Podcast Transcript – Series One, Episode 18
Sulaiman “Su” Sanni August 2020
Su: [00:00:00] Informal transit is going to be the next frontier.
I definitely have the immigrant story and experience.
I did feel like I would be a fish out of water,
there was only two black males in my graduating class.
the preconceived notions that I had about white people, wealth, gender. Everything got completely smashed.
it was an amazing experience working with a friend as well as somebody that I admired
and then that’s when the acquisition offers started to come in.
this is when I realized that there was actually a solution to this transit desert issue,
over 100 billion trips are taken annually through informal transit systems,
the people in New York City who are taking dollar vans, they can be a part of this journey with us.
Dan: [00:00:42] What’s up Unfound Nation, Dan Kihanya here. Great to have you back for our latest episode. Thanks so much for listening in that was Su Sanni founder and CEO of Dollaride, a mobility company for communities that are underserved by public transit. Su is a former college athlete who grew up in Brooklyn as a first-generation son of [00:01:00] immigrant parents. And dollaride is his third. That’s right. His third startup. It’s a great story.
Our episode is sponsored by VertueLab, a nonprofit fighting climate change by providing funding and entrepreneurial support to cleantech startups. Their annual summit fuel 2020 is going digital this September spanning over two weeks with short events every day.
Fuel 2020 is a great chance to connect with future-focused entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, and more. Use the code FOUNDERSFRIEND for 20% off your ticket. Learn more at 2020fuel.org or find the link in the show notes.
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On with the episode. Stay safe and hope you enjoy.
Hello, and welcome to Founders Unfound, spotlighting, the best startups you don’t know yet. We bring you stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented backgrounds. This is episode number 18 in our series on founders of African descent. I’m your host, Dan Kihanya. Let’s get on it. Today, we have Su Sanni founder and CEO [00:03:00] of Dollaride, a mobility company for communities that are underserved by public transit. Welcome to the show, Su, and thanks for making the time.
Su: [00:03:08] Thank you for having me, Daniel. I’m excited to chat with you today and share more about what I’m working on at Dollaride.
Dan: [00:03:14] Awesome. So I guess, first of all, how are you doing in this era of shelter in place, and with social protests swirling around us everywhere.
How’s your family? How are you doing?
Su: [00:03:25] Fortunately I’m doing well. My family is also doing well. We actually have one person, a cousin of mine who did catch the Coronavirus. He had a really traumatic time in the hospital, so it got pretty serious at one point a couple of months ago. But, you know, fortunately, he survived and he’s, and he’s doing well.
And actually he’s even a back at work. So, um, you know, I have very little to complain about for the most part family, friends, we’re all doing well.
Dan: [00:03:53] Wow. that’s amazing that you know, somebody who went through that extreme, I think that the more this goes [00:04:00] on, the more we’ll all have somebody in our lives who may experience, the seriousness of this.
So let’s just quickly start off with, why don’t you just explain very quickly, what is Dollaride? How does it work?
Su: [00:04:10] Sure. So dollaride is a mobility company for communities that are underserved by public transit. What we do is we provide digital infrastructure to the informal transit industry. So a good way to think about this is, you know, all around the world, especially in the emerging markets.
The predominant way that people travel and commute is not really through a state or a federal provided transportation system. It’s through informal transit, where there are local entrepreneurs who have their own vehicles or maybe renting a vehicle, but they basically provide a fixed route service. In local cities and neighborhoods for the public and they do it for profit.
So now that transportation is becoming more and more of an issue, [00:05:00] you know, because of the inequities that exist because of public transit, rigid infrastructure. Informal transit I think is going to be the next frontier. So dollaride is creating the digital tools and infrastructure. Sure. That makes it easy for these types of informal drivers to pick up more passengers and serve a larger community of riders.
And we also partner with government agencies and other businesses so that they too can access informal transit.
Dan: [00:05:29] I love it. I know that it many, many places around the US and even around the world, there’s just, as you said, sort of this loose informal network of transportation providers, it makes total sense that somebody would come along and make that more efficient and easier for, for riders.
But before we get more into Dollaride, let’s hear a little bit more about you. So you’re in New York, are you from New York?
Su: [00:05:54] I currently live in Bedstuy, Brooklyn, but I’m a New Yorker born and raised [00:06:00] through and through. So I grew up in East New York, Brooklyn. My family currently lives in Jamaica, Queens.
So that’s where my parents live. And I lived there at one point before moving out of the house. And, you know, taking care of my own, deal, but yeah, I’ve been living and working in New York for the majority of my life.
Dan: [00:06:17] It’s a one-of-a-kind place. And, is your family from New York?
Su: [00:06:21] No, not originally, you know, we’re, immigrants to this country.
My family’s from Nigeria and, you know, there’s a huge Nigerian network in New York City, but for the most part, you know, my parents immigrated here in the seventies. Along with several of their friends and some family members and, you know, over the next couple of decades, you know, they created this like or at least joined this huge network of Nigerian families around the New York City area, you know, who all seem to work together and, and help raise each other’s kids.
You know, I definitely have the immigrant story and experience. As grown up in New York, but I was fortunate to be [00:07:00] surrounded by a huge loving network of fellow Nigerians and Nigerian Americans.
Dan: [00:07:06] Yeah. That can be so powerful for sure. And so were your parents entrepreneurs, did you have some inclination to being an entrepreneur when you were young?
was it entering your thought process early? Or how did you think about entrepreneurship?
Su: [00:07:20] Wow. It’s funny because I wish, you know, my parents were more entrepreneurial or that I had stronger examples of entrepreneurship in my immediate household. , in fact, for me, you know, I thought I was going to be a doctor, you know, most of my life until I got into college and was studying premed and I was a biology major.
And then I realized that this is not really for me, you know, I was having more fun in college playing football and doing the whole social thing. Then, uh, I realized that you know what, I’m not cut out to be a doctor because if I really, really wanted to do this, I would sacrifice all these other things.
And I just wasn’t [00:08:00] ready to make the sacrifice. And that’s, that’s how I knew that there’s must be a different path, but you know, entrepreneurship wasn’t in my household directly. So I ultimately got exposed to entrepreneurship and what it’s like to be a business owner through my uncles and through mentors that made a bigger impression on my life once I left college.
So after 22 years old.
Dan: [00:08:22] Interesting. And you know, I know for a lot of. Children of immigrants being a doctor, being a lawyer, you know, sort of taking, taking that safe lucrative path is sort of the way that you sort of get nudged. And, and so how did it feel to grow up in New York?
you’re a person of color. you’re from an immigrant family, you’re part of a community. Was there a lot of conflicting aspects of being part of so many communities and New York is really built for this, but nonetheless, was there challenges in growing up that way?
Su: [00:08:55] Yeah, absolutely. There were challenges, you know, for one, you, you use the [00:09:00] term nudge to describe how sometimes your parents, especially if you live in an immigrant family or, um, if you have immigrant parents. You know how they want to influence your professional career, your decisions, and, you know, a nudge is definitely a light way to put it in my household.
You know, there was only three options, my siblings and I had, and that was either we were going to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. And there was really no other discussions around other professions in a, in a serious way. So, you know, until I got to college, did I really realized that I could be good at other things?
Dan: [00:09:34] Yeah.
Su: [00:09:36] It took me a while to grow in that regard.
Dan: [00:09:38] I know that I saw in your background, you went to the Cate school. And having gone through college with folks who went to those sorts of environments, that feels like that’s a very different place than Brooklyn or Queens. How did, how did that come about and what was that experience like going from New York to a place like [00:10:00] that?
I think it’s in California, right?
Su: [00:10:01] Yeah. So the Cate school is a private high school. It’s a boarding school in Santa Barbara, California, you know, there’s a whole network of very prestigious and expensive boarding schools on the East coast. So for any of the listeners, you know, you might hear these names.
Cause a lot of times, you know, our country’s foremost politicians, business owners, you know, Titans of the industry, they send their kids to these types of schools, high schools. So. You know, I was looking at schools like Choate, Rosemary hall Exeter, Andover, you know, these, these really like old kind of prestigious stodgy boarding schools on the East coast, but none of them really spoke to me.
And I did feel like I would be a fish out of water, but I got the opportunity to learn about the Cate school through a program that I attended New York City called the boys club of New York. And the boys club is basically like the boys and girls club, but it’s focused on New York [00:11:00] city, young men. It’s set up as like an afterschool program where you can get help for homework, but also engage in extra extracurricular activities.
But what the boys club does is they kind of create a pipeline for these young men to get exposed to private schools and the network of schools that they have relationships with. So ultimately, you know, I was, performing well at the boys club and also in my current school, in New York City, almost like an, a student, very active, I played basketball.
I ran track. I was a part of the computer club. I was doing all these different things. So the boys club identified that I had the type of talent and maybe the pedigree to also do well at a private school. And they paved the way for me to check out the Cate school to fly over and visit. And once my family and I saw the school, met some parents talk to the staff.
it was a no brainer for me. It was, it was something that I knew would be transformational. Even at the age of 16, I had the [00:12:00] foresight or like the, maybe even the instinct to feel that taking myself out of my usual environment in Brooklyn and going across the country, living somewhere on my own and learning what it’s like to be amongst different people, would be a positive change, for me, that can benefit me in the future. Fortunately, my parents supported me in making that decision and I was off to the races from there.
Dan: [00:12:23] Wow. It’s one thing to have that instinct and say, Oh, this is a good opportunity. Well, what was the reality though? That must have been a pretty dramatic change.
Did you build yourself up so being open or did you find yourself coming to it with preconceived notions and just expectations that got blown away?
Su: [00:12:43] Oh yeah. I have to say that for me to even make that choice to go to the Cate school, going 3000 miles away to a. Super affluent private school.
I was one of, in fact, there were only two people, two black males in my graduating [00:13:00] class. I went from a school in New York City that had, I think at the time we had 1600 students, whereas the Cate school and then in its entire school had only 260 students. So everything was different inside and out from, you know, schooling to even the environment and the cities that we’re in, but. I think at the end of the day, there must have been things that had gone on in my life and experiences that I had that made me open and open to change and really welcoming of challenges. You know, I have to attribute that to just my family and my parents.
And then some of the things that they put us through, like going away to sleep away camp and going to playing on a traveling basketball team and a traveling football team. I got to see how being exposed, to the broader world was constructive. So I relish the opportunity to go to the Cate school. To speak more to your point. It was definitely life-changing and the preconceived notions that I had about white people, wealth, gender. [00:14:00] Everything got completely smashed. You know, when I was living on my own and at this school, you know, I can remember literally within the first week of school, there was a time where we were walking around Santa Barbara, you know, which is a very affluent city.
But in Santa Barbara, like in the downtown area, it has a super high rate of homelessness. I just remember thinking. Oh, wow. although Santa Barbara is a rich place, there are people who are also financially struggling and they’re struggling in the same way that I’ve seen people struggle in New York City where, you know, you see homelessness right out in the open everywhere.
You know, there were things that I think were new to me, when I went to the Cate school. But I think I certainly became a better person because of that, that whole experience.
Dan: [00:14:45] Yeah. I think you used the word transformative, which is pretty clear from the way you’re describing it, then why don’t you mend this opportunity in a catalyst for the future for your life? So you go to college and I think you went to Boston College. Is that right?
Su: [00:14:58] Yep. That’s correct.
[00:15:00] Dan: [00:14:59] And what did you study there?
Su: [00:15:01] Like many college students I bounced around between majors for a few years. I eventually graduated with two degrees, so I’m a, bachelor’s in psychology and then a master’s in business management.
Dan: [00:15:14] That’s all right. That’s a good combination. Um, and so where did that take you? Where did you do out of school?
Su: [00:15:19] well, first and foremost, I was, I was also playing football at Boston college
Dan: [00:15:24] which is no small school for football.
Su: [00:15:26] Yeah,
Dan: [00:15:27] that’s legit
Su: [00:15:28] to say the least, the people, the people of Boston, they take sports very seriously.
And, um, when I was in school, this is, you can say the early 2000s, Boston College was a really big deal. You know, we were nationally ranked. We were on a streak of going to bowl games every year. So, you know, it was like being a little bit of a mini-celebrity on campus. And even around Boston, when I was, when I was playing football, then, so that definitely shaped my college experience, and it also opened up a ton of different [00:16:00] doors for opportunities outside of school. For the first, maybe two, three years. I did have this dream of playing in the NFL, but once it became clear to me that that wasn’t going to be my path, I completely focused on getting a job and establishing myself in the working world.
So I started taking internships during the last couple of years of school, even while playing football. And I ultimately met a couple of people. One guy was an alum and also a former football player at BC. He was an entrepreneur. He had successfully founded companies, sold companies. He’d been on boards of a few others.
He literally like took me under his wing and became a mentor to me because we had similar backgrounds and stories. He also grew up in Queens. We, we funny enough. We played football for the same little league team. basically we had a lot of connections, so I think he just had a liking to me and, he just [00:17:00] exposed me to this whole world of entrepreneurship and venture in startups. That’s really where my mind started to change what I wanted to do. But the first job that I got outside of school was working at an investment bank and that was so kind of like supported and set up through my mentor.
And some people at the boys club of New York, they had trustees and board members who were also partners at this investment bank. Once I was able to get my foot in the door through an interview. You know, I took it from there and was able to get a job in finance for the first couple of years out of college.
So that’s what led me right out of Boston college into the working world.
Dan: [00:17:36] nice. It’s I’m hearing a lot of common themes of, kind of the serendipity of, places and organizations and people that are sort of teeing you up to, guide your journey. So that’s a great story.
Su: [00:17:48] Well, you know, can I add something real quick?
Serendipity has a, has a connotation to it that reflects a little bit of luck. And I think that is definitely true to a certain degree, but I do want to give [00:18:00] agency to our ability as human beings and especially people who are in the entrepreneurial world, I need to speak to the importance of making good decisions that have outsized returns and impacts on your life.
Because, you know, at some point during these different junctures in my life, I did need to decide to, go to the boys club and take these exams and things that they were putting me through seriously, because I valued what was on the other end of the rainbow, you know, or other end of this journey.
And similarly, with deciding which school to go to, what first job you take, who you engage with as a partner you know, these things become platforms for the next stage of your life. And I recognized early on when I was young. I’m not sure exactly how or why, but I recognize that whenever I reached these different crossroads, that seems like either an opportunity or potentially a mistake, I really honed in and focused on this type of decision and whether it would change my life [00:19:00] for the better. If you do believe in the agency that we do have through our own decision making you can give some credence to serendipity or luck, but you can also take some solace in knowing that you can control the types of people you’re around and the opportunities that are around you.
If you make good decisions with the opportunities that are in front of you.
Dan: [00:19:17] Absolutely. No, I love it. there was definitely agency. And a lot of people talk about luck is really opportunity plus preparedness. We’re going to take a short break to hear from our sponsor and be right back with Su Sanni from Dollaride.
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Dan: [00:20:31] So we’re back with Su Sanni from Dollaride. So Su, tell us about your first entrepreneurial experience. This is not your first go around with startups.
Su: [00:20:40] No, it’s not. Dollaride is my third venture. The first one was my foray into the music and entertainment space. And I always tell people that.
There was so much that I learned from just making mistakes during this business, but it was indeed the most fun time I had in my life, starting a [00:21:00] company and doing it with friends and it definitely helped shape, you know, the way I perceive the business world and the types of things that I want to work on going forward.
I think this was what, early 2008, 2009, a couple of friends of mine. And I, we had the bright idea of creating a production company and in a recording studio, like all merged into one. So sort of like a one-stop-shop, creative space in Harlem, New York, where local artists, musicians, entertainers. Anyone who really needs to create media in order to showcase their talent. One of my partners was an audio engineer, a music producer, and an artist himself.
So he was very creative, but he was also highly technical. And then the other partner was a web developer and a music producer himself. You know, as the three-headed monster, I brought more of like the business acumen and the time and resources, just to also try to get deals and contracts. I [00:22:00] brought that to the table, but essentially we were just, you know, three young guys, fresh out of college, trying to create a business for the first time for ourselves, but also just inspired and enamored by music and entertainment and hip hop, especially.
Dan: [00:22:15] Yeah, that sounds cool. Although, 2008, 2009 was a, a little bit of a challenging time thinking about starting a company. Did that influence the trajectory for that first project?
Su: [00:22:26] Yeah, it certainly did. You know, we probably didn’t pick the best time to start a business, especially a services-based business that, but we, you know, we ultimately.
Spend about two and a half years close to three years operating the company. And I think beyond like the macroeconomic things that were happening, you know, in the world and with the economy, really our issue is that we didn’t know how to make real money in the music industry. So, you know, we had a recording studio.
And we were able to successfully rent out the studio, sell [00:23:00] packages or, our services to artists and their managers, you know, and that, brought in some revenue, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the business longterm and to actually get us to grow, to hire more people so that we can do more things in the very, very, like late.
I’d say a late third of our time in the company, we did eventually figure out that, you know, we can get music placed in films and in stadiums. And in other venues in that licensing play is a little bit more lucrative. we also were able to get into, get our artists and commercials, and operate a little bit as like a agent for them.
But, ultimately it was too little too late. We just had to close things down. it’s a learning experience.
Dan: [00:23:41] Learning is good. It can be expensive, but it’s where the growth happens. how do you, you move from the music industry into, WeDidIt, which is decidedly, not in the music industry.
Su: [00:23:52] There was a stepping stone to, WeDidIt, but you know, one that cannot be understated. so once we knew that we [00:24:00] were going to close down the studio, you know, I immediately started looking for a job.
And, but this time I was very, very intentional about where I wanted to work. Again. I had the fortune to be surrounded by a couple of mentors who were all telling me that, I should look at tech and software as you know, something to get into and to become entrepreneurial as soon as I possibly can.
But, you know, I didn’t have the confidence to start a tech company at that time. You know, I didn’t know. anything about it building a software program or running that type of business. So I was encouraged to go work at a tech company and specifically to go work in sales From that position as a salesperson, you’ll have a responsibility like a business owner would, for responsibility over bringing in income and understanding the basics of a P and L profit and loss statement. And especially if you can grow the ranks as a manager, you’ll really be managing that aspect of the business for your team or for your office.
That’s what I did. You know, I, I found a company called the Meltwater [00:25:00] group. Which is still around today. They’re actually a global leader in media monitoring software. I joined the Meltwater group as a salesperson.
I eventually also worked as an account manager and nearly the entire time I was there, I was only there for two years. I was also working on my next business venture. And that, became, WeDidIt. I definitely learned a ton from selling software and working at a tech company that had a thousand people at the time, I think 10,000 or 20,000 customers all around the world that gave me a real intimate view into the world of technology and the power that it can bring.
Dan: [00:25:38] So tell us, what is WeDidIt and what did it do and where did it go? How did it happen?
Su: [00:25:43] Well, first and foremost, when I was at Meltwater, I, as a salesperson, had a knack for bringing on nonprofit clients. I just was able, to sell effectively into that space.
And that gave me a lot of exposure in to the challenges that nonprofits face and the number [00:26:00] one most common issue that my clients would talk about was raising money. You know, essentially how difficult it is, but more importantly, especially at that time, this is like 2010, 2011, how difficult it was to raise money online.
So the insight that I had was that there’s a growing number of nonprofits that want to raise the money through the internet, but they don’t know how they don’t have the resources or the skills or the experience around them within their own organizations to execute on this stuff. So maybe I can create a business around doing that, helping them raise money online.
fortunately, I had a sales manager at the Meltwater group who was super entrepreneurial, extraordinarily charismatic, and talented person. And he was looking for an opportunity and. We were also good friends and we decided to leave the Meltwater Egroup together to build, WeDidIt.
It was an amazing experience working with a friend as well as somebody that I admired and really looked up to. Ultimately we [00:27:00] built the company as a software business and we ended up selling the software to nonprofits. And the result of that was definitely eight years of, blood, sweat, and tears.
But we got to a point where we had about 2000 nonprofit clients. After eight years, we were helping all of those customers raise $60 million online every year. wow. Yeah. Humble beginnings, you know, cause we started out literally in our apartments in Brooklyn. My co-founder and I, we moved in together in a small apartment in Bushwick. And, you know, we ate ramen noodles for like two years, figured out how to cobble together a team and build software and sell it. But after a few years, we got to an inflection point where it was clear that the business was working and I were making money.
And then that’s when the acquisition offers started to come in.
Dan: [00:27:49] What was that inflection point? Can you tell us more about that? I mean, was there, an event or you just saw everything started coming together? I mean, what was that inflection point where you were like, yeah, this is, really running [00:28:00] now.
Su: [00:28:00] well the inflection point was, it’s exemplified by this adage that I’ve heard a few times. I’m not sure who coined it, but there’s riches in the niches. And we literally found like a subsector, like a niche within the nonprofit industry that was incredibly lucrative for, WeDidIt. So this is like in 2017.
So about six years into the business, we got an investment from an organization in Buffalo called 43 North. And they run a state-sponsored program where they invite entrepreneurs to move up to Buffalo for at least a year and they help you accelerate your business. And during that year, they help us identify and hone in on this very small sub-sector of our nonprofit industry called fiscal sponsors.
You know, when we, when we focused on those types of organizations, We found that they bought our products a ton and, uh, you know, we were able to grow really, really quickly from bringing on those types of [00:29:00] clients. So, but it, took us six years to get to that point. Right. So we have to like stumble around a bit before we found the right niche within our industry that helped us really explode.
Dan: [00:29:09] Yeah. That’s, you know, the classic overnight success story that takes years. I mean, it sounds like it was an amazing experience. And so as you mentioned, the company ended up being acquired.
Su: [00:29:19] Yup. That’s correct. Yeah, that was my, my first acquisition. And it was an amazing experience in and of itself.
But indeed, after eight years, we actually reached a crossroads where my cofounders and I were wondering like, well, what do we do with this business? Cause it’s, it’s still growing. It’s growing fast, but it wasn’t what we considered a home-run type of venture. So, you know, we were at a point where we’re thinking, all right, can we sell this business or, or do we liquidate it and try to give our investors their money back?
So we’re kind of like playing around with all these different ideas. And this was at December 20, I think, December of 2018. So we go from having a conversation that [00:30:00] included options, like getting out of the business, even though we’re doing pretty well. To three weeks later having a term sheet, in fact, two-term sheets on the table.
So it was like a complete, like 180 turn of events that happened. And that’s when things got a lot more serious than we got really excited about, you know, going through this next stage of the company where it can be acquired and become part of a much larger business. And the product can still live on.
Dan: [00:30:26] Were you out looking and talking to people or that’s a pretty quick transformation of events? how did you go in three weeks from sort of this? where do we go from here to, wow? There’s a bunch of people interested in making us a part of them.
Su: [00:30:39] Yeah. Yeah. This is interesting too, long story short for about a year earlier.
I did start conversations with several potential acquirers, including private equity firms and for the founders who are listening, you know, you might actually get these cold emails that I think I was getting them very early on. And I talked to other friends of mine who were [00:31:00] founders and they get these things too.
But like private equity firms, the corporate venture arms of big companies that are acquisitive, they’ll often fish for deals. And what they do is they just basically send out a bunch of cold emails to various companies that are on their radar. So for a long time, I would just ignore these emails. Cause I just thought like there’s no way we’re able to sell our company.
We didn’t have, we didn’t have the interest in selling it at the time. But eventually these, some of these folks were really persistent. So I got on a phone call with one and then I realized that, okay, you know what, they’re what they’re trying to present. It’s pretty compelling, you know, they ultimately are following our company, they’re following our progress.
And they do think that maybe at some point in the future, that could be a way where we could partner or where they could acquire us. but those conversations and that, the potential outcome is still seemed really distant to me. So I didn’t put a lot of stock into it, but I would say though, from start to finish.
It was about a year-long process of talking to one particular private equity firm [00:32:00] and consistently sharing updates around the business and our traction with them for, you know, four to five quarters in a row. And ultimately once they saw that we continued to grow and our business was doing well, they were the first ones to present an opportunity to join forces, joined forces with one of their portfolio companies.
Dan: [00:32:20] That makes a lot of sense.
Su: [00:32:21] And then once I got that one term sheet, we had a little bit of time to shop it around, and then we got another term sheet from another potential acquire. So there was a little bit of a snowball effect after you get that first opportunity.
Dan: [00:32:34] Yeah. It’s amazing how that can happen. So congratulations on that. That’s a wonderful outcome. And it sounds like it was a great experience. Are there things from your first entrepreneurial experiences that are sort of the major lessons or takeaways that you said, okay, if I do this again, either I’m going to do it that way again, or I’m definitely not going to do that again.
Or. Help us understand sort of what that means to be sort of the learning. Cause you had [00:33:00] one outcome that you had the sunset and then one where you had an acquisition. So keeping a scorecard, I guess you could, you’ve got learning and both sides.
Su: [00:33:07] Absolutely. You know, some of this stuff we might even be seen as conventional wisdom, but I do have. Some things that I think are a little more unique first and foremost, which I’m sure people have heard before choosing the right co-founders yeah. And business partners early on sets the stage for your trajectory.
I learned through the recording studio, you know, that company was called All Smiles, you know, your business partners mean a lot and you have to choose wisely. Although I’m still friends with those guys, you know, we didn’t have the best relationship even while working. And that, reared, its ugly head as times got tough.
And then, you know, conversely with WeDidIt, you know, I was super fortunate to have two co-founders. Who stayed with the business the entire way and were supportive of what we were doing the entire time through the good times and the bad. So that made me like desperate for a strong cofounder and the [00:34:00] type of relationship that I thought would be constructive for a long time.
And then the second learning that I think was super helpful is that it’s way easier to build a business around a true market need. So, you don’t want to really be involved in things that are nice to have. You want to do stuff that, people really need things that they can’t live without.
And, you know, if you kind of look at the trajectory of businesses that I’ve been a part of. I’m trying to get closer and closer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and like, you know, really doing stuff that makes a tremendous impact on people’s lives. So, you know, entertainment is somewhere on that spectrum.
That’s where I was at the first company. But you know, now I’ve gotten down to the Dollaride where based off of my experience before that with the other two companies.
Dan: [00:34:44] Great wisdom. And that’s, that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day is what can we take from our experience and bring it forward.
We will take another short break to hear from our sponsor and be right back with Su Sanni from Dollaride.
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Dan: [00:35:57] So we’re back with Su Sanni from Dollaride. So [00:36:00] Su, we were having a great conversation and now let’s hop into Dollaride let’s hear about where did the idea comes from? what’s the origin story behind Dollaride?
Su: [00:36:10] Sure. Dollaride came from a combination of experiences that I had in my life that confirmed that I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to solving a transportation-related issue.
When I lived in East New York, Brooklyn because where I grew up, as early as seven years old, I remember having to walk 25, 30 minutes to the nearest subway. And it was kind of strange at the time, even at seven years old that my commute was so challenging. Like I had to start out with a half an hour walk, even though we lived in the greatest city in the world with the greatest public transportation, I and my sisters were walking to school or going to school.
And that began with a walk just to get to the subway. You know, moreover, once we were in the subway system, it still took us another hour to get to school. So, um, I just hated my commute at a young [00:37:00] age. , I lived in a neighborhood that was also relatively rough. So, you know, it didn’t feel safe walking to school at seven in the morning when it’s still dark and cold out, you know?
And you live in East New York, Brooklyn in the early nineties. that really shaped the way I thought about transportation access and its impact on families and people in their daily lives. But when I became an adult and was more entrepreneurial, this is when I realized that there was actually a solution to this transit desert issue, which is what I experienced when I was a kid.
A transit desert is basically a place where people live yet. They have incredibly poor access to public transportation. And that inaccessibility could be a result of them being too poor to afford their own car or the public transit system in their area just doesn’t reach where they need to go. Or, maybe even the bus service in their local area doesn’t come frequently enough for them to rely on it.
So this cadre [00:38:00] of issues are all reflected in this concept of a transit desert. I realized that in New York city, we have this ecosystem of dollar vans that, operate in the outer boroughs and, and predominantly they solve a problem for people who live in the transit deserts in these areas.
One of my, in fact, two of my uncles, were dollar van drivers back in the eighties. And you know, at the time when I was like hanging out with my cousins and around my uncles, I remember always seeing that they had like, Wads of dollar bills on them.
And I’m like, uncle, I know you’re not a stripper
kind of putting these things together as a young kid, you know, but at one point I eventually, I realized that what they informed me of like the job that they really do and, you know, they went from being single drivers, operating their own vehicle. To eventually having a fleet of vehicles and drivers who work for them.
So this started [00:39:00] shaping my ideology around dollar van business and its, usefulness as an economic engine. So I got to a point where my uncles, where I partnered with them to do a research project where through that project I learned about the dollar van industry. What their customers wanted, the transit issues that people are facing, and why they choose dollar vans as a resource.
And that research helped me decide that I want to go into this business and then I can actually make it better using my skills as a technologist and as an entrepreneur.
Dan: [00:39:32] Makes a lot of sense. and I have experienced that myself, shout out to my mom. My mom, I’m actually advocated in Boston back in, I think it was the eighties or nineties for a bus route, from the big shopping centers into neighborhoods.
So people could, you know, go get their groceries and stuff. And I remember her lobbying with local politicians and government officials and the city council just to get this one bus route. so I’m pretty familiar with this [00:40:00] concept of the transit desert. So dollar it’s been around for a long time. Are they, in other cities?
Su: [00:40:07] Yeah, they’ve been around for nearly 40 years in New York City. And you can find dollar vans and your cities all around the US but especially in the emerging market, but in America, you find dollar vans in Miami where they’re called jitneys, they’re also in Jersey City.
So right across the bridge from us here in New York, but there’s dollar vans and also hat cabs, which are kind of like. The cousins to a dollar man, but you, you find these things in the major cities all around the country, Chicago, Houston, LA, and Atlanta. In fact, even San Juan, Puerto Rico has what we would call dollar van.
They call them Publicos, but they operate the same way. And it’s the same type of ecosystem of entrepreneurs or contractors who have their own vehicles and they are performing a public benefit service of transportation for their local community.
[00:41:00] Dan: [00:40:59] Yeah, my, father’s from Kenya and then Kenya, they have something called matatus, which Sounds very similar. They sort of roam around the city and pick up people and sort of getting them from point a to point B. and I imagine there are many places around the world that have similar ecosystems, as you say.
Su: [00:41:17] over 100 billion trips are taken annually through informal transit systems like these, like matatus, dollar vans, jitneys. TRO trows tat taps. Yeah, I can go on and on, but like every culture and ethnicity has their form of dollar vans. Tel-Aviv they’re called sharuks, but they all work the same way on a fixed route system. They’re not backed by the government. , they are just entrepreneurs who are investing their resources into transporting people in their local communities, super fascinating, and definitely a huge underground industry.
Dan: [00:41:57] And so where did you see the opportunity to come in [00:42:00] and use technology, to solve a problem or to improve things with these kinds of ecosystems?
Su: [00:42:04] So there’s is something that I do now more often. And I think as I continue. Building businesses in my, in my career, always try to get to the people, get close to the people as possible.
And what I mean by that is literally going out yeah. Talking to your customers and living their lives in their shoes as best you can because it’s then where you’ll experience the problems that they face and you’ll experience it. So intimately that the solutions might be even more obvious. I did this with dollar van drivers where.
After interviewing about 60 drivers, riding around with them for days and days on end, you know, doing like really intense research and creating relationships. I learned unequivocally that the one thing that dollar van drivers want to do is grow their businesses, and they oftentimes think about growing their businesses as expanding to new markets.
Right. So. In New York City, specifically, [00:43:00] there’s an oversaturation of drivers on particular routes. So the opportunity for a driver to make more money in his eyes would be to go to a new neighborhood where there’s a fresh route and therefore little competition on that route. So, what we saw as an opportunity at Dollaride was us using our skills as marketers and engineers to create new routes and build up the demand on that route before we deploy drivers to those locations.
that’s really what got us started in terms of providing value to the ecosystem that, you know, made drivers want to work with us.
Dan: [00:43:35] That makes a lot of sense. And, you know, it’s almost like the Uberization of this, dollar van ecosystem, right? Where there’s this efficiency, and synchronicity that you can achieve between demand and supply and maximize capacity and all that stuff.
Actually, I think it’s. Brilliant idea. And because it is so, as you said, like loose networks and, you know, [00:44:00] I’m sure there’s some regulations around being a dollar van driver, but nonetheless, it’s not like there’s a central dispatch, right?
Su: [00:44:06] Correct. Yeah. And this is, these are some people might see these as barriers, challenges, but.
You’re a glass half full person. You look at this as opportunities, definitely, with dollar vans, matatus, and other informal transit it’s incredibly fragmented. So while that seems like controlled chaos at best, it also is an opportunity to create organization and transparency. And that’s where we’ve been able to get you know, a lot of traction and create new transactions because we’re the only company doing this style of work. And then we also play a really important part in helping the regulators understand why people are choosing this mode of transportation and where the gaps are in our current public transit infrastructure.
I saw these systemic issues and the dollar van industry has just opportunities to do things better. [00:45:00] And I think we’re getting rewarded with being a bit courageous here, so there are a lot of things that still have not yet been completely solidified with how informal transit works and how it can be an integral part of our transit system.
You know, we’ve just started. I think there’s going to be a lot more good to be done going forward.
Dan: [00:45:18] Nice, and so have you raised any money for this at this point?
Su: [00:45:22] I’ve raised a little bit of money, it’s a great business to be in where, you know, your clients or your customers can truly fund your growth.
So, you know, I am lucky in that. With Dollaride’s business model. We do work with a lot of corporate clients and local government agencies and the contract sizes of those opportunities. They start out in the six figures, so that’s been helpful for us growing. Nice. , yeah. Raising capital to date, we’ve raised 350 K in total, and I actually currently have an equity crowdfunding campaign going on right now on Republic, where non-accredited investors, basically [00:46:00] anybody with at least a hundred dollars and, you know, the vision and the interest to join the movement that Dollaride is pushing can become an investor and join the journey.
Dan: [00:46:10] I love it. And, you’re my second interview with somebody from the equity crowdfunding space. What made you decide to pursue that? Was it giving access to non-accredited or the different experience? Cause you probably raised money before with some of your other ventures.
Su: [00:46:27] I only raised money for, WeDidIt, but I had an experience through that exit that made me really, really open and bullish on equity crowdfunding.
When I say sold, WeDidIt. I remember having a conversation with some of my friends, how many members and, you know, one, because they don’t know much about tech startups and the world of investing and things like that. You know, a lot of them are working in healthcare and then, you know, they’re engineers, but they’re not entrepreneurs.
So they didn’t know what the outcome could be when I was starting the business out [00:47:00] in my apartment, in Bushwick, back in 2011. But, you know, once I sold the company, you know, and all this money came in and they’re seeing the press releases and they’re starting to understand what all this work was for.
I had a conversation with some of my family members and they all kind of explain how they wish they knew what this was all about earlier than they wish they had the opportunity to invest because they know me personally. Right. And they, they trust me and they love me. So of course they would support.
And that was, that was warming to hear. But at the same time, I recognize that even if they wanted to. I probably couldn’t even have accepted them as investors because they weren’t accredited. And when I did raise money for, WeDidiIt, you know, our minimum check size is $25,000. Right?
So, you know, this was out of reach for my family members and close friends, even if, even though they wanted to support me when I became aware of Republic, and other platforms like them, that allows non-accredited investors to invest as little as a hundred dollars in startups. That’s to me, there was like a [00:48:00] light bulb moment that, you know, here’s my opportunity to do this the right way.
And more importantly, do it in a way where the local cool community. So, drivers, you know pedestrians or potential passengers, the people in New York City who are taking dollar vans, they can invest in Dollaride and also be a part of this journey with us. As a, as a shareholder, that’s the reason why I wanted to raise some money on Republic and provide this opportunity to, you know, non-traditional tech investors.
Dan: [00:48:28] I love it. Yeah. I think it’s really gonna be an evolution or maybe a revolution in, fundraising between the way that people are setting up funds now, and this idea that non-accredited investors can participate in these opportunities. So that’s awesome. So where, does Dollaride go from here? What’s your big vision for dollar ride at this point?
Su: [00:48:48] Well, our vision is to create an infrastructure that allows informal transit to be part of the fabric of public transportation in any [00:49:00] city. You know, right now, informal transit is still very much. Disconnected. And in some cities, it’s, demonized in a lot of ways, but because it’s such a strong resource for the people who really, really need it.
And the cost of extending our subway systems or adding more buses and bus routes, creating a gondola like these types of capital intensive. Investments that, you know, are only put on by the state or really the federal government, you know, they’re too expensive. They take too long and people need solutions now.
So, you know, my vision is to make dollaride the catalyst and like the glue that allows our public transit infrastructure to be a lot more flexible and malleable through its partnership with dollar vans and the light. So we’re starting out in New York City over the next three years. You’ll see that there’ll be probably three times as many dollar van routes.
And our aim is to grow the ridership from 120,000 [00:50:00] daily riders, which is what it is today to 600,000 daily riders represents the total number of people who live in transit deserts in New York City. But from there, we’re going to go to every city that has dollar vans already. And then from there every city that has a transit desert, which includes 52 cities.
So, you know, my vision for dollar ride is definitely expansive, but you know, the problem that we’re trying to solve it’s really, really prevalent in every city that I’m talking about. So I think it’s just a matter of time before we’re in a city near you.
Dan: [00:50:31] Awesome. Well, this has been a tremendously incredible conversation, so thanks so much. But before we go, why don’t you, tell folks, how can they find out more about crowdfunding, how to access you or your company via social, the media. How would you like people to follow up with you if they’re interested in learning more?
Su: [00:50:47] Easiest way to get in touch with us and to check out what we’re doing is to go to our website, which is dollaride.com.
And dollaride is spelled D O L L A R I D [00:51:00] E.com. You can learn more about the business there. You can download the apps and more importantly, you can check out the links to our crowdfunding campaign on Republic. Similarly, if you want to reach us through social, we’re @dollaride on Twitter, on Instagram. And, uh, we’re also, dollaride on Facebook, so we’re not hard to find at all.
Dan: [00:51:22] And that’s a nice clean URL and brand, which is always great. Well, thanks so much. So this has been a great conversation. We really appreciate you taking the time.
Su: [00:51:30] Daniel. Thank you so much for having me. Hopefully, I can see you do well with, with business and I can be back again for another story and another conversation
Dan: [00:51:38] Yeah. Let’s count on that.
Su: [00:51:40] Excellent . Thank you for your time, Daniel.
Dan: [00:51:42] We’d like to thank our guests, Su Sanni and our sponsor VertueLab. Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts or simply go to foundersunfound.com/listento. that’s listen, T O and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @foundersunfound.
This podcast was produced [00:52:00] by Dan Kihanya.
Editing and production by Internet Radio Corporation.
Social media, and other promotion by Omama Marzuq.
Our music was arranged and composed by Michael Kihanya.
I am Dan Kihanya and you’ve been listening to Founders Unfound.
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