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Fear, panic and bounce-back: Inside a transport startup's pandemic rollercoaster

Mumbai-based transportation startup Cityflo was growing at a steady pace when the Covid pandemic hit. The lockdown that followed crippled the bus aggregator, with its services coming to a screeching halt overnight. However, as many a business fell by the wayside, Cityflo battled, survived , learnt lessons along the way, and is now looking to thrive. This is its story

Mumbai / February 10, 2021 / 10:59 AM IST

In March 2020, Cityflo was gearing up for its best-ever phase. The Mumbai-based bus commute startup had finally, after months of investor rejection, closed an $8 million funding round — far more than it had planned to raise. Summers are the best period for the company, as corporate employees flock to its air-conditioned services, abandoning local trains or their own cars.

But the best laid plans go awry, and how. This is the story of a transportation startup during the pandemic — the title of a horror movie, some would say — how it battled, survived, learnt lessons along the way, and is now looking to thrive. It is also the story of building a startup away from the limelight, building against many established principles of startups and venture capital, and how despite not being an outright success, it has made a noticeable dent in its space.

Cityflo origins

Founded in 2015 by IIT-Bombay graduates Jerin Venad, Sankalp Kelshikar, Rushabh Shah and Ankit Agrawal, Cityflo aggregates buses that ply between Mumbai’s suburbs and business hubs in the mornings and evenings. It works with bus owners on 4-5 year contracts and pays them monthly. Cityflo is trying to solve one of Mumbai’s (and arguably the world’s) biggest problems — traffic and the nightmarish experience of getting to office and back from the suburbs. Long, unmoving traffic jams and overflowing local trains are almost an ironic part of Mumbai’s culture



Inside Cityflo, there were varying levels of optimism as to how quickly the startup would bounce back, with Venad saying he was the most optimistic. But even that optimism can take a hit during sustained periods of no revenue. More so when much of the corporate world has moved to remote working. Many companies now say some parts of the workforce will work from home indefinitely. In a sense, Cityflo’s market size had shrunk.



Some of the growth looks more impressive before considering the low base effect. Cityflo was not a huge company even pre-pandemic. But not all companies are built to be giants. Now, Venad wants Cityflo to grow to 5x its pre-pandemic revenue by March 2022. Considering fewer people are going to office than before, it looks like a tough ask. But Venad is optimistic, with reason.