How FlixBus uses AI to make bus travel sexy

With my latest relocation to Munich, Germany, I have discovered a new way to explore all the exciting destinations across Europe for no more than a few euros in the form of FlixBus, a long distance bus service.Typically, there is nothing sexy about buses, but FlixBus has reinvented this traditional business model and this is certainly making ripples in the travel industry.

FlixBus is the leading long distance bus service company in Germany and has acquired 90% market share in just about 5 years. The market for long distance bus services was liberated in Germany in 2013, and as co-founder Jochen Engert commented in an interview with CleverIsm: “How often is it that a market is liberated? This was just an opportunity too good to miss.”

FlixBus’ Business Model

Germany’s largest bus company only owns one bus and employs no bus drivers. That might seem a little odd, but that is what makes FlixBus’ business model so interesting. FlixBus is structured similar to a franchise, where FlixBus takes care of Marketing, Branding, Sales and Route-Planning, but relies on 3rd party contractors for operations.

FlixBus sees itself as a technology platform that offers services to transportation companies. The typical contractor is family-owned businesses that knows a lot about driving and operating vehicles, but very little about acquiring customers, via web, mobile and other platforms. FlixBus has a revenue split with its contractors and one will argue that it is a mutually beneficial partnership, as both parties brings unique competencies to the table.

The technology platform

FlixBus is creating a competitive advantage with branding, but the true competitive advantage is their technological platform. With Artificial Intelligence (AI), FlixBus can plan future routes and through large-scale data collection FlixBus can accurately forecast demand. The ambition of FlixBus’ CIO, Daniel Krauss is to offer on-demand bus services, similar to the  Uber concept. This would allow FlixBus to instantly offer a new route to meet demand. However, with the current regulatory body, where every bus route must be approved, this innovation is yet to be realised.

Consolidating a fragmented market

One of the things that FlixBus has done really well is to consolidate a fragmented market and make the bus booking system convenient for the customer. With hundreds of smaller bus service companies it used to be both expensive and inconvenient to take the bus, but with FlixBus it has become just as easy as booking a flight.

Consolidating a market has different operational benefits. When you control 90% of the market you can optimize for efficiency and you are not forced to operate half empty buses. Contrary to the general theory that competition is beneficial for the customer, the customer is actually benefiting from FlixBus having something close to a monopoly. The theory is that Flixbus has an incentive in keeping prices low to keep its competitors out of the market. The breakeven point for a bus route is something like 70% to 80% passenger capacity. If a competitor starts operating a competitive bus route he is expected to have 40% to 50% passenger capacity making the route unfeasible. Eventually it will be a matter of who has the deepest pockets.  

Rapid market expansion

FlixBus is already targeting markets outside of Germany and in 2015 they moved into France. In the first half of 2017 FlixBus has transported 3.3 million passengers in France, an increase of 70% compared to 2016. It is currently 30% cheaper to ride FlixBus than to go carpooling. Today the network spans all across Europe from London to Rome, From Paris to Prague.  

The biggest threat

All over, the business model of FlixBus appears bulletproof to the naked eye. However, even FlixBus is not immune to accidents and when a bus crashed into a car on the Autobahn on Sunday 17th September 2017, it was FlixBus in the headline, despite the bus not being operated by FlixMobility GmbH and the responsible driver not employed by FlixBus. The lack of control of the fleet and the inability to enforce control of the drivers might be FlixBus´s biggest threat, just as we have seen with Uber hitting the headlines in the past for similar reasons.

Why is FlixBus so fascinating

Just like AirBnB and Uber, FlixBus is a great example of how data has become the most valuable asset in the modern internet driven economy. In record time, FlixBus has become the dominating mobility company in Europe without operating its own fleet. Because of FlixBus’ market position and its intelligent technology platform, the company has successfully created a competitive advantage that is hard for its competitors to copy. When you know where the customers want to travel, it is easy to effectively meet demand and design or adjust your network accordingly.

FlixBus is such an interesting case study because it exemplifies how no industry is immune to disruption. Nobody thought bus travel could be sexy but FlixBus has proved everyone wrong. If you are a leader of a traditional business it is just a matter of time, before someone will make your industry sexy and potentially take you out of business. The takeaway is to stay nimble and constantly keep adapting to the ever evolving market forces.

How to scale $1.25 to a billion dollar business – Essilor’s disruptive strategy in India

Eye-Mitra_Essilor_India

Emerging markets present a tremendous opportunity for enterprises to grow their business. At last week’s “Emerging Markets” class at the Nanyang MBA, we studied how the French ophthalmic lens manufacturer Essilor has successfully managed to penetrate the Indian market and provide spectacles to millions of under-served citizens. Most interestingly, their strategy to partner with local providers has turned out to be an amazing CSR story.

Spectacles have for many years been reserved for consumers with stable incomes, thus excluding millions of people living in extreme poverty to the possibility of owning a pair. According to the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal (MGD) programme, in 2012, 270 million or 21.9% of 1.2billion Indians lived below the poverty line of $1.25 a day. The total market for vision correction in India is estimated to be 500 million people, which makes it a very attractive market.

Corrected vision may not seem so important on the surface. However, let’s look at it from a economic perspective. Blurred vison affects productivity, which has a negative impact on one’s ability to work themselves out of poverty. This makes vision correction extremely important. One of the challenges facing the demographics at the bottom of the pyramid is that they depend on working every day to sustain their living. Because opticians most often are located in towns far away from the villages, it is simply not an option to miss even a day’s worth of income to go get an eyesight examination. Furthermore, the consultation as well as the price of the spectacles would not be affordable for people of the villages.

If the customer won’t come to you, you must go to the customer

In 2003, Essilor together with local partner Sankara Nethralaya, launched the Mobile Refraction Van initiative that provides affordable eye care in rural India. In a matter of hours, a patient would have undergone a full eye examination and been provided with a brand new pair of spectacles starting at merely $1.

Another initiative is the Eye Mitra, which is a training program aimed to train unemployed rural youth to become opticians and set up local micro enterprises which provide door to door eye care services and sell locally manufactured spectacles embedded with Essilor technology.

Doing business in Emerging Markets

One of the main challenges of doing business in Emerging Markets is to deal with local governments and regulators. Volatile governments can with no warning nationalize your business and/or freeze your assets in the country. Seeking a strong relationship with the local authorities is therefore an essential strategy for foreign investors.

Essilor’s Eye Mitra initiative is a local jobs creator and helps strengthen Essilors relationship with the local authorities.

Why pursue the bottom of the pyramid?

There are several strategic reasons for pursuing the bottom of the social economic pyramid:

  • Creating future customers
    By serving the bottom of the pyramid, Essilor is establishing a whole new market of customers. Before the Mobile Refraction Van initiative, rural citizens didn’t know that they needed vision correction. What Essilor has realized is that the poorest citizens are leapfrogging the pyramid and improving their economic situation rapidly to move up the social economic ladder. The belief is that these future powerful consumers will remember Essilor and show brand loyalty when purchasing their first $50 Spectacles.
  • Blue Ocean: A large under-served market
    Serving the bottom of the pyramid means that you must pursue an “economies of scale” strategy. The 500 million people that are estimated to need vision correction represent a billion dollar market. Entry into this market can be considered a blue ocean strategy, since no existing lens manufacturer is servicing this market. In other words it is totally under-served and available for Essilor to grab.
  • Strong CSR
    Naturally Essilor’s cash cow is in the developed markets, where they are charging upwards of $1000 for a pair of lenses. A strong CSR profile helps attract customers and help justify the steep price points. Essilor is heavily using its initiatives in India for branding purposes and have succeeded in creating a very strong CSR profile.
  • Disruptive innovation
    Serving a low end segment requires new innovation. Not in terms of features, but in terms of price. Essilor has invested in new manufacturing methods that allow them to manufacture lenses at a cheaper price point. This technology can as well be applied for production in the developed markets  to improve profit margins in those markets.

Valve: How to retain talent?

Last week I attended an intensive strategy course taught by Patrick Gibbons, Academic Director at Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business UCD, where we discussed a series of Harvard Business cases among one was how Valve Software successfully had manged to attract and retain top talented game developers. I found the case study very interesting and super relevant for any leader aspiring candidates on LinkedIn.

Background:
Valve is the software company behind the gaming platform Steam and popular titles like Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead and Dota 2. Valve was founded in 1996 on the notion that making video games was hard and that most titles would fail, but a few blockbusters would be remarkably profitable. The question was if blockbusters was randomly distributed and hitting that lucrative profitable success was just a matter of chance, in which you just wanted to bet on as many horses as possible.

The perception at Valve was that people who had created a blockbuster before would do it again. With other words blockbusters wasn’t just random chance, it was all about attracting and retaining the right talent that would give a predictable success.

If you want to read the Harvard Business School case study, you can find it at hbs.edu

Valve Software Talent Management Process
Valve Software Talent Management Process

Who to hire?
Valve was looking for T-shape profiles that could contribute across functions in different teams, but had a unique and specialized skill that could be the core of a project. Attracting entrepreneurial profiles that had created a successful game previously was at the core of Valves recruitment strategy, because previous success ensured a higher predictability of future success.

Attracting successful entrepreneurs
How do you attract game developers that have already made a successful game and potentially earned good money doing so? The challenge was that Valve was looking for entrepreneurs that had showcased that they could be stars on their own, and now Valve wanted them to take a job working for somebody else. What Valve came up with was a unique organizational structure that allowed people to work on exactly their preferred project. There would be no hierarchy and no one telling you what to do. Everyone would be involved in strategic decision making, ensuring that everyone had a saying in which projects Valve would be working on. Naturally everyone would be paid well, so there wouldn’t be a direct monetary incentive in leaving.

Retaining talent
Retaining talent is important for any organization. The nature of Valves flat organisational structure would allow for good utilization of peer evaluation and behaviour based compensation. Everyone would be rating each other’s contribution and success of the final project would be affecting compensation.

What made Valve really unique was the fact that Valve would increase every single employee’s chance of delivering the next big blockbuster. As an employee at Valve you would be working across multiple projects at the same time. If you did a good job on someone’s project it was more likely that you could attract talented employees to work on your own project. Remember everyone had the freedom to work on whatever project they liked. Furthermore, by working on several project at the same time you would be spreading your risk. One project might fail as another one would be a success. This way you would still make good money. Similar to managing an investment portfolio and spreading risk across different securities.

The secret source
The secret to Valves successful talent management strategy is how they manged to embed its employees:

  • It was extremely hard for the employees to monitor the size of their contribution to a project. There was no way for an employee to claim 100% ownership of a blockbuster, because so many talented people would have been involved in the project.
  • Every employee was almost guaranteed to be part of a success, working across multiple projects by that hedging their exposure to failure.
  • Every project group was unique, so the risk of a whole team leaving would be minimal, as each individual would have stakes in different projects.

All over Valve was successful in creating an organization that would attract the very best talent and ensure that no employee would be thinking about leaving.