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Never a dull moment with Three Wheels United: An interview with the CEO

Starting a company is not easy. The past year was a difficult year for Three Wheels United. But an essential one. Because it has brought them to a turning point, for the good. We interviewed Cedrick Tandong, who is now CEO of the company, about how he experienced this and the potential he sees in Three Wheels United.

Three Wheels United’s goal is to improve the lives of rickshaw drivers and their families. And to minimise pollution. The company does this by coupling drivers with affordable loans, creating alternative revenue streams, and making it easier for them to use green vehicles. The company was ideated during Enviu’s Tuk Tuk challenge in 2008.

 

Cedrick, you have been working for Three Wheels United for almost four years already. When and why did you join?

“I had finished my business degree in France, prior I had been working as a business analyst. I wanted to do something in the social space. Because my beliefs were that the standard way of doing business is not sustainable, but charity was not working either. Somebody needs to be financially sustained to continue the solution.

I moved to India in January 2014 and met so many interesting business models. Three Wheels United seemed to be the most challenging one because they had so many stakeholders, and so many problems to solve. They wanted to improve the quality of living for the drivers, and get them additional income, and minimise pollution. It is basically three companies in one. I wanted to see how the company was run, and be part of its story.”

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The challenges of starting a company

How have you experienced this?

“There is never a dull moment. It is always full of surprises. Ups, and downs. To me it is interesting because I joined at the moment it was about to flourish. They had just gotten a good deal with a bank, they were ready to start flying. But instead it started declining slowly, and went into free-fall. We had to re-strategize and climb out. We are gearing ourselves now to grow. It had its challenges, but that is why I joined!”

How come? What happened?

“I think, like every start up, you have the start up mind set. You have to dream, you have to be a peoples person. But you also have to make compromises, report, and focus on processes. You have to grow and mature. In the beginning it is more about inspiring and involving people, but the next stage is standardizing, having the tough conversations. We never passed the dreaming, ‘honeymoon’ period.”

The turning point

What was the turning point?

“We made small changes over time, and monitored them. We did this for six months and were able to reduce our costs and maintained our expenses. But we still did not scale. Even though we had people demanding vehicles, we could not give them loans. We were dependent on the bank.

At some point, you need to start thinking big instead of continuing to keep fixing the small things. The discussion changed from how can we wind down the company to how can we become a bank ourselves. This was the turnaround point for Three Wheels United.” 

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The potential and future of Three Wheels United

And now you are CEO. What is the potential you see in Three Wheels United, and how do you see the future?

“I strongly believe in the business model in the context of India. On the consumer end, the market is unlimited. The transport system is still serving a quarter of the population. The market need is large. We are standardizing our operations, so we can expand. And we are creating a bank, so we will have endless potential to reach the amount of people we want.

The whole world is under pressure to move to electric. The Indian government is taking this personally and is coming up with easier policies and releasing existing bottlenecks, making it a very green future. We want to actively finance these electric vehicles.

I strongly believe we created a unique business model with the technology we are using. It is a big value addition to the class of people we are dealing with. The current bank system does not want to lend to them. Their overheads are huge. Rather than lending 2 million euros to many people, they rather lend 2 million to one person. But your risk is higher because you depend on one person.”

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In 5 years…

Do you think you will still be working for Three Wheels United in 5 years time?

“I look forward to seeing myself in 5 years. I will still be with Three Wheels United! Because I think I understand the different stakeholders very well. Being born in Cameroon and living in areas where people were quite poor, I understand the requirements of the drivers. I am motivated by the small changes we can make in peoples lives. You walk on the street and someone comes up to you and says, ‘Hey this is the person who changed my life’. But I am also a business minded person: If you want to create a sustainable business model, it should be financially viable too. I understand the investor language. I resonate with all.”