Summer vacation is soon upon us, which of course means we all get to go home, maybe head to the beach, and most definitely gain a pound or two. The question that remains is how to get home in a safe and efficient manner. Of course we can call our moms and our dads or maybe our grandparents, but that can be a bit unpleasant. While I love seeing my family at home, the four hour car ride can often seem like an interrogation, one without an escape route (unless someone has to pee really really bad). What do you do if all the adults in your life have jobs? I guess you can phone a friend, but what’s the likelihood that all your best friends from college live anywhere near you? Maybe you can catch a Megabus, maybe the air conditioning will work this time.
If none of the options above sound appealing, I sure have some good news for you! There’s an app out there called Wheeli, and it’s ready to change your whole rideshare experience.
One of Wheeli’s cofounders is Jean-Pierre Adéchi, who travelled to Burlington all the way from the mystical land known as New York City. He launched Wheeli’s website back in the fall of 2014 and went to a bunch of schools like Wesleyan University, Penn State, SUNY Binghamton, and UMASS Amherst to figure out where to create the “Wheeli Success Story.” It was at Amherst in fact, where he had met students who had friends that attended UVM- so he decided to head there next.
“Wheeli connects college students driving somewhere with student passengers looking for a ride,” or so it states on the wheeli.us webpage. It all sounds pretty simple; you just make an account with your .edu email address, then choose to either ask for a ride or post a ride (if you happen to have a car and don’t mind people) to a specific location. It doesn’t matter where or how far, and Wheeli calculates for you what the whole trip will cost or how much money you’ll make.
In November of 2015, Wheeli launched its IOS app, so it was clear that the company needed a school to focus on and to become more mobile. During its initial time at UVM, Wheeli had established a partnership with the Ski and Snowboard Club and got involved with the Outing Club. Along with a bunch of other confidential factors, he stated during his interview with Beacon VT, it was evident that UVM was the ideal “target school” for Wheeli to test out the app and to get feedback from users. So Wheeli set up shop in the good old Burly.
There were certainly challenges in the area, though they were not atypical. Adéchi had to figure Wheeli’s brand, logo, how to communicate what it was to people, how to pitch it all pretty universal challenges to anyone building a company. Wheeli’s main problems came from initial interest like people looking for rides and not finding one, or people posting rides but finding no other passengers. The real question was how to get people to engage. In the winter, it became easier because people searched for rides when they went skiing. It was the successful interactions they had, however, that kept them coming back and recommending the app to their peers.
Furthermore, Adéchi thinks that UVM itself is pretty cool. Informal rideshares were already taking place there before Wheeli showed up; the app just made it easier by applying technology to it. In particular, Adéchi noticed that many first years and sophomores were engaged with the app, since they did not have their own networks established yet to move around.
Wheeli's pitch is basically that it’s a hitchhiking app for college students, but there’s something appealing about it for everyone whether you care about the environment (after all, transportation is the second leading source of greenhouse gas emissions), making social connections, or are interested in economics. Wheeli calculates the cost of a trip by looking at all aspects of the drive such as the miles per gallon of the vehicle, the price of gas, the tolls you’ll hit. In the future, Wheeli is looking to expand this even further by taking into consideration the costs of repair, maintenance, and insurance.
Wheeli’s aim is to unlock instantaneous hitchhiking. There are so many cars on the road which are heading toward a common destination and Adéchi would love to see college students using the app as almost a second reflex, “I’m getting in my car, who needs to go to this destination?” Wheeli provides access to transportation at an affordable cost, so there will be virtually no need for taxis or Ubers. So what advice would Adéchi give to aspiring entrepreneurs? He says that the first step is the easiest and most complicated: just simply doing it. This involves figuring out the pieces of your plan and coming to terms with the fact that entrepreneurship is NOT academia: you don’t have to think of all the possibilities or alternatives, you just do it. Even if you fail, work to improve in order to succeed. Adéchi came up with Wheeli in the fall of 2011, wrote a business plan, and then executed it in February 2013.
In terms of finding the “perfect team,” Adéchi never makes an offer. Instead he hires students who take initiative, who hear about Wheeli and seek him out. This is the best type of recruitment, because these students are usually passionate entrepreneurs themselves. Their team of three is small, but it’s high quality. They come from different majors and disciplines like business, communications, and environmental studies. Adéchi gives these students a lot of power within decision making roles, with him acting more as a resource and support. One of these students recently helped create a partnership with Wheeli and UVM’s Eco-Reps, providing them with entrepreneurial experience within their own particular market.
Transportation is a big issue especially with an in-debt population. Adéchi in his undergrad years was one of those students who without access to rides, a bus, or train ticket- yet the opportunity was there. The goal of the Wheeli app is that transportation won’t ever be an issue. It brings back hitchhiking in a safe manner, since only college students can make Wheeli accounts with their .edu emails. A lot of technology like this tends to isolate us, since we always find ourselves on our phone, not interacting with those around us. This is a huge issue for employers, who are starting to notice more and more that younger generation don’t know how to interact with people. Wheeli, instead, uses technology to connect people, for people to have an experience, to meet new people, to travel.