Being Successful in GovTech"

Listen Carefully to Your Customers—but Don’t Build What They Ask For

Interview with Swiftly CEO and Co-founder Rajiv Ayyangar.

Show Notes

Most people probably think about public transportation as inefficient but a necessary evil for getting around. But that’s not going to be the case much longer for the more than 100 cities worldwide that have partnered with Swiftly. As its name implies, Swiftly is a big data platform that aims to make public transportation more efficient. In fact, the company’s mission is to “make cities move efficiently.”

Swiftly co-founder and CEO Jonny Simkin joined startup coach Roland Siebelink on the latest edition of the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast to talk about the ways that Swiftly is improving public transportation. Jonny discussed Swiftly’s early pivot that led them to work with cities on improving their public transportation systems. He also shared the other key steps and important decisions that have helped to make Swiftly a success.

  • The reasons why selling to the government isn’t that different from selling to enterprises.
  • How Swiftly has managed to avoid doing customizations for its partners.
  • The six core values that drive important decisions at Swiftly.
  • How Swiftly balances finding talented employees with those who care about the company’s mission.
  • The key to Swiftly having partners in eight different countries.


Roland Siebelink: Hello and welcome to the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. My name is Roland Siebelink and I'm the founder and CEO coach at the Midstage Institute. And we have today with us an amazing CEO and co-founder of Swiftly. It's Jonny Simkin. Hello, Jonny. Thank you for joining us.

Jonny Simkin: Hey Roland. Thanks for having me.

Roland Siebelink: Where are you dialing in from today?

Jonny Simkin: Bay area.

Roland Siebelink: Bay area, it's a local dial in. It's so rare these days that we're both at the same location. Maybe next time we should actually do these recordings in person. If the pandemic allows, of course. Jonny, tell us all about your startup. What difference do you make in the world for whom and how are you making the world a better place?

Jonny Simkin: Yeah, happy to. My company's called Swiftly, and we are a big data platform. Really, the industry's first big data platform for public transportation. We work with a little over 100 cities now, and our product improves the quality of all of the information that riders get, whether that's through Google Maps or Transit or other common mapping applications. And we also build internal tools for the agency to more efficiently and effectively manage their service. Our vision is to improve city transportation networks and help cities move efficiently.

Roland Siebelink: Okay, well that does spark the question right away, Jonny, how has the pandemic affected you because it did affect public transport a lot?

Jonny Simkin: Absolutely. Obviously, a big impact on public transit networks and ridership in many cities dropped by about 50 to 90%. But ridership, actually, is only a small portion of the funding that goes into public transit. A lot of it also comes from federal, state, and local funding. And one of the things that the pandemic has shown us is that public transit is really important to move people from A to B. And even though there were less commuters throughout the pandemic, essential workers have been a huge part of ridership. The people working in hospitals or food services and prep have been getting around with public transit, so it's played a really important role in how people get from A to B and keep our cities moving. And it's very important in that regard. As far as Swiftly, one of the things that's interesting about us is we're entirely cloud-based. As a lot of agency staff have been home and not working in the office, we've actually enabled them to have visibility into the network. And so, we've seen an increase in our product usage and our growth throughout the pandemic.

Roland Siebelink: Jonny, I think a while ago I was using a Swiftly app, which I think meant that at that time you also had a consumer focus. Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of the market proposition that Swiftly has been going through and what made you focus ultimately more on the agency side?

Jonny Simkin: Well, it's great to meet a fellow app user. In the early days of Swiftly, when we were just getting started, one of the key pain points we were trying to solve was how to make public transit accessible and usable to the general public. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and I would open a few different apps and I never really got the experience that I wanted as a rider. We built the first version of our app, really to help people get from A to B and C accurate and reliable transit information. In about two to three months, we got about 10% of the entire city of San Francisco using the app. It was really fast. It was really fast to see that. And once we started to get some broader adoption, what we realized was the number one complaint within our app was that the quality of the ETAs were not accurate. We were rated about 4.8, 4.9 out of five in the app store. But people were saying, "I love your app, super easy to use, but you're telling me to be at the bus stop in five minutes. I got there and the bus just left and now I have to wait 20 minutes for the next one. We were trying to understand, "Well, how do we improve this?" And we were getting the data actually from the city, from one of the providers, called Next Bus. And those were the ETAs that we used in the app. They just weren't very accurate. And so, what we ended up doing was pivoting the business to really think less around the consumer facing path but more around how we leverage data to provide more accurate ETA to any app that a rider may choose to use. And once we did that, we started signing contracts directly with cities and transit agencies to be the provider of those ETAs. Then that's when we scaled really quickly from zero to now over 100 cities.

Roland Siebelink: Wow. That's amazing. I'm sure that many of the founders listening to this podcast, many of whom are a little bit behind you in their journey, maybe just reaching product market fit, figuring out where to focus, what kind of customers to target. I think many of them would have the typical question. How the hell do you sell into those very conservative public transportation agencies and how can you build a revenue stream on that basis?

Jonny Simkin: The early days, most of the people I spoke with said I was crazy trying to sell any type of product into the public sector. But as I started talking with people who worked at these agencies, I realized that it's an amazing industry with people who really care about their city, who really care about the residents, the visitors, and the wellbeing of everyone in that city. And they care about the impact that they can have. For me, it was actually really rewarding because I got to work with people who were there to serve their community. I fell in love with it. And what I realized is if we focused on building an amazing product that could drive real impact, the procurement hurdles that are typically really hard, you can overcome those. We just focused on trying to build a great product that people love that had a great impact, and we overcame those procurement hurdles and we found out actually selling the public sector - at least for us, we looked at our sales cycle, deal sizes - is not actually too different from selling into the private sector.

Roland Siebelink: Okay. Compared to enterprise sales, you're probably talking about a sales cycle of a number of months at least.

Jonny Simkin: Yeah. Typically, nine to 12 months for seven figure deals. It's not too different. Obviously, there are lots of nuances around the procurement rules and regulations. But we can still get to similar dollar values for deals.

Roland Siebelink: Yeah. And if the deal size you mentioned, that really does show that you're comparing yourself to higher level enterprise sales in that sense. That deal cycle is not uncommon in the private sector either. I really loved how you said, I love working with those people that share the same mission that made you start Swiftly in the first place.

Jonny Simkin: Yeah, absolutely. It's such a warm, kind industry with people who genuinely care about the work that they do.

Roland Siebelink: It brings to mind Simon Sinek's "Start with the why." If people fall in love with the "why" you do it, not what you do, if you share that same mission that it really pulls through, even some difficult procurements. After you had done that pivot, did that have any implications for how you organized your team? Was it easy to bring the team along? Talk us through how you make a change in a growing startup like that.

Jonny Simkin: Once we shifted and really realized the core pain point was around the quality of information and empowering cities and agency staff to provide great transit service in their city, the first few sales were hard and then they started to really gain momentum and more cities were hearing about what we were doing and that led to a lot of the early yearly growth. And now, I think most cities and transit agencies know who we are and we're actively talking with them around working together.

Roland Siebelink: It sounds like word of mouth is an important revenue driver or at least lead driver for Swiftly.

Jonny Simkin: Word of mouth and really broadcasting what it is that we're doing. Featuring a lot of the amazing work that our partners do at transit agencies and broadcasting what they're doing on webinars or sharing that on LinkedIn or social media. We see huge successes across our partner agencies. And then when other agencies see about that, then they want to bring it into their city too.

Roland Siebelink: Even the public sector has some form of competition. It's more between cities or between agencies across regions.

Jonny Simkin: When people say, "Why do you like selling to the government?" The reason why I liked it is everyone - they're eager to share what they've done and broadcast that because they want other cities to be able to learn from that and apply it. It's a friendly competition where it's around who can be more innovative, who can try new things for their city, and really make their city a better place. And when you do something that really makes a difference, you broadcast it, you don't hold it in like a trade secret. I love that part around selling to the government.

Roland Siebelink: One question I typically ask companies that are doing these more enterprise sales deals, they often find it's difficult to separate the core product development from more customizations that these larger customers require. Has that been something you've been experiencing as well in the public sector? And what have been some decision mechanisms around that?

Jonny Simkin: It's a great question. It comes up all the time. And I think across any enterprise customer, you're going to hear larger customers have more demands around what matters specifically to them. We've taken a fairly extreme approach that we actually don't do customizations. We have a footprint now of over 100 cities. We are in eight countries. We see trends happening in Europe that we can import to the US and vice versa. We see different types of use cases, and we're starting to build best practices around how to manage transit networks efficiently. And what we've found, at least for us historically, and this is one of the challenges with government procurement, RFPs are not written based on outcomes. They're written based on features. You might have 10 pages of feature requests. And when we look at those features, we say, "Do those features actually drive the outcomes we want?" The outcomes we want are reliable, safe, and efficient transportation. We don't want a million features that actually provide zero value and take you away from those objectives. Our approach and philosophy is to align around what matters to our customers, really focus on the objectives we're trying to drive, come up with ways of assessing our performance to help push toward those objectives, and optimize what we do around that. We do not do customization. We actually don't look at RFPs. We do not build - we do some RFPs; we have to around procurement - but we typically don't build customized features based on those lists. We build products that solve meaningful problems for our partners. And I think that's actually a huge differentiator. And if you look at case studies on our website, the statistics that we have are insane around improving on-time performance, improving service reliability.

Roland Siebelink: What kind of statistics are you talking about? Can you give a few examples?

Jonny Simkin: Yeah. One that we just released yesterday. Washington DC just did a new schedule update and they saw an on-time performance improvement of over 6%. And that's huge when you're talking about a city of that size on time performance. Getting 1% or 2% improvement would be big, getting 6% is just monumental. And the reason why we're able to do that working together is we think creatively. We didn't solve problems the same way that they've been solved in the past. We solve them in different ways. And now riders are going to benefit from having transit vehicles arrive when they're supposed to, or at least 6% more.

Roland Siebelink: Let's talk a little bit more about the kinds of people that you'd like to attract to Swiftly. How have you come up with the profile of the people that you are looking for? Is it primarily a functional profile? Do you work a lot with values? How do you think about that?

Jonny Simkin: It depends a little bit on the role of the team, the department. I would say, generally speaking - this will apply company-wide - we really look for people who care about our mission. Not everyone cares about transit. But our company's mission is four easy words: it's make cities move efficiently. We really do want to find people who care about that. Because it makes work fun and it drives alignment between folks. That's one thing. Second is around our company values. We have six core values: team, communication, feedback, growth, diversity, and impact. One of the things that we interview for are do the candidates seem to align well with those values. We don't want people to be the same or homogenous at Swiftly, but we do want them to embody the values that we think are really important. That applies to the entire company. And then within different teams, we have different things that we look for. We typically try to blend different skill sets, so maybe some people have more domain expertise coming from the transit world whereas some people actually don't come from the transit world, have never taken transit before but are purely technology enthusiasts or really strong software engineers. You can blend part of what's been done before and then a completely new mind or perspective looking at the same problem but thinking about different ways of solving it.

Roland Siebelink: Okay. One thing that we learned from other startups that rolled out to many different cities is how they will try to optimize for, on the one hand, having one product that fits everywhere, on the other hand, also being aware of local needs. Sometimes, even if you don't customize, finishing up a specific edge case that may actually be relevant to many other geographies as well. How do you ensure in your team that local responsiveness to the needs of specific cities, even if you don't want to go all the way into customization?

Jonny Simkin: We do cater the product to the needs of each city, but it's not customized to them. I'll give you an example. When we thought about the underlying infrastructure of the product, we realized there are actually only two inputs of data that we really need to set our platform. The first is the schedule. We need to know what they're trying to do. What is this schedule? The second is GPS data from vehicles. Give us GPS data in real time, we'll match it to the schedule. We'll create all of the performance monitoring and we'll predict what's going to happen. Each city has different geographies. Traffic patterns are different, different streets. Corridors get impacted by traffic in different times of day, in different ways. We write algorithms to try to cater how we predict for that individual city for specific corridors, specific times of day, specific days of the week. But we build it in a way that can apply to 100-plus cities. As we get smarter as a platform, it's going to feel contextual to that city. It's going to be highly relevant to that city. But it's actually one algorithm.

Roland Siebelink: You mentioned you're also in eight countries. Can you talk a little bit about your internationalization strategy? How did you get into those countries? And how important is that to the further growth of Swiftly?

Jonny Simkin: Great question. We're in eight countries. Most of our contracts are within North America. A little bit in Asia-Pacific, the Nordics and then Europe. What we realized is there are different competitive forces in each country. Each country's a little bit nuanced. We found that a lot of the same types of challenges are shared. Maybe different contexts, maybe different personas, but a lot of the challenges come down to, it's very hard to access information that you can rely on. And when you want to analyze trends and performance, it's hard to do that with a lot of the legacy tools that exist. We wanted pretty early on to be able to take best practices from Europe, for example, and bring them to the US, and vice versa. And the same with Asia-Pacific. We started working with agencies and just loosely reaching out, and we started to see that our value proposition resonated. We created a small team in Europe to start scaling it. And now we're starting to see some really nice growth in Europe, as well as the Nordics, as I was mentioning. I'm really excited to see - it's still early days. We have about seven cities now using Swiftly in Europe and Nordics. But really excited to start to see that scale. I think we can have a big impact there just as we've had in the US.

Roland Siebelink: Yeah, that's awesome. That's really cool seeing all of that rollout. You mentioned in our pre-talk that you had raised a big round, a growth round in the end of 2020. What's your financing strategy moving forward? Are you on that track of keeping raising a new series? Or is this something that at some point in time you want to either look for an exit or becoming profitable?

Jonny Simkin: Fortunately, we don't need to raise any more money. I think our latest growth equity round, it's going to take us pretty far. We might raise money in the future. We might not. I don't think we need to. Opportunistically, we could. But we're certainly not beholden to that. I think this gives us effectively everything we need to really take the company to the next level. My strategy from here on out, it's pretty simple. It's focused execution to become a high-growth, amazing company that folks love to work for that has a material impact on the cities we serve. And I think if we do that, it really opens up whatever doors we want. Whether that's companies acquiring us, us acquiring other companies, us raising more money, us IPOing. If we just focus on building a great business that has a great impact on the world, we can choose what we want to do. That's all I'm focused on.

Roland Siebelink: I think those are the best CEOs that say that. Focus on the core of the business, not so much on the periphery of financing and the stuff that may be a little bit more superficial in that sense.

Jonny Simkin: It's so true. So many founders, how much money they've raised or they raised from this investor or this other thing, that's all the means to an end. Raising money is not success. Building a great business that has a great impact on the world, that's success. And I just want to focus on that impact.

Roland Siebelink: What tips would you give other founders - maybe the ones that are coming a little bit behind you - what are you actually doing to improve on focus-execution and making Swiftly a great company to work for?

Jonny Simkin: To begin with, whatever company you built, it's most likely not a five-year journey. It's mostly 10-year-plus, so pick something that you're passionate about, that you really care about. A lot of founders just start companies that try to make money. And that's a terrible reason. You're probably not gonna actually end up making money and your company will probably fail. Pick something that you care about, that you're passionate about. Number two, focus on finding product-market fit fast. If you don't find product-market fit, you're dead anyway. You gotta do that right away. And number three, focus on building a great culture, the culture that you want it to be in. I took this for granted in the beginning. I didn't think a whole lot about what are the values that matter to us. What type of culture do we want to build? What's our mission statement? What are our guiding principles? What's our sense of purpose? You mentioned at the beginning of this, "Start with why." Start with why. Think about those things because those are also really important to the future. Then when you start to find product-market fit and you start to scale, these shared sense of purpose and alignment and cultural values and how you measure and assess success, those things start to become really important when you're looking at that one to 10 million journey, the 10 million to 50 million journey. And that's really how you start to scale is to have clear alignment around what success looks like, a clearly defined mission statement that everyone can rally behind, a clearly aligned culture where you're hiring new people who can add to that culture, not take away from it.

Roland Siebelink: That's absolutely true. You mentioned that you didn't realize at first how important culture is, can you give some examples of what made you come to that realization that culture becomes so important as you scale the business?

Jonny Simkin: Absolutely. As you get more people on your team, one of the things that you start to realize is people start running in different directions, will start collaborating in different ways. And that's either going to make the entire collective much stronger or it's going to make it much weaker. And organizational design, a shared sense of purpose, and a shared set of cultural values are things that bring people together, so you can really optimize for the best of everyone, rather than people taking away or working against each other. As we started to scale from five people, 10 people, 20 people, 50 people, 80 people now, those things are actually where I spend a lot of my time thinking because that's really where you get scale from the organization.

Roland Siebelink: Two last questions, Jonny. One is what would be the core learning, the core advice you would give to founders being a little bit on the journey behind you? What is something you would impart to them as your key advice on how to be a great founder?

Jonny Simkin: I think the most important thing - and I love that you said in the beginning - start with why. If you know why you do what you do and you have a sense of purpose, then it makes it really easy - or much easier, at least - to help convey that shared sense of purpose to others. And that's not just your team. That's also your customers, your partners. You want to find people who are sharing that sense of purpose with you and elevate them just as much as you elevate your company or yourself. I would say find out what is your why. If you don't have a good answer there, don't spend your time on whatever that is. Focus on something you really care about - hopefully, that has a positive impact on the world - and then figure out how to scale that from there.

Roland Siebelink: That's very good advice. And I do think many founders should ask themselves that question a little bit more deeply to make sure that they have the stamina to run that 10-year-plus journey, as you say it often is. Finally, Jonny, how can listeners to this podcast help Swiftly? What are you looking for? What could they help you with? Anything?

Jonny Simkin: It's always a good question. We have a very unique business into public transit agencies. If you don't take transit, give it a try. It's pretty amazing. It's a pretty magical experience. You might actually find that you feel liberated when you're not driving from A to B. But I would say honestly that my only request to the people listening is to try to leave the world in a better place than it was when you entered it. You don't have to help me. You don't have to feel any passion about Swiftly, if you don't. Just try to be a great person in the world and make it a better place.

Roland Siebelink: I love that. That's an amazing way to close this recording. Thank you, Jonny Simkin, co-founder and CEO of Swiftly. This was an amazing podcast and I loved having you on.

Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.