Whilst working at one of the UK’s leading travel companies the founder of Sn-ap, Thomas Ableman, decided to leave his job to build his own business.
Since conjuring up the idea for his inter-city coach travel company whilst at dinner with his wife, he has spent the past couple of years developing Sn-ap.
Business Advice caught up with Ablemen to discuss what makes Sn-ap so unique, his business heroes and future expansion plans.
Who are you and what is your business?
Thomas Ableman, former commercial director of Chiltern Railways. My business, Sn-ap Travel Technology, is a two-sided marketplace connecting intercity travellers with high quality coach operators with surplus capacity.
How did you come up with the concept?
Before joining Chiltern Railways, I was product development director for National Express, so the idea may have been percolating subconsciously for some time. But in effect, the idea came to me one evening, almost fully-formed, whilst having dinner with my wife.
What was key in terms of getting started?
The support of my then boss, Rob Brighouse. I shared the idea with him straight away and instead of telling me I was mad, he said, ‘that’s brilliant, can I put money in it?’. Good to his word, he supplied the first starter investment that got us up and running in 2016.
What makes the business unique?
Sn-ap is the world’s first on-demand, intercity coach network. Running trips only at times when people want them means we can offer prices no national network can match. At the same time we’re accessing a part of the private hire coach market, with exceptionally luxurious vehicles, ordinarily used only by executives, elite sports teams and rock-stars. After each trip, our customers rate their experience; we then use these ratings to offer new trips to our partner operators, which incentivises them to provide fantastic vehicles and exemplary customer service. We’ve transported over 70,000 people since launch and 9/10 people rate Sn-ap 5-star.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when launching?
Convincing customers we weren’t a scam. No-one had ever heard of Sn-ap and the choices for intercity travel are pretty well-established. People may not love the rail companies or existing coach operators, but they’ve heard of them. In our first few cities, it took a while before thousands of people started travelling.
What’s your biggest achievement to date?
We’ve expanded our service from our test market in Nottingham, to Bristol, Cardiff and – most recently – Leicester. And with these results in the bag, we’ve raised an additional £4.3m of investment, in a round led by ADV and Oxford Capital to fund further expansion. By the summer we expect to have carried 100k+ passengers.
Describe your marketing technique – what strategies have you used?
So far we’ve acquired customers almost exclusively using digital and social media channels. Sn-ap already has over 12k Facebook likes and 1,200 followers on Instagram. People share our posts with their friends and networks, providing the word of mouth reassurance that is so vital for a new brand, particularly in a high trust sector like travel.
In five years’ time, I will be…
Managing an internationally diverse business, that has changed intercity travel completely and for the better. At scale, we will be able to take anyone, anywhere they want, whenever they want, in great comfort and for a great price. What’s not to like. Coach travel is perfectly suited to fit with the dynamic, demand-driven intra-urban travel solutions that are already being developed in cities across the world. And Sn-ap isn’t tied to inner city bus stations; we pick up roadside at locations convenient to our customers. As smart motorways and priority lanes become more commonplace the natural congestion-busting attributes of coach travel will make the proposition even more flexible, convenient and attractive.
Who are your business heroes and why?
I see Sn-ap as a cross between Airbnb and the Oxford Tube (a hugely popular intercity coach service). Both were created by inspirational founders who could see opportunities others could not. Brian Chesky of Airbnb and Harry Blundred of Oxford Tube.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Be truthful. We started our initial fundraise when everyone was in thrall to Uber. We had to decide whether to try to match their pugilistic ‘crush the opposition’ style, but it isn’t our approach. We have painted on the kitchen wall that we create ‘win-win results using tech’. That’s really important to us. By the time we were actually closing our biggest funding rounds, the gloss had come off the Uber culture and we were very glad we hadn’t tried to be something we’re not.
Sn-ap: The intercity coach service which offers “more choice at a cheaper price” bring on-demand coach travel to more UK cities
Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest from Business Advice.