On a late August night three years ago, Salman Al-Suhaibaney was driving near Riyadh when he got a flat tire. He pulled over to change it, but the wheel locks were jammed. Al-Suhaibaney called service stations for help. The towing companies he reached either charged astronomical prices, or didn’t operate past midnight. With a flat tire flapping against the pavement, he drove to a nearby gas station. It was closed. “I spent five hours looking for a service provider,” says Al-Suhaibaney, who’s 30. “It was a nightmare.”
Calling for emergency roadside assistance is difficult for motorists in Saudi Arabia. In other countries, such as the U.S., for example, the American Automobile Association (AAA) provides a 24-hour a day hotline for help with flat tires, dead batteries, or a locksmith from a network of approved service providers. More than 50 million members pay an annual fee for the service.
In Saudi Arabia, some insurers include roadside assistance in their coverage, but many don’t offer it in their basic policy.
For Al-Suhaibaney, the flat tire saga stirred a memory. While on holiday in London earlier that year, he ordered Uber for the first time. “I was amazed how they simplified the experience of hiring a car,” he says.
In June 2014, Al-Suhaibaney quit his job as a compliance officer at the French financial advisory firm Lazard in Riyadh, and began developing an app to provide on-demand roadside assistance. More than a year later, in August 2015, he launched Morni, where stranded motorists can request tow trucks, flat tire repair, or gas deliveries. Earlier this year, the startup raised $1.1 million from Raed Ventures, the corporate venture arm of Almajdouie Holding, a Saudi conglomerate with interests in transportation, and 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley seed investor. It is in the process of raising another round. So far, Morni has 500,000 downloads on Android and Apple.
Morni features a map where customers can provide their location; it then dispatches the nearest service. Al-Suhaibaney has partnered with more than 4,000 service providers, including towing companies and individual tow truck drivers, who are available 24 hours a day—enough to cover all major urban areas in Saudi Arabia. Morni also offers services in rural towns, although it can take tow trucks up to an hour to reach remote locations. Following Uber’s lead, the startup has expanded aggressively, spreading across Gulf countries within a year of launching.
“We’re providing AAA services the Uber way,” says Al-Suhaibaney.In Saudi Arabia, 15,000 people have used Morni. As of October 2016, it responded to an average of 180 requests a day, with towing accounting for 45%.
Like Uber and Careem, Morni doesn’t employ service providers, relying instead on a revenue sharing agreement with independent contractors. At first, Al-Suhaibaney had trouble getting service providers to work with him, forcing him to rely on smaller independent tow truck drivers, who were not always reliable. But, as the number of app users grew, more companies signed up, allowing Morni to set quality standards and keep track of customer satisfaction.
To attract customers, it offers competitive rates. Morni costs between $25 and $60, depending on distance and time—40% to 50% less than what it typically costs to tow a vehicle in an urban area. For services such as gas delivery, it’s a flat rate depending on location. Because credit cards are not widely used in Saudi Arabia, Morni relies primarily on cash. The app records the fare, so it can track commissions.
Contractors are willing to accept lower payments, because their partnership with Morni generates more customers. An independent tow truck driver in Riyadh can go on average 10 days a month without getting a call. “With Morni, he will get the chance to have three requests a day,” says Al-Suhaibaney.
Morni is one of several roadside assistance apps to emerge recently. In the U.S., Urgent.ly, a venture-backed startup, has served 200,000 motorists. In 2015, RoadZen, an American company, launched a similar app in India called StrandD, which has over 50,000 downloads.
Earlier this year, Al-Suhaibaney took Morni a step further, and began offering the app as a corporate service. He signed deals with automobile dealers, such as Al Ghassan Motors, to offer Morni as a complimentary service to its customers. Al Ghassan Motors pays Morni an annual subscription.
Al-Suhaibaney also partnered with Allianz Saudi Fransi and Najm Company for Insurance Services. Those insurers now include Morni as part of their car insurance coverage.
The Riyadh native has long harbored a desire to be an entrepreneur. In 9th grade, with his mother’s permission, he hawked mobile phones on a street corner during summer vacation. After earning an MBA from Prince Sultan University in 2014, he entered the corporate world, but still tinkered with side ventures. At one point, he opened a shop selling Arabic coffee, but had to shut it down in 2015 after the war in Yemen cut him off from his coffee bean supplier.
To develop Morni, Al-Suhaibaney managed to raise $267,000 from his own savings and friends and family. He faced one problem. “I had zero knowledge about technical things,” he says.
With a background rooted in finance, he needed to look for software developers. He turned to his cousin, Fahad Algumaia, and one of his cousin’s former classmates Yousef Abed, who was working on a PhD in Information Systems and Technology at Claremont Graduate University in California. They joined Al-Suhaibaney, and began building the app.
It took multiple attempts. The first and second versions were riddled with glitches: notifications to service providers sometimes went through and sometimes didn’t. Locating nearby towing services was also a problem, because of the lack of formal addresses.
People generally rely on directions based on landmarks instead of street names—an issue when a motorist is stranded somewhere, and needs to direct a tow truck driver.
To solve it, Morni integrated Google Maps into its app, so users can pinpoint their exact location. When a service provider receives a request, he gets access to the map with an icon placed atop the motorist’s location.
Al-Suhaibaney and Abed had been working in different time zones, so after the second prototype failed, Al-Suhaibaney hopped on a plane to Claremont. Once there, the two hunkered down and cranked out software in a couple months.
Abed and Algumaia didn’t stick around though after finishing the app. Abed was still completing his PhD, and Algumaia was busy with another venture. They couldn’t commit the time and effort. “It became a one man show,” says Al-Suhaibaney.
Large towing and automotive repair companies were wary of the new technology, and didn’t see the economic benefit of taking a pay cut. Al-Suhaibaney had to sometimes subsidize trips to attract users.
Independent tow truck drivers eagerly took to Morni. “We were introducing something revolutionary to them,” says Al-Suhaibaney. As business grew, he weeded out those with spotty service. Morni requires them to wear uniforms, and in some cases allows them to paint their tow trucks with its logo and teal blue color.
To get the word out on Morni, Al-Suhaibaney relies on social media. It has paid big dividends. Earlier this year, Raed Ventures’ Omar AlMajdouie spotted positive tweets from Morni customers. Intrigued, he reached out to Al-Suhaibaney, and was impressed enough to invest. “There are no big players in this industry,” says AlMajdouie.
By January 2016, some car dealerships were using Morni to transport their vehicles between car lots, garages, showrooms, and to even deliver them to customers.
The Morni team has expanded to 30, who work mainly in customer service. Al-Suhaibaney hired a new chief technology officer, Abdullah AlYahya, who has a master’s in Information Systems and Technology, also from Claremont Graduate University. They’ve added more offerings, including locksmiths and oil changes. After launching in Kuwait in March, the startup spread successively to Bahrain, the U.A.E., Qatar and Oman.
Next year, Al-Suhaibaney plans to introduce an annual subscription option to Morni customers. As the company expands, he wants to make it more data driven. Taking another page out of Uber’s playbook, he’s considering “surge” pricing, based on demand.
Not bad for a guy who needed to fix a flat tire.