27-year old Samuel Odeloye is the co-founder of RP Technologies, the creators of Lara transport bot, a Transportation Directions Assistant via Lara.NG. This week on Startup Stories, the University of Lagos & Stanford GSB Center for professional development graduate, Samuel, gives an exclusive insight into how Lara.Ng became a reality.
Startup Story of the week
Lara.ng is an AI for public transportation directions and fare quotes in Lagos, Nigeria. She’s like that friend you call when you find yourself lost in an unfamiliar place. Lara gives public transit directions to her users, majorly commuters in Lagos, on-demand, 24/7. It is specifically created for public transit users, while the sister platform myrp.ng is targeted at drivers and transit passengers.
In the summer of 2009, I visited my cousin in London, who had recently relocated from North East to South East London due to his new job. He couldn’t take me around London because of the job and instead introduced TFL, (Transport For London), a local trip planner app in London, to me. The app helped you search for transport vehicles and destination fares.All it required was a mobile phone and internet access. I remember us joking about how Nigeria could never get to a stage such as that. When I got back to Nigeria, I still had friends in the UK who would call me to ask for the name of a particular route in the UK. I would only just refer them to the TFL website.
In 2012, on a trip from New Jersey to London, I was sitting next to someone was some guy who had never been to London. He asked me if I knew London very well & how could he get to his destination from the Airport. So I took his laptop from him, open TFL and typed in the address he had shown me, and the result came up. At that moment, I thought to myself, if this guy was coming to Nigeria for the first time, was there any repository platform for checking the various modes of transportation ( Public transit, Driving, Local Taxi, ridesharing ..etc.)? I realized that a lot of people have issues getting around in a new place and are short of options on how and where to get directions. With the wariness of talking to strangers and the innate distrust of other online maps, the public transportation system in Lagos is a true mystery. So my team, RP Technologies, which has been in existence since 2013, decided to create a solution that gives public transportation direction through an interactive interface, precisely the same way our target users already get those directions from friends, family, colleagues, etc., through text messaging. Lara was designed to be interactive and detailed in providing those transit directions.
Lara is at the very early stage in her growth story. We had previously launched Lara on Whatsapp, so users were able to text a number and get directions on WhatsApp. She was massively successful and got a lot of followership in a short period. But Lara was shut down on WhatsApp, so we had to take her to her new home on Lara.ng. We have greatly used word of mouth marketing, and it has been the most effective strategy so far. From the first-hand experience, we learned over time that people trust the messenger first before the message. We also leveraged Lara’s WhatsApp communities to keep spreading the word about Lara. The team has found access to larger groups through partnerships with brands, where the location is a big part of their business – such as peer to peer selling platforms & event aggregators.
I think of myself as an adventurer, life enthusiast, a unique, witty and innovative Individual whose performance is driven by self-belief. As a team, we often read as a group and individually as well. We have a habit of sharing fresh ideas amongst ourselves, and we let that influence what we build. We also don’t take ourselves too seriously, which makes for an excellent environment to share ideas without hesitation. You don’t have to look far to get your inspiration in Lagos. There’s so much work that needs to be done, and we draw our inspiration from that. Some of the interesting personalities that have served as my source of inspiration are Tomi Davies, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Phil Knight just to name a few.
I have quite some challenges; each day brings with its unique challenge. My favorite dates back to when Lara got shut down on WhatsApp. We were already experiencing a fantastic growth, users were sharing Lara’s contacts in droves, and we were getting lots of great feedback from our users. Then WhatsApp shut us down because of their monopoly on bots on their platform. Thus, we had to regroup and figure out our next directions. But due to the resilience of the team, we were out with Lara.ng in less than two weeks, and we took the party to our location and continued Lara’s growth story there.
We learned with our previous products that we may have been ahead of our users for a couple of years. The majority of our users were not very motivated to navigate their cities by using a map interface. So we pivoted to providing our service to our users in a format they already understand, text messaging. Plus we are very excited about the future of chatbots. We believe chatbots are the new apps.
It is our dream that when people find themselves in unfamiliar territory, and they need to speak with a friend to get directions, Lara is the first one to come to mind. We hope to get many more people using Lara in many more cities around the world. For now, Lara is focused on giving people directions, and we want to be almost perfect at doing that.
To the startup enthusiast, my advice is to find a great team of people you respect to build your startup with. Ensure you work with people you enjoy spending time with. Look for grit and resilience; you cannot succeed without it. The startup journey is not a fairy tale with happy endings, they feel more like war, where there are winners, losers, victors, and casualties. Only sign up for this journey if you’re ready for a fight.