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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

Ride-share startup hopes to disrupt industry with student drivers

Desi, a college-exclusive ride-share company, is currently in a closed beta test for limited members of the Notre Dame community — and the company began in the South Dining Hall stir-fry line.

Sophomore Liam Redmond first had the idea for Desi in high school when he noticed his friends having a difficult time ordering rides or feeling unsafe with random strangers driving them from place to place.

Then, he started talking to fellow sophomore Zach Brown in a line on campus that is known to be a great time for conversation.

“Liam was talking all about Desi and his idea in the stir-fry line and I said ‘That sounds great,’” Brown said. “And I thought we could work together because I have that web and app development background.”

Redmond then brought in the third co-founder, film, television and theatre major Rob Corrato, to the team as chief creative officer to coordinate media production, content creation and marketing for the company.

From pitch to soft launch

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Sophomores Zach Brown (furthest left), Liam Redmond and Rob Corrato aim to provide safe and social rides with new app Desi.
Sophomores Zach Brown (furthest left), Liam Redmond and Rob Corrato aim to provide safe and social rides with new app Desi.


With the core trio assembled, Redmond, Brown and Corrato doubled down in July 2022 to devote time to make their vision come alive.

Through a couple of successful Friday pitches at the Idea Center, Desi secured $4,000 in funding through three grants. The company will next source other funding this summer through friends, family or a pre-seed round for potential investors.

They plan to run the soft launch through the end of the semester, with more test users added each week, and to prepare for a full launch on the app store in the fall 2023 semester.

As of Monday, Desi had 176 approved riders and 48 approved drivers, with 20 drivers currently listed as active on the app.

Rides are free in the beta-testing stage. The only revenue drivers make now is in the form of optional tips. One driver reported back that he made $210 in just two nights of driving, Corrato said.

Once Desi goes full throttle, the service will be offered using a base price for pick-up plus a per-mile and per-minute factor. The team estimates an average ride will be $12, with the driver taking home 70% of the total. The pricing model sets the company apart from Uber, which uses dynamic pricing to rack up fares when demand surges.

“So it'll scale up,” Brown said. “But I imagine most of our rides are going to be within that five-mile radius thinking that South Bend airport is probably the farthest people are going to be going.”

Safe and social rides

The Desi founders believe they separate themselves from competitors Uber and Lyft through their closed ecosystem. All drivers and riders must be students within a college’s community.

“We really want to introduce this idea of profiles like Instagram where you can see common connections,” Redmond said. “People can see ‘Oh, they’ve got a buddy. It’s a great thing to talk about, and I feel safer if I know you know… a common friend.’”

Even the brand’s name plays off the idea of a college ride-share community that is more socially connected. It originated with the name Devi but was switched to be a shortened version of the designated driver.

“We wanted to sell that designated driver kind of thing where it's somebody that you trust coming to pick you up,” Brown said.

And, the team said driving for Desi is an easy way to make money late on the weekends, a time when on-campus jobs are hard to come by as social events peak for the week. They added that test drivers have confirmed it’s a good gig in the valuation stage.

Desi follows the same regulations for hiring drivers across the industry, including a background check, a motor vehicle record check and three years of driving experience. In addition, a personal interview is conducted by the team, Redmond said.

“That really sets us apart,” Redmond said. “We all looked at becoming drivers [on other apps] and were honestly scared at how easy it was to become drivers.”

If the team succeeds in the tri-campus market, they hope to expand to colleges across the country that have similar characteristics to Notre Dame.

“It would be our main goal, of course, to get Desi everywhere,” Corrato said. “That would be phenomenal but we're really targeting schools that are similar to Notre Dame in location, in size and type of students.”