24 November 2017

Azmat Yusuf: The unlikely route master

Citymapper and its founder are ridden with contradictions. One of the things the transport app’s millions of users like about it is how it manages to make plotting a journey fun. It combines slick efficiency in planning a route with a playful tone of voice more suited to the side of a quirky juice carton.

It has one of the highest user ratings on Apple’s App store. Yet employees paint a different picture. It scrapes a one-star rating on the employer reviews site, Glassdoor. The comments are damning and much of the vitriol is pointed at founder and CEO Azmat Yusuf.

Plotting routes

For the uninitiated, Citymapper is like Google Maps but based less on mapping and more on getting from A to B. It’s part of everyday life in its home city of London, as well as in 40 other cities where people use it to find a bike to hire, plot a route to a meeting, or work out how long it will take to get home.

And yet there are concerns over its business model and its ability to innovate faster than Google. But the main question is over the company’s leadership by its enigmatic CEO.

Truculent and awkward

In producing this profile, we spoke to several people who know Yusuf well or have worked closely with him. The immediate reaction from everyone was remarkably consistent. Each noted traits like ‘truculent’, ‘difficult’, ‘controlling’, ‘paranoid’ and ‘awkward’.

There was, however, a desire to recognise his ability to craft what is already a fabulous product. Equally, they noted the captivating vision he’s set for Citymapper of intelligently moving people around dense urban areas on a global scale.

Yusuf believes Citymapper is creating highly sophisticated software and systems for buses, trains and even taxis, which when linked to data from commuters’ smartphones could redraw how urban transportation works.

Not only can he see it, but he appears to have the know-how to build a nuanced and technically difficult product around it.

One person went as far as to describe Citymapper as ‘the most exciting startup in Europe right now’. Another said Yusuf, who is 37, is ‘the most naturally-gifted product founder I’ve ever come across’. Both are sober, experienced and considered individuals not given to hyperbole.

To illustrate the potential, Citymapper is increasingly being compared to Uber rather than just Google Maps. The two share the same aim: shuttling people efficiently around cities. But for Citymapper evangelists, more Toyota Priuses clogging up cities isn’t a long-term solution. For them, Citymapper’s range of permutations around private, public, individual and shared transport is the more sophisticated answer.

‘Hackney piss-up bus’

Citymapper has recently done a rather unexpected thing for a software company: bought a bus and won a licence from London’s transport operator, TfL. The playschool green night bus goes from Aldgate to Highbury via Dalston and is already affectionately known as the ‘Hackney piss-up bus’. The question everyone is asking, however, is why Citymapper is doing this?

The bus does two things. It helps Citymapper understand the ner points of how buses work; particularly the needs of bus operators, drivers and passengers. It is also a means to show public transport operators and city regulators what’s possible, bringing what it considers to be the future, closer. Yusuf sees these ‘enterprise customers’ as his answer to how Citymapper will ultimately make money: selling data-rich software to cities and transport operators.

Busmapper origins

He sees dynamic algorithmic software and live data feeds identifying traffic hotspots and working out where people are trying to get to.

A city’s entire transport system would, in theory, work more efficiently. Uber drivers could see if a train service is down, and the bus network could reroute immediately to the parts of town where most commuters are waiting.

For Yusuf, this would mark a revolution from the current system: bus drivers presented with printed sheets when they start their shift; operators using ancient siloed computer systems, which have no clue where the demand is; and, of course, the time-honoured bus headache of waiting- for-ages-and-two-come-at-once.

Buses are an integral part of the company’s origins; it was, in fact, first called Busmapper.

Watching Ted Talks

Yusuf, a US-educated Pakistani, came to London in 2009 to take a job at Google after a stint at the French business school, Insead. In the past he has talked about his frustration trying to make sense of the bus system when he first came to London: ‘I thought I was the only idiot that needed help, but it turned out a lot of people needed help.’ He was determined to start something but didn’t know what.

He became highly energised around transport in cities, initially thinking about taxis, and would work night after night to form a business idea. In his downtime he voraciously consumed Ted Talks, watching many repeatedly while taking notes. A close acquaintance of his from that period says ‘he was like a dog with a bone’ when it came to finessing his business idea.

Since launching Citymapper in 2011, Yusuf has benefited from city authorities making their data ‘open’. He seized on this with gusto, incorporating live feeds into the app, which transformed it into something vastly more useful. In recent years, he’s gone further, gathering Citymapper’s own data around passenger usage.

Frosty relationship

Investors have a seemingly love-hate opinion of Yusuf. He has been courted by enthusiastic and deep-pocketed investors who use the app, have observed its traction and can see huge potential in it. A total of around £32m has been ploughed into Citymapper.

Yet Yusuf’s relationship with investors can best be described as frosty. He’s suspicious of them. One investor who ended up declining to invest in the company says he was taken aback by Yusuf ’s refusal to share ‘the most basic information’. People close to Yusuf say he’s concerned about investors eroding his control of the company.

But it’s only fair to ask: how terrible a quality is this? A founder who knows him well says: ‘The truth is I – like many founders – would love to be in his position: he’s got a long leash, a stack of funding and is able to run the company without investors bugging him.’

Given Citymapper’s profile in Europe, Yusuf has done very few interviews in the six years it’s been running. There’s an interview of Yusuf on stage at a Tech Crunch event. It’s awkward, to say the least. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but was polite and charming in his dealings with us.

He turns down most public engagements, startup get-togethers and speaking invitations. He has said he believes his views are often too controversial for many audiences. He probably also doesn’t enjoy them.

In his defence, the startup scene is littered with ‘personalities’ with an easy and urbane way, often darlings of investors and the media, but lacking products that match the hype.

Leadership demands

While it is entirely possible to give media and investors a wide berth and not suffer any great damage, Yusuf has two constituents whom he must engage with: staff and city authorities. Dealing with these two groups will test what one associate euphemistically describes as Yusuf’s ‘deficit in interpersonal skills’.

Many employees have expressed di culties with what’s reckoned to be a controlling, secretive and authoritarian style. But some of the most ambitious software developers continue to be drawn to Citymapper’s office by Blackfriars bridge, to work on a product executing at the highest standards.

Right-hand man

In the coming years, Yusuf will have to deal with a complex transition that has toppled some of the most well-regarded startup founders: leading a company as it grows to a bigger size, and recruiting and empowering a senior management team. He currently has what is universally agreed to be his perfect foil, Citymapper’s president and Yusuf’s right-hand man, Omid Ashtari. Also formerly from Google, Ashtari is reckoned to be smoother and easier with people.

However, for better or worse, Citymapper doesn’t appear to have the kind of senior management muscle typical of businesses of its ambition and age. Without the close partnership of its investors either, alot rests on Yusuf and Ashtari.

Dealing with city officials

There’s arguably even more importance in ensuring Yusuf can adroitly and diplomatically engage political groups. Many city o cials and mayoral offices are entrenched in the ‘how things have always been done’ mindset, and are certainly not naturally driven to embrace ‘disruption’. They’re also smarting from being given the run around by Uber and Airbnb, and are particularly sensitive to tech companies hectoring them on the benefits of a rosy future built on data and algorithms.

Racing with Google

He also knows he has to run faster than Google. His plan to monetise a network of city authorities and transport operators built on Citymapper software and data all hinges on vast numbers of daily commuters choosing his service over Google Maps to get around. That commuter data is the bedrock of everything.

So far, both Google Maps and Apple Maps have followed where Citymapper has led. Public transport routing, real-time information, multi-modal journeys; Citymapper did it first. But Yusuf is acutely aware he can’t underestimate the sheer power of both tech giants to plough in money and shepherd the billions of users they have toward their services.

Lean and frugal

Despite all of this, it would be understandable if Yusuf felt little-to-no pressure. He has amassed a hefty cash pile from investors, and the terms of engagement he’s set with them are to his advantage, as well as Citymapper’s exceptionally lean and frugal operation –a result of spending virtually nothing on acquiring users. It means Citymapper’s cash burn can go on for quite some time. Yusuf does indeed appear relaxed. It’s worth considering what motivates him. Asked about money in the Tech Crunch interview, he seemed genuinely indifferent towards it: ‘You have an opportunity to build something great, then why not do that? Isn’t that the whole point?’

Primitive systems

That same obsessiveness he had working through the nights on the rst version of Busmapper appears to remain. He talks of his love of cities, his frustration at the primitive systems that run transport networks, and his desire to make a meaningful difference as cities get bigger and denser.

He seems too clumsy to make these statements disingenuously. In many ways, Yusuf is the caricature of the tech startup founder: technically brilliant, but terrible with people. There is a chance Citymapper could be the giant company Yusuf hopes to build. It could solve one of the bigger challenges in modern life: organisation and efficiency in sprawling and densely-populated metropolitan areas.

Yusuf could well mastermind the emergence of a genuinely game-changing product and create a game-changing company. But he may just find the second part a lot harder.

First appeared in Issue 20 Dec/Jan