On the Road with Problem Finding Problem Solving: New Skills Fuel Shuttle Startup

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It’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in June and Michael Vladimer and Tuyet Vu, both MBA 13, are at the corner of 19th and Valencia Streets in San Francisco’s Mission District, a thriving area for nightlife. However, Vladimer and Vu are not club-hopping, they’re…playing in traffic.

The two have spent the summer working on their early-stage startup, Yaygo, a shuttle service requested via smartphone that aims to be fast, fun, and affordable. As part of their launch process, they’ve used skills honed in the Berkeley MBA Program’s Berkeley Innovative Leader (BILD) curriculum, including the required Problem Finding, Problem Solving course (PFPS)–making firsthand observation one of their first priorities.

Hence, a Saturday night spent charting the frequency and direction of taxi traffic and interviewing club-goers on how transportation is enhancing their evenings (or not). Observed on this night were 30-minute waits for taxis, women in spiked heels darting into traffic to flag down cabs, and one would-be passenger calling out in frustration, “Hey, that’s our cab!” as it drove off with a more aggressive fare.

“This is not how transportation should work,” says Vladimer, shaking his head. “Not when we have smart phones as a way to share where we are and when and where we want to go.”

“I’ve had many bad experiences with transportation and many times secretly wish for a faster, safer and cheaper way to get around,” agrees Vu. “Designing Yaygo’s operation and actually implementing it has been a fascinating experience and it feels good to help make people’s transportation experience better.”

The team entered three competitions this past spring, making the finals in Big Ideas@Berkeley and the semi-finals in the UC Berkeley Startup Competition. From there, they launched into trial operations this summer, renting some plush wheels and giving free rides to continue the information-gathering process. The team began by targeting weekend club-goers, which let them operate and observe on Saturday nights and spend the week incorporating what they’d learned into the rapid prototyping processes learned in PFPS.

For instance, the ride theft observed on that Saturday night in the Mission arose because the cab driver had no way to validate that he was picking up the person who had actually called for the lift. This observation led to a Yaygo response that would reassure customers that the ride they’d called for couldn’t be pilfered—the introduction of “pirate” passwords to be given before boarding.

“I’ve found that it’s easy to fall into the trap of tacitly assuming that I understand the problem correctly and jumping into developing a solution,” says Vladimer.  “My studies at Haas, and in PFPS in particular, have taught me to step back and re-evaluate the problem itself.”

“Similarly, PFPS taught us how to create a playful, fun environment that produces meaningful real-world results — a culture that we’ve deliberately included in Yaygo,” Vladimer adds. “We’re tearing down the wall between work hard and play hard.”

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