Hop In’s CEO and Co-Founder, Erich Ko, proves why adaptability is key to entrepreneurial growth
Hop In is a DMZ Incubator company that provides logistics software services to offer customized corporate shuttle solutions for the daily commute. The startup helps companies retain more talent and access a larger hiring pool while providing employers with a comfortable and efficient commute to work.
Erich Ko is the CEO and Co-Founder of Hop In. What started as a business idea discussed between a few friends has evolved into a startup with a real purpose: to improve economic development issues and make transportation more accessible for workers everywhere.
We asked Erich about what fuelled his interest to become an entrepreneur, his experience in the Startup Certified program, how Hop In was conceptualized and how the company has pivoted its strategy this year.
Here’s what he had to say.
Let’s talk about your personal entrepreneurial journey. When did you join Startup Certified? How did you hear about it?
I was a student working at Ryerson’s Legal Innovation Zone Law Practice Program in the same building as the DMZ. By working at the front desk, I was introduced to startups, and through that, I was connected to the Sandbox.
Natasha, Sandbox’s then-Director, introduced me to the Startup Certified program. It seemed really cool and had a structured approach. I joined in the Fall of 2017 and wanted to learn as much as I could!
I joined a startup called Curexe at the time. They have since been rebranded as Cevnn Payments.
What was your role within the startup? What areas of the business were you working on?
It started as a marketing role, and I worked on content marketing and organic growth. However, there were only three of us at the time, so I did everything and anything and developed my skills that way.
After that placement was complete, I ended up going back to consult with them for a few months. I helped them grow the team and scale up a little bit as well.
What made you interested in pursuing entrepreneurship?
Before that placement, I had been working for the government for six years. I ran into the “red tape” problem – something that you hear about, but don’t believe it until you see it. I figured that there has to be a faster way and a better way for me to have an impact. I turned to startups. It seems to really be the best way to change something in the world.
I’ve also been restless my entire life! I got in a lot of trouble as a kid and I was doing some things I wasn’t supposed to. Entering the entrepreneurial world helps you channel that energy. I know it sounds cliche, but it really does.
I can work 40-50 hours straight without sleeping and nobody will say anything (besides my mom!) You’re constantly solving problems; it’s challenging. You never know what the day holds for you, so this was the perfect fit for me.
This, I know, is what I’m going to do with my life.
Let’s talk about Hop In. What was the story behind creating the company?
I actually grew up with my two co-founders! One of them is my best friend, and our CTO was my brother’s best friend growing up.
One night while drinking at the bar, we were discussing how we had all lived every problem possible when it came to commuting. That’s when we decided we would try to build an app to solve commuting issues.
Fast forward to today, we’ve snowballed into a bigger problem that we didn’t even know was there in the beginning. There’s a huge economic development issue that is the root of these commuting problems.
There are these gaps left behind by transit in areas that are outside of the Torontos of the world. Workplaces in these areas aren’t always accessible. We provide a last-mile solution to connect them from the transit system to the workplaces.
We also realized recently that we can help people from marginalized communities and the shelters, so we are actually working on different job programs to help people get access to better opportunities that they normally wouldn’t have.
Hop In provides more than just transportation – can you explain how Hop In helps employers?
We help companies expand their hiring pools. One of our companies is Maple Lodge Farms in Brampton. We helped them hire their first employee from Scarborough, which is really not a possible transit route if you don’t have a car, right? That’s the value we add to the companies.
We go to a company and do a needs assessment for free. Employees tell us all about their commutes and schedules. Then, we plug that information back into our internal software system and design customized routes and schedules based on the employees’ needs.
If employers have issues with retention, it’s something that Hop In can also help with. The employer usually covers the cost completely.
We work very closely with recruitment agencies and staffing agencies. We’re members of the Brampton Board of Trade as well and work closely with all the bodies that contribute towards the development of a city, development of commercial properties, and management of all of those work sites. Hop In works with everybody in that spectrum.
Our operations are primarily based in the York Region, but currently, we are working on programs with 107 municipalities across Ontario! Our main areas are GTA-focused, and now we are getting out to the rural areas and small towns.
How does the shuttling aspect of Hop In work?
We work with chartered bus companies that normally do events. For them, working with us is a no-brainer. It’s a new stream of revenue for them, especially during COVID as no one is going to events.
With our bus operators, we are constantly looking at data: tracking rides and optimizing routes. For example, if there were a Raptors game or Leafs game or a parade, we can reroute instantly.
The bus companies we work with are also certified to provide accessible transportation for people with disabilities. We just finished up a pilot with Durham Deaf Services to transport their learners to the facilities.
You mentioned that there has been less of a demand for bus services due to COVID-19. How has the pandemic changed how you operate?
For the first couple of months, everyone was just trying to figure out their place in this world now. We took that time to help those in need. We realized we weren’t going to generate revenue for at least a few months, so we figured we might as well do something productive with the time and help out.
Hop In paired up with restaurants in Vaughan, Markham, and Brampton and we delivered around 100 meals and free rides to work for healthcare workers. We’ve actually now donated over 20,000 disposable masks across Canada!
We also had to shift the focus of our customer demographics. We had been working with tech companies, but they all started to work from home, so we doubled down on the essential factories and manufacturing facilities that had to stay open.
We did pivot, but nothing too big for us. Our core model stayed the same.
What advice would you give other university students or other aspiring entrepreneurs if they want to start a business?
I have three things. The first one is you just got to go for it. It’s going to be tough, things don’t always go as planned.
If it’s something you really want to do, then there are a lot of opportunities and you can find help from places like the DMZ. The DMZ taught me so much about design thinking – that was the biggest thing for me to understand how to actually validate this thing!
My second piece of advice is to listen to your customers. I really didn’t understand this point until last year. Build what your customer needs – not necessarily what sounds nice.
The last thing? It’s all about perspective. Especially during times like this – with COVID and the economic crisis happening at the same time – there is always a way. The situation that we’re in is creating a host of problems, but the reason why we exist as entrepreneurs is to solve problems.
A lot of people thought we were dead because we are a transportation company, but we pivoted and we became an essential service to a lot of industries. In times like these, take a look from every different angle and make sure you leave no stone unturned.
I’ll be honest… we are not without our freakouts! But it’s been really, really fun because we’ve just been throwing pasta at the wall and seeing what sticks, right? Every day we are throwing something new out there to see what happens. It’s been kind of fun experimenting that way.