Money & Me: ‘Discussing money openly as a family makes financial decisions easier’

Soham Shah, owner of a car-rental business, says stocks are one of the best ways to save for the future

Rental car companies react to Amazon joining the car rental market in the UAE. Soham Shah, founder of Self Drive.AE photopgraphed in Silicon Oasis with one of his rental cars on June 7th, 2021. 
Antonie Robertson / The National.
Reporter: Patrick Ryan for National
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Soham Shah is the chief executive of car subscription platform Selfdrive, which operates in the UAE and Oman. The Indian entrepreneur was inspired to launch a disruptive car rental business after reading about the industry’s fragmented state in a newspaper article in 2004.

The following year, the master's of business administration graduate set up Pinewoods Technology Services in Pune, capitalising on India’s technology talent to bootstrap a new business.

Mr Shah visited the UAE in 2014 because the country was on his bucket list. Impressed by the business possibilities available, he moved here in 2016 and launched Selfdrive under the Pinewoods umbrella.

The all-in-one smart mobility app allows customers to directly rent dealer-certified cars on demand, with 15 brands, 65 different models and a fleet of more than 2,400 cars. The app uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to match customer profiles with suitable cars.

Selfdrive has had more than 50,000 customers and enjoys a monthly growth of 30 per cent. The company recently unveiled a rent-to-own plan, where clients who rent a car for 12 months can purchase it at the end of that period.

Mr Shah, 39, expects the platform will cross $25 million in revenue by the end of the year and hopes to expand the business to other GCC countries and Europe.

He lives in Dubai Silicon Oasis with his wife and child.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I was born and raised in Pune, India. Both my parents were entrepreneurs. My father was in the manufacturing of diamond cutting and mining tools while my mother was involved in the food-processing industry. As a family, we always had an open discussion on our finances as a whole and everyone’s opinion mattered. This created strong family bonds and made financial decision making a lot easier.

At what age did you start working?

I started working very young. Soon after my 10th standard board examinations, I joined a local two-wheeler repair workshop. I enjoyed every bit of my day.

I discovered an inclination for machines and cars and decided to pursue an engineering degree. My first real job was as a part-time market research executive – I earned a monthly salary of 1,850 Indian rupees ($24.50).

Who has been your biggest financial inspiration?

Hands down, my biggest financial inspiration comes from my family, especially my grandfather who built and ran an empire of his own with little access to education. He managed three different businesses with foreign collaboration and stayed invested in investments and property.

It has been super challenging to run a bootstrapped company but grow and expand it like you have been funded
Soham Shah, chief executive of Selfdrive

What was your weakest financial moment?

The weakest moment was in early days, when I was pursuing mechanical engineering and working at the same time but had to borrow money from a friend to pay my bills. Although it was only 5,000 Indian rupees – it was a large amount to me.

Borrowing did not feel right and I promised myself to become financially independent so I would never have to face such a situation again.

What was the first step you took to launch the car-rental business?

Once I decided to focus on initiating a car rental business, I proposed the idea to my parents for their feedback. Their understanding and support of my decision not to join either of them in business but to start my own company from scratch was the first route to independence.

How much money did you start that first company with?

My parents lent me the amount for the initial investment. I started the car rental business with a sum of 150,000 Indian rupees, which covered the down payment cost of the first car and the basic requirement and infrastructure needed to set up the company.

What has been your greatest financial challenge so far?

It has been super challenging to run a bootstrapped company but grow and expand it like you have been funded. The key is to know your metrics and keep the company lean and clean.

Rental car companies react to Amazon joining the car rental market in the UAE. Soham Shah, founder of Self Drive.AE photopgraphed in Silicon Oasis with one of his rental cars on June 7th, 2021. 
Antonie Robertson / The National.
Reporter: Patrick Ryan for National

What emotions do you have around money?

In my opinion, money is important to be able to sustain and provide a good lifestyle for oneself and one’s family. However, it has never been my prime focus. I believe if we stay focused towards our goal in life, whether it is work or passion, money will surely follow.

For me, money is only a number and it is important to put the number to work.

How did the coronavirus affect your business?

As people saw job and salary cuts, it was evident that investing in a car was the last option on their list given all the uncertainty. Yet they needed basic mobility and sensing an opportunity, we launched several on-demand services that resulted in the company growing by more than 380 per cent within a year after the lockdown. So, the effect has been positive.

How did it feel before you changed tack?

It was one of many moments where it felt we would have lost it all. Most of our customers wanted to return their cars, given the lockdown, and the forecast was for monthly revenue declines. However, I believe in leveraging connections and opening up and addressing the problem. We unveiled some quick solutions that helped to bypass that phase.

What is your aim for Selfdrive? Where do you see it five years from now?

Currently, we provide an all-in-one portfolio of services starting from one day to 36 months, as we see an exponential growth in the mobility space. We plan to be a global leader in the mobility sector and have plans to launch electric vehicles, a digital charging network and e-scooters with an integrated mobility network across channels.

Where do you see yourself at the end of that time frame?

In five years, I would like to see myself as one of the top five players in the car-rental segment across the region.

What is your financial moonshot?

I would ideally want Selfdrive to become a billion-dollar company and launch an initial public offering.

Are you a spender or a saver?

A combination of both. Spend money, but wisely. I believe in long-term investments. I invest in stocks related to technology, cars, the consumer segment and fast-moving consumer goods, which is the best way to save for the future. I also invest in bonds across countries such as India, the UAE and the US.

What has been your best investment?

I think my best investment would definitely be the initial 150,000 Indian rupees put towards Selfdrive.

Do you invest in cryptocurrencies?

Yes. I have invested a little in Ether, Ada Cardano and XRP.

What is your approach to a pension plan?

Good to have one but I do not entirely rely on it. As someone in business, I feel I will not ever retire and depend on a pension. I would like to stay active.

What is your most cherished purchase?

I really cherish my cars. I currently drive a BMW X5 and i8.

How much do you have in your wallet right now?

For me, it is all about technology. I either prefer Apple Pay or else carry cards. I am not much into carrying cash.

Updated: December 16, 2021, 9:49 AM