Interview Joshua Sear
Describe your company values and mission:
“Mission: Empower is on a mission to transform the ‘Gig Economy’ so that hard-working Americans can earn a sustainable living. To do that, Empower has built innovative software that allows drivers to set their own rates and get 100% of the fare. Empower’s software also provides riders with greater choice, enabling them to request a favorite or same-gender driver.
Values: Integrity, drive, communication, team player, results.”
How are you funded? I.e. type of funding, number of funding rounds, total funding amount.
“We are funded mostly by HNW and UHNW individuals. We have raised a little over $10m. Our investors include some very senior former industry executives.”
How big is your team? Tell us a little about them (I.e. co-founders, freelancers, etc.)
“20+ full-time. We have been pretty successful in recruiting knowledgeable, hardworking people with backgrounds and expertise in the industry.”
How did you come up with and validate your startup idea? Tell us the story!
“We created Empower to provide drivers with the software, services, and support that they need to build, run and grow their own businesses. A lot of people don't realize that while many Uber and Lyft drivers are driving part-time, the majority of all rides are provided by full-time and near full-time professional drivers. These folks are some of the hardest-working people on the planet. Many are recent immigrants who are working 12-hour days, seven days per week, to support their families and ensure that their kids have the opportunities that they never had. The problem, however, is that most of these folks are getting absolutely hammered financially and feel completely voiceless.
I want to be clear that I don't believe that this is what Uber or Lyft intended. But, in their race to grow as quickly as possible and decentralize the taxi industry, they ended up creating a duopoly that controls transportation as much, if not more, than the taxi industry they set out to disrupt. And unfortunately, their business model is hurting drivers. It's also unsustainable. Drivers have known this for a long time, and riders are also now realizing it, as they experience both higher prices and longer wait times. We founded Empower to change all this.
I used to use Uber and Lyft a lot and after speaking with hundreds of drivers and hearing how they felt unheard, I realized that if we could flip Uber and Lyft's business model on its head and make the driver our customer and the rider the driver's customer, we would have a software services company that could be better for everyone. And that's what we've done. By enabling drivers to set their own rates, get 100% of the fare and compete with Uber and Lyft, drivers make more and are treated like the valued customers they are. At the same time, riders save more and feel better knowing that drivers are getting 100% of the fare. We're super excited about what we're building and truly believe that TOGETHER WE CAN EMPOWER!”
How did you come up with your startup's name? Did you have other names you considered?
“I wanted the name to speak to our ultimate goals: empowering individuals to build and run their own businesses and also empowering consumers by providing them with more options.”
Did you always want to start your own business? What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
“I always wanted to build and grow something and be part of a team while doing it. I really enjoy working closely with smart, passionate people.”
Did you encounter any roadblocks when launching your startup? If so, what were they and what did you do to solve them?
“We launched our first market in Winston-Salem just about 10 days before COVID-19 shut down the country. There have been additional resurgences of COVID, which have also been challenging, but we have continued to grow.”
Who is your target market? How did you establish the right market for your startup?
“Full-time and near full-time Uber and Lyft drivers. We are expanding our product offering to appeal to more part-time drivers as well.”
What's your marketing strategy?
- “We incentivize referrals with special offers. Riders get ride credit for referring other riders and drivers. Drivers get discounted subscriptions for referring drivers and riders.
- We also focus on in-person sales to drivers. These drivers have been burned by Uber and Lyft so it is important that they know that they are our customers, and providing them with great service is a priority at Empower.”
How did you acquire your first 100 customers?
“Our first 100 customers were acquired in the Piedmont Triad area. I went down to the airport and just spoke with drivers. We ended up signing up most of the first 100 drivers at the airport, and we still sign up a lot of drivers in person that way.”
What are the key customer metrics / unit economics / KPIs you pay attention to to monitor the health of your business?
“Empower is growing fast, and there is a lot of data we look at with respect to driver and rider acquisition, engagement, and retention.”
What is a song or artist that you listen to for motivation?
“The team will tell you that to get pumped up, I currently listen to music from the Rocky soundtrack and also Van Halen.”
Is there a tool, app, or resource that you swear by to help run your startup?
What is something that surprised you about entrepreneurship?
“The more successful you are, the more doubt people will have. Really what happens is that the more “real'' your success becomes, the more people fear it falling apart.”
How do you achieve work/life balance as a founder?
“You don't. If you are looking for a work/life balance, do not start a high-growth company. That said, I make certain that I am home for bedtime with my kids every night, and I usually see them before they go to school in the morning. I also work out a couple of times per week, and I have dinner with my wife just about every night.”
What is a strategy you use to stay productive and focused?
“I keep a to-do list, and I also have a Chief of Staff who helps me stay organized and who I can delegate certain things to. Regardless, it is hard to prioritize because there are a ton of things to do. I think part of the job of a founder of a startup is being able to wear a lot of different hats and put out a lot of fires. More often than not, you need to be adaptable and reactive and just always ensure that you are continuing to move the company forward in the strategic direction you have laid out. I think it is also important to take a step back every month or so and ask yourself, ‘what are the two or three things that I need to get done to get the company to the next stage?’. Then, go do those things.”
Did you have to develop any habits that helped lead you to success? If so, what are they?
“This is not really a habit, but something that's helped me is having an open and inquisitive mind.”
What was your first job and what did it teach you?
“I guess this depends on how far back you want to go. In college, I was a Dockmaster at the beach over the summer. That job taught me the importance of being on time and accountable. My first full-time job after college did not go very well. I was at a mid-sized, public company, and it felt like I was just about the only person under 30. I felt like, at the time, my boss wasn't helpful, but in truth, I failed to manage that relationship and recognize that she had her own stuff she needed to get done. At the end of the day, you learn something in every job, and you make mistakes. The hope is that you don't repeat those mistakes, and instead repeat and build on what works.”
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