In Tehran’s chaotic metropolis, sharing taxis is the norm. But ‘darbast’, meaning literally “door-closed”, is the word to shout if you want one exclusively for yourself. That long-standing tradition is now giving way to its modern substitute: Snapp, Iran’s version of Uber, which is also offering something unique – a fleet of female drivers for women and children.
For years, international sanctions have kept global companies out of Iran, which has in turn spurred a tech start-up as local experts build a range of homegrown services from Digikala (Iran’s answer to Amazon), to WashMash, an online laundry service. In the past three years, Snapp has revolutionised the way Tehranis live and travel in the city. “Right now Snapp has become synonymous with giving a ride. What used to be called ‘darbast’, it’s now known as Snapp,” says the company’s CEO, Shahram Shahkar, a 32-year-old Iranian entrepreneur who now has 500 staff with an average age of 24. Just a year ago he had 60 employees.
Shahkar, who left Iran at the age of 17 to study in the UK and then in Canada, quit his job at the software company SAP four years ago to return to his home country and explore its untapped technological potential. “When I wanted to come back to Iran, my parents were furious,” he remembers. “They were like ‘are you crazy? We sent you abroad to study and make a good life’. You know how parents think. They said ‘you want to leave all of that and return to Iran? What the hell?’”
Shahkar, however, wanted “to give it a shot”. It initially started as a six-month sabbatical, but as soon as he joined the Snapp team in early 2016 it became one of the country’s most successful start-ups. “People thought I’m crazy, but now more people are coming back and nobody is surprised anymore. People are seeing it as a good thing – they have some international experience and some education abroad, and now they say ‘let’s go back to Iran and let’s see what we can do there’. There’s been a lot of change. Reverse brain drain.”
Over five million passengers are registered with Snapp in the Iranian capital as well as three other major cities – Karaj and top tourist destinations Isfahan and Shiraz. Next week, Snapp is launching in Mashhad, in eastern Iran. More than 100,000 people are currently working as drivers with the app, and 50 million rides have been completed since 2014, when it was first launched.
Arya, 25, a student in Tehran, uses Snapp on average about six times a day. “The first thing about it is the price, it’s much cheaper compared to agency taxis,” he says.
A route from Tehran’s science ministry in the city centre, to Velenjak, an affluent area in the north-west, costs around 300,000 rials (about £6) with agency taxis, Arya says, while Snapp charges about 140,000 rials. “It’s quick too. You’ll order and it’ll be with you right away.”
Tehran has expanded its underground metro network since early 2000, with its current six main lines carrying more than 3m passengers on an average day. According to Peyman Sanandaji, a municipality official, more than 7,000 buses operate in the capital, each taking around 1,200 passengers a day.
But despite these public transport improvements, using taxis is still popular. Shahkar says Tehran’s population of 12 million people previously did not have access to reliable, affordable and convenient transportation all in one form.
There are 200,000 freelance drivers in Tehran as well as 80,000 licensed drivers in green and yellow taxis, and there are an additional 80,000 agency drivers. “That’s a total of 360,000 drivers offering rides only in Tehran, if you really want to compete, we also had to give quality customer service experience.”
Not everyone in Tehran has been pleased with Snapp’s operation. The new service and its rival, TAP30, which operates on a smaller scale, both faced huge difficulties in securing their necessary licences. Taxi drivers in Tehran have staged protests in front of the Iranian parliament, Majlis, complaining that traditional agencies
But a factor behind Snapp’s rising popularity is its customer service – one user said this was a totally new concept in Iran. “For the first time in Iran, the priority is with the customer, you can leave feedback and it’s taken seriously, we’ve never felt like that before in Iran,” Reza (not his real name) said. And most drivers have a second job. “I have friends who’re doing a master’s degree at Sharif University or other universities and they’re Snapp drivers,” he said.
• Snapp offers Tehranis many choices, including female drivers.