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[The Turning Point] Ola’s ride from a tour and travel operator to a ride-hailing unicorn

Sindhu Kashyap ( )

It was the year 2010, and two IIT-Bombay students, Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati, wanted to head out on a weekend trip. Like most people did at that time, they found it difficult to book a cab. Being techies and engineers, they thought of an idea: wouldn’t it be cool to be able to book a ride on an app? That thought led to the birth of Ola Trips, a Mumbai-based tour and travel operator


Bhavish would be out in the field trying to sell trips, while Ankit stayed holed up in an old apartment near IIT-Bombay, coding the website. Ola Trips quickly pivoted into a ride-hailing service when the duo realised that that was the real market. 


Two years after setting up operations, and getting an angel funding, the team decided to shift base to Bengaluru. And, there was no looking back


Ola founders Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati


Nine years down the line, the name Ola is synonymous with easily available rides and more. The Bengaluru-based unicorn, with a valuation of close to $5 billion, now has a presence in over 250 cities across the globe


In addition to expanding its geographical footprint, the company has also expanded into foodtech and the electric mobility segment, making inroads into both these ventures in a matter of months. Its Ola Electric entity also entered the coveted unicorn club earlier this year.


Interestingly, Ola began its operations in India at the same time that its global competitor, Uber, started operations. 


Explaining the different phases of the Ola’s growth, Bhavish Aggarwal, Co-founder and CEO, said the first few years - during 2011-2014 – was the “romantic struggle” phase where “Paisa nahi tha, log nahi the, tension bhi nahi tha” (no money, no people, no tension); the second, from 2014 to 2017, was the “crazy scale-up” phase, and the third, from 2017 to 2019, is the “ managing the scale” phase


“The key challenge we have faced in the last few years is managing the scale. It’s easy to manage scale when you don’t have to make money, but when you have to build a real business, things change. We get into the same trap as a large MNC, so it’s important to know the pulse on the ground,” Bhavish says. 


On the sidelines of TechSparks 2019, when asked when the last time he booked an Ola was, Bhavish promptly replied: “Last evening, and even I gave the OTP and all other details.”