When Armir Harris was 16, his family immigrated from Armenia to the Atlanta, Georgia metro area as political refugees seeking asylum.
Having no other options, and “out of necessity,” his parents ended up getting into the transportation business — Harris’ uncle, who had immigrated some years before, had ended up in command of a modest bus company, and offered his family jobs. As a teenager, Harris himself learned the rudiments of web page design, building the company’s website.
In 2012, when the Democratic National Convention took place in North Carolina, Harris’ uncle was asked by organisers to help get 60 buses to ferry attendees from Atlanta to the convention. That’s way more buses than Harris’ uncle, or any single other bus company in the area, could offer.
So Harris had a flash of inspiration and made a “split-second decision.” He called up every other bus company in the area and basically negotiated a deal where he subcontracted the work to everyone. The DNC didn’t care who provided the 60 buses, just that they showed up on time and went where they were supposed to. And Harris’ uncle’s company made $800,000 in one fell swoop.
Sensing opportunity, Harris realised that there was a lot of money to be made in the practice of “aggregating” buses on demand, just like he did for the DNC. But Harris’ family was unreceptive to the idea and told him that if he wanted to turn this into a business, he’d be on his own.
Which is what he did: In 2013, with only his $800 in savings in his pocket, he built Shofur — a bus “aggregation” business used nationwide today by companies like Facebook, Google, CBS, the NFL, and Bank of America to get people where they need to go. Harris tells Business Insider Shofur did “eight digits” of revenue last year. And by and large, he did it himself.
“I started this business with $800,” Harris says. “I never took any [venture capital] money, I never took out a loan.”
And today, Shofur is announcing a change to its platform that lets anybody book a ride on one of its network of buses, putting it into direct competition with the likes of Greyhound and Megabus. Here’s how he built the business to this point, and here’s why he thinks he can shake up the bus industry.
Eight hundred big ones
Harris, a graduate of UCLA, is largely self-taught when it comes to his technical skills. Designing the website for his uncle’s business taught him some fundamentals of coding, and he took some classes in college that furthered his skills. But he’s not exactly your typical Stanford- or MIT-educated Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur.
“I didn’t know how to code that well,” Harris says. “I picked it up as I went along.”
The goal with Shofur was to build a simple platform where bus companies could list their fleets for on-demand jobs, kind of the same way that Uber or Lyft keep databases of the drivers available for on-demand rides. Most buses sit empty 60 or 70% of the time, Harris says, so they’re eager to use Shofur as a way to pick up more work.
But he had trouble finding support for his big concept from friends and colleagues, even as he was striking deals with his first bus companies.
“I shared this idea with a lot of people, and a lot of people talked me out of it,” Harris says.
Meanwhile, that $800 didn’t take him very far. Before he learned discipline, “I personally wasn’t financially savvy,” Harris says. At first, until Shofur started to come together, he moved to North Carolina and slept on friends’ couches while he scraped together what he could to pay freelancers to help assemble the software.
Even when Shofur started to get off the ground and he was able to move into a small apartment, he kept on his hustle, he says, at one point literally going a week without leaving home.
The first major use of Shofur was exactly like the DNC mass migration to Charlotte. If a company or organisation needs a lot of buses, Shofur can deliver a lot of buses.
The new version, launching this week in Texas, is more for consumers. If you want to go from Houston to Dallas, it’s a $29 trip, booked on one of the buses that Shofur “aggregates.” That means that rather than riding a bus from a mega-fleet like Greyhound, you’re probably riding a bus from a mum-and-pop operator that would otherwise sit unused that day.
There are a bunch of advantages to booking your ride on Shofur, versus a Greyhound or a Megabus or the like. For starters, you can actually pick your seat ahead of time, and you can view ratings for each individual driver. Because of those reviews, Harris says, it incentivizes operators to keep their Shofur-listed vehicles clean and well-maintained.
Meanwhile, for established bus fleets, Harris says, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t maximise the $400,000 or more investment they made buying each bus by driving them until they literally can’t be driven any more.
Plus, a Shofur app displays relevant information, including a map that shows you the progress of your bus trip and an ETA, kind of like taking an Uber, but for inter-city travel. It’s a big tech upgrade to the bus industry.
“The bus industry is a very antiquated industry,” Harris says.
Given that he built Shofur with a lot of personal labour, he says he sometimes watches the rise and sometimes-catastrophic fall of well-funded Silicon Valley tech companies with a mixture of amusement and wonder.
“It amazes me how you can fail with millions of dollars,” Harris says. “I think this funding actually hurts businesses.”
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