It’s hic-hic-hurray for Party Hard Drivers as responsible drinking sets in

Have Mumbaikars finally started drinking responsibly? If the numbers of Party Hard Drivers are any indication, they have.

For the uninitiated, Party Hard Drivers (PHD) is a Mumbai-based service that provides customers with trained chauffeurs to get them home safely in their own cars after they have had that extra drink.

This past New Year Eve, PHD received close to 600 calls and predictably booked up their 250 drivers in no time. The company clocks on an average about 1,800-2,000 orders a month and that number shoots up to between 3,000-3,500 just in December.

“There has been a clear transformation in the clients’ thinking,” said Saurabh Shah, one of the company’s co-founders. “Cops or no cops, they wanted to be more responsible.”

Three school friends, Ankur Vaid, Saurabh Shah and Mishal Raheja joined hands to set up PHD. Before that Shah was a stock broker by day and still continues to track Dalal Street; Raheja was into performing arts and is still; and Vaid worked with his family business before moving on to a multi-national company and then an online advertising firm. All three are 31 years old now.

It all started in 2007. It was the year when the Mumbai police were cracking down on drunk driving. In those days getting home after an outing was a personal dilemma for boys and girls. The three had their Eureka moment after one such outing. They decided to send out feelers among family and friends about the idea of a chauffeur service. They even asked their personal drivers what they thought of such a service and what rate they would consider fair.

“We’ve never been anti-drinking,” Vaid said. “But we have also never advocated drinking and driving.”

After a lot of back and forth, the trio finally launched PHD on 15 December that year, with 40 drivers, many of whom were from their personal acquaintances. They were fully booked within 15 days. Of course, it helped that they launched during peak party season. The November to February window continues to be their biggest draw as it is the party and wedding season.

There were, however, a few factors the group had to contend with when considering scaling – finding and training quality drivers and getting people to trust them with their cars.

As far as the staff training is concerned, PHD only hires staff who have been referred to them by current drivers. After extensive background checks, Vaid, Shah and Raheja personally train drivers on three different car ranges – starting from a basic Honda City and moving up to a Mercedes. Though Vaid does confess that at first he did not expect to deal with higher-end cars since such owners would probably have trust issues and their own drivers.

Turns out he didn’t have to worry about that. “Within our first week we started getting orders from clients with luxury cars and now we handle at least 50-60 such cars every week,” he said.

Surprisingly, many people were more than willing to let someone else drive their car if it meant not worrying about getting caught by the cops and not endangering lives. The company saw rising demand even when police check-points were not common sights on the streets of Mumbai.

What worked in PHD’s favour was word-of-mouth, which continues to be their main marketing model. That is what helped them land the enviable gig of being the team in charge of Tom Cruise’s travel arrangements when the star was in town to promote his latest ‘Mission Impossible’ movie in 2011.

A senior executive of the company handling the event personally vouched for Vaid, Shah and Raheja, which led to 35 PHD drivers being stationed outside the Taj Hotel at Colaba for the entire duration of Cruise’s stay.

As a company that wanted to be accessible to a range of clients, pricing was something the group thought about carefully. They initially settled on Rs 500 for 5 hours, which, Shah reasoned, was the average cost of one drink. The transaction was also much smoother since it would require the handing over of a single note as payment to the cash-only company.

Of course, as times have changed and prices have increased PHD has had to adapt, but the rates are still quite reasonable. Now a six-hour shift will set you back Rs 700 and a driver on peak holiday nights comes at Rs 1,800 for eight hours. But business has been good.

The entirely bootstrapped enterprise broke even within four months of starting PHD and has grown about 25-30 percent year on year. The group expects the company’s FY14 revenue to be over Rs 1.2 crore, up from Rs 95 lakh the last year. About 80 percent of the revenues come from the night-time services. “We always reinvest our revenues, that’s how we grow,” Shah explains.

The company is constantly adapting to a changing market demand. Though PHD’s primary business revolves around night-time services, customer requests and a potential market led the company to begin offering variations like day-time and out-station drivers and valet services for events within six months of starting out. There are also special drivers that can be requested for a girls’ night out.

There are more minute details that require thought too – like the recent RBI missive to withdraw all pre-2005 currency from circulation. “We were just teaching a few of our staff how to identify such notes and not accept them after 31 March,” Vaid said.

After expanding to Pune, this year PHD is targeting Bangalore, with Hyderabad and Delhi in the pipeline. There are also going to be funding exercises and perhaps even a mobile app to allow customers to place orders via their smartphones.