Transforming Africa’s long-distance bus sector
We’re all on a journey. Occasionally, we get a shock and realise we need to take a sharp exit off our current route. When Humphrey Wrey’s heart stopped and he was given a second chance at life, he took bold action in pursuit of his ultimate dream to become an environmental social entrepreneur. He speaks to us about his startup in Africa, QuickBus, and his aims for the future.
There can be few people who are able to say they survived heart failure and a resulting $70,000 medical bill in their twenties. Humphrey Wrey was travelling to the Bahamas for a hard-earned holiday when his heart stopped in an American airport. Fortunately, an air marshal took swift action to shock him back to life with a defibrillator.
The experience, Humphrey says, was a wake-up call that he’s glad happened. He explains: “While I was in hospital, I rethought my career and how fulfilling it was and I decided to go off and start up something I’d been considering for a while.
“I thought ‘I could be dead right now. How many years do I have left and how would I want to spend that? What do I really care about?’”
Eventually, Humphrey wants to combine his passion for the environment and his interest in technology to create a startup in the carbon capture space, five or so years in the future. However, he says wryly, “I couldn’t see myself jumping from a background in insurance with an ancient history degree straight into an environmental startup that would require funding in the tens of millions of dollars. If you want to make a real difference you have to raise very significant funds, so I wanted to look for a business model that I could scale very fast and be successful quickly. Firstly, this would help finance the next startup five to seven years down the line, and give me the experience I’d need to operate it. QuickBus achieves both of these goals.
“There wasn’t any ego in it. I went through hundreds of different business plans to find what I thought was the best fit and this business model ticked all the boxes in terms of fastest to scale and least likely to fail.”
The business model Humphrey has chosen will give him valuable experience around starting and scaling a tech startup as well as satisfying social aims and bringing a good return on investment for Humphrey and investors.
With his experience of living and working in Africa for a London-headquartered financial services group, Humphrey travelled to India in pursuit of business models he could bring back to improve people’s lives in Africa.
He explains: “The markets are quite similar but are about 10 years apart. I came across this app called redBus, which is a bit like Skyscanner, but for long-distance buses. So, if you were going to get a bus from Newcastle to London, for a similar journey in India you would go to redBus and there you’d find all the companies offering the route.”
QuickBus allows customers to compare prices, but it’s the reviews that Humphrey thinks are of real value.
He laughingly recalls:“A friend and I a few years prior to this had met in Mozambique and we got a bus 400km up the road. It took 12 hours and they had a sense of humour failure.
"When I used the redBus app in India my mind went straight back to that moment. Imagine if you could know in advance not only the price, but also how good or bad that bus experience was going to be. Because once you’ve bought the ticket and you’re on the bus, you’re not going to change, even if the bus is horrendous. So you’re really at the mercy of the bus company. And this app just gives so much choice to the consumer. I mean the value of knowing whether you’re going to have a very uncomfortable 18 hours or a quite comfortable 18 hours is just huge. That was the genesis of the idea.”
With the business model selected, Humphrey set about securing funding and building his team, which includes people from the UK’s First Bus and executives from redBus.
The combination of Humphrey’s drive, in-market experience and impressive CV has attracted the attention of potential funders like FoundersFactory and the EasyGroup (EasyJet). When we spoke, he was looking forward to a meeting in London to close the company’s first funding round, during which the team has been proving the concept.
The mobile-friendly website is currently live in Angola, Uganda and Kenya, with bus partnerships secured in seven countries. The team is looking to scale up, launching in 16 more countries in the next 18 months.
“We’re working very closely with bus operators. We’ve processed $2,000 worth of tickets in February, $8,000 in March, $11,000 in April and $22,000 in May”, Humphrey says. “We now need the investment for it to scale. We’ve built the car and now we just need to put fuel in the engine.”
It looks like they got their fuel, as he later updated that they have had a number of offers filling up their current investment round.
Humphrey is aiming high for QuickBus in the next five years. “We would like to do a redBus”, he enthuses. “They're now pushing a $1bn (circa £791m) valuation, and we’d like to get there in the next five or so years.”
After that, he says he plans to use his experience as a springboard to pursue his interest in carbon capture.
For now, Humphrey says that while they are doing well on the bus operator side, the company’s biggest challenge is changing consumer habits.
He explains: “It depends on the market, but for example in Kenya, many see the internet as being mainly for news and social media. So the challenge for us is changing habits so that people start to realise you can do all these other things through your phone, like book a bus.”
It’s clearly important to Humphrey that his company has a positive social impact in as many ways as possible. He outlines: “For a start, just giving the consumer a choice means the poor bus companies don’t get away with it anymore because there’s a feedback loop – bad bus companies get bad ratings and fewer bookings on the website; good companies get higher ratings and get more bookings so you’re helping capitalism do its job. People vote with their dollars.”
“A lot of these bus companies want technology, but they’re not sure how to go about it. They often use paper and pen, so we give them the technology for free, set them up and train them. That’s a big bonus to them and obviously their customers as well.
“And it’s a really positive thing for the economy if this market is more formalised and organised, because most people use buses. It’s not planes, cars, trains. Buses are the main mode of long-distance transport for people on business mainly. Then there’s holidays, travel, medical, religious holidays. It’s a really important sector of the economy here to be improving.”
He modestly accepts a compliment that his drive and the deliberate approach he has taken in working towards his goals is impressive in someone still in their twenties.
“You know there’s that whole ‘why’. Anyone can have a huge amount of focus and motivation if they are doing something for reasons they really agree with. If you’re doing it purely to make money, I think it’s quite hard for most people to stick with it,” he says.
Humphrey warms to his theme as he explains that he also doesn’t really drink, which he says makes a big difference to his energy and motivation levels.
“If your diet’s not great, you’re not exercising, not sleeping enough, then your decision-making is going to be what - 10 to 20% worse?”, he asks.
He adds: “If you think about how an annual 5-10% compound interest rate affects money over a decade... now imagine if you’re in a start-up, where all you really have as your currency is your time, energy and the ideas you generate. Those ideas and the energy you use every day means you’re giving 20-30% more every day than the guy next to you because he’s drinking and just living a normal life.
Then in six months, the compound interest is going to build up massively and you’ll come across that one idea that 10X’s everything. You’ll think of that one more investor to approach. You’ll think of little tweaks in the product that you should make and then suddenly the customer really likes your products."
Speaking of money, Humphrey is just as keen to look after this as he is his time. “I stay in a lot of hostel dorms. I have a personal rule where I never spend more than $15 on a bed,” he says.
He laughs as I ask him who else he’s influenced by, recognising themes from Simon Sinek’s Start with Why and Darren Hardy’s The Compound Effect.
“Yeah I read so many of the books! But my favourite is The One Thing by Gary Keller. The whole book is around one question: what is the one thing I can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary? It’s finding that most leveraged action.”
Despite his main piece of advice to others being to try and get a co-founder on board, Humphrey is clearly doing a sterling job as a sole founder and leaves us in no doubt that we’ll see exciting developments from QuickBus and future ventures.