It was in 2009 that the US heard the voice of Vilakkupara, a small village near Anchal in Kerala’s Kollam district, through Resul Pookutty when he won the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing. A decade and a little later, another man from the tiny village has made it big in America with his company that offers a complete suite of automotive services in an ingenious manner.
At 48, Binu Girija, the engineer-turned-entrepreneur from Kerala, is living the American Dream with the success of his company – Way.com. The US-based and Silicon Valley-incubated D2C (Direct-to-Consumer) marketplace had a humble start and was hit by the Covid pandemic, only to bounce back more vigorously. What Girija started as a parking space aggregator in 2016 has since then grown into a full-fledged Insuretech/Fintech platform for all car-related services in the USA. With its footprints in all 50 American states, the company now has a registered user base of more than five million.
On the financial side, the Freemont-based firm achieved a coveted status in July 2021, hitting $120M in
annual revenue. This was after receiving just $5 million in VC funding back in 2017, making it the most capital-efficient company in Silicon Valley. The company's car insurance vertical was ranked the #1 auto insurance app in product quality in 2021 by unit Q.
Finding the ‘way’
Girija completed his schooling in his hometown Anchal and did his Btech in Computer Science from Bengaluru. He moved to the US in 2001 after a brief stint in Dubai. In the US, he worked in several companies apart from founding one in 2008. The company was later acquired by another firm. The need for a service provider company for car owners struck Girija in 2015 when he was with the East West Bank.
“I had gone to San Francisco for a meeting and I saw a parking space where I parked my car. There was no price displayed. Thirty minutes after I came back and they gave me a $39 bill. I told them it was too high. They said if I parked there for just 15 minutes or even a whole day, the charge would be $39. I paid the money and drove out. Literally, 15 metres away I could see a board that said three hours of parking for $12. I felt like I just really got cheated. I felt that there could be hundreds of people going through a similar situation. That time there was no consolidated parking app. So that’s how I thought of starting way.com. The idea was to start a transparent and fair marketplace wherein I will aggregate and get the best prices for people to find parking space,” Girija told Onmanorama over the phone.
Girija invested around $ 6,00,000 (approximately Rs 5 crore), which he found from selling his previous company, into way.com to bootstrap. A year and a half later he met with a venture capitalist and took a one million USD seed round funding. After one and a half years, he could raise another $4 million in funding. “We were growing nicely and were about to go for the next level fundraise, and then all of a sudden there was Covid,” Girija said.
We were growing nicely and were about to go for the next level fundraise, and then all of a sudden there was Covid.
The pandemic left his company on the verge of bankruptcy and he, like many, was forced to so some lay-off even though his company had only 40 employees.
“It looked risky to focus only on parking. Then I thought of rediscovering the business and expanding it into more various automotive focus services. We looked at what was happening at market and found that services like delivery, insurance and finance, etc were in huge demand,” he said.
Girija then looked into some statistics and simply encouraged him to pivot his business. “I found that there was every house in the US had 1.8 cars. There was a total of 229 million vehicles in the country. People spend almost $900 a year to maintain their vehicles on account of auto insurance, finance, fuel, parking, toll, maintenance, etc. Shockingly, 30 percent of the money went into cars. So there was a huge market opportunity. Then I decided to expand our services into insurance, auto finance, etc. That’s how the first automotive super app was born in America,” he said.
With the forced expansion, the company’s staff strength rose from 40 to 450 people. Way.com has now emerged to be a platform for all car-related services in USA, such as monthly and hourly parking reservations, car wash bookings, finding and reserving the best city and airport parking, auto finance, Uber ride, and Road Side Assistance. Way.com's auto insurance vertical, launched in November 2020, achieved $60 million in annualized premiums in its first year in the market. It partners with over 120 carriers and provides customers with the most competitive rates available for auto, renters, motorcycles, and home insurance. Customers can get a policy activated in just 30 seconds without having to speak to an agent.
The portal’s AI-driven dynamic pricing and listing engine has generated millions in revenue for parking transactions. As part of its strategy to create multiple strategic verticals, the company is all set to launch EV charging station finders and ‘cash for gas’ later this year.
Amid way.com’s ups and downs, Girija also had some strange experiences the biggest of which remains his chance meeting with actor T J Miller. Girija wanted to know if Miller could be the model for his brand. The conversation did not turn out to be what it was meant to be, thanks to Girija’s nervousness and accent. In fact, Miller on to play Erlich Bachman of HBO's 'Silicon Valley' and claimed in public that the arrogant character was based on Girija. The Way founder explained that it was just a misunderstanding. He said the actor’s comments did not affect his business but only helped him get some exposure. He has no complaints, he said.
Way.com has already launched its services in Canada on a test basis while Girija is also exploring options for expansion in countries including India. In India, the company is looking into the scope of its business in cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. Asked about the possible solutions to the parking woes in Indian cities, especially in Kerala, Girija said first the government and its systems need to be more organised.
Way.com already has 250 people working from its office in Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram and 25 in Bengaluru.