Interview: Bookme’s founder & CEO Faizan Aslam on early days, challenges, expansion plans and more

Bookme is a Lahore-based startup that enables users all across Pakistan to book bus, air, cinema and event tickets using its website or mobile apps. It is mostly known for selling intercity bus tickets which is apparently also the biggest contributor to its revenue but is quickly expanding into some other interesting verticals.

The startup that was founded in 2012 by Faizan Aslam has raised over half a million dollars to date. Its last round was a Pre-Series A led by Lakson Investments Venture Capital (LIVC) that it had announced last year. It is currently raising a Series A to fuel its growth and expansion.

We had a chance to sit down with Bookme’s founder and CEO Faizan Aslam to share his thoughts on building one of the largest ecommerce businesses (in terms of transactions) of the country and here’s what he had to say.

The idea & founding team

For those of us who don’t know, please tell us a bit about yourself and how’d you end up building Bookme?

I am a software engineer with a bachelor’s degree from International Islamic University, Islamabad. In my sixth semester, I started my own software services company and by the time I graduated, I had six people working for me. I later established two offices in Islamabad and Sahiwal (my hometown) and was primarily offering software development services to international clients.

Even though it was exciting but it was obviously not hockey stick growth. It was all connected with the human resource – the more people you add, the more revenue you could make.

Back in 2013, the year started with a couple of changes in my life, one of my biggest clients went bankrupt, which was quite a disappointment and demotivating factor for my team. We relied on him so much that once he was gone, we faced trouble finding work for the team that by the time had over 50 people.

I got married in the same year in March. There was this day when I drove all the way to Lahore (which was a two-hour drive from my hometown) with my wife to watch a movie but when we reached the cinema, there were no seats available. That is precisely when I decided to find a way to solve this problem.

The idea also had a lot to do with my student life when not finding a bus seat for traveling from Sahiwal to Islamabad was a constant problem. I had to go to the bus terminal in advance especially on public holidays which was very hectic.

Who were the initial team members? How did you know them? Are they still part of the team?

The initial team was made up of people from my previous software services company. When I decided to go with Bookme, I called a team meeting to explain that we were closing the services side and shifting to a product called Bookme which will introduce the concept of e-ticketing in Pakistan. We will initially focus on bus and cinema tickets and later adding more categories.

In that meeting, I asked the team members their willingness to relocate to Lahore for the new venture. Fortunately, they were highly motivated and the majority of them raised their hands in support. That’s how seven people from the previous team moved to Lahore, leaving their home and families for Bookme and yes the majority of them are still a part of the core team and currently working at key positions of CTO, CMO, etc.

Believers & naysayers

Who was the first person to believe in the idea? Did you come across naysayers early on?

In the beginning, no one was really convinced that we can pull it off. Even my family was unsure about the idea. I was very confident about Bookme that it can bring a massive change in the lives of people. I shared the idea with a couple of people who were mentoring startups during those days and they were among the very few first believers of the idea.

How did you finance the startup initially?

In the early days, I had some savings from my previous venture so I used those and one of my family members also helped me with finances early-on.

When did you decide to raise external financing? How difficult was the process?

It was when we started to get traction and paying customers along with a steady growth percentage month on month. There weren’t many VCs in the startup space at that time. It took some time to finalize the first investment.

Has there been any point in your entrepreneurial journey when you thought this is not going to work, let’s just pack our bags and go home?

Packing bags is fun but only for vacations. On a serious note though, no – because when you believe in an idea, no matter what happens you have to stay persistent as people will laugh and make you feel that this is not going to work but you should never give up on something you believe in.

As a founder, you are a firm believer in your idea and if the market responds exactly as you have planned then there is no reason to back off.

Challenges & Achievements

What have been the biggest challenges in Bookme’s journey to date and how did you deal with them?

There have been a lot of challenges. Launching a startup is not as fancy as it looks like from the outside. For me, the biggest challenge was convincing the bus companies to adopt a system that will digitize their entire process because the majority of the bus operators were not even literate.

We worked hard to build a strong relationship with them and won their trust with time. Now they are willing to adapt to the changes we suggest but it was not an easy thing.

What do you think are some of the biggest achievements of Bookme to date?

Bookme has developed the entire eticketing ecosystem of Pakistan. Before Bookme, there was no concept of buying tickets online. All transportation companies were using paper-based, handwritten tickets without knowing the available inventory. We took that challenge as an opportunity and digitized the majority of the transportation sector of Pakistan by providing free software solutions that digitized the entire process of bus companies eventually making their seat inventory, route and fare available online.

Another thing was the introduction of variable pricing in Pakistan which is somehow close to what airlines do in which every seat is sold at a different price. Our variable pricing model works on time, occupancy and route. That helps the bus companies sell more tickets, make more revenue while enabling customers to buy tickets at a cheaper price than the actual terminal price.

These things seemed impossible a few years but have now become a part of our lives.

We currently have 14 banks and mobile wallets with us who are offering eticketing services on their digital apps that are powered by Bookme’s API.

There are a couple of other interesting things that we are about to launch very soon and I am very hopeful that will dramatically change how we travel and commute between cities.

Numbers, competition & API partners

What are the numbers like? How many customers and is BookMe serving now? How many transactions are you processing on a monthly basis?

I won’t be able to disclose a lot of details but we have a registered customer base of 4.5 million users and we have access to more than a hundred million banked people via our API partner network. More than a million people get benefited from Bookme on a monthly basis and we have been growing at a rate of 23 percent month on month for the last 1 year.

Bookme has been partnering with a lot of players including banks and mobile wallets to offer its service right on their apps. Are your margins big enough to share a part with them? And are these partnerships not bad for your consumer brand in the long run as the customers making bookings through these apps don’t even know that it’s Bookme at the backend?

Yes, Bookme is powering eticketing feature of almost every leading bank and mobile wallet across Pakistan. We split our margins 50/50 with our API partners. I believe it’s about adding convenience and opening more sales channels for your service. Moreover, it helps you get access to millions of customers overnight. As soon as somebody purchases a ticket via our API partner, they get an sms and email instantly from Bookme.

What do you make of competition in this space?

Bookme is the pioneer of eticketing in Pakistan and has the majority of Bus companies as exclusive ticketing partners. The majority of telecom companies and banks are using Bookme’s API so we believe that there is no such competition for Bookme in the market. The competitors are way behind in terms of numbers – they are not even at 1% of what we do.

New verticals & app

You’ve recently launched flight bookings as well. How has been the initial response to it? Is it not a crowded space?

Yes, we have recently launched and the numbers are very encouraging. We also did an outdoor campaign on airline ticketing that has dramatically improved our numbers.

There are some very popular international platforms but in terms of local platform, there wasn’t any company which was offering end to end seamless solution without human interaction for the airline tickets.

We had a couple of companies offering airline ticketing in Pakistan but all of them have involvement of a human agent who requests your passport and identification details and then processes the ticket manually which takes a couple of hours to process.

We have digitized the entire system with end to end experience and within a minute you can get your ticket for both domestic and international travel from Bookme’s web or apps.

I have played with your new app recently and really like the improved UI and the user experience it offers. How long did it take to build this version and how do you think it will impact your business?

Thank you for the appreciation. I am glad to know that you liked the new UI. It took about four months from the idea to the process of execution. There are a few areas that we are still working on. The new features are being added and the completely new feature set will be available by the end of June 2020.

The overall intercity bus market is gradually improving with high-end buses, state of the art facilities that are not even available in some domestic airlines. So we are changing the behavior of the passenger by offering all possible bus operators for any certain route.

In previous versions of Bookme, the customers had to first choose the bus company first and then the desired route. But now, we have consolidated all the bus players and users only need to select the departure and destination city with the date and the app shows all possible combinations for that route, with the option for users to filter or sort by bus type, price, departure, our recommendation, and terminal locations. In the future, people will care less about the name of the bus company and more about the services that the company is offering with their price and departure time.

Profitability & expansion

How long before Bookme could turn a profit?

If we cut down our marketing expense to 40%, we can easily be profitable but I believe that transportation sector in Pakistan is massive and we need to aggressively spend on marketing to gain maximum market share. Profitability can be achieved anytime and depends on the board decision.

What’s the long-term vision? What is it that you’re looking to achieve with Bookme?

In the long run, we are looking to introduce new and convenient features that can have a big impact on the lives of our users in Pakistan. One of the new things that we’ve just introduced is logistics. It will completely change how we courier packages in Pakistan. It reduces the time from days to a few hours with a relatively lower cost than what we pay for next day delivery with no tracking.

What are your expansion plans in terms of product, geography, and team?

We have just launched logistics. We are about to start the hotel bookings too. We have already given our hotel API to different partner banks and their mobile wallets.

In terms of geography, I believe Pakistan itself is a massive market and can easily create billion-dollar companies just in this space. After our Series A, we will start looking into similar markets.

I am not a big fan of companies that have hundreds of employees. I prefer having a very small team with 15 to 20 people doing the entire thing. One of the key reasons I closed my software business was that the revenue was dependent on human resources.

Work-life balance, advice & favorite startups

Being an entrepreneur is not easy. How do you manage your work-life balance?

To be very honest I have completely failed in managing my work-life balance. Frankly speaking, a startup is your baby and requires a lot of attention. So, I obviously don’t get to spend enough time with my family. I meet my son only on Sundays. During the weekdays, he has school and when I get back home, he’s asleep already.

What would be your advice to young entrepreneurs of the region?

My advice would be to jump into entrepreneurship only if you are passionate about your idea. Being passionate is also not enough. The idea must have a very big addressable market and your margins should be sensible enough that can help you grow into a billion-dollar company. Don’t get into a market that is already saturated. Pakistan is a land of great opportunities – there are so many areas where we need to improve.

Your favorite local, regional (MENA-based) and international startups?

There are a couple of founders I really respect. Muneeb from Bykea because it’s hard to convince investors when you are competing with a billion-dollar company, hats off to him for building Bykea and showing great growth numbers while competing with Uber/Careem. Similar appreciation for Ali Moeen, founder of Roamer who is also competing with Uber/Careem.

Who are your role models in tech?

Elon Musk. He’s obviously the number one, given the fact that he has revolutionized payments, transportation and now space travel. His success clearly shows that if you are a firm believer in your idea, you can do wonders. One person can change the entire perspective of looking at things.

Zubair Naeem Paracha
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