Growing up in India, Zūm co-founder and CEO Ritu Narayan watched her mom struggle to balance the demands of working while raising a family. Finding care arrangements for her four children, while juggling a full-time job, proved to be a near-impossible task. Her mom eventually made the difficult decision to sacrifice her career to take care of her family.
A few decades later, and on a different continent, Narayan found herself at a similar crossroads.
In 2013, with two young children and a full-time job as a product manager at eBay, Narayan wondered how she was going to make it all work.
She needed to ensure her children had a safe way to get to and from school and their various activities across the Bay Area. But that wasn’t compatible with her work schedule, and the care arrangements she made were often unreliable — falling through at the last minute and forcing her to leave work early. She noticed other working parents facing a similar dilemma.
That’s when it hit her: despite the fact that it had been 30 years since she watched her mom struggle to balance work and home life, shockingly little had changed. There still wasn’t a seamless, safe and reliable way to arrange child care. There was still a profound misalignment between being present at work and showing up as a parent. While we live in a time when it feels possible to ‘have it all,’ it’s clearly still taking a toll on working parents. This, she realized, was a problem that spanned generations and cultures.
“That’s when I knew this was a fundamental problem that I needed to solve,” Narayan says. “It wasn’t just about finding my own care arrangements anymore. It was clear that this was a bigger societal problem.”
That’s when the idea for Zūm was hatched.
VALIDATING THE IDEA
Confident that there was a problem to solve but unclear on what the solution should be, Narayan applied and was accepted to Stanford Business School’s Sloan Fellowship in 2013.
During her year-long program, she enrolled in a course with Steve Blank, where he taught his Lean LaunchPad methodology. The goal: to help entrepreneurs like herself either validate or invalidate their business hypothesis. One of the tools they used was the Business Model Canvas by Alex Osterwalder.
“Essentially, there are nine pieces of the business model — things like your key partners, value proposition, channels, customer segments, cost structure,” Narayan says. “And every week, you would conduct dozens of customer interviews to nail down each of these components.”
Through this process, Narayan’s idea started to take shape. Her initial hypothesis was to build a trusted services marketplace for working parents. Based on the feedback from her conversations, this eventually morphed into a more specific offering around a full-time nanny service.
This form of wandering and narrative shifting, Narayan says, is core to the journey to finding product-market fit.
The way you define your offering over a period of time is key to the process of finding product-market fit. It’s a way to see what resonates with people.
Eventually, Narayan landed on an even narrower focus that seemed to resonate during her conversations: transportation services for working parents. “Everything else can be outsourced, but transportation can’t,” she says. “Because you have to know whether you can trust someone enough to drive your children. What is their driving record? Is their car clean? Will they show up on time every day?”
To test the idea for the company — then called Liftee — Narayan created a mock website. She knew from her time at eBay that most large organizations and cities have parent groups, so she found the one local to her area — Palo Alto — and emailed them the website. It gained traction instantly.
As we’ve seen from our previous conversations in this series with the founders of Kubecost and Binti, when people want your product, you’ll know it. Customers line up for first access to your offering. Word-of-mouth spreads like wildfire. People pull out their wallets, eager to give you their money.
For Narayan, it was a similar experience. “We emailed Liftee’s mock website to a Palo Alto parents group with messaging along the lines of, ‘be a parent, not a chauffeur.’ Within 24 hours, we had over 300 interested parents.”
She also started to notice signs of word-of-mouth — hearing Liftee brought up organically during conversations with other parents and getting outreach from companies like Google that wanted to introduce the service as a company benefit. “Even though we hadn’t even officially launched Liftee yet, people were doing whatever they could to get it.”
GETTING READY TO LAUNCH
With people lining up for access to Liftee, it was clear that Narayan needed to launch the company quickly — especially because there were other transportation providers that were starting to edge onto the scene as well. But Narayan decided to take a different approach than her competitors.
Focus on go-to-market > product.
In theory, the Zūm app would allow parents to request a driver on-demand for their children — similar to Uber or Lyft. The app would also provide a photo of the driver, some background information, and a way to track the ride.
But rather than perfecting the app, Narayan and her team decided to invest the majority of their time going even deeper into customer conversations and market research. They recognized that, since they were creating a product that involved child safety, they couldn’t follow the typical tech ethos to “move fast and break things.” They truly had to understand the needs of their customers.
So they spent entire days with parents to understand their most pressing concerns. Then they did the same with drivers, making sure that they checked all the boxes that were important to parents — safety, reliability, trustworthiness — while trying to create a B2C go-to-market plan that made sense on all sides.
“We were designing the solution as well. But these were all very low-fidelity mockups. We were collecting information through Google Sheets, assigning drivers through PDFs and collecting payments through PayPal. To the parents, it probably looked pretty professional. But behind the scenes, there was no app.”
According to Narayan, the decision to prioritize users, to over-deliver on customer expectations rather than getting bogged down with product look and feel, was intentional.
“There were a couple of other companies trying to do something similar that had raised a pretty good amount of money during their Series A. However, they ended up shutting down. And the reason why was because they were so focused on building the app, while our focus was very squarely on building the go-to-market motion.”
So even though their app was a bit clunky and still undergoing testing, Narayan and her co-founders launched the company in January 2016 under a brand new name: Zūm.
After launching, Zūm only grew in popularity. Within months, the company had hundreds of drivers serving families across six Bay Area counties. And it was clear that people were loving the app — with 90% of customers using Zūm every week and 40% using it every day.
Looking to sign up more parents, Narayan started to visit schools across the Bay Area to promote their service to the parents. She expected to find more customers for Zūm. What she didn’t expect to discover was an entirely untapped market.
As it turns out, school systems — especially public schools — were struggling with transportation issues. Between decades-old infrastructure and inflexible systems, schools were looking for alternative transportation options. And they had the budget to invest.
“For many schools, 10% to 20% of their routes aren’t appropriate for school buses, and they wanted a smaller vehicle. Zūm was the perfect platform for that.”
So they started to sell into the public school system as well. In 2018, they landed their largest customer yet: a $1 million contract with Children's Health Council in Palo Alto, a community of schools and clinics that served children with learning differences across the Bay Area.
But at the start of 2019, Narayan spotted a problem: while they were finding success in both the B2B and B2C arms of their business, the dynamics of serving the parents versus serving the school were starting to create conflict.
“Everything, from the sales process to the go-to-market motion, was very different for a consumer versus a business. Ultimately, we saw that most of our company growth was from B2B. We would have to spend tremendous amounts of resources to see similar growth with B2C. So even though we had product-market fit with parents, we found a new market that was even better.”
A few months later, they made the decision to start transitioning fully into B2B.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” Narayan says. “I had to shed my founding story, to walk away from the product built specifically for parents, a product that I personally was using. But it was right for the company, and I knew I had to do it. I couldn’t be so attached to where I came from that I couldn’t see where I was going.”
FINDING PRODUCT-MARKET FIT (AGAIN)
As part of the transition, Narayan and her team recognized that they needed to do more research on what school districts were looking for, given that all of their customer research from before had focused on parents.
While they had already found success in the B2B market, she wanted to be confident that they were on the path to product-market fit the second time around (read about how Alma found product-market fit twice as well).
Since Zūm already had contracts with a few schools in Oakland, they decided to meet with the Oakland Unified School District. Through these conversations, they identified three critical unmet needs:
1. Full-service transportation
Even though they already had an app, infrastructure and drivers in place, Narayan was prepared to start from scratch to meet the needs of Zum’s customers. Specifically, she wanted to understand exactly what the transportation needs of these school districts looked like.
“Since we were making a transition anyway, we wanted to do it right. So we wanted to know: what would it mean to do full transportation, owning and operating all the buses? What would it mean if we were just the technology provider for the districts, providing only the routing software? And what we heard from Oakland Unified was that we needed to provide both.”
2. More sustainable vehicles
At this point, Zūm was still only offering rides through individual vehicles. But they realized there was a huge opportunity to offer buses through their platform — not just for the sake of efficiency, but also from a sustainability perspective.
“There were half a million school buses on the road at the time. And we started to get excited about the future of what more sustainable vehicles could look like. What if they could all be electric and be used to route energy back into the grid?”
3. Tracking abilities
Narayan’s primary point of contact at the Oakland Unified School District was Kim Raney, the Transportation Director. Raney, who had come from FedEx, specifically wanted the ability to track where all the students were while commuting to and from school.
She was like, "What era is this? At FedEx, I knew where all my packages were. But I have no idea where these thousands of kids are when they’re on the bus." And that’s when we had another aha moment.”
Armed with a plan for what they needed to do, Narayan and the Zūm team got to work. By December 2019, they had signed a $50 million, five-year contract with the Oakland Unified School District. And Raney, the Transportation Director, became their biggest advocate.
From there, Zūm only continued to expand across California — signing a $150 million contract with San Francisco Unified School District in January 2021, and a $400 million deal with Los Angeles Unified School District in December of the same year.
Since their full pivot into B2B, Zūm has acquired over a billion dollars in total contract value, with most school partnerships averaging at least five years. Zūm was also valued at $937 million after its $130 million Series D in 2021. The company has plans to introduce a fleet of 10,000 electric school buses that, by 2027, will route nearly 1 GW of energy back to the grid per day.
Beyond the revenue numbers and the valuations, it’s clear that Zum is a company that knows itself. After multiple iterations, they’ve landed on a narrative — as a safe, efficient and sustainable transportation option for students — that feels authentic. This, Narayan says, is a natural side effect of finding product-market fit.
But getting there doesn’t come easily, Narayan warns. Product-market fit is a constantly moving target, requiring founders to be hands-on at all times.
“As a founder, you should always be involved in product-market fit — no matter what stage your company is — because it’s tied to your product, your sales motion, your go-to-market. The journey to finding product-market fit is never over.”