optimising bus and coach travel with a well-conceived technology stack, and a stakeholder engagement action plan that is paving the way for more sustainable shared transport, is really a no-brainer.

But Zeelo’s difference lies in our being able to resolve five problems in one solution. There is no other company in our space able to cover all five bases like us in an affordable, green, safe and reliable way.

First, we protect the business of family-run local bus operators by partnering with them to utilise their surplus fleets for contracts we’ve won directly with household brands. This provides our 200+ bus operators with regular recurring revenue and increases their overall profit margin simply by getting more mileage out of their vehicles.

Second, and relatedly, this means we’re an asset-light business. We don’t own our own fleet, so our overhead costs remain low while we focus on delivering an end-to-end transport operation with our proprietary GPS routing software, mobile apps for riders and bus drivers that capture data, and a SaaS platform which assigns, tracks and manages both the journey and contract fulfilment with clients and partners. Together this system automates bus transport management, takes away the hassle of organising and managing worker commutes from our clients, and allows us to plug gaps in public transport in as little as 24 hours.

Third, we resolve a problem for corporate clients across the UK, US and South Africa by popping up routes exactly where they’re needed, plugging in new bus stops or removing others to speed up the service, drive up bus occupancy levels, and create an employment benefit that is a much better value investment that actually supports recruitment and retention. And all while reducing our clients’ carbon emissions. In fact, we are paving the way to make Zeelo’s smart commuter mass transit solution 100% net-zero by 2030 in line with national guidelines, with 5% of our services already electric this year.

Fourth, Zeelo also removes the need for parking space on site while removing the hassle of transport management and solving a recruitment problem. Choosing Zeelo helps improve operational efficiencies for our clients from several standpoints: cost, time, team and space. We also support independent schools to increase their catchment area by identifying hot spots where riders will need to be collected and dropped off and all our drivers are vetted to the highest standards.

Fifth, we enable social mobility and access to new job opportunities for frontline workers who need a regular commute to work, usually between towns where public transport is insufficient and tailored to a rider’s variable shift schedule, often at irregular hours.

In hindsight if you had one piece of advice to give to yourself just starting out, what would it be?

I would tell myself, Sam, get ready to pivot. Not just once, but repeatedly. Don’t be afraid of this because, if looked at another way, pivoting is actually course-correcting to adapt to your environment. To use a driving analogy, pivoting is not a swerve-like movement. What you’re doing is focusing on the business while scaling at speed. So you steer it in the direction of your vision and make those adjustments in good time so that the transition phase from one lane to another feels as smooth as possible.

For context, on Zeelo’s journey towards product-market fit, we made three strategic pivots. When we started out in 2017, our value proposition was to provide smart bus transportation to events and we secured exciting contracts with Manchester City FC in the UK and also many contracts in South Africa. 

In 2018, we shifted away from events and our B2C value proposition to a B2B service getting white-collar professionals to work for corporate clients and recruitment companies and securing considerable revenues. That’s when we secured shuttle-service contracts with McLaren and Jaguar Land Rover and started discussions with staffing agencies in the US. 

In parallel, we noticed an opportunity for school commutes to educational or sports events in the UK and South Africa and started building relationships with independent schools to fill a gap in their transport service. By the end of 2019, we were a thriving business with healthy recurring revenues.

Then Covid happened, it shaved off a big chunk of our revenues overnight which was a shock to the system. Barney, Dani and I, as well as a few other key members of the international leadership team, huddled together and we spent four solid weeks pivoting the strategy for the third time.

Everyone was quickly put on furlough to protect both them and our business. In this intense period, we uncovered the gap for frontline workers who still needed to go to work. We won a contract with a major multinational marketplace client and serviced journeys to five sites – distribution centres. That was when we achieved product-market-fit. Bang in the middle of lockdowns.

With new client-wins, we recovered our monthly targets within a month and brought all our staff back to work after just two months of furlough. We acted fast, smart and together and recorded 1000% growth in revenues since the start of the pandemic. Adjustments continue in the current climate but I’m proud to see business acceleration in the US where we’ve won major contracts including UPS.

What do you feel is the most important asset when running a business and why?

Without a doubt, there are two assets. First, the team. Who you bring into the company is of critical importance. I learned very quickly that a good hire was as much about values and cultural fit as it was about the experience and investing heavily in the brand to build a recognisable culture. 

You can never underestimate the dedication of a team member who believes in the same things as you and how this can accelerate collaboration, which is critical to maintaining momentum in sales, marketing, operations, product development and ultimately, year-on-year growth.

The second asset is, never to lose sight of unit economics. Financial hygiene is critical to running and managing a successful business that will not waste its runway and that keeps a close eye on profit margins and operating costs to maintain scalability.

What traits do you see in yourself that have made you successful?

Oh, wow. This is a difficult question. I’m going to have to quote my wife Hilary on this one. Authenticity, resilience and responsibility are my key traits. Apparently, my co-founders agree with her so I’m lucky there. But personally, I’d say belief in the vision is my driving force. 

My great-grandfather was an engineer at the Department of Transport and when I found that out I wondered if it was in my DNA. But really I think our freedom of movement is everything, and our public mass transit system is not fit for the future. 

I believe Zeelo is illustrating how it can be fixed and make a real impact on people’s lives without releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. That really makes me proud and keeps me motivated to succeed.

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