In the increasingly crowded and competitive world of ride-sharing, Split continues its steady march across the District.
The nearly year-old service — which is yet another attempt to carve out a niche in the ride-hailing universe dominated by Uber — has expanded into American University and nearby neighborhoods such as Tenleytown, Cathedral Heights, Cleveland Park, and Van Ness. As of last month, its service area now stretches roughly on an axis from Northwest to Southeast in its hometown.
Business has been good for ride-sharing, particularly as Metro has stumbled. But the field is also already crowded, and Uber just keeps cruising along. It’s like the Walmart of ride-sharing, having moved into the limousine, carpooling, lunch delivery business and even flying rich hipsters to the Coachella music festival by helicopter.
But Split chief executive Ario Keshani isn’t fazed by the competition, and the 32-year-old entrepreneur isn’t rooting for Metro’s troubles – or at least he’s not letting on if he is. Keshani, who grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., comes across as a transportation wonk. The word “Metro” is enough to make him gush about the importance of undergrounds to major metropolitan areas. It’s also not Keshani’s first time around at a startup.
Keshani, whose parents are Iranian immigrants, was born in Paris. But he grew up in Potomac, having attended Churchill High School, then Georgetown University, and Harvard, where he picked up an MBA in 2011. One of his early forays into transportation services involved a now-defunct company called Sous Chef Meals that attempted to drop off the fixings for home-cooked meals.
Keshani has said all along that the target audience for his startup, which launched last May, is people who might otherwise be using Metro—although his service operates more like carpooling or a bus on a flexible route.
“When we think about pricing, our price target or price comp is more Metro than it is Uber or Lyft,” Keshani said in an interview at a coffee shop last week. “And the reason for that is because we are trying to be an everyday solution – a solution a you can take everywhere all the time, whenever you need us.”
Split hopes to fill in for public transit, particularly on the day of the week when both Metro and Metrobus options are slower or fewer, namely on Sundays. That’s when people want to run errands or make it to a sporting event or brunch but they don’t want to lay out a lot of money for a taxi or Uber or Lyft.
Split is trying to fill the gap at a lower price point by maximizing the number of riders per vehicle. Users tell the app their location, their destination, and the time frame in which they need a lift. Split then computes the best option and offers a seat aboard a vehicle at a set price.
To maximize the efficiency of the carpool, it usually asks the person to walk to a nearby pickup point – usually no more than a block away, Keshani says – and then sets a window of time for the pickup to happen. And if you’re late to the pickup spot – well, the ride rides on without you. And when the car arrives, if the system’s working, you won’t be alone. At least for long.
“The thing is, once the car picks you up, there are already likely to be other people in the car with you,” Keshani said. “That means you’re sharing the ride with other people, strangers.”
Keshani said Split has recruited about 100 drivers so far, all of whom undergo background checks for criminal and driver records. He said each driver is also interviewed in person – partly to see if they’re schmoozers, or social lubricants who can make a bunch of strangers feel comfortable.
“We try to select for drivers who are friendly and helpful and know the city well,” he said. More than 70 percent of rides are shared, and drivers average about 2 ½ bookings per hour – about twice as efficient as taxis, Keshani said. Sometimes they handle more than 4 bookings per driver per hour.
“We have an efficiency that can’t be matched . . . because we’re not selling the car – we’re selling individual seats,” Keshani said.
And yet he’s also seen enough disruption to business models in three decades – from inside and outside firms such as Barnes & Noble and TransDev, a French transportation firm – to have an idea of how to ride out fast-breaking trends and try to roll with challenges and changes as they come. TransDev is its major investor, and the firm’s about to go out for a new round of financing, Keshani said–and try to stay ahead of competitors, including those already ahead of him and those that are almost sure to come.
“What do you do when you see this change happening? You have to do not what Uber and Lyft are doing now, but the next step,” he said.