“Confidence is critical to keep going”: Interview with Sam Ryan, Co-Founder and CEO at Zeelo

sam ryan zeelo

Founded in 2016, Zeelo.co is a smart bus platform for organisations. The global tech company is modernising daily bus commutes for frontline workers and students so that they can get to work and school in a faster, smarter, and much greener way. Zeelo serves over 100 large businesses and independent schools and moves nearly 150k riders each month across the world. Their last fundraising round was their €10.5 million Series A led by ETF Partners.

Headquartered in London with over 130 employees across the UK, North America, South Africa and Spain, the company was founded by Sam Ryan, Barney Williams and Dani Ruiz. The co-founders previously sold JumpIn, their ride-sharing app for students to Addison Lee in 2014.

Micro mobility, and the move to more sustainable transport options, is a hot topic across Europe. Zeelo is a prime example of a company innovating in this sector to promote sustainability that will help protect our planet. We put them on our list of mobility startups to watch this year, and we’re certainly looking forward to see what’s to come.

We caught up with co-founder and CEO, Sam Ryan, to learn more about his journey into entrepreneurship that started while he was at university, took a peek inside what’s going on behind the scenes at Zeelo and why the company’s mascot is an orca, as well as getting his thoughts on the future of sustainability and mobility – particularly on why and how Zeelo is committed to transitioning to a fully electric fleet by 2030.

You started JumpIn while you were at university, what advice do you have for anyone who wants to start or is starting a business out of university?

Although entrepreneurship has become the new corporate job in the past decade, it’s definitely not an easy path to take. That being said, if you have an idea but you’re still a student, I do think it’s the best time to start working on it as this is the one moment in life when you have more time, less or no dependents and probably just the right amount of idealism and courage to challenge the status quo, and run with it.

It’s also surprising how much support there is for young people with bright ideas, so if you’re serious about starting a business, it’s worth asking around at your university for advice and information on how to set it up.

But it’s not an easy journey. The more you research, learn and build, the more you will note how much more there is to build and get in place. And it will become harder to juggle not just what needs to be prioritized, but also how to balance your studies with building your business. I remember that feeling well… And I have to say it’s this balancing act and perseverance, along with all that you learn from each challenge or pivot that builds the requisite resilience to eventually succeed at securing the right amount of funding at proof of concept, and have the pure stamina required to test and learn until you arrive at product-market-fit.

If you succeed at building a revenue-generating and useful business when you’re still young, the confidence this gives you to test new ideas increases. But this time you’ve been on the journey, and you know the pain that’s coming. It’s that confidence now, that replaces the earlier idealism, or dare I say naivety, that you had when building your first business. That confidence is critical to keep going, and I believe it’s what marks out a serial entrepreneur from an entrepreneur, which are quite different things.

Now onto your journey with Zeelo. You are working with some pretty exciting, large brand names. Can you tell us how Zeelo secured its first few clients?

Zeelo’s journey towards product-market-fit was guided by 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 secured 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. We now service about 5% of all independent schools in the UK alone. 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 have posted 1000% growth since the start of the pandemic.

With Zeelo’s exciting 1000% growth since the start of the pandemic and 130+ staff in UK, Spain, South Africa, and the US, how have you scaled your management as a CEO and co-founder as Zeelo grew?

I’ve had to change the way I think. There’s no point planning for today; we need to plan as if we’re 10x our current scale in terms of the people we hire, the way we organise ourselves and the decisions we make, whilst staying grounded in the reality of the challenges we face today and keeping strong financial discipline.

I’m lucky to be surrounded by experienced leaders that I learn from every day. They help me adapt to whatever challenges come next because the reality is that the CEO I have to be now is different to the CEO I had to be six months ago; and that will keep evolving. If you’re comfortable with what you don’t know and you’re willing to learn, and you combine that with transparency and authenticity in the way you communicate, you can keep adapting to what the company needs.

Can you tell us more about some of the biggest challenges with growing Zeelo so far?

Many entrepreneurs say that hiring the right people is their biggest challenge. This is where I feel we’ve been lucky. We’re second-time entrepreneurs with first-hand experience at Addison Lee. Much of our original team is made of AddLee people who followed us into Zeelo. We’ve also hired fantastic people in the last year from the National Express, Spotify, Deliveroo, and elsewhere. These are people who understand start-up culture, tech, SaaS and how to deliver on a Go-to-Market strategy.

So, I have to say that while hiring and scaling are time-consuming and challenging, this is not the biggest challenge I’ve faced at Zeelo. For me, it’s about three things:

  1. How do we ensure everyone is informed, happy, and feels looked after from both a personal development and intellectual point of view? What’s the right balance between autonomy and support? That’s why we spend a lot of time on brand, values, culture and identifying our three behaviours to work fast, smart and together.
  2. Though this is definitely a parallel point as it is just as important – how do we ensure that our customers and partners are being heard and having their exact needs met? We’ve built a robust feedback system to ensure everyone in the company is aware of the issues that drivers, bus operators, corporate and educational customers, and even parents are experiencing. We share all this regularly in company updates and take on board ideas that emerge from these meetings from across the company. This ensures everyone is aware and involved and is working seamlessly in a team effort – like orcas swishing their tails in unison to achieve a single goal. That’s our mascot by the way – the orca.
  3. If we want to continue to solve a real problem for real people, we have to ensure we’re hearing and engaging with these people regularly, across the company. No issue, feedback, or customer testimonial is ignored. I think that’s why we have a 4.9 Trustpilot rating today. That makes me very proud. But keeping up this level of excellence and trust is of course a daily challenge.

How does Zeelo approach product innovation on your fleet, route algorithms, app, and any other aspects of your tech?

There’s so much opportunity that it’s easy to lose focus. We try to prioritise based on what our customers and partners need, commercial outcomes, and environmental or social impact.

The tech world gets very excited by buzzwords but often the promises made are far from reality. Our business is very different. We have a close relationship with our riders, our customers and our drivers. We use data and their feedback to build products that have a real impact. We’re lucky that we have a growing group of customers from whom we can collect feedback and with whom we can innovate in partnership. Though we have come a very long way already, from the point of view of our technology roadmap we’re only just getting started.

Zeelo aims to transition all services into fully electric programmes by 2030. That’s super cool! Can you tell us more about how you plan to do that and what challenges do you foresee for that along the way?

I’m so glad you picked up on this. Our ESG Strategy is extremely important to our business model. Just by choosing to travel by bus, on its own, is actually an environmentally impactful choice.

Did you know that over 15 million people across the UK (out of a working population of 26 million people) travel to work every day by car. And that’s for journeys of less than five miles on average. Imagine if all these people took a bus instead? Every bus removes 30 cars off the road and represents a 78% reduction in carbon emissions.

In our case, Zeelo is already 100% carbon neutral. All our carbon emissions through our bus journeys, including the dead-leg of the journey, are offset through our partnership with Climate Partner.

But we know that offsetting isn’t enough. That’s why we’ve committed to transitioning all Zeelo bus operations to electric vehicles by 2030. We’ve set interim targets in partnership with bus operators and businesses to achieve this important goal incrementally over the next eight years.

The challenge is to ensure first that it’s cost-effective for bus operators to make the transition. But also that the markets in which we operate are also achieving their national milestones to build EV infrastructure in peri-urban and transport-poor areas in parallel. We can’t control that, but I believe if we can create the demand for it, the infrastructure will come.

We’ve built a task-force at Zeelo which is responsible for B2G relations to ensure we’re raising awareness and speaking to the right government and local council stakeholders and are always part of the policy conversation around modernizing bus transport in the UK and US specifically. It won’t be easy. But as Nelson Mandela once said, it all seems impossible, until it’s done.

What are your thoughts on what’s to come in sustainability and mobility in the next few years?

Well, maybe I’ll tell you what I don’t think will happen first. Flying cars are cool, but that’s not what’s coming next. The global transport industry is worth $1 trillion and represents about 22% of global carbon emissions (and 27% in Europe) according to the Environment Agency.

But if we can do three key things, we could radically minimize our carbon emissions and play a huge part in helping achieve National Net Zero targets. For example, if people took more buses (which are 1.5x more environmentally friendly than trains), and if buses were available in transport-poor areas in the first place – we’ve calculated that alone would reduce our carbon impact by around 3,474 grams of CO2 per kilometre travelled by bus.

Second, if we optimised bus routes with the right tech to make journeys smarter and faster, we’d emit less CO2. At Zeelo, we’ve developed a proprietary routing algorithm that generates the most time-efficient and carbon-efficient routes for the daily commute of over 150,000 riders per month. We’ve also developed a SaaS platform and multiple mobile apps to modernize the entire bus operating model for every stakeholder – the driver, the rider, the business or school, the parents, and our operations teams at Zeelo.

Third, we need mass transport to go electric. If we can do that, we could make bus travel as green as riding a bicycle.

What’s next for Zeelo? Anything that our readers should watch out for?

A lot… the next two months we’re planning to expand fast. Not just in terms of our own headcount [they are doubling their headcount], but also our geographical spread. If you’re looking for a job at a tech company that’s intellectually challenging, and that will help you make an impact environmentally and socially… And you also want to join a company that not only moves people but is going places, we really want to hear from you.