For Samarth Kholkar and Sandeep Mukherjee, two long-time friends and corporate employees each with over a decade of experience, 2018 came with an opportunity of a lifetime.
The duo, after quitting their cushy jobs, had been working to develop a tourism project with sustainability at its core. In February 2018, they set up a tourism venture called B: Live in Goa, a small state on the southwestern coast of India. Their idea was simple—to provide experiential tours on environmentally friendly electric bikes.
Their timing couldn’t have been better. As they launched their company, the Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC), run by the state’s tourism ministry, was seeking companies that could conduct tours on electric bikes.
“The tender floated by the government of Goa was in sync with what we were thinking and offering,” Mukherjee told KrASIA. “There were multiple people across the country who participated, but our proposal was accepted by GTDC.”
Kholkar and Mukherjee bagged the contract in July that year and signed a partnership agreement with the Goa tourism ministry to become their exclusive electric vehicle (EV) partner for 20 years. It was a felicitous beginning for B: Live. “This gave us a major boost in terms of consolidating our position and starting our operation,” said Mukherjee. “Within three months, we set up the operations, got the e-bikes, and were ready to launch.”
B: Live rolled out its services—curated experience-oriented local tours around art, architecture, culture, local life, food, and nature—in association with the Goa tourism department in November 2018. On these tours, riders may see up close how fishermen draw their catch from the sea, learn to make local bread, and even visit a 200-year-old Portuguese house for breakfast.
In just one year, B: Live said it completed 4,000 rides. Besides setting up ten tour circuits in Goa, it has expanded to six more states in ten locations with one circuit each. According to Mukherjee, the company now conducts about 1,000 electric bike rides every month. Most of them are in Goa.
The startup has created multiple hubs where its bikes can be parked and charged. These locations also serve as the starting and ending points of a tour circuit, which usually runs for 10–12 km and has multiple stops. B: Live also collaborates with restaurants, cafes, hotels, and hostels to use their infrastructure to charge its bikes, which can travel up to 50 km.
An open road map
What makes B: Live unique is that its first client—the government—is one that took the startup from zero to liftoff in a matter of months.
But that evolution was hardly smooth. The Goan startup was looking to raise seed funding in its initial days, but meetings with potential investors didn’t translate into actual cash.
“Money is the lifeblood of any startup. We were looking to raise angel funding pretty quickly,” Mukherjee said. “It was a bit of a struggle initially, where we had to go and speak with a lot of people, but then later, we got a good response, and now there are many people interested in our startup.”
In the three months after winning the government’s tender, Kholkar and Mukherjee raced to get their first set of customized electric bikes ready. To make that happen, they had to pour in about USD 70,000 (INR 50 lakh) of their own money.
“We procured these electric bikes from multiple companies, such as Hero, Svitch Bikes, and Tron X, but none of these bikes are off-the-shelf,” said Mukherjee. B: Live generated in-house designs, modifying seats to make them larger, replacing tires with puncture-resistant alternatives, and adding better brakes.
A month before the roll-out, they raised an angel investment of about USD 140,000 from two local business tycoons, Shrinivas V. Dempo, the chairman of Dempo Group, and Shivanand V. Salgaocar, chairman and managing director of Vimson Group.
“We were already in talks with the investors when the government contract happened. It made it easier to raise the investment,” said Mukherjee. “It gave us a clear road map since we had business coming in from the Goa tourism department for the next 20 years.”
The next round of funding, which amounted to about USD 560,000, was a strategic investment by DNA Entertainment Networks in the second half of 2019. B: Live used it to expand to multiple Indian states, including Gujarat, Kerala, Pondicherry, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu.
Operating according to a lean strategy, the startup has created partnerships with multiple stakeholders in the hospitality and travel industries.
“We have a model where we partner with experience specialists—people who conduct events like heritage walks, outdoor activities, and nature trails in every city,” said Mukherjee. These experience specialist-partners who B: Live calls “captains” are knowledgeable, experienced figures like food bloggers, architects, and archeologists. These captains then lead local tours.
“Captains are on our experience-partners’ payroll. We have business managers who manage particular geographies,” said Mukherjee. “It just makes growing operations and management easier.” Beginning with just a team of five in 2018, B: Live now has 28 staff members.
A new vanguard
At a time when electric mobility has caught the eye of global investors, B: Live has big plans for sustainable tourism in India.
This year, the startup plans to add electric scooters and motorbikes to its fleet to serve a more diverse set of clients—families with kids and thrill-seekers. As a policy, B: Live doesn’t allow children under the age of 11 to ride electric bikes, but electric scooters will make its tours more suited for groups with youngsters.
B: Live is in talks with Hero Group and Mahindra, Indian conglomerates with businesses in automobiles, to acquire electric scooters and motorbikes. Mukherjee said he is open to partner with other startups that are “trying to create an impression in the EV space.”
Kholkar and Mukherjee plan to take B: Live to 95 locations in three years’ time and maintain a fleet of 2,500 bikes. For now, the startup has 200 electric bikes. Most are in Goa, which receives about 11 million tourists every year.
B: Live has already partnered with the government in Pondicherry, a union territory in southern India, and is exploring similar contracts with state governments in Rajasthan, Kerala, and Karnataka. It has arrangements with upscale hotel chains like Taj and Grand Hyatt in Goa, providing tours for their guests. The company is now aiming for a pan-India partnership with its hospitality partners.
To fund its growth, Mukherjee said, “We are already in talks to raise a new round of about USD 1.5 million and will be making an announcement soon.”
B: Live charges about USD 21 (INR 1,500) for a 90-minute local tour and USD 35 for a more immersive three-hour tour. With 4,000 rides completed in its first year, the startup raked in between USD 84,000 and USD 140,000.
Mukherjee said the company isn’t profitable yet, but unlike other startups, they “have a much shorter route to profitability.” He said, “Within two years, we will be profitable.”
The two founders’ corporate experience has played a major role in carving the organization’s path to profitability. “We used what we learned in the corporate world—the value of planning, financial management, setting the organization right, and having the right team, as well as the role of technology,” he said. “And that is what is driving our growth.”
India is only beginning its transition to EVs, and Kholkar and Mukherjee are on the forefront of applying them to tourism.
“E-bikes are a growing phenomenon across the world. In India, we are just scratching the surface. The EV revolution in India is going to happen through two-wheelers,” Mukherjee said. “It [the electric bike] is economical, easy to manage, easily available, and easy to commute with. Now that we have begun to see traction in the segment, we foresee massive growth in the category.”
However, tourism is a fragmented and largely unregulated industry in the South Asian nation. “When we go and pitch our story to state governments, we have to start from scratch. They are often restrictive, although everyone wants to promote sustainability at this point in time,” Mukherjee said. “It is a time-consuming process, but I think patience is the key.”
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.