DUBAI: On a rainy night in Bengaluru, India, Firdosh Sheikh was about to get into a car to go to the airport when the driver asked if she would cancel the ride. He told her he would still drive her to her destination for a lesser sum than the quoted fare. The catch? He wanted to be paid directly rather than give up 50 percent of the commission to the ride-sharing app.
That cab ride was like a flash of lightning, a Eureka moment. And the concept for Drife.io was born, a blockchain-based startup that put the power back in the hands of drivers.
“I had completed more than 5,000 rides and often wondered about the drivers’ struggles, but this night was a turning point,” said Sheikh, founder and CEO of Drife, a decentralized ride-hailing platform.
“Taking rides was my only mode of commute; like many women, I was terrified of public transport. This made me think of the other side of the story: How do companies treat drivers? How can we make the system fairer, safer and more efficient for all?” she wondered.
Two and a half years later, Drife.io has grown into a company with 4,000 registered drivers and over 20,000 active riders using its app. The startup is on track to hit targets of 12,000 drivers and half-a-million riders by the end of June. It operates with a subscription model: A driver pays between $50 and $70 per month to become a member and receives 100 percent commission on any ride. A rider pays for every ride taken, like usual ride-sharing apps.
“The biggest challenge is going up against these giants in the industry, like Uber,” she said. “Initially, we struggled a lot before we went live. But this is the perfect time for a blockchain-based ride-sharing app, and we have seen rapid growth.”
According to data from Bengaluru-based research firm Mordor Intelligence, the global ride-sharing market was valued at $21.42 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $61.24 billion by 2026, registering a compound annual growth rate of 17.32 percent between 2021 and 2026.
Drife.io also has a unique aspect that sets it apart. This Uber-like app accepts cryptocurrency as payment and already has its own token: Drife. When the concept for the startup was in its initial stages, Sheikh sought equity fundraising from venture capitalists in India. But despite spending time and money on the app’s architecture, the feedback was unanimous: Having a blockchain-based ride-sharing app is a great idea, but will the execution work?
“People said the concept looked perfect on paper, but implementation looked too ambitious,” said Sheikh, who has a background in finance. “Our problem was designing an app based on the blockchain that would be easy to use for riders and drivers. That’s how I created my token and raised nearly $3 million in funding for it.”
The crypto element appealed to venture capital firms, who gave the startup a leg up with a fundraising round in August 2021 of $2.7 million. The funds went toward marketing the company, designing a user-friendly app and hiring a team. By November, she had launched a beta version that friends and family tested.
Sheikh’s long-term plans include scaling to 10 cities by the end of this year, starting with the Middle East. To that end, the startup managed to hire Daniel Mangabeira Dantas, former head of policy for Latin America at Uber and 20-year veteran in the ride-sharing industry, to serve as Drife’s new strategic investor and policy adviser, guiding the company toward global expansion.
Saudi Arabia is an exciting place that is changing quickly, and as the biggest GCC market, it is definitely on our radar.
Firdosh Sheikh, Founder of Drife
Sheikh moved to Dubai in early 2022 and is actively speaking to partners to launch first in the Gulf Cooperation Council, including across the UAE and expanding into Saudi Arabia next.
“We can operate from anywhere globally, and we made the tech, so we own it,” she said.
“We started speaking to partners to launch in Dubai and are currently looking at the Road and Traffic Authority’s compliance and licensing requirements. The main reason we registered in Dubai is that it is now the crypto and blockchain hub in the region.”
She confirmed that Drife.io had moved its tech and IT operations from India to Dubai with an eye toward regional expansion. “We are actively looking into partners in Saudi who would like to take part in the operations of Drife,” said Sheikh. “Saudi is an exciting place that is changing quickly, and as the biggest GCC market, it is definitely on our radar.”
Setting wheels in motion
Sheikh’s attention to detail with the app has made it popular in India’s major cities in a relatively short time frame. Features include no multiplier or surcharge applied during peak hours. Also, the app does not assign a specific driver, leaving the rider with the freedom to choose based on reviews and a list of cars in the vicinity.
Drivers who are vetted and part of a subscription model keep the entire commission from a ride. Additionally, the company will accept payments in cryptocurrency from June.
“We need blockchain because it stands for transparency and fairness,” said Sheikh. “It’s a fair calculation, so we can’t manipulate the system with surcharges or changes to commissions. We don’t profit beyond subscriptions from drivers, allowing them to have 100 percent ownership.”
It is a disruptive model in a competitive mobility space, but it is simple, and it works.
Drife.io has already captured the imagination of a few regional venture capitalists, and the company is now aiming for an equity round in June to scale itself globally. The road to building the business has not been easy, but Sheikh is riding the momentum as cryptocurrency goes mainstream worldwide.
“I always face difficulty walking into a meeting room as a young female founder. They don’t trust a woman driving in India, much less a woman leading a mobility startup,” said Sheikh. “There are very few women in this space. But I always tell myself, I can have any number of limitations, but not my gender. This is a great concept and we are proving it, one ride at a time.”