When Kyle Boulay was 20, he went to Lollapalooza. The bus journey from Ottawa to Chicago took 38 hours. “We all know it’s not a 38-hour drive—it’s about 12 hours maximum,” says Boulay. “It was a total logistical nightmare, with very poor service.”
What prevented the trip from becoming just another travel horror story were Boulay’s fellow passengers. “Along the way, more and more young people were getting on, and there was an unspoken acknowledgement at first that we were all going to the same place,” he recalls. But with all that time on their hands—at one point 16 of the travellers were stranded in Toledo, Ohio for 16 hours—the travellers soon began talking, and they ended the journey as friends.
Some of those fellow passengers went on to work at music festivals themselves, and they’re now customers of Boulay’s booking platform for charter buses, Sharethebus. Boulay founded the Montreal company in 2014 with Wolf Kohlberg. Sharethebus is currently enrolled in Y Combinator, the prestigious Bay Area accelerator, and was part of the Spring 2015 cohort at Montreal’s FounderFuel.
In its first year, Sharethebus orchestrated over 1,000 bus trips for clients in more than 200 cities, moving almost 50,000 people. Individuals renting vehicles for recreational sports teams, ski trips and wine tastings can split fares between riders; music festivals and sporting venues who work with Sharethebus can offer tickets to the general public. Charter companies offering busses via the platform are vetted for quality and safety. Event organizers can also work with Sharethebus to make sure the in-bus experience complements what they’ll be offering at the destination, using branded merchandise and activities.
Booking a private bus is a lot harder than it should be, says Boulay, Sharethebus’s CEO. Individuals and even event organizers rarely have the contacts or the context to arrange a vehicle with a charter company, and information is rarely available online. “The price can vary really dramatically,” says Boulay. “Without knowing what questions to ask and what things to look for on the quote, you wouldn’t necessarily have the information needed to understand the different value offering from each company.” Charter companies often require a sizeable down payment, and aren’t amenable to trip or route changes.
Boulay used to work as a web developer at Montreal point-of-sale software maker Lightspeed; he met Kohlberg while helping a mutual friend move. Boulay describes his co-founder as “the most passionate person I’ve ever known about planning and delivering transportation.”
At 16, Kohlberg founded a travel agency to transport the people of his small German town to soccer stadiums around Europe. (It’s common practice on the continent for events to organize attendee transport—the supporters of English clubs often travel to matches on special trains). After moving to Canada for an internship and working at travel agencies here, he identified two underserved populations to match up: travellers looking to get around, and charter buses sitting idle.
Kohlberg and Boulay joined forces, with the latter using his own time on the road to shape the user experience of Sharethebus. They worked on the platform part-time, finally quitting their jobs to work on the company around the clock when they joined FounderFuel. “It really did give us the right push and the right support and the right fuel we needed to get started,” says Boulay.
Technology platforms looking to disrupt transport-as-usual have not been uniformly well-received. Companies looking to replace or supplement existing transit infrastructure have fallen afoul of regulations and the public. Uber is engaged in an ongoing war with taxi drivers and municipalities across the continent; LineSix, a bus alternative to the King St. streetcar for Torontonians commuting into downtown from Liberty Village, shut down early last year.
Boulay hadn’t heard of LineSix, but he emphasizes that Sharethebus is doing something different. “We’re focused on longer distances and we are functioning essentially as a bus broker—aggregating demand and helping fulfill [it],” he says. “We’re not commuting, we’re not running regular routes”
Boulay’s 38-hour trip to Chicago was engineered by Greyhound. While he’s keen not to seem too critical of the coach company (“I think all things considered they generally do a good job”), he acknowledges that lots of people have similar stories. Sharethebus plans to differentiate itself on service and expectations.“That’s what’s so frustrating about Greyhound—they often don’t do a good job of communicating things,” he says. “We believe we can leverage technology to provide a higher-quality service.”
Still, sitting on a bus for hours is not inherently a pleasurable experience. “It’s a means to an end,” acknowledges Boulay. “There are things that you can do to make it better or worse, and we’re focused on making it better.”
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