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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Moovn Founder Godwin Gabriel: Born For Business

By Lornet Turnbull
Special To The Medium

Godwin Gabriel founder of Moovn

Godwin Gabriel was 15 and just out of high school in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when he got the idea about creating his own business.

At a hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean, where he occasionally spent time, the teenager had approached the food and beverage manager with a proposal: consolidate her vendors and bring him on as her sole supply contact.

“I was spending a lot of time there and started thinking of opportunities to make money,” the 40-year-old said. “This lovely Canadian woman looked at me and asked ‘aren’t you a little young to be thinking this big?”

Soon, over lunch, he was laying out a plan – and sealing the deal.

That gift of gab, that entrepreneurial spirit and an understated air of self-confidence would serve Gabriel well over the next three decades, driving him beyond personal and professional setbacks to tap his inner passion.

In Seattle, he would start a luxury town car business, fold it during the recession, return to school full time in his late 30s to earn an MBA and eventually teach himself to code, developing the platform for the startup rideshare company, Moovn, which he started two years ago.

With locations in Africa, the Middle East and eight U.S. cities, Moovn is seeking to gain ground in this booming industry.

“I think we are all hard-coded to do something in this life,” Gabriel said. “You can suppress it all you want but it’s there. Business was it for me.”

Like market leaders Uber and Lyft, Moovn’s customers use a mobile app to book, track and pay for rides. But unlike the other two, Moovn doesn’t use private drivers, but plugs into existing modes of transportation, like town cars and taxi cabs in Seattle or New York or tuk-tuks, three-wheeled taxis or motorcycles in other countries, including Gabriel’s native Tanzania. They can ride now or book for trips up to a month in advance.

But recent developments within the rideshare industry and a desire to gain a greater foothold has forced Moovn pivot.

Moovn is awaiting approval for licensing that would allow it to compete head to head with Uber and Lyft by using private drivers like they do.

That change became necessary, beginning earlier this year, as thousands of Uber customers fled as the largest of the rideshare companies became ensnared in a public relations nightmare.

The #deleteuber campaign brought a flood of new customers looking for alternatives to Uber caught Moovn unprepared unable to meet the demand, Gabriel admitted. The limited number of professional drivers the company contracted with, simply couldn’t handle the crush.

“We were forced into a situation where we could not meet the need,” Gabriel said. “We simply didn’t have the capacity.”

Now, as it prepares to expand in the U.S., Moovn is simultaneously stepping up its presence in the Middle East but particularly across Africa, largely underserved markets where cell phone use is exploding.

With less restrictions than in the U.S., Moovn wants to move whatever it can, not just people, and serve a range of transportation needs.

“If we can be the pioneers of that, that would be monumental,” Gabriel said.

The American Dream

A couple years after his teenage entrepreneurial venture began, his parents began pushing him to apply to college.

His father had been a diplomat and it seemed natural that he would attend school in Washington, D.C. But instead of applying to colleges in the nation’s capital, he applied instead to Lower Columbia College in the other Washington.

“I’m a big city kid and I ended up in this little town of Longview, Washington.”

He left after a year, began working in the hotel industry, but unexpected fatherhood rearranged his priorities. “I had to resort to being a dad,” he said.

He began taking night classes toward a bachelors in pre-law from Seattle University.

After graduation, instead of pursuing law or politics, he took a senior management job in the hospitality industry. And as he traveled around the country he recognized a simple truth: hotel guests all had the same need, getting from here to there.

“Transportation is a need, not a want,” he said.

So like he’d done when he was 15, Gabriel saw another business opportunity: create a luxury town car business to serve them.

He started pitching it to hotel managers and in 2003 formed Elite Cars.

In two years, he went from two Mercedes S class cars to a fleet of 27, serving a loyal base of business and high-end customers who could rent his vehicles or hire a chauffeur via his website or by phone. In the age of the BlackBerry, this was the forerunner to the current rideshare model. Gabriel said he had begun thinking of how he might completely automate the service, “essentially what Uber and Lyft became… “I was way ahead of my time.”

Elite was growing at such a rapid pace, Gabriel said he eventually began outsourcing some of the business. Still maintaining a fleet of luxury cars was costly and what money he made was being plowed back into the business, he said. To reduce costs, he liquidated the cars but kept the business.

Finding the right path

When the recession of 2008 hit, everything stalled. He sold the business and took a job managing real estate portfolios. When it was over, he said, he needed a new career direction.

Years earlier he had been accepted into the MBA program at the University of Washington, but had not followed through. He cold-called the dean, who gave him a stern lecture but allowed him to enroll.

Just before wrapping up his MBA, he’d led a project at Microsoft and had become intrigued by technology.

“There’s so much money in technology. But I always felt I didn’t have the aptitude for it,” he said. “I always felt myself a consumer rather than a builder.”

A few things came together around that time that would set Gabriel on his current path.

On a trip back to Dar es Salaam, he was caught, dressed in a business suit, in a monsoon-like downpour. There was no way to get to the taxi stand several miles away or get a taxi to him, until the rain subsided. His entrepreneurial juices were flowing again and he saw a business opportunity in a country without street signs: a GPS-based app that would bring the taxi to him.

He also began hearing complaints of unrest from the professional drivers he had remained in contact with. “They wanted me to come back,” he said.

Also, his ambition of returning to corporate America in a big way, MBA in hand, wasn’t panning out. And he had to deal with the sudden realization that “my MBA was not going to produce for me what I thought it was.”

“I thought I’d land big,” said Gabriel. “Here I have this amazing degree, I’d done this amazing project at Microsoft. I had the capacity to do anything, yet the opportunities weren’t coming. I started questioning myself: is there something wrong with me?”

In a conversation with his mother, an entrepreneur herself, the answer came to him in her simple advice: “If you aren’t going to be the employee, then become the employer.”

From the ground up

He decided to return to what he knew: transportation.

But by then, 2014, both Uber and Lyft were household names and Gabriel couldn’t convince anyone in the tech industry to help him create a platform for his startup.

So he decided to do it himself. He began watching YouTube tutorials and made his first website.

“It was terrible,” recalled Gabriel. “But I was going around showing it off: ‘Look what I made.”

His curiosity grew and he learned more code.

“What attracted me was creating something for myself and seeing the results and seeing it behave the way I wanted it to behave,” he said.

Gabriel said it took him nine months to create a platform for Moovn.

“I was living like a caveman; unshaven, up until 3 or 4 in the morning, coming up for air once in a while,” he recalled.

He asked his peers to review his work. Reflecting, he said, “I truly appreciate the people who said no because without them, I would not have been able to speak about technology the way I do today and lead a tech company. It pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

Gabriel relied on the relationships he’d created in the hospitality industry and turned to those to begin building his client base. His company secured corporate accounts, cruise lines, large hotel accounts, across multiple states.

“We built a model based on that approach,” Gabriel said.

Get Moovn

He launched Moovn in Seattle in 2015, where it now has about 1,400 partners, professional drivers among town cars and taxis.

He wasn’t prepared to become a transportation network company, or tnc, like Uber and Lyft, which pair customers with private drivers via smartphone apps. Those companies must cover drivers’ insurance, which Gabriel said the risk-conscious Moovn lacked the capacity for at the time. Because Uber and Lyft so dominated the rideshare market, securing venture capital hasn’t been easy.

But Gabriel believes the revamped platform will give him a foot hold in the market. And with what he describes as a better driver compensation package than his competitors, he believes he’ll be able to lure private drivers to Moovn.

“Our philosophy is about putting the partner first,” Gabriel said. “We believe that as long as the partner is happy with our service, they’ll go the extra mile for the customer.”

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