Payam Safa, founder of Bellhop, transformed his passion for travel into a platform that provides transparency to the fragmented ride-hailing space. Bellhop is a free-to-use ride-hailing app that aggregates ride offers from Uber, Lyft, and others in a single place.
What helped motivate the idea, which is currently on its second successful Republic campaign? Hint: it involves backpacking 945 miles and intentionally no routines.
What is Bellhop’s story?
Travel is a passion of mine so our idea actually evolved out of the hospitality industry. While in Singapore pursuing my MBA, I saw a market opportunity to focus on the travel and hospitality industry. On a macro level, Asia provided the best opportunity in 2010. Whereas the US was in a recession and Europe was headed in that direction, Asia had a booming economy, a growing lower-middle income class, and GDP per capita growing 10% on average across several Asian countries.
Specifically, within the Asian hospitality industry, several US brands were localizing in Southeast Asia. However, there was still a gap in the 2 to 3-star hotel market. I saw this as an opportunity to start a hotel chain for lower middle-income travelers. I began pitching my idea to a bunch of entrepreneurs and investors, and ended up connecting with an Indonesian guy who wanted to build the same type of hotel chains. We started working together, which led me to realize the potential to apply tech within the hospitality industry.
Initially, the plan was to intersect tech with hospitality by building a marketplace of hotel services. We quickly realized that was not scalable enough to offer a true consumer solution. We also realized that the opportunity was to go deep into a vertical as opposed to horizontally (across food, entertainment, and transport, for example). So we pivoted to focus on ground transportation by building the first all-in-one ride-hailing app.
You love to travel. What was your favorite travel experience?
Thailand is definitely my favorite country so far. Between the culture, the people, and the food, the country has so much to offer. While in Thailand, my favorite experience was learning how to scuba dive in Koh Tao. It was surreal to go underwater and see an array of exotic fish, sharks, and sea turtles.
Maintaining vulnerability and openness to feedback is absolutely critical to success
How would you describe your leadership style?
Collaborative and continuously open to feedback. I believe that is the only way to grow, both as an individual and as an organization. I don’t even believe in the concept of competition, I think we are all players trying to improve. If we are in the same space, there is something we can learn from one another. Maintaining vulnerability and openness to feedback is absolutely critical to success and that philosophy exists inside of me and within our organization.
My routine is to not be routine.
Do you share any routines with your team?
Routines are our comfort zone. My routine is to not be routine.
When were you pushed outside your comfort zone?
While building the hotel chain in Indonesia, I was responsible for sales marketing and technology for our team. That involved a lot of market research in developing cities in Indonesia where virtually no English was spoken. I did not speak the native language, so I had to find a way to communicate simply with determination and a pocket dictionary.
Where do you see on-demand car-hailing space in five years? How does Bellhop align with that vision?
In the last few years, a couple dozen ride-hailing apps have come to market globally. In the US market alone there are at least 15. You see this growth trend continue, year over year. The business model behind each company is slightly different, as each has a slightly unique value proposition in every market.
The steady growth of ride-hailing apps fits in perfectly for us because consumers don’t currently have the transparency to know what all of these services are. It is not practical to have numerous ride-hailing apps on your phone and check all of them. There has to be a player in the market who gives transparency to make a smart and informed decision based on all the options available.
Equity crowdfunding exponentially increases our community and stimulates our company’s growth.
What excites you about equity crowdfunding?
The fundraising process is extremely difficult. It is very hard to sell your business to an accredited investor. They’re looking for significant market traction and considerable growth before they’re willing to put money towards your idea. Part of that is because advanced technology has made it much easier to take products to market; you can build a basic app with $10,000. Building an app, however, is not the same thing as building a business.
An equity crowdfunding platform like Republic is extremely impactful because you have the opportunity to receive funding before reaching significant market traction and revenue growth. You also get evangelists and people rooting for you to help spread the word. Equity crowdfunding exponentially increases our community and stimulates our company’s growth.
My team members are the rockstars and true visionaries putting in the blood, sweat, and tears to make this happen.
Any mentors or others that were instrumental in building Bellhop?
My parents always have my back, which I am so grateful for. I also have a great team. My team members are the rockstars and true visionaries putting in the blood, sweat, and tears to make this happen.
Our advisors have been extremely supportive and generous with their time. Blue came in a couple of years ago and is now an advisor to us. He played a critical role in making the platform what it is today. Some individuals who helped us get to where we are today include Beth who led product at Expedia and GrubHub, Jason who directed marketing at GooglePlay, and Norm who runs Travel Tech Consulting.
Amir, who is Managing Partner at the Plug and Play Incubator, has also been instrumental. He believed in our vision from the very beginning and brought us into Plug and Play, which enabled us to build a great network.
Something we don't already know about you?
I love speaking with strangers. Last year, I went on a three-week backpacking trip by myself through Central America. I booked a flight to Belize and decided I would get to Costa Rica on foot. I didn’t even know how much distance there was between the two. All I knew was I had three weeks to get from Belize to Costa Rica. Every day, I would figure out where I would crash that night by knocking on door after door.
During those three weeks, I talked to people to get by. A really memorable person I met during the trip was a man in El Salvador, who turned out to be the local surf champ (as well as my awesome tour guide for the next 48 hours).