BLive's journey building EV experiences through tourism and retail
Samarth Kholkar is the co-founder of BLive, India's first electric vehicle (EV) experience platform. He spent close to ten years working at IBM before changing gears and going the entrepreneurship route, taking BLive to 15 cities across nine states today. In an insightful chat with Samarth, we attempt to understand what it takes to build a sustainability-centric tourism and retail venture in India.
BLive pioneered EV tourism in 2019, starting with Samarth's home state of Goa. The company offers guided three-hour-long electric bicycle (e-bike) tours, allowing tourists to connect with local culture without generating a significant carbon footprint. BLive also retails e-bikes and electric scooters through a dedicated online store. In under three months, the company has sold e-bikes to customers across 30+ cities.
Notably, Samarth worked at IBM in various marketing profiles. In fact, he was part of the core team which set up IBM's cloud business in India. In 2018, he co-founded BLive with Sandeep Mukherjee, his friend of 25 years. During his career, Sandeep worked with companies including Nokia, Microsoft, and SABMiller at various locations. This helped the duo understand consumer behavior better.
Although Samarth could have sought roles in other tech companies, he says that while setting up IBM's cloud business for start-ups, his regular interaction with entrepreneurs re-ignited a dormant passion. Since both Samarth and Sandeep had worked in customer-facing roles throughout their professional careers, choosing the services industry for his entrepreneurship journey was a no-brainer, Samarth adds.
Right around when electric mobility was beginning to catch on in India, BLive decided to address two big problems. Raised in Goa, Samarth had witnessed ecological damage due to tourism. Secondly, although consumer awareness was growing steadily, manufacturers had trouble encouraging commoners to experience electric vehicles (EV). Samarth and Sandeep observed that people are less averse to unconventional modes of transportation when they travel.
BLive pioneered the concept of e-bike tours in India, creating an experience where people could enjoy immersive travel while manufacturers could showcase electric mobility solutions. Within two years since inception, Tripadvisor ranks the company's tours among the top five outdoor activities at almost all the locations where BLive operates. Samarth explains that e-bikes have received widespread acceptance across age groups and geographies.
BLive's tours also take participants to the small enterprises where local craftspersons weave their magic. Samarth explains that compared to handicraft emporiums, letting tourists truly connect with culture has a lasting impact. Meanwhile, craftspersons and tour captains get to proudly showcase their heritage and skills. He says tourists can meet Goan bakers, Puducherry's paper makers, Coorg's coffee planters, and Jodhpur's bangle makers, among others.
The company also has a three-year partnership with Club Mahindra resorts and a twenty-year contract with the Goa Tourism Development Corporation. This makes it easier to reach the customer, Samarth explains. Talking about how the e-bike retail business came about, he says that over 60 percent of BLive's tour experience customers asked, "Where can I buy an e-bike?"
Building an experience that drives EV adoption is what BLive tourism started with. The logical next step was to provide a platform to facilitate EV retail, says Samarth. Samarth proudly maintains BLive retail hosts 10+ indigenous electric bicycle brands as well as electric scooter offerings from Hero and Ampere. The idea is to improve availability and choice for a consumer.
BLive's e-bike store also connects buyers to EV experts so they can make informed purchase decisions. Amid the pandemic, the store provides live virtual demonstrations of products to customers upon request, much like a video call. EV manufacturers have requested BLive to showcase their products on the experience tours as well. Samarth says this is indicative of possibly lower awareness at conventional dealerships.
Talking about plans for BLive, Samarth says the tourism and the retail business work hand-in-hand. BLive plans to set up shops at 30 new locations by the end of the year, he asserts. The retail business plans to establish 10 physical stores by year-end, and it is including new products from three to four e-bike brands every month, he adds.
Samarth says that BLive is planning tie-ups with tour operators and offline stores through a franchise model. He emphasized that while e-bikes consume a lot less power than petrol-powered vehicles, the company also promotes sustainability by reducing its use of paper and plastic. Samarth agrees that although no energy source is 100 percent end-to-end clean, every action is a step forward.