· 2 months ago

Is Uganda’s SafeBoda paying the price for hasty scaling?


If you’re working on a product that can scale ‘overnight’, it is no doubt you’ll think of scaling. Therefore, SafeBoda recent scaling wasn’t a question of if they would, it was when. Which they are currently still doing.

The startup’s scaling has been both vertical and horizontal – in Uganda and Kenya respectively. Though at a cost.

However, important to note is that almost all companies that scale – from history – face challenges. For technology startups, the issues center around the quality of hires and the product robustness.

In 2016, Uber scaled to cover at least 400 cities and 70 countries with over 6000 employees, 2000 of whom were engineers. Only a year and a half before, the company had just 200 engineers. Yet, they didn’t scale without problems.

In fact, Matt Ranney, the company’s Chief Systems Architect then, confessed that “lots of mistakes have been made along the way.”

In February 2016, an Uber driver was accused of killing six people in a Kalamazoo, Michigan. This raised concerns about the company’s background checks.

Also read: Pitch perfect, a Ugandan online show focused on innovators, launches

Which reminds of the fact that in the past two months, I have taken SafeBodas with drivers I can classify as half-baked;

One – in July – almost crashed into a trailer along Ntinda-Nakawa road. While another, that I took last week, drove on the pavements at Kabira Country Club. There have also been several incidents of some driving past red traffic light.

Yet these incidents are only increasing in the past few months because all my encounters with SafeBoda drivers below number 1500 have yielded perfect rides.

This can be traced to early this year.

There’s no doubt that SafeBoda’s product is on demand. In a conversation with one of the co-founders, he told me that however fast they are growing, they can’t seem to match the demand. Even Uber had these issues.

In a bid to match the growing demand, the startup raised a round of $1.1 million (which they denied) to enable them to recruit more drivers among other things. This number has been growing at an unprecedentedly fast rate.

Currently, they have at least 5000 riders, going by the numbers I see on their helmets.

Though, it seems that in an effort to grow, they slacked on quality assurance. This has greatly affected their service, given there’s a very distinct difference between the older (1500) and new (1500+)batch of SafeBoda riders.

The startup admitted to this, calling it an inconsistency in “customer experience”.

They pointed out that their quality assurance team was growing and “working tirelessly to test and retrain SafeBodas in customer care and app use to ensure a good quality service, every time.”

That was exactly a month ago. And, a few things have been corrected here and there.

Though, another issue that perhaps was pressing for attention is the technology.

Getting a SafeBoda between two and one month ago was a great pain. Either they could assign you a driver miles away or the app would return no rider. Even when you could see someone across the street.

When I spoke to someone familiar with the company, I was informed that it was a result of a technical error. And, they were hiring a good number of engineers to join their local team. They also followed this up with looking for at least 8 engineers in Barcelona.

Alastair Sussock, SafeBoda’s co-founder and co-CEO, told me that the move to hire in Barcelona was to “scale the SafeBoda platform and provide more services to drivers and passengers in Kampala and across East Africa”.

Yet, last week, they were hit by another technology-related issue. Some of SafeBoda users found out that they were being overcharged. SafeBoda blamed this on a technical error saying that “We have fixed the overcharge app bug!”

“Dear Customers, over the last couple of weeks, you may have experienced a trip overcharge on the app. We are happy to inform you that this has now been fixed & apologise for any inconveniences caused,” SafeBoda wrote on their social media platforms.

Like I wrote before, when you look at history, all startups that have scaled rapidly in the past have had challenges. However, they – most, if not all – managed to maneuver them but at a price.

Groupon CEO was fired, Uber’s co-founder and CEO had to be fired while Facebook had to get its senior engineers away from their daily work to mainly focus on its new hires in 2006 until they were confident they could deliver.

Therefore, what is happening to SafeBoda is perfectly normal. The only question should be; For how long will it go on? And, what will it cost the company before they get back on the right track?


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