If you know anything about me, it’s that I like to solve my own problems using creative software solutions. My college life was no different in that way, I just had a larger array of problems to pick from. So back in 2012, before Uber was ubiquitous, back when you actually had to think hard about whether to give your credit card number to a random app, back when going out in college meant one of your friends having to claim Designated Driver for the night, I experienced the Beeper System at Appalachian State University. Little did I know at the time, this was the start of something huge.
The Beeper System
In a small college mountain town, taxis didn’t have much of a presence; it didn’t make economical sense for them to be around. So the students came up with their own solution, the Beeper System – rumors are it originally involved beepers way back in the day. The Beeper System is a very large Facebook page where people can post their phone numbers on holidays and weekends and volunteer to drive people from A to B for a flat $2 per person, or $5 minimum. This concept was absolutely brilliant to me! First of all, you have a large community of students interacting and socializing from all cliques, while giving students a chance to make money on their ‘night off’ if they have a vehicle, while all at the same time keeping their town safe from drinking and driving incidents by giving people a reasonable and efficient option for transportation for the night.
While I absolute loved the idea of the Beeper System, I couldn’t help but cringe at the largely inefficient and manual system that was the cluster fuck of a Facebook page. Naturally, I started thinking (that’s when things can get dangerous…). I sat down with a then-acquaintance and now-best friend, co-founder, and business partner Arjun Aravindan and pitched him what I thought was an innocent side project, Campus Cruizer (Cruizer for short).
Campus Cruizer 1.0
After much discussion with my business partner, we cracked our knuckles, buckled down, and started coding. The first version of Campus Cruizer was one of the more elegant solutions I think I’ve ever created and still hold it dear to my heart. The system worked kind of like a strip club (though I didn’t even know how strip clubs worked at the time, I promise). We would be the main entity, the gate keeper, if you will. Drivers, or ‘cruizers’, would buy a ‘Cruize Coin’ and trade it in to get onto our ‘Queue’ for up to 8 hours (we never had anyone drive for 8 hours..). We had a dispatcher phone number, the ‘Cruize Line’, that would distribute calls evenly amongst all the cruizers that were currently live. So if you as a student needed a ride, you would call one central number, be redirected to the next available cruizer (with the driver’s number masked for privacy, though they could call or text the rider to coordinate), and talk details with them as far as how many people you were with, where you currently are and where you are headed. The pricing was based off of the Beeper System, $2 per head for around campus and $3 per head for downtown. All the tips the cruizer made during their shift were theirs to keep, we just kept the profits from the Cruize Coins. Also of note, if you were on the Queue and received no calls at all, you got your Cruize Coin back to try again another night – no money earned equals no money spent.
People absolutely loved this.
During our launch party (catered by cruizers), we had our drivers make over $100 per night. It was a huge success! I didn’t realize at the time what we had stumbled across.
It’s also worth noting that at the time, Uber and Lyft were just starting up and had yet to make their way to the Triangle area. As for NC State students, it was us, expensive self-entitled taxis, or find a designated driver.
We were able to find a mutual friend of ours that worked at the school newspaper and got an article about us on the front page. Our recognition shot through the roof! We had meetings left and right with different departments in the university who kept complimenting us about our product, how great and original it was, and offered their help in whatever area they could.
We launched the MVP of Cruizer in March of 2014. Uber and Lyft launched in the Triangle on April 24th.
Retaliation and Cruizer 2.0
That summer, while school – and therefore Campus Cruizer – was on a hiatus, Arjun and I knew we had to do something to keep up. We had proved our point and made a bit of a name for ourselves, but knew we had to innovate to stay relevant. After all, the new competition’s apps made their solutions much easier to use; you could use your credit card to pay without having to worry about carrying cash (also, more profits for the business), the apps could pinpoint your exact location without having to talk to someone on the phone, and their built in rating system gave both riders and drivers quality assurance.
Summer 2014 was probably the most stressful stretch of time in my life yet. Not only was I sick, but we had to work non-stop the entire summer to try and stay relevant. Within the duration of a single 3 month period, we were able to replicate the entirety of the Uber/Lyft system. This included rewriting our entire API with location tracking, payment integration, and rating system, and creating brand new apps for both iOS and Android to rival the functionality of Uber and Lyft’s respective apps. We also had to make sure NC State students knew about our service and why we were that much better than the new players in town; ‘For Students, By Students’. We had pushed our marketing efforts in the way of buying branded koozies and placing them in every single dorm room in NC State (with a partnership with IRC on campus).
To this day I don’t know how we were able to pull it off.
Loss of Momentum and the 800 Pound Gorilla
We had a secret weapon with us that we were using to try and maintain our position and keep our ground: our bootstrapped, homegrown, ‘by students, for students’ roots. The fact that we were NC State students, served NC State students, and worked with mostly NC State students, meant that we were part of the people; we could relate to the NCSU population and connect with them. In the same way that a small town’s mom & pop ice cream shop would thrive where a Ben & Jerry’s would merely sustain, we were hoping that our not-so-secret sauce, though still a crucial ingredient to our recipe, would be our winning move.
However, one thing that we (foolishly) overlooked throughout our business model was the lack of traffic during summer break. Since our driving value was a system built by students, for students, it actually worked against us in the summer months. During the May through August time frame, there were very few students around, and even less that were going out on weekends to their usual shenanigans. That entire summer, Arjun and myself were so focused on the product and the business that we didn’t realize that Uber was gaining on us, and quickly. While they weren’t nearly the size they are today, they were still VC backed with millions of dollars behind them. They were recruiting drivers left and right off of Craigslist and giving out free rides like there’s no tomorrow.
When school got back in session, we had a hard time getting back the momentum that we had at the end of the previous school year. While we, the founders, were busy with our heads to the grindstone working nonstop on the technology aspect of the product, we failed to realize that the larger players were taking over our market at an alarming rate.
Campus Cruizer never got back to where it was before that summer.
Growing the Team and an Uphill Battle
It didn’t take too long for Arjun and myself to realize we couldn’t quite do this alone, no matter how many hats we liked wearing all at the same time. Our first recruits were actually avid users of the service and had shown interest in helping out during a few Cruizes (Arjun and I would Cruize pretty often to keep an eye on our client base, see how they enjoyed the service and what could be corrected, and more importantly, set the vibe that we were trying to put out for the Cruizer service).
We hired two unpaid interns to help us with marketing. We hosted a few events around campus, gave out some the remaining of the koozies that we had left over from our summer marketing push, and stepped up our social media game (which I still personally see as a necessary evil in today’s start up world, #SorryNotSorry).
This marketing push was fantastic for us and got us some customers back. But with a loose regiment, not clearly defined enough goals and metrics, and everyone balancing a full school load, that tapered off after winter break.
Come spring time 2015, we had started to make another very large push towards getting Cruizer to where we wanted it to be. That included hiring two more developers (one of which I still work with today), a business development guy and a marketing guy. We really did have an all-star team. The biz dev helped us put together a more solid business plan and created an elaborate Excel sheet that would help us decide how much to charge per Cruize (we had shifted the model over to charge per minute and per mile to stay competitive). The marketing helped us plug in detailed analytics and tracking software into our apps to be able to track user flow and find out how our users are – or are not – interacting with our apps. And of course we, the developers, would then update the apps as necessary and implement any feature updates we saw fit. Arjun and I still oversaw all the operations and made sure things were running smoothly.
Our all-star team was working hard and making good progress. However (there’s always a ‘however’, isn’t there?), we were all still balancing either school or full time jobs at this point. While we were making slow and steady strides towards our goals, we weren’t making them fast enough. By early 2016, ‘calling an Uber’ was practically second nature to most college students, just as ‘Google it’ became a part of everyone’s vernacular, leaving competitors in the dust. Arjun and I had had many talks before, but the time came when we officially decided that our efforts weren’t seeing the progress and results we deserved.
Campus Cruizer was shut down in March of 2016.
Campus Cruizer was my first baby, there’s no doubt about that. It spawned from an idea, to a side project, to a full fledged start up with seed investors (thanks mine and Arjun’s parents!!), a full team, and two live apps; it was a living, breathing company. It was always a dream of mine to ‘invent things’, and this put me in the driver’s seat of exactly that. As a developer, I enjoy building things; solving problems with creative software solutions. I’ve published a few projects in the past that fit that description. But nothing quite like this. This was a tiny bit of what I like to consider a developer’s dream. I got to build a product that saw the light of day. It gained real traction, real users (over 1000 throughout Cruizer’s life), and real money was exchanged on this platform. We gave people jobs by giving them a platform to drive people. We made people’s nights by providing a ride back home for them, sometimes even stopping by drive-thru spots for some midnight munchies. We made a difference. While we couldn’t get Cruizer to the end goal we had hoped for, there’s no doubt that this adventure was incredible, and like no other that I’ve experienced. I am unbelievably grateful for this ride (pun very much intended, we loved these).
While I’m here, I would like to thank everyone who partook in this whole process, our team, our investors, our drivers and our riders, and everyone else along the way who helped or offered help or cheered us on. Seriously, you are all awesome.
I also learned quite a bit from this journey and would like to share just a few of those tangible lessons with you:
– Your business partner will have a huge influence on this entire voyage. Whether good or bad, that depends on who you bring along with you. As for me, I seriously lucked out. I didn’t know Arjun very well when I first approached him with this idea. I had simply thought he had decent business savvy and he could help me market the platform with his connections. It turns out I was right, but he was also so much more. If it weren’t for Arjun, Campus Cruizer would not have gotten as far as it did.
– Momentum is everything. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the fact that we had momentum in a few places and didn’t capitalize on it completely was a mistake on our part. I can only imagine how our users must’ve felt when they saw us going back and forth between activity and silence on social media and live cruizers.
– Startups are not easy. But you already knew that. At least I can say that from experience now 😉