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MaaS Global: The first mobility-as-a-service operator in the world

MaaS Global is the world’s first mobility operator that provides full pledge mobility as a service. MaaS Global’s services are used through a mobile application called Whim, which can combine all modes of transportation into one simple subscription. With one payment, customers can use public transportation, taxis, bikes and rental cars. Basically, any kind of transport that people need.

Sampo Hietanen, the Founder and CEO of MaaS Global, is often called the father of mobility-as-a-service. He explains how MaaS Global got started and why it’s going to disrupt mobility.

In 2006, I began to think about how the telecom industry had changed since the 1980s. There was an obvious analogy between teleoperators and mobility-as-a-service. In those days, people only had connected phones and there was an aspect missing from the telecom industry: it was the personal mobile operator.

It was obvious that a similar revolution, which has already happened in telecom, would happen in mobility. We can take care of all your mobility needs like a teleoperator, taking care of your service within a month.  When thinking about this, I realised that it was a huge undertaking and a very interesting field of business.

By 2011, this idea was at the core of Finnish transportation policy.  That made it possible to begin building an ecosystem for mobility. At that point in time, there were no technical enablers in place. However, the whole concept suddenly got a real boost! By the end of 2014, mobility-as-a-service was already a global phenomenon attracting many different players, all offering a variety of solutions.

It’s not that often that you come up with a concept that is instantly becomes a global phenomenon and movement. It is the kind of thing that refreshes a person’s view of the world. I have seen that the enthusiasm for mobility-as-a-service is not achieved through constant lobbying – it’s just people getting excited about it, which is a great thing!

Testing the business concept

By the end of 2014, it was not yet clear whether the idea had real business potential. At first, 23 organisations jumped in to locate resources and make a business plan for starting a MaaS – Mobility-as-a-Service – Operator.

During the first 6 months, it became clear that there was indeed real business potential. It was also clear that building an ecosystem would not be easy, as the different players were competitors and needed to trust each other and the operator. For us, it was not only about building a good business. If done correctly, our business would also enhance cities and improve the environment.

In spring 2015, MaaS Global – then named MaaS Finland – was born. At that point, we had enough funds to initiate operations. At the beginning of 2016, we wanted to see if it was possible to put every model of transportation into one app and make it work without gazillions of integrations. For us, it seemed doable. It seemed like something that people would love to have. Everything was pointing towards its success and more and more excitement grew around it. Big players, like Transdev and Karsan, became our investors.

In the second phase, even bigger players, like Toyota, DENSO, Aioi and a few others joined in. At the end of 2017, we tested the concept in Helsinki, the capital city of Finland.  We wanted to see if we could actually sell the idea to the people and discover whether or not they liked it.

Picture 1: Helsinki the capital city of Finland.

Creating a new phenomenon usually takes a lot of time and money, especially in marketing. Within a few months, we exceeded all our expectations in sales and saw a growth in awareness of the service. There were people talking about whether this could be compared to having a car or not. We had expected it would take at least a year before discussions began on social media, but that started instantly!

We needed to make it right. Make sure that the service existed, and that it was what the people needed. We quickly realised that what people really needed was the reassurance and certainty that they would be able to go anywhere at any time – just like they could with their own car. It’s that simple. Users wanted to know it for sure that the service would be there for them at all times without fail.

People have always said that they liked public transportation, taxis, cars and bikes. All these were good, and people could use them every week. On the other hand, people liked their freedom. When they have free time, during the weekend or the summer vacation, they would like to be able to go golfing or take a walk on the beach with their loved one.

Picture 2. Cost components of travel modes (Source: Maas Global)

This is important to people. People had never done those things, but they liked the idea that they could do it if they wanted to. For example, in Tokyo over 50% of cars are driven less frequently than once a week. People there like the idea that they could use their car if they really wanted.

That’s how ‘Whim’ become our service’s name. It was Jonna Pöllönen who came up with the name. She looked at everything that our customers and users were saying about freedom of mobility. People like the idea that they can go anywhere on a whim, without having to plan. That’s why the service name is ‘Whim’ and I have to say I immediately took to it!

Forming an operating model for a growth company

When starting a company, there are different growth phases that are experienced. Really good start-ups begin with one single thing and then move quickly with that idea.

In the beginning, we didn’t have defined roles and everybody worked in many areas. We had a few people that wanted to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). We started with the vision that I have had for a long time and our people tried to turn that into a reality.

That early stage is great. I see many start-ups loving it so much, that they never break out of being a start-up. Still, start-ups need to move on to the next stage when they become operational. We at MaaS Global have already passed this stage as Whim has now 60,000 users in Helsinki.

As the number of users grows, a company will need defined processes. Hopefully we can do this without losing all the innovation and all the spark that exists within us.

The hardest part is always found to be the change between the different phases of growth, because the philosophy of how you run the company must change as the project progresses. The bigger the company gets; the narrower one person’s responsibility becomes. For those who have been there from the beginning, a bit of re-learning and restructuring is necessary.  

The way that we operate now is a little different compared to how we did things before. If you just stay on the operational level, you never implement any new features. But even if you could do that, you would probably miss out on strategic aspects. That’s why we have a clear vision of where we want to be and goals to help us achieve this.

We have strategic goals, mostly from myself and the management team, but also operational targets, like opening new locations and making integrations. We work in a big network that consists of different layers, so it’s not easy.

We have a product forum with a product owner that gathers everyone from designers to tech. The product owner slots everything in to make sure different types of goals are resourced.  We always make sure that we our operations are running smoothly so that we can introduce new features without forgetting that we have an overall goal. It sounds much easier on paper than it actually is.

I personally want to manage as little as possible. The biggest asset you can have, is a skilled, enthusiastic, team of people. It is always good to observe people, and see whether they are creating something of value. Are they doing something they really want to do? If they are, then normally everything else follows.

When you have over 50 people it the office, everything becomes more of a challenge. Before this phase, however, it is just enough to have a group of dedicated people.

We are growing and every week there are newcomers in the office. When a company has around 100 people it needs more structure, clear organisation and processes. Even though we knew this would happen, it took us by surprise. It was a totally new thing for us.

The company itself needs to evolve when it emerges from the development phase and moves into the operations phase. What’s good for us, but also challenging, is that we do things at an extremely fast pace. The operations phase requires a totally different mindset for the whole company. Getting over the building phase has been quite a learning curve for us. It’s much easier to run a pilot phase that to run full operations.

We try to communicate as openly as possible. Of course, some large investors might have business secrets, but other than those, we try to communicate things openly. Communication is also a philosophical aspect how you view people.

Every Friday we all gather at 11am and review the achievements of the week. People can ask questions, which always get answered, and we go through company information and introduce new people. Weekly gatherings have proven to be an effective tool in communication. We also use Slack for many kinds of tasks.

Even in a company of 100 people, you can end up having silos. You have different competencies varying from B2C marketing to deep technical skills. All these different kinds of people must work together.

We structured the communication, and even forced it a little bit, so that people would know exactly what other teams are working on and communication flows easily. In an organization with 100 people, it no longer comes naturally to people to explain what they are doing.

Building a creative platform economy business on trust

The whole concept of MaaS Global is built and based on trust. Trust is the oil of open ecosystems. People from the USA have a hard time understanding this idea and they often feel that we are strange.

I have explained to them that it all begins with open communication and discussion. We don’t hide things and we don’t have several different agendas. People always have a great ability to spot if you are not sincere. 

Building this trust begins with me personally. If I am open, others will be open as well. Trust is the basis upon which everything is built. When operating in the ecosystem, we explain just how we plan to make money and where we are to be able to progress and move forward with partners.

What we have noticed is that building an ecosystem is hard. It’s not easy to rely on an ecosystem. In some smaller industries, one hub can control the ecosystem, however, mobility is too big for that. We can’t dominate this industry, nor can anyone else. That means that a lot of trust and patience is required.

MaaS Global operates in an environment in which we can’t go to London and say, we will replace metros, taxis and buses. We can’t dictate the entire value chain. The value chain is too big for that and that is why we need to work with partners. We must develop with them and give them all the tools to produce the service that we are creating.

Picture 3. The most of the Whim trips occur in areas with the highest public transport access. (source: Maas Global)

The reason, why we operate this way is not that we are naïve or simply do-gooders. With these new creative platform economy businesses, this is an absolute must. There is no other way to do it, because you have no control over the ecosystems.

Of course, controlling the ecosystem might be possible with smaller ecosystems such as search engines, but for transportation, the value is simply too large. I like to think that we are like a window to our customers and users, but there are other windows to look through too.

When working in an ecosystem, we must understand that others don’t move at the same pace as we do. They need to get their heads around the concept. We shouldn’t push them too much and even so, there is no way to do it even if we tried. They need to be involved and that takes time. The only way to do it is through constant discussions and facilitating. We must be open with our goals and encompass the goals of others. Discussions such as these must progress and continue even after the initial phases.

Leading a creative start-up with exceptionally high business targets

We use cross-functional teams. When we setup a team to go to a new location, there is always someone from marketing, a couple of technical persons, someone responsible of the product, a country manager and a project manager who facilitates it all. Success depends on good project management.

When going to a new location there is a catch. We have no influence over many aspects or we may have, perhaps, limited influence, but not power. If, in example, in Antwerp our partner says they can’t deliver their part in time, what can we do?  We can’t get angry with these partners, but what we can do is to concentrate on other areas until the situation is resolved. We have many partners who all have their different agendas and situations in their businesses.

A public transportation partner may be pushing forward, but some private company may be stalling the progress. That’s why we can’t move ahead right away. We must be able to learn to navigate in these situations and learn from them. We must develop ourselves to successfully manage these kinds of situations.

“Building an ecosystem is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. There are many bits and pieces, which don’t really fit. It’s our job to iron all of them in and make one single beautiful picture.” Sampo Hietanen, the Founder and CEO of MaaS Global.

The team going into a new location has their own budget and limits to what they can do. Our management team goes through their status weekly. If we need more resources or something has changed, the management team can then make decisions.

Situations can change weekly. We might decide to invest half a million on marketing in one location, but the decision might not make sense the next week. We need to be able to reassign funds and put them to some other use. Making decisions needs to be a continuous process.

In our current building phase, we are in manual steering mode. We are not sufficiently placed to make quarterly plans. This will change when we move to the operational phase. At the moment, the budget needs to be adjusted at least on a weekly basis.

Explaining this to a large partner is not easy. Such partners come from running existing business with long terms plans. Sometimes even with a five-year plan to which they must adhere. They are working in an industry that’s already established and they make investment decisions.

In an existing business, you make a prediction. You make sure the targets are realistic, so that you have a good chance to meet those targets. The targets are normally low enough, so that you can easily exceed them.

In a creative start-up, it doesn’t go that way. There is no point in setting targets like that for our business. In a creative start-up, it makes much more sense to set ridiculously high targets that are way above all expectations.

Setting such high targets will make us perform far better than setting targets that are too realistic. We can’t predict when the ketchup bottle will open, and everything pours out, but we must be prepared for that. If you are not prepared for success, you are not going to achieve it. That’s hard for an industry player to understand, and even harder for them to accept.

I am now glad to say that this year, 2019, is really beginning to look like a tipping point. We made 4 million trips, during the first year. In 2019, we have been starting up in a few other countries – chiefly the UK and Belgium.

We have also been signing quite a lot of deals with different types of ecosystem players. Many players in the ecosystem have begun to understand the idea that this is actually pretty good for them. They want to co-operate and be partners in this idea.

The outlook, and new cities in which we can launch, looks promising. In 2018 we raised another 9 million to support these new launches and, of course, we are just about to close an even bigger investment that will get us into more and more cities.

Insight on customer behaviour with surveys, data and analytics

There are a lot of insights of course on customer behaviour. We collect a lot of feedback and conduct many studies. We came out with the first impact study, with a consultancy, of the year 2018. As sustainability is important for us, we wanted to better understand what kind of impact our service had, as we didn’t have any data from this perspective.

The first results from the impact study are beginning to show signs that our service is moving, from a sustainability perspective, in a good direction. The usage of public transport has improved for our customers and they are now combining multiple modes of transportation. We want to improve our service to offer real multimodal routing, but solving this issue is not easy.

In the earlier studies, we have expected most our users to be young adults, but the demographics of Whim users are not what we expected. It was a shock that men over the age of 50 were a large user group for Whim. Roughly one third of our customers are over 35 years old.

Picture 4. Demographics of Whim users (source: Maas Global).

We also didn’t expect multimodality to be so large. Without guiding our customers, they can plan their trips using several means of transportation by themselves, if we make it easy for them.

One big learning curve for us has been about our customers’ priorities. Above everything else, they value convenience. Their second concern is sustainability, and cost seems to be their least pressing concern. It’s quite easy to make the mistake of thinking that people will always be price driven. That doesn’t seem to be the case. People want convenience, sustainability and only after these, does the cost matter.

People quickly understand the concept of mobility as a service, but they are demanding. You can’t roll out a semi-launch and expect customers to be immediately satisfied. Our customers want everything all at once, and they want it to be easy. If the service doesn’t have all the relevant parts of a mobility operator, we won’t get subscriptions.

This was likely to be expected, but it still surprised us. High requirements from our customers are, however, a good sign, because it leaves a lot of room for innovation and improvement regarding convenience.

Looking to the future with artificial intelligence

MaaS Global’s focus so far has been in getting products out, but we anticipate that artificial intelligence will have a role in our next phases. We have a lot of data, which we can utilise to improve the service and manoeuvre ourselves into new positions.

We are just about to launch the world’s first package, which we will call “We Will Get You There”. This an area, where we plan to use AI. We need to use a substantial range of parameters and learn from the results, in order to make sure that our customers feel comfortable and that they feel satisfied with the service that we provide.

Take, for example, a situation in which our user takes the bus to work. The user walks a short distance to the bus station and then walks about a kilometre to the office. That’s fine, but let’s say there is a heavy rainstorm. In this case, we will call a taxi for her, if that’s what the user requires. On another day, we should understand that our customer may like to use a bike. This is what we are now investing quite heavily in.

A prediction by Frost and Sullivan says that the MaaS market will be between 2 to 4 trillion annually by the year 2025. Our target is to have 20% of that market. We want to make sure that we are dressed for success, so whenever there is a market opening anywhere in the world, we want to be there. At present, there are between 15 to 20 locations we are looking at. The question is how quickly we can acquire them and how ready they are to go into service.

When we know, with enough certainty, that the product can be used in a new location, we will launch a subsidiary. We need local people, because our business is a two-way trust street. We must be an operator that our partners can trust, and our partners need to deliver the transportation.

“Trust is hard to sustain at a distance and it doesn’t happen overnight.” Sampo Hietanen,the Founder and CEO of MaaS Global.

We must have people working with them and building that trust. We also need to have someone close to the customer. In a new country there is much that needs to be done gradually, because there are different types of players, such as public transportation and taxi companies.

We are constantly developing our offering. In our last package we had a new subscription service, which allowed our customers to use all sustainable modes: cheaper taxis, public transportation and bikes during weekdays – all on hand. Over the weekends, they can pick up a car and that’s embedded in the subscription. Those who normally don’t need a car during week, will want to have the convenience of a car during the weekend.

If we were able take you from any A to any B at any time, you might begin to compare us with car ownership. This is what MaaS Global is aiming at. That’s a huge opportunity for us as a business and also for society from a sustainability point of view.

Key Findings of Maas Global’s Journey for Business Leaders

1. Finding the right people at the right time

In any kind of company, it is people that matter most. Your success lies on top of the kind of people you can recruit. Leaders need to make sure that people know what they should do and what they should deliver.

Finding those right people at the right time is the most important thing. If you want to build a more agile company, why wouldn’t you hire someone that has less industry experience, but more hands-on experience from a start-up or growth company?

2. Digital ecosystems and platforms are built on top of trust

When building something new, there will be times when things don’t go as well as you would have liked, and times suddenly get tough. You want to cry and shout.  In those moments, the value of trust is enormous.

When making this kind of new digital ecosystem or platform, building trust between your own people, customers and your business partners is critical. The more trust you have accumulated, the more chance you have to steer your ship through rough seas. The value of trust is measured in the success of recovering from tough situations.

3.  Leading people with high business targets

You can make quarterly business plans or drive in a manual steering mode, but the direction needs to be constantly adjusted. Making decisions needs to be a continuous and fast process.

Setting high targets and possessing a clear vision will enable your team to perform better. Let the team make the decisions and manage as little as possible. Your people are the biggest asset you will ever have.

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