Israeli founder of Moovit app sees himself as the ‘Marco Polo of transit’
Interview'Startups do not die from hunger, they die from overeating'

Israeli founder of Moovit app sees himself as the ‘Marco Polo of transit’

Nir Erez preaches the virtues of having a strict focus; for his crowdsourced public transportation app, it meant racking up many millions of users and only then monetizing his data

Moovit co-founder and CEO Nir Erez, May 10, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)
Moovit co-founder and CEO Nir Erez, May 10, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Nir Erez, the CEO of the Israeli public transportation startup Moovit, sees himself as the first person to map the world of public transportation, or as he puts it, the “Marco Polo of transit.”

Marco Polo was a 13th century Italian explorer who recorded his epic journey through China and other Asian countries.

Moovit is the first free, crowdsourced application to provide real-time information about public transportation schedules, thus helping users find the quickest way to their destination. It was developed by the firm Erez founded in Tel Aviv in February 2012 together with Roy Bick and Yaron Evron. The app is used by 150 million travelers in 2,200 cities and 80 countries in 44 languages, and is downloaded by an average of over a million new users daily.

“I never really dreamed we were going to reach that kind of growth and number of users,” Erez said in an interview with The Times of Israel on the sidelines of Intel Capital’s Global Summit in Palm Desert, California, earlier this month.

Screenshot of a Chinese version of the Moovit app (Courtesy)

“We just went out to the sea with a surfboard and all of a sudden we find ourselves on a 15-meter wave,” said Erez with a laugh. Under those conditions, he said, “you’d better surf well.”

The company and its early investors dreamed about reaching 20 million users, he said. “This is 10 times more than that, and I allow myself to dream much bigger than that.”

Indeed, he said, the company is aiming to cross the billion-user mark by 2021, and its vision is to “try and touch every urban ride in the future,” which it sees as 6-10 billion rides a day.

To do this, the company is seeking to expand its workforce in Israel and globally, and is starting to cash in on the data it collects on the transit patterns of its users.

“We do intend to grow the number of employees in the company significantly in the next year or two – mainly in Israel,” he said. “We might even double our size in the next 2-3 years.” The company currently employs just over 100 workers.

Until now Moovit was focused on growth – getting more users and covering more cities. Now, he said, the time has come to start making money through the sale of data.

“We are offering authorities like cities, governments and transit operators a lot of data analytics about statistical movement of people within cities,” Erez said. Cities do manual surveys to identify the demand for public transit services every few years. The process is labor intensive and expensive. But Moovit has “this information flowing all the time,” explained Erez.

The idea is to get into an existing market, “but we are changing the methods of doing these surveys and we are creating a thousand times more data than they used to collect for these surveys,” he said.

Moovit has already closed deals for data in “multiple cities” in Europe and the US and is holding talks with cities in Latin America as well, he said.

Screenshot of an Italian version of Moovit — for Rome (Courtesy)

It is this access to data that makes the company’s tie-up with Mobileye more significant, he explained.

In February, Moovit said it closed a $50 million Series D round led by Intel Capital, the investment arm of Intel Corp. Intel last year also invested a massive $15 billion in Israel’s auto tech firm Mobileye. At the time of the investment, Moovit said that Amnon Shashua, senior vice president of Intel and the CEO of Mobileye, will join Moovit’s board of directors as an observer. The funding round, which will help the company expand its sales team and its coverage of cities, brings to $133 million the total funds raised to date by the Israeli startup.

“Moovit is one of the world’s leaders in public transit data and analytics,” Shashua said in a statement at the time. “The combination of Mobileye’s and Moovit’s technology and data will be instrumental in making cities ready for autonomous vehicles.”

Amnon Shashua, senior vice president at Intel Corporation and chief executive officer and chief technology officer of Mobileye, an Intel company (Yonatan Hepner)

Intel’s investment in Moovit is “strategic,” Erez said, not just financial. Mobileye and Moovit generate complementary data: The data that Mobileye generates relates to vehicles, he said, while Moovit generates data about people on the move. “There is lot of complementary information that comes from people that move and from vehicles that move,” he said. And this creates a very “holistic picture” of movement within urban areas.

In addition, autonomous vehicles will be a big part of the urban mobility scene someday, so for Moovit the tie-up is a way to tap into a new kind of service that will be available. “Mobileye is going to be in the center of development and evolvement in the world of autonomous vehicles and it makes a lot of sense for us also to be part of it,” he said.

Focus is key

The company got some good advice from its early stage investors, he said: Just do one thing and do it well, and refrain from trying to do too many things at once. In Moovit’s case, that meant reaching as many people as possible in as many places as possible.

And that is his advice for other startup entrepreneurs as well: Focus is key.

“Startups do not die from hunger, they die from overeating,” he said. “Make a choice what not to do and be very focused, because if you look at the startups that were successful, most of them tried to do one thing in a very perfect way. This is why they were so successful.”

“There are so many things that you can be tempted to do that might change your focus,” he said. Only once a startup has a solid base should it move on to other things, like monetizing the venture, he said.

Screenshot of the Moovit app for Istanbul, Turkey (Courtesy)

“This is why we started to monetize now,” he said. “We figured that our growth engines are working very well. And we have crossed a critical mass. Once you do that you can afford to start focusing on other things.”

A passionate fan of triathlons, Erez is an early riser and trains for an hour or two in the morning, either swimming or bike riding. Then he goes to the office, where he spends the first two hours going over email. The rest of the day is filled with meetings.

“I don’t have a typical day,” he said. “I travel a lot… At the same time, I need to make sure the management team is doing what they are meant to do and I’m also doing strategic thinking, as to what should be the next steps.”

Fundraising — of which Moovit has undergone four rounds — also takes up a lot of time. During fundraising periods, for perhaps three to five months, 60 to 70 percent of his time is focused on meeting potential investors. “This is why fundraising is something you need to do and finish with and move on, otherwise you don’t have enough capacity to do other things.”

He is not focused on a sale of the company at the moment, he said. As an entrepreneur if you focus too much on trying to sell your company “then you are wasting your time, because you can never predict when this thing is going to happen. The best thing is to push as hard as possible to grow the business to become more influential, to have way more impact.”

Erez got the idea for Moovit while he was training for the Sea of Galilee marathon together with Yaron Evron, a prominent public engineer in Israel. Together, they were complaining about how there was no good mobile info for public transit, similar to what Waze — the Israeli navigation app bought by Google in 2013 for an estimated $1.1 billion — does for drivers. And so, they decided to do something about it.

Free dinners and an ‘amazing rude’

Erez is proud to say he does what’s known in the tech industry as eating his own dog food — a metaphor that indicates the highest level of trust in one’s own product. Before Moovit, he never used public transportation. Now, he says, he uses the app in almost every city around the world he visits. “I don’t rent a car anymore,” he said. He also often bets with business colleagues in London on who will get to their restaurant meeting quicker: Erez using public transport or the colleagues using a cab. Whoever gets there last, pays for dinner. “I get a lot of free dinners,” he said.

Moovit is the fourth company founded by Erez, a serial entrepreneur with some 20 years of experience with technology startups. He was previously the co-founder of the Eyron Software Group, a holding group of software companies and a seed investment group. He also founded ActionBase Corporation, a US-based software company that was bought in 2003. He was also the founder of OptimalTest, a company that developed software to test semiconductors.

“Moovit is by far the most amazing ride I was involved with,” he said.

The passion for his company, he said “is becoming even bigger and bigger, because the world of mobility is changing and it is such an amazing experience to be part of this change… (It is) almost like being in an amusement park and I have fun most of the time.”

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