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Exclusive Interview: Pinwheels Is Revolutionizing Youth Transportation

The “Uberization” is happening right now, but not everyone is quite on board. It is nice to have other transportation options to choose from, and quite frankly, going from point A to point B is not what it’s all about. Most parents these days are pretty time-strapped, and still have to cart their kids all around town. It is difficult to get your children to two or more places in one day without having some sort of help. Hello Pinwheels.

Pinwheels provides an alternative to the traditional yellow school bus idea. They help to provide a safe and caring transportation service to children for school drop-offs, pick-ups, trips to extra-curricular activities and more.

Just tell them where to go, when to be there, how many riders, and how frequently you’ll need them and they’ll do the rest as this highly recommended non emergency medical transportation.

I got to sit down and talk with the Founder of Pinwheels Chad Nam.


TD: Can you tell our readers what Pinwheels is, and how it works?

Pinwheels is a youth-focused Transportation Brokerage solution that provides safe and secure rides for children. We took the best traits of a yellow school bus – safe, familiar and predictable – and improved the overall experience for both parents and children. Unlike Shuddle, who focuses more on individual point-to-point transportation, we focus more on scheduled group transportation, like to and from school, as well as working with families to organize extra-curricular activities. For example, we are working to find a transportation solution for a small class who are enrolled in soccer together.

We try to distinguish ourselves from other transportation companies in Silicon Valley by having full control over our experience. We employ drivers, own vehicles and built an app to keep families connected. By employing drivers and owning vehicles, we have more control over the performance and end-to-end experience. This control gives us flexibility, which allows us to course correct fairly quickly, when needed. Our technology gives us the ability to share information with the parents quickly. At any given time, parents know where their children are.

TD: Would you say that Pinwheels is the Uber for kids?

No, not quite. I would say Shuddle is a more of an Uber for kids. They focus on point-to-point transportation that can be requested any time. We really focus on the scheduled, reoccurring aspect of youth transportation. School is a good example of it. If you think about school, kids are there 9-10 months out of the year, 5 days out of the week.

TD: What inspired you to create Pinwheels?

My son was the genesis for the idea. He got accepted to preschool and my wife and I were scrambling to figure out how we were going to get him to and from school. I searched for a solution but discovered that there were not that many options out there, especially for younger kids. I heard about Shuddle, but its service is more appropriate for older kids. So I started to think about what an ideal solution would look like for my son. Through multiple iterations, Pinwheels was born.

TD: How did you come up with the name Pinwheels?

For me, finding a name isn’t as easy as it sounds. I went back and forth with a lot of names but nothing really stuck. I wanted something that sounded kid friendly and playful but with some reference to the fact we were a transportation company.

I was walking through my neighborhood and saw pinwheels on a sign spinning like crazy. All the kids were enjoying it so much that I thought it would make for a perfect name. And it has the word “wheel” in it so it couldn’t be all that bad.

TD: What problems are you trying to solve?

Majority of the families have two working parents. And only 64% of the full time work schedule is actually covered by the hours that children spend in school. Parents can’t routinely arrive late and/or leave early from work. So what do you do when your kids get out in the middle of the day? Many parents are stuck worrying how they are going to get their child to and from school. My situation is the same where my wife and I both work, and have a child. We don’t have a lot of free time, but luckily for us we have a somewhat flexible schedule, but even with flexible schedules, it’s not easy.

I began to start thinking about my own situation more, two parents and one child, and the school is two miles away from our house and we were having such a hard time. I started to think what happens if you change the variables, single parent, multiple kids, multiple schools, perhaps in different directions, things become very challenging very quickly. I really don’t know how families do it. Based on my interviews, families cobble together a solution. They do a little bit of this, and a little bit of that and get by. We want to be that one solution for all youth transportation needs where families don’t have to stress about anything.

TD: Who do you think is your major competition right now?

We have seen a lot of players come into the transportation space, like Chariot and Leap, who focuses on group transportation. There a few like Shuddle, and HopSkipDrive out of LA, who focuses specifically on children transportation market but more as a single unit of transportation.  But nothing really that focuses on group transportation for children. The few that are out there are more the mom and pop type. There are still a lot of opportunities in this sector.

TD: Do you plan on expanding to cities outside of San Francisco?

Yes, our goal is to expand outside of San Francisco. San Francisco doesn’t have a monopoly on families needing rides for their children. If you look at our first year, it was challenging, because though group transportation is a familiar concept (yellow school bus), we were still an unknown company offering transportation for children. As we started to execute and deliver on our promises, people started to take notice. As we approached the end of the year, we started to receive a lot of requests for the 2015-2016 school year. The demand has definitely gone up and we don’t see why it won’t continue.

TD: Can you discuss any failures or setbacks you experienced and how you overcame them?

Yes, we’ve had many setbacks, like most startups. The fundamental reason for our setback has always been because of wrong assumptions. We build our service and system based on what we think families and schools want. We are right on some occasions but not always. We now try to validate early and often, and have shorten the feedback loop.

TD: How can you ease the apprehension of parents who might feel uneasy about having their children going into a car with a stranger?

It can be daunting for families to place their most precious cargo in a stranger’s hand. However, Pinwheels offers a peace of mind by being committed to being safe and secure. All of our drivers are employees of Pinwheels. They are rigorously screened by Trustline (CA’s only authorized screening program) and professionally trained and certified by DMV and CHP so that they are at their best behind the wheel in the most critical situations. All of the vehicles are purchased by Pinwheels and come loaded with advanced safety features designed to prevent collisions and transport your child safely. Our proprietary tools are built from scratch and offer parents the ability to stay connected to their children throughout the entire ride.

TD: What kind of advertising do you do?

We really haven’t advertised at all. Our first customer was AltSchool, and they immediately understood our value proposition. Shortly thereafter, we partnered with an organization called Caring Creatives, an outdoor art program in San Francisco. And through them we were able to get introductions to other schools. We haven’t spent a dime on marketing, but mostly because we are not funded yet. So we have to be very judicious on how we spend our money. The demand has been enough to keep us busy. We are growing at a nice clip but of course we want to grow faster and plan to advertise in the near future…

TD: Based on your experience, do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs out there?

The startup world is hard and challenging. It’s a hard grind through all of it. The highs are of course easy and welcomed but the lows can be challenging and humbling. If you are going to start or join a small company, you have to prepare yourself mentally to grind through it all. There were times when I doubted everything. Luckily for me, I had my wife who supported me through it all. It really is a big and wild roller coaster ride. You have to have the passion and desire to succeed if you are going to stay on for the entire ride.