Within the incestuous world of rideshare, Ola looks to go global

It is a confounding industry where you can be a rival, an investor, or a partner -- or all three -- but most importantly, you must be global to compete, as India's Ola has eventually learnt.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

As you may probably know, India has many notable exports amongst its professionals -- Google chief Sundar Pichai, Pepsi supremo Indra Nooyi, and Microsoft head Satya Nadella to name just a few. And its companies often do fantastically well in foreign markets -- FMCG outfits like Godrej dominate many categories in Asia and Africa, for instance.

However, you will be hard-pressed to find many Indian companies doing battle with a leading global competitor with the goal of becoming the number one company there by market share as well as brand. This is even more so for a technology services company. The need to cater to a gigantic home market perhaps makes overseas conquests a distraction. Then, there's the vast amounts of capital required to play abroad and it's not as if Indian banks with their gigantic portfolio of bad loans can be any help. (They're of no help at home to begin with.)

However, Ola, the Indian rideshare company, hopes to finally change all of that as it expands into its first international market, Australia, and hopes to dethrone both Uber and China's Didi Chuxing, which is outrageously ambitious at this point considering Uber's 70+ billion market cap and Didi's 50+ billion value.

As of yesterday, the company began inviting private vehicle owners in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth to register with the company as drive partners, luring them with the vastly reduced 7.5 percent commission charges that drivers have to pay the company versus the usual 20-22 percent. If that wasn't enough, it announced that it would be able to lend drivers an Android phone, which will have to be returned after Ola launches its iOS app.


If you dig a little deeper, the one thought that will almost certainly cross your mind is why all of this matters to begin with. After all, the world of rideshare cannot be more opportunistic, incestuous, and utterly confusing.

For instance, China's rideshare leader Didi is a previous investor in Ola. However, Didi itself is a composite of two rivals, Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache, who came together to combat Uber. But before you could say "taxi", Uber's China entity and the "new" Didi ended up merging. SoftBank happens to be an investor not just in rivals Ola and Uber, but also in Grab (Southeast Asia), Lyft (the US), and Didi. Meanwhile, Didi had forged an anti-Uber alliance with Lyft, Ola, and Grab. Didi also has an alliance with Taxify in Europe but Ola, with Didi as investor, will have to battle it in Australia. And so on. And so forth.

Trying to rationalize and explain competitive strategies of portfolio companies during the annual company "do" sure must be fun!


The most obvious and generalised answer to this question is that Ola has to expand quickly if it is to have any chance of taking part in the global sweepstakes for rideshare supremacy, especially when it has formidable rivals such as Uber and Didi. At home, Ola, with its 125 million customers, seems to have, by and large, split the market with Uber, although it is present in 110 Indian cities versus Uber's 29. So why not then expand the web to neighbouring, familiar countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh?

There are a few good reasons for that. For one, South Asia remains a very price-sensitive market, say experts in this Quartz piece. Australia isn't and you're not held hostage to playing a volume game. Moreover, Ola, by dint of establishing itself in India, has had to build a large back-end and execute at a very low cost, so Australia should be a relatively easy gambit.

Then there's the ethnicity of cab drivers in Australia -- turns out they are mostly of Indian origin having recently outnumbered the number of Australia-born cabbies. That advantage of course can be easily upended by favourable commission rates.

In fact, this is exactly what Estonian competitor Taxify did when it launched in Sydney recently by issuing deep discounts to lure drivers. Taxify's investor? Why, Didi of course, which as we have already mentioned is also a backer of Ola's.

Do I smell an anti-Uber alliance in Australia in the near future?


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