After growing up as a helping hand at his Uncle’s cab business, Armir Harris learned a thing or two about managing multiple modes of transportation – which came in handy down the road when he successfully deployed 60 buses for the Democratic National Convention in 2012. While Harris never thought at the ripe age of seven he’d one day launch his own transportation startup, nearly two decades later he did just that and Shofur got its start. In three short years, Shofur has been the bus reservation hub, serving over 100 cities with an upwards of 3000 buses nationwide on their platform. This week the bus biz also launched their brand new app and intercity bus service that hopes to use technology to plow through the scuzzy liners you’re used to seeing (*cough, Greyhound, cough*) and let riders roll out in style.
We recently sat down with the CEO to hear his early start in the states as a political refugee, how he built his startup with only $800 in his pocket, and where the road leads next.
How did you get started with this industry and why did you decide to launch Shofur?
I moved to the US as a political refugee and after arriving my Uncle started a cab company with one cab. Quickly after he got another cab, and another, and he had about three cabs, but still needed a lot of help with the paperwork. I couldn’t drive yet, so I helped him translate all the paperwork, took reservations over the phone, helped dispatch and manage drivers, things like that. So I helped his business grow from those few cabs to about six cabs, a party bus, a small minibus and a large motorcoach and got to know the business at a very young age.
I internalized a lot of things about the bus and motorcoach business when I was young but didn’t think much of it and went off to college. In the summers, I would go back and help him out where I could. Eventually, I moved back to North Carolina. I was older with more experience and knowledge at that point, and I started assisting a lot more. My uncle became sick, and the entire business fell on me so I had to manage his whole operation as a young adult, but I picked things up pretty quickly.
Everything changed in 2012, when the Democratic National Convention came to town. They called and requested 60 buses. Although I was unsure, I told them I would find out. I called around to a community of affiliates in Charlotte, but they were all sold out. So I started calling different companies in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina and they had availability, so I decided to aggregate all these companies and bring them in for the DNC.
Everything went well, there were no issues and a few weeks later I thought, Huh; there isn’t a platform for people to go when they need buses – the market is very fragmented. There are mom and pop shops in every city that essentially have a stronghold of the market, and there are a few nationwide brands, but there isn’t one brand that comes to mind if you need to rent a bus.
I had $800 saved up, and I was living with my mom at the time, so I decided to start Shofur. I bought the domain, built the website, and started aggregating every single bus company I could connect with nationwide. I would work night and day. I became so obsessed with the business, that for about 2 weeks I didn’t go outside. I just wanted to get all of this off the ground. After that, people started calling us one by one and we kept getting repeat business. Companies and groups would book with us in Charlotte and then they’d ask, “Hey, can you get us a bus in Georgia, or South Carolina, or Virginia?” Having hundreds of bus companies aggregated, I was always able to meet the demand.
How did Shofur roll forward from the $800 in your pocket to where you are now?
The company grew quickly from the early days where I was manually aggregating bus companies, and I started focusing on building out the technology to streamline the availability and reservation process. There were a lot of inefficiencies at first because it was just me and I didn’t have the money to hire other people. Over time, I started adding companies directly to the platform, making it more efficient, and it grew nationwide. We now serve over 100 cities, have about 400 bus companies, and 3000 buses nationwide on our platform.
After onboarding the bus companies and building an API to see real-time availability from bus companies, I realized that a lot of these buses were sitting idle for a large chunk of time. A bus costs anywhere from $300,000 to $600,000 and for a mom and pop shop, not constantly earning revenue on their buses makes it difficult to pay off loans.
I saw this clear problem, especially with mom and pop shops, who have great buses, even better than the national companies, but would go out of business if something didn’t change. I felt really bad because I built relationships with these operators over the years, but the bus rental business is very unpredictable. I realized after talking to them that they needed a consistent revenue stream, and for their buses to be utilized all the time, so I came up with the idea of intercity liners similar to competition with companies like Megabus and Greyhound. Our customers needed a better alternative to the service they are receiving now, and we knew our bus operators could control the quality of the buses and personnel a lot better than bigger companies can. We have launched an app and are setting up line runs nationwide with a technology first approach and putting customer service at the forefront.
Can you talk more about the new app, the intercity line runs, and how you’re hoping to disrupt the busing market?
We are launching a new version of our app this week that will allow users to book bus tickets, track their bus in real-time, select their seats, and eventually chat with other passengers. The first scheduled bus route is going to run throughout the Northeast to cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC. Next, we will expand south, to Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, all the way up to DC. Then we are going to launch routes in California and Texas – then connect it all. We are creating an infrastructure of transportation that hasn’t been disrupted since Amtrak or Greyhound. It’s going to be provided at a much lower cost, but much better quality. People will be able to rate the bus and the driver, so there will be much more transparency that’s currently missing in the market. For example, if a company’s bus or driver stays below a certain amount of stars, we can take them off the route and replace them with one that is better.
In the coming months, we are also going to begin taking the steps to build autonomous, self-sufficient buses. Our vision is to have these buses with zero carbon footprint that are good for the environment, reduce costs even further and are safer.
After moving to the states from Albania you were homeless for awhile. What was that experience like and how did it fuel your motivation to keep going even when things get hard?
I’m from a beach town, and it was beautiful. It quickly became war-stricken within a few weeks, and we couldn’t go outside for 9 months. At 7 years old to see all that, you’re old enough to understand what’s going on and my mother wanted a better life for us. We came to the United States because it was a lot safer than where we were. Although we were homeless, we were sleeping in the parks or outside in someone’s backyard and we thought, this is awesome because we are safe and we are free – we aren’t fearing for our lives anymore.
It was great because even though we were homeless, we were really happy. We came to the US with maybe $15,000 dollars and that was quickly spent. My mom thought it’d be easier than it was for her to get a job. We also thought people would help us out more, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. We had to figure out our own way. I remember at one point we had maybe 1,500 dollars left to our name, and we were living on the street. Finally after about a year of being homeless, we received government housing.
On nights where I work day and night, or the 2 weeks where I didn’t go outside, there was this burning ambition inside of me to stay up all night and get it done. I still have that in me, this burning ambition, that keeps me moving forward because of the experiences I faced when I was younger and seeing my mother persevere. My upbringing definitely affected my drive as an entrepreneur.
Interested in traveling for less this summer? Snag a cheap bus ticket on a Shofur bus, or book a group trip or company outing on your own private GoGo Charter bus. Use promo code SHOFUR1 to receive 50% off your first intercity Shofur ride. Keep up with their journey by following them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.