Here’s the exclusive Industry Talk with CV session had by Ashish Bhatia with Santosh AR, Chief Executive Officer at Bitla Software Pvt. Ltd.

Q. Take us through the evolution of the business model at Bitla Software since you took over as the Chief Executive Officer. Post the Makemytrip acquisition, what are the current focus segments for the company?

A. Bitla Software is a 14-year-old organisation. So my journey, of course, started only two years back. Right from the initial years, we were focused on the bus operators, and especially the private sector and for the long haul. So we are a Business to Business (B2B) technology company who happened to have insights on the bus operations, sheerly due to the number of years we have invested in getting to know our customers. So we haven’t made any changes to that approach. We have only ensured a greater focus on gaining technical expertise and utilising it for products as our core offerings to the bus operators. Our focus has been to productise our services, which will, in turn, help our customers to benefit from the proven functionality. We have sharpened our value system internally. To ensure everyone in the organisation is focused on helping the bus operators succeed. So much so that our revenue model is aligned with that value system. Our revenues are directly proportional to the revenues of our customers as a testament to our commitment.

Q. What are some of the key services and flagship products that you offer to this target group of bus operators? Any milestones or invaluable lessons learnt especially since you joined in a very challenging environment?

A. In the last 15 months, travel has been heavily impacted, just like many of the other sectors as we all know. The milestones have been replaced by goals for survival. And we have done that very well and will continue at it. In fact, times are changing for the good for us. For instance, we are hiring a batch of fresh graduates. We have used the last 15 months to strengthen our technology and internal support processes so that it helps our customers to come back stronger as they stage a recovery. So as far as our flagship products go, there are four products. The first is ‘TicketSimply’ which caters to the passenger segment. A small subset of it is the cargo segment, although it’s not our main focus segment. We help operators with tracking, which helps to track the location of buses and offers other value-added services related to their locations.

Through ‘AgentSimply’, we help bus operators to distribute their inventory to agents to in turn benefit from the agent networks on the bookings front. We realise that bus operators need highly reliable systems, systems that are scalable, and which are extremely flexible for their operations. These systems must always be available, and of course, usable by everyone in their organisation. So we have doubled up on our efforts during the last 15 months to ensure that our products are made to be reliable, simple to use, and extremely flexible. Because when our customers come back after a long period, they really are looking for these kinds of technologies to support their business to grow again.

Q. What is the lifecycle journey with different customer segments like? What are the different stages where you handhold them?

A. We handhold the customers right from the initial stages of onboarding. From the time we onboard them, we help them migrate their existing data onto our platform. This includes their passenger data, their routes, their data on Online Travel Agents (OTAs), besides other miscellaneous data that they may have to ensure they are up and running on day one of migration into our platform. And once they are on our platform, we open up all the sales channels. So they are enabled to sell their inventory, digitise sales inventory in various different forms, either through OTAs or through their own digital storefronts or at the agent’s end. Once they are able to sell, we also help them to ensure internal efficiency.

This could pertain to their workings across branches, and across accounting, internal processes or other bus operations. Things like the bus drivers being able to communicate to the admins or money collection from the agents. So we help them to ensure that our technologies on offer are adopted by all of them. While we ensure the smooth running of their business as usual, for instance, a well-oiled sales channel we also facilitate the use of data to improve the overall efficiencies and thus their operations as a whole.

Q. How did business cycles perform over the past five to eight quarters? How did you compare to the competition in the same timespan?

A. We have a pan India presence well spread out across all the states. Through strategic partnerships, we have expanded to international markets like Indonesia, Malaysia, Chile, and Columbia. And soon we’ll also be getting into new markets like Peru and Nigeria. To give you a sense of scale, we serve around 1100 bus operators in India and around 300 domestic carriers in other countries. We used to serve about 15,000 active buses on our platform on a daily basis. So to answer your other part of the question, if you just leave aside the lockdown periods, right after wave one, and before wave two, from November 2020 to February 2021. Even after the second wave, in the month of June 2021. we’ve been aggressively acquiring new operators who are sprouting out in the market. Nearly 75 per cent of the new operators, including the new age bus operators with the aggregator business model have started their business using Bitla Software. Yes, we do have competitors. However, not really at an all India scale. Our competitors are regional. They’re focused in the western and the southern regions, for instance.

Q. How did business dynamics change leading into Covid-19 and what’s the status like in the break the chain phase?

A. Look, these are very, very tough times for bus operators and the travel industry. So there have been several months without revenue for bus operators. And now, moratorium periods have also ended from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in April. It’s time for our bus operators to pay back, including the interest on all the accrued interests that have not been waived off. However, I have seen that bus operators are resilient entrepreneurs. In fact, we take inspiration from them. If, for example, in the month of December 2020, in spite of seven to eight months of continuous lockdowns, and restrictions of travel, nearly 80 per cent of the buses were back on the road by June 2021.

Over June 2021 and in July up until this point, we’ve seen an estimated 50 per cent average recovery across India. Whenever we see recovery take place, I’m confident that the bus operators will find means to bounce back. In this kind of scenario, they will be much more sceptical about new additions to their fleet or routes. So, understandably, they are waiting and watching passenger demand closely. They are hoping for demand to pick up so that they can start operating profitably. Pre-Covid19, let’s assume they were in an expansion mode. During these times, the focus is on profitability and preventing more debts from accumulating.

Q. Would you agree that services continue to do better than manufacturing as a whole in the context of reforms the country has witnessed over the past few decades?

A. That’s a very broad question. Depending on what’s the definition of services, if you’re referring to non-touch and feel goods, as services, yes, broadly, we can say Software as a Service (SaaS) does fall into this bracket. Technology services, where we work, have grown vastly as compared to most manufacturing units where there is a dependency on touch and feel.

Q. Tell us in-depth about your product offerings including the flagship for the benefit of bus operators?

A. ‘TicketSimply’ is our flagship product. Through it, bus operators can manage the passenger ticketing side of their business, end-to-end. As more sales channels connect to booking channels and open all digital storefronts, they can look forward to seat fares being dynamically optimised. They can use it to launch their own marketing campaigns and expand business by appointing more booking agents. By optimising costs, they can improve their savings and in turn improve their profitability. It also facilitates monitoring at the branch level performance on fronts like bookings, cancellations and expenses.

For example, the drivers and agents through a mobile app. can on the move, keep a tab on their bookings and gain, and get access to real-time visibility of passengers boarding the occupied seats. It also gives access to full visibility of the cash flow between the branch offices, especially for the large scale operators. Cash flow can also be tracked between the agents and the head office. This adds a layer of transparency to accounts operations. Operators can further easily spot the payment differences in OTA records with reports.

CargoSimply’ is our product which is focused for bus operators who also run cargo. It is not focussed on the mainline cargo only transporters. So we don’t have a product for them. We only have ‘CargoSimply’ for the cargo operations of bus operators who also ferry cargo not exclusively though. It’s relatively new where I would like to reiterate that our focus is on the bus operators who also carry cargo rather than offer cargo transportation as a full service. It can be looked at as an add-on to ‘TicketSimply’ focussed primarily on passenger transportation.

Our third product with a tracking goal helps bus operators to track the bus location in real-time. So, in combination with the other two products discussed, it offers very interesting use cases for bus operators to optimise their operations. ‘SimplyBus’ to facilitate bus operators to distribute their inventory to agents in order to be able to benefit from the agent network to get additional bookings.

Q. How do you foresee the evolution of the business of bus cargo transportation compared to passenger transportation?

A. Actually, cargo is a very small part of our business. Like I said earlier, we focus more on the passenger side. So I might have limited knowledge to share on this. But in my own limited view, cargo, I know as an industry, is growing. The government has formally recognised this sector with its inclusion in one nation one tax regime since April this year. So we expect bus operators to look at expanding to multiple states. They are no longer restricted to run buses in the state where they have paid the road taxes. With the rising focus on building the National Highways (NH) network and increased spending on infrastructure development, the sector is bound to attract more investments. I expect more players and alternate business models to emerge in related spheres.

Q. Does the business scope vary from urban metros to tier cities?

A. I think with respect to cargo, mainly the constraints are around the road infrastructure and the ability to buy large vehicles for building a scale. Typically, therefore, you will see that cargo is led by the large players up until now. Now, with access to more capital, and the production of smaller transportation vehicles introduced to the market, smaller cargo players are expected to enter the market and it is these players who would serve the tier 1 and tier 2 regions. We expect new niche players to emerge and it’s an interesting change unfolding. Digitisation has accelerated in the aftermath of the pandemic across the board. So we are seeing more and more passengers from tier 2, tier 3 towns making online bookings today. So that’s on the rise. And secondly, because of the restrictions on transportation of buses across the states, etc., bus operators have also started to explore new routes within their own states leading to increased penetration into the tier 2 and tier 3 regions. So, we expect, going forward, these tailwinds will bring about a higher demand and more supply from tier 2 and tier 3 regions.

Q. Are you seeing green shoots despite the threat of the recurring waves looming large?

A. Absolutely. As I said, the pandemic has forced digital adoption in a big way. We all know as users, ecommerce has benefited immensely. This is bound to have a positive impact on the bus industry also. Hence, so far bus operators who were not really tech-savvy, have also been forced to use digital products over the last 15-16 months. And also their staff, the drivers, the admins as part of the ecosystem. So technology will find easier ways into their hands in the future. The demand from tier regions is a big plus. These are all green shoots for our industry, which will stage a bigger recovery as restrictions fade out with a higher rate of vaccination.

Q. How do you expect business to pan out internationally across the different countries that you operate in?

A. We will expand into countries where we can take our expertise built over the years in India and apply it elsewhere internationally, where we feel there is a high potential for it. We are exploring channel sales partnerships in Africa by appointing channel partners. These channel partners will in turn sell our products and services locally. We will be able to expand this model to other countries like Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, etc.

Q. Are you also involved with aggregators in the business of transport on-demand and shared mobility?

A. Yes, all aggregator bus operators have started their operations with a few exceptions. We have interesting experiences working with them. For instance, we have opened a product with open APIs for them to build technology extensions and experiences for their users. We have further strengthened our data security and privacy norms to ensure this data set is only accessible by bus operators and nobody else, not even us.

Q. Has accelerated digitisation witnessed in the last fiscal helped you convince your prospect partners to adopt the advancements in technology?

A. Yes, there is a segment of bus operators who still operate offline. So with more digital adoption their search for revenue streams in these difficult times has translated to them being more eager to find different sales channels. Our solutions give them instant access to such digital storefronts and interfaces, on mobile. It also gives them access to all the booking agents networks. There is a visible trend of increased digital adoption and we are onboarding more offline operators at a much better rate compared to the past, the pre-pandemic period.

Q. The bus industry continues to be impacted with the most difficult 15 odd months it has seen especially the private bus fleet operators. How would you like to reassure private bus fleet operators operating offline to allocate resources for such an upgrade in technology?

A. In the short term it’s all about profitability. Yes, a lot has happened over the past 15 odd months and it has been a question of just survival. It’s about wisely choosing routes and the number of buses to deploy from a bus operator’s view to insurability. In the long run, however, technology will continue to take centrestage. It’s a common denominator across industries today. Bus operators are open to making technology their core enabler not just on the sales side but also on their internal operations front. It is directly correlated to their efficiency and the customer success or customer relationship management.

Q. While helping operators with data, how do you help them deal with business volatility? For a bus operator, it’s all about balancing profitability and occupancy ratio isn’t it?

A. Our products provide extensive reporting using which bus operators can analyse data from their own business. So, for instance, revenue, expenses can be captured from an operations point of view at all levels. It could be at the level of the bus, the route, the branch or at the hub level. They stand to gain easy visibility across the spectrum. Occupancy reports enable them to predict trends. It aids in decision making, for instance, the number of buses to allocate. The data is available in easy to analyse reports with sufficient insights to help optimise business. Bus operators who have used these solutions have been far more profitable compared to those relying on gut feel for decision making.

Q. How are you contributing to making bus travel safer with the innovation of contactless services that were unheard of until recently? A wake-up call to passengers in buses for example is a very well thought of inclusion!

A. We can do as much as technology allows us to do. In fact, we have analysed all the touchpoints of passengers in their journey of interacting with the bus operators. Right from when they start the booking process to the time they get to the boarding point to boarding the bus and finally alighting from the bus. Through technology we have helped eliminate the touchpoints like providing the ability to block seats with compliance to social distancing for when passengers actually board the bus. This is automated for the bus operator. It can be configured on our platform and all channels that the operator uses will deliver on that front. When passengers are onboarded, there is a possibility of commuters finding themselves in close proximity with other passengers, while getting their tickets validated. We have provided scanners to the bus crew with a QR code scanning ability. All tickets will carry these codes devised to eliminate a potentially harmful touchpoint. While technology can provide only so much, bus operators are going beyond by sanitising buses to ensure a safe ride for their passengers. It has translated to a better bookings ratio in turn over these past months. In another initiative, we devised the wakeup call for passengers boarding the bus at night where their stops are reached in the wee hours of the morning. In comparison to bus attendants physically waking up the passengers by coming in close proximity, we use technology to provide a timely and an automated call to the passenger.

Q. Beyond the large acquisition by MakeMyTrip, is there a further fundraising or consolidation exercise on the horizon or are you content?

A. We are very happy where we are. We are fully funded to operate on both technology innovation and the scaling up aspect. Yes, funding is needed by other startups. We also believe in scaling profitably. It’s slower growth but we believe it’s a more sustainable way to approach business.

Q. How do you expect to leverage the wave for electrification in buses?

A. We are hearing about a lot of these investments. We are in touch with such growing companies although we think it is a gradual curve especially with the current stress and the Covid19 induced distorted demand. As far as aligning with electrification, it’s a work in progress and we are evaluating our role in it. We don’t expect it to impact our technology at this point and time but we are still in the learning phase.

Q. What are you taking forward from this pandemic marred fiscal and what’s the outlook for the foreseeable future?

A. We have used the pandemic marred fiscal, to strengthen our technology platform. Our core offering to bus operators. We are also building in anticipation to make an entry to RTCs and the stage carrier segments. We have also worked to reduce our turnaround times by strengthening our internal support processes. Our sales teams are better trained to articulate our values to the customers. I think we’ve used this time very well. We will continue to be very aggressive in India and we look forward to expanding internationally.

Also, read Helping Bus Operators Bounceback

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