Amir is the founder of Swoop, a group transportation booking platform. It started as a personal need and after trying out different business models and carrying out all the marketing and sales strategies he and his team could think of, it has grown into a profitable startup.
Hi Amir! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
Hi there! My name is Amir and I'm the CEO/Co-Founder of Swoop. I’m from El Segundo, California. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a small town located in Los Angeles and also where A Tribe Called Quest left their wallet.
Our headquarters currently reside in Playa Vista alongside tech hubs like YouTube and Google. On one side of the coin Swoop is a group transportation marketplace with vehicles for any adventure. On the other, Swoop is developing tech to create a platform for transportation companies of all sizes to communicate with each other more efficiently.
One key function will allow vehicle operators to simply hand off trips when they don’t have availability and still earn a percentage of the profit, all while using Swoop’s user friendly software.
What's Swoops backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
How Swoop came to fruition is very personal. My parents immigrated from Iran and started a limousine and party bus company in Los Angeles. From the moment I could crawl I was playing around the office and putting my fingerprints on everything. By the age of three I was handed my first towel and washed a few rims to stay busy. As I got older I gradually became more and more involved in the daily business operations, at an appropriate age of course. Being heavily interested in video gaming and other new technologies that hit the market every holiday season, I quickly noticed my parents’ booking system and operations dashboard were outdated and never got updated. It didn’t strike me as an issue at first, I just figured that’s how things were.
Throughout my college years my friends would always look to me to organize a party bus for them on the weekends because it was a hassle for them to book. They weren’t confident they were getting the best deal unless they visited the lot in person. Over time I saw first hand how the younger generations weren’t attracted to the archaic booking process for limos and party buses but the demand was there.
When you set out to build a product, it typically is to solve an issue that you’re fed up with. I teamed up with some of the same friends who were asking me to help them book party buses and we created Swoop.
How did you build Swoop?
Funny thing is, Swoop actually started out as an on-demand service. My parents would lend us the vehicles that weren't being utilized and we would have a few Sprinter vans on the road throughout the weekend. The team downloaded Slack to feel more professional, subscribed to rudimentary on-demand software, and launched what was recognized as “Uber for groups.”
Through this we gained a ton of knowledge while getting a realistic gauge of what the industry was missing. It boiled down to the booking experience. We realized that normal people liked to schedule in advance. Not everyone in the world is a whimsical kid fresh out of a college.
Swoop then pivoted to creating a marketplace so mom and pop transportation companies can apply their vehicles to our platform and users can simply book whichever one they preferred. My parents' shop became our first vehicle operator on the Swoop platform. Shortly after we returned the favor by increasing their sales by over 20%. Without my parents and their generosity we would be far behind where we are now. Realistically speaking, we probably would have never started.
Moving forward, Swoop is still developing and changing our goals after all these years. We are now focused on creating a community for vehicle operators to engage with each other to make profits from the rides they aren’t able to service. Commonly known as farming-out, this process is a popular theme in the group transportation industry and we’re working to enhance this experience for companies of all sizes.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
From the very beginning we did whatever it took to get eyes on our product. In the early days we applied large Swoop stickers on the vehicles and pulled up to events around town to show them off. We handed out flyers with promo codes and even gave some free rides to larger groups. This worked well to get our name out in the community but didn’t really translate to consistent sales.
Next we partnered with bars and restaurants during football season and offered package deals that would provide roundtrip transportation to and from the Rams games. This got more bodies in the vehicles and also led to great advertisement but it just wasn’t enough.
As a little more time went on we focused heavily on our social media presence. We had a service that was perfect for influencers to get on board with. We provided free rides in exchange for social posts which expanded our following from around 500 to over 10k in the matter of a few months. By then our branding was on point. Everyone knew what a party bus, limo, and charter bus was, but we incorporated it into their daily lives and made it more relatable. We began to see a heavy increase in web traffic and overall engagement.
In order to capitalize on the marketing progress we created, our business development team strapped on their boots to create more opportunities. Peter and Ruben who led these efforts pitched Swoop to become the preferred transportation partner at some of the best wedding venues in LA. This led to some cross-marketing through websites like Wedding Wire and The Knot which spawned into more partnerships at new venues. We then created a wedding planner referral program to provide a commission for suggesting our services. The wedding industry soon became our largest revenue stream.
As our ride total grew we stuck to our main goal of always providing a five-star service. This increased our popularity on Yelp which led to more sales because our product had great reviews and lots of them.
Simply put, we got dirty at first and did everything we could to become recognizable. After establishing our brand, we grew with the resources around us and kept pace with the culture of the markets we were in. Once we got you in a Swoop, it was game over.
Nowadays we've been experimenting a lot. Direct outreach, sales and relationship management have shown the greatest impact. We're leveraging Apollo.io for email outreaches, and Alfred.io on LinkedIn Sales Navigator. In terms of marketing, the leads on paid social sites like Instagram and Facebook turned out to be too expensive. We tried a lot on Google Ads but only got cost-efficient results for specific target audiences. Today we are leveraging our SEO strongly by building backlinks and content marketing. You don't see it picking up right away like on paid channels but it's an investment - you plant the seeds and watch them grow.
What are your goals for the future?
With the world put on pause due to COVID-19 we’ve had a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come and how we should plan to move forward. Our sales took a steep decline, however, we knew there were holes in the industry that needed to be filled and this gave us time to plan accordingly.
Every step we’ve taken at Swoop has been because we’ve learned what our industry is deprived of through our own trial and errors and then we've set out a goal to fix it. We didn't have to wait long to realize the most important thing the group transportation industry lacks is advanced technology.
The vehicle operators we worked with were communicating through so many different channels and had so many different processes that the overall experience for the customer was being affected. Some of the operators we came across were still writing down their scheduled trips by pen and paper. Swoop depends on the service the operators provide and their capability to communicate with us. We realized this has been an issue and will continue to be if we don’t do anything about it.
That’s why we’ve decided to shift our focus to developing software for operators that will manage their fleet, provide networking features, and much more with an appealing UI. This will provide an environment for transportation companies of all sizes to thrive in. Yes, Swoop marketplace will still be in full swing. This advanced tech will only connect our customers with vehicle operators more efficiently and create a better experience for everyone in the ecosystem.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame?
When we first launched Swoop marketplace we were able to get by with basic tech and a lot of manual input simply because we didn’t have a tidal wave of incoming requests and our team was very dedicated to conquer any swell. But, whenever you’re launching a product in the tech industry you need to have great engineers to develop it for you, otherwise you’ll get left in the dust.
Finding the right engineers who were willing to get scrappy while also compensating them fairly was difficult. The rest of the team ran off equity packages and a very minimal salary while doing most of the heavy lifting. We simply couldn’t afford to bring anyone on board to develop what would ultimately increase our profitability. Pretty much the pickle every startup finds itself in.
I spent countless hours increasing my coding knowledge while the rest of the team kept Swoop afloat. Knowing how precious time was, I begged my long time friend, Ruben, to leave his job at Facebook and lead the fundraising efforts at Swoop. Thankfully Ruben said yes. He wanted to carve out his own destiny at a startup and wanted to walk the tightrope with us. After a few months of minimal sleep and daily hot-flashes, I got the call. We secured our pre-seed funding and we were able to bring on our core team with a full-time salary along with adding two engineers.
Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?
I personally find my greatest disadvantage in managing my time on specific tasks. Being able to prioritize projects in the correct order can give you a huge upper hand, especially in app development. Our initial web app took over 1 year to develop because we were compartmentalizing our time inefficiently. In a way, recognizing this weakness has taught me patience and also helps with attachment issues.
There were times the team and I invested countless hours into a project and then suddenly had to scrap it and start all over again because it didn't make sense for the new direction of Swoop. There were also moments we moved on from a task that needed a little more nurturing and this led to some tedious backpedaling.
Having gone through these experiences multiple times has brought me a ton of perspective while building Swoop and has actually brought the team closer.
If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?
Having the wrong goal is more important than having no goal at all. Trial and error is essential to any business. I always laugh at the time we first launched Swoop with the "Uber for groups" business plan. All of the Saturdays we stayed up through the night, continuously refreshing our dispatch page to see if any ride requests came through, and if any did, someone would sprint out of the office to grab the vehicle and pick up the customer.
We would do 15+ rides in a night with 3 party buses on the road and we thought we were studs. It was nuts. Would it have been an advantage to have started developing the marketplace before an on-demand service? I honestly don't think so. We learned so much about the industry and what it was like to be in the field. Having face to face conversations with customers and hearing their feedback was essential.
The lessons learned during that year were more useful to the future of Swoop than getting a head start on our current business model. It created better relationships with the affiliates we work with and drivers on their roster because we had seen almost everything. The time we spent formulating our old business model became the foundation for the Swoop culture we take so much pride in today.
What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
I generally check First Round Capital’s content.
A great eBook I’ve read is “The Great CEO Within” which advises on great tactics that build confidence within a company and enhances culture.