‘Mass transit is a trillion-dollar market that almost everyone is ignoring’

27 Feb 2019

Amos Haggiag. Image: Optibus

This week on Leaders’ Insights, Amos Haggiag tells us how Optibus aims to transform the world of transportation for the cities of the future.

Amos Haggiag is the CEO and co-founder of Optibus, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform powering mass transportation through artificial intelligence (AI) and optimisation algorithms.

Haggiag holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science from Ben-Gurion University. Prior to co-founding Optibus in 2014, he worked on algorithm design at Microsoft, Collarity and Siemens.

‘Our beautifully designed offices sometimes look like a parking lot for electric bikes. It makes me happy to see’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m the co-founder and CEO of Optibus, which is about transforming mass transit by using advanced optimisation and artificial intelligence, for better mass-transit services at lower costs. Being the CEO of a rapidly growing start-up means a diverse range of responsibilities, from working with investors, to ensuring our product roadmap is correct and that our customers use the product in a way that’s impactful, as well as dealing with sales, marketing, and research and development (R&D).

There are a lot of moving parts – which geographies do we want to go after; what do we offer there; do we target private transit operators, public or both. Sometimes I even get pulled into discussions about our algorithms and technology, although most of that is dealt with today by Eitan Yanovsky, Optibus’s co-founder and CTO.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Since I get pulled in so many directions, I try to have a systematic approach to managing work. I manage all my tasks with email, using the ‘zero inbox’ technique. Everything I have to do, look at, review, respond to etc is managed by email. I also have everyone communicate on Telegram, since it reduces unnecessary email communication.

I have weekly one-on-one meetings with all my executives, in addition to quarterly review meetings. We also have weekly management meetings and quarterly board meetings. We use focus task groups on specific challenges for a limited time.

We keep an agile management culture and make fast decisions on a weekly basis, such as reorgs, pricing changes, new territories to explore and new products.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Mobility is undergoing immense transformative change. We all know what ride-hailing did to the taxi industry – decimating some of it but also forcing it to modernise (and accept credit cards). We’re still seeing the impact ride-hailing has on congestion (it’s making cities more congested) and wondering what will happen when ride-hailing meets autonomous vehicles.

Increased interest in cities of the future is also putting a focus on mobility, and the upcoming changes as a result. In Tel Aviv, for instance, which is quite hot in the summer, electric scooters and bikes are mainstream since they are better alternatives to taking a car or a taxi (and to walking in the heat).

Everyone agrees that mass transportation is an essential component for the future of cities, and that it must play a role in the future of mobility – but the question is how. Some parts of the challenge have to do with efficiency and performance, and Optibus is demonstrating what the industry has always known: that better scheduling and planning can provide better service at a lower cost.

Other challenges have to do with changing how the industry has been working for the past tens of years – for instance, using artificial intelligence to automatically make scheduling changes that would ensure on-time performance (on-time performance is one of the key factors impacting bus ridership). Other changes are forming demand-responsive bus services, where real-time passenger data can alter the service and make it more efficient.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Mass transit is a trillion-dollar market that (almost) everyone is ignoring. While investors are flocking to next-gen technologies for autonomous vehicles, or looking at new forms of mobility, mass mobility is a huge market that needs digital transformation since large parts of it are still being managed with pen and paper or spreadsheets. Creating good operating plans for mass transit is a difficult problem and that’s what Optibus is set to solve.

There is a lot of opportunity in the market, since mass-transportation planning and scheduling is changing and the software that supports it needs to change, too. Even the simple mention of ‘software as a service’ is a big deal since scheduling and planning require a lot of computing power, and when they run on on-premise computers rather than the cloud, they’re slow, taking hours or days to create better operational plans.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

My father was the first to familiarise me with the complexity of transportation operations – he is the CFO of one of the largest local bus operators. Growing up, I had this intuitive feel for the complexity of the operations of mass transportation, since that’s part of what we discussed at home. This fascinated me – the enormity of the problem and the fact that it can be solved by applying math.

At some point when I was in university, I also understood that mass-transit scheduling is a super-interesting and complex math and computer science problem. While studying, I met Eitan Yanovsky. We thought about the problem of how to optimise the transportation of an entire city in real time and set out to design sophisticated algorithms to do so. We fine-tuned these algorithms, testing them on public transit operators until we came up with a solution that is far more advanced than anything else available. It was then, in 2014, that we founded Optibus.

I am also inspired by the enormous importance of quality public transport for the health of cities and even economic development. I don’t own a car, and never have. I prefer using a personal electric mobility device, such as Onewheel or an electric skateboard, or riding the bus.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

That’s a tough question, since some of the the decisions made at the helm of a start-up are bound to be mistakes. A recent one comes to mind: a few months before we started our Series A funding, we moved into a new office. I rented what I thought was an office that was much larger than we’ll ever need, but within six months it was too small and we had to move people from rooms into an open space. We ended up renting the floor above us, and now we have the company split into two floors. What I learned from that is that start-up growth is hard to predict, and you should always be prepared in advance for exponential growth.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I believe in a culture of openness and excellence. I sit together with the rest of the team in an open space office, and I share company news with everyone. Every customer win is announced on Telegram (which acts as our internal messaging system). Many employees present what they’re working on in company meetings, and I think it’s created a great collaborative work environment.

People like to believe in a greater cause, and connecting to the future of mass transportation is a great way to instil the employees with my passion for mass transportation. That’s why we encourage employees to use public transport and we give out free electric scooters or bikes to employees who use public transit. As a result, our beautifully designed offices sometimes look like a parking lot for electric bikes. It makes me happy to see.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

Indeed, our sector has less diversity than it should, and it’s an issue. Within the world of Optibus, we take care to hire from diverse backgrounds and increase female representation in management, R&D and our solutions group.

Who is your role model and why?

Joel Spolsky. He worked at Microsoft (as I did) and co-founded Stack Overflow, which I’ve used thousands of times. He also co-founded Trello, which I’ve used since its early days and am still using on a daily basis in Optibus. He also has a blog called Joel on Software – one of the best technical (and sometimes business) blogs that exist. I admire the rare combination of programming and design capabilities with business and entrepreneurship.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston. This book features candid insights from the founders of Apple, Paypal, Flickr and others, offering the ability to understand start-ups as they really are and not as they are glossed over in the press. The book offers relatable anecdotes about the struggle and perseverance that building a business demands.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! by the Physics Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. The book is a great read on Feynman’s philosophy and the way he approaches anything, from simple day-to-day challenges to tough challenges he faced when building the nuclear bomb.

The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, the co-founder of the Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm and an experienced entrepreneur. The book makes it clear how difficult it is to run a start-up, and how to approach those problems, some of which were existential to his business. At Optibus, I use what I learned from the book on a daily basis, including how to avoid politics, how to manage one-on-one meetings and more.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Email, Telegram, Salesforce and HubSpot.

We also created many bots that automate day-to-day tasks. For example, product deployment is managed by a bot, managing employee absence reports and much more.

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