A Brief History of MaaS Global, the company behind the Whim app
“MaaS is massive beyond anything we’ve experienced in digital services so far.”
Among the efforts to turn the idea of Mobility as a Service into reality, Finland and MaaS Global stand out as a special case. The story of the company is the story of new digital technologies, crumbling infrastructure, close cooperation between the authorities and the private sector and learnings from the time Finland was the mobile industry capital of the world. In hindsight it is fascinating how a whole country was turned into an incubator to make MaaS happen.
It took MaaS Global, the company that grew in this fertile ground, twelve years to develop from what was a sudden idea of an exhausted executive on a plane into one of the hottest growth companies in mobility. This is a brief glimpse into what happened during those years.
The story of how MaaS Global came to be and how it took off
When Sampo Hietanen approached the podium at the Finnish Science Centre Heureka on the 8th of December in 2014, he knew that the time of Mobility as a Service had come. He had been preparing for this moment ever since he came up with the idea of mobility packages in April 2006, on a plane from London to Helsinki, when, after a few glasses of champagne, he had opened his laptop and started putting together his next-day presentation on the future of the transportation industry for the Finnish Infrastructure Day. Until today, until this moment, he had not known when it would all take off – REALLY take off . That the idea would start morphing into a company with an actual product that people would pay for.
When Hietanen, then the CEO of ITS Finland, a non-profit working to advance intelligent traffic, had presented his idea for the Science Centre event to ITS’ gutsy chairman Karri Salminen, and had then started preparing it with the only other employee, Jonna Pöllölänen, they had hoped to see maybe 60 people in the audience. And although they titled it boldly as ‘A Starting Event for the World’s First Mobility as a Service Operator’, invited every decision maker they could think of and decided to present an excruciatingly tight schedule for the way ahead, it was a gamble. Maybe the folks would not come; maybe the right folks would not come.
But people came, over 250 of them, and they listened to Hietanen deliver his keynote calling for a Mobility as a Service (MaaS) business plan project that would start immediately. Soon after, 24 representatives of different organizations that had been present pledged 5000 euros each to get the business plan o the ground. The ball was now rolling. What had originally been a technology-enabled structural idea had over the years grown into a new way of seeing things and was slowly becoming a movement.
The first vision of a MaaS type concept had been introduced to the world in 1996 at the ENTER Conference in Innsbruck, Austria by Nico Tschanz and Hans-Dieter Zimmermann, who envisioned an “intelligent information assistant” to be used as a platform for transportation providers and customers. In their vision one could search, combine and book trips on the platform plus do many other travel related things like booking hotels and buying insurance. Considering that the internet as we know it, accessible through a browser, had only been introduced two years before, the gentlemen were way ahead of their time. Since then, companies like BlaBlaCar (carpooling, 2006) and Uber (ride-sharing, since 2009), and the integrated mobility service experiment UbiGo in Gothenburg, Sweden (2014), have helped to develop the concept of MaaS into a feasible future.
But among all the efforts, Finland and MaaS Global stand out as a special case. The story of the company is the story of new digital technologies, crumbling infrastructure, close cooperation between the authorities and the private sector, learnings from the time Finland was the mobile industry capital, and a string of decisive women.
The core idea of Mobility as a Service (sometimes also referred to as Combined Mobility or Transportation as a Service) is to see mobility through the needs of the customers and through the service layer. Instead of buying cars, folks would buy the services they needed. A taxicab could in itself be mobility as a service, but if everyone steps into a cab nobody will get anywhere. Different modes of transportation must be combined to optimize the traffic flow, and for this to work the switch from one mode to another must be pleasant in the physical realm and totally seamless in the virtual realm. All transportation must be behind one service, for example an app. Instead of buying single tickets, people would be buying mobility for, let’s say, a month.
In order to make this work, legislation and regulation, customer interfaces, technology, application interfaces, billing and the will to get it all done must align. This tremendous challenge was acknowledged early on. In an age when so much revolutionary and disruptive thinking is thought to bloom despite of governments or corporations, the story of MaaS relies on these actors – with some entrepreneurial spirit thrown in to spice up the magic stew. In hindsight it is fascinating how a whole country, Finland, was turned into an incubator to make this happen.
A technology-enabled structural idea had over the years grown into a new way of seeing things and was slowly becoming a movement.
Sampo Hietanen may have been the first to publicly talk about packaging mobility at that transportation conference in 2006, but he was not alone in seeing transportation through the service layer. The authorities were also on the move. As digital and as sexy as the words smart and intelligent sound when attached to old things like traffic, energy or cities, those words also express very practical means to make more of what we’ve got.
“Of course we were interested, because we were screwed. The condition of the infrastructure was declining, the money to fix it was not there. We were expected to improve the quality of services while cutting its costs and emissions. There was no way we could manage with the old way of thinking,”
– Krista Huhtala-Jenks, Head of Go to Market of MaaS Global
Krista Huhtala-Jenks, who in the early 2010s was the senior officer for coordination of international affairs and later for digitalization at the Ministry of Transport. She joined MaaS Global in early 2018.
The Finnish ministry responsible for transport is actually The Ministry of Transport and Communication. This same ministry drew the Finnish legislation governing the Nordic Mobile Telephony (NMT) cellular network that later grew into GSM. The combination of a common technological standard and free competition within that, was a formula that made Finland and Sweden the frontrunners of the 1990s’ mobile communications revolution. The key learnings from that era and from that legislation were very much present when the ministry started working on the mobility revolution.
So, in 2009 the Ministry published the first intelligent transportation strategy in the world. It defined intelligent transportation as “usage of information and communications technologies to optimize the transportation system” and recognized that this would mean a major shift in focus from maintaining and developing traffic routes to customerbased operation of the whole traffic system.
In January 2010 Finland, as the first country in the world, reformed its transport agencies and turned them mode agnostic, and in September of the same year the Finnish Ministry of Transport presented a report that started shifting the official policy from infrastructure to a more holistic approach.
In 2011 the Finnish think tank Sitra, together with the Ministry of Transport and wide participation of different public and private actors, published a paper called The Transport Revolution, enthusiastically declaring the dawn of a new era in which transport was seen through lenses of services and welfare. Later that year The Finnish Ministry of Transport was restructured in the same mode agnostic way as its transport agencies.
In 2012 the name Mobility as a Service was used publicly for the first time by The Club for New Transport Policy. The term was chosen by the Director General of the Ministry of Transport and Communications, Minna Kivimäki, after first considering but then abandoning the term Transport as a Service (which, in turn, had been coined by Reijo Paajanen, former product lead of the Nokia Communicator, after listening to a presentation by Hietanen).
In 2013 Finland announced a New Transport Policy in which mobility and logistics were seen as a service and a source for “growth, competitiveness and wellbeing”.
The scene was red hot full of enthusiasm, declarations and research papers. One peak was reached when in May 2014, Aalto University engineering student Sonja Heikkilä published the first master thesis on Mobility as a Service and was propelled to national and international stardom (featured on Bloomberg and in The Guardian, among others). The instructors of the paper were the Director of Helsinki City Traffic Planning, Ville Lehmuskoski, and the CEO of ITS Finland, Sampo Hietanen, whose presentation on MaaS had triggered Heikkilä to focus her thesis on it.
But despite all of this, very little if nothing was yet happening on the streets, roads or rails. As Hietanen, a traffic engineer by training and an infrastructure and startup boss by experience, and members of ITS Finland started gearing up towards the Heureka event in the end of 2014, they knew they had several practical challenges to tackle. One was that Finland was not enough: for scale and to enable cross-border roaming, the movement would have to become international.
The second was that ITS Finland was a non-profit networking organization, not a business. The third was that generally, on both the public and the private side, projects are much easier to finance and manage than a long-term commitment to an actual business. Changing the way the world moves was indeed much more than a project. The international dimension was recognized by the authorities, too. The Ministry of Transport accepted early on that the size of the investments needed and the importance of roaming called for worldwide acceptance of the new paradigm. In the summer of 2014 Helsinki hosted – and ITS Finland organized – the 10th ITS European Congress with 2500 attendants. In the opening ceremony Minister of Transport Henna Virkkunen gave a presentation and showed the ministry’s new animated film, Could mobility be viewed as a service?
The next day a Ministerial Round Table, held at the Congress, issued a joint statement saying: “Following the example of the telecom sector, the transport sector should embrace the concept of Mobility as a Service.” The statement concluded: “Our goal is seamless connectivity and seamless mobility for users across all modes and all borders.”
International dimension – check. The challenge of turning good intentions into a real business was tackled right after Hietanen’s speech at Heureka. The money pledged by the 24 organizations at the event was spent on building a business plan at consulting firm Eera (today called Korkia) during the spring of 2015. The company to execute the plan, called MaaS Finland Oy at that point, was founded in May 2015, at that point by and within Eera.
After the plan and the founding documents of the company were on the table it took another six months for all the pieces to fall into place. One of the bigger pieces was Hietanen himself. He had thought that after the business plan was ready he should convince everyone involved to do one more project, a test run with real customers, or a minimum viable product as it is called in startup lingo.
One of the companies involved, the French mobility giant Transdev, decided it had had enough of projects and wanted to step up the game. In the summer of 2015 Hietanen received a call from Paris with a clear message: No more projects! We are willing to lead the first investment round – but only if you, Sampo Hietanen, quit at ITS Finland and start as the CEO of MaaS Finland.
It was a chance of a lifetime but by no means an easy decision to Hietanen. He had enough startup experience to know what the job would entail and what the chances of success were. After procrastinating for the summer months and well into the autumn, he said he would do it – but only if the company could start with enough cash to survive for a year. Transdev, Turkish vehicle company Karsan Otomotiv Sanayii, Ticket AS and several other companies came up with 0.7 million euros. The Finnish Technology Fund kicked in with a soft loan of 1.5 million. All this came together just before Christmas 2015 and Hietanen changed jobs.
The story of the Whim app
The first employee of the company and a co-founder, Kaj Pyyhtiä started on the 1st of January in 2016, charged with customer experience. He was soon joined by Sami Pippuri as chief technical officer. Jonna Pöllänen from ITS Finland followed her former boss Hietanen in April to run collaboration and communications. The team soon grew to seven people and built the minimum viable product, a mobile application one could use to access transport options.
This app was what the end user would see of the company and therefore coming up with an modern, attractive and exciting name was crucial. The team went through thousands of potential names for the service, many of them proposed by professional PR agencies, but nothing stuck. Finally in May 2016, CTO Pippuri presented an ultimatum: they had to nail the name come next Monday. It was finally Jonna Pöllänen who, over the weekend, came up with the name Whim. That’s what the audience wanted, she thought, not to worry but to move on whim. Whim it was.
In June the company changed its name to MaaS Global to communicate its level of ambition. Also in June, on the 13th, the Whim application was introduced to the public in a debate on MaaS at the Forum for Mobility and Society in Brussels. The first users, the alphas, got their hands on the app in August, and two months later, on the 17th of October, the first commercial ride was made using the Whim app.
During the next two years the service raked national and international awards like it had no competition, among them the prestigious Red Dot Award, the iF DESIGN AWARD, and the Future Unicorn Award. International expansion started with a pilot in Birmingham, UK on the 15th of December 2016 and in Antwerp, Belgium on the 30th of September 2017. New investment rounds followed. In August 2017 MaaS Global announced it had raised 14.5 million euros, while the target had been 10 million euros, and brought in new investors such as Toyota Financial Services and DENSO from Japan.
The company did not seek traditional venture capital investment, but instead looked successfully for companies that had an industrial interest in the cause. Everybody involved, the financiers, the employees, the fans and many of the customers felt they were joining a movement to change the cities and maybe the world. Some were in the movement to understand it better, some to make money, some to save the world from ecological catastrophe, some to make cities more livable, and some just to make their personal lives more carefree.
At their headquarters in downtown Helsinki MaaS Global has, high on the wall for everyone to see, a black display on which bright LED numbers count trips taken with the Whim app. On the 11th of July in 2018, a milestone that would take the revolution to a whole new level was reached as the team watched the long-awaited digits 1 000 000 hit the board.
Only three months later, on the 26th of October, the number had doubled to 2 000 000. MaaS wasn’t just alive. It was scaling.