After relocating from Sri Lanka, Kasun De Alwis found himself finishing his bachelor's degree in business while juggling a new wife, a newborn and an old minivan.
It was De Alwis’ wife that suggested he could offer airport rides to students in their minivan in his spare time to make some extra cash. Since then, he has turned a few rides to the airport into a community-centered rideshare company called SKY Rides.
“It’s kind of crazy [how it happened]. First, I got married, then my wife got pregnant, so we got a minivan,” De Alwis said. “That’s how this basic idea became SKY Rides.”
In 2013, De Alwis placed fliers all around campus offering a shuttle service to the airport per the advice of his wife. De Alwis set the price at $45 for a ride to the airport and only got one call his first semester.
After doing market research, he reduced his price to $35 while also offering discounts to returning customers. Around this time, De Alwis was also working at a local Subway on campus, but after the entire staff was let go, he decided to take a risk and offer $30 airport rides to WSU students in December - the busiest time of the year.
“That was kind of the big beginning of the real operations for SKY Rides,” De Alwis said. “We did the same thing in 2014, and that’s when the Indian Student Association contacted me.”
The Graduate Indian Student Association called on De Alwis to help manage the many incoming students from India and properly get them from the airport to campus effectively.
The demand from GISA was so high that De Alwis had to begin contacting other people to help fulfill rides when he couldn’t.
“At this time, I asked a couple of my friends to become drivers and suddenly, us three were handling everything and we did so many rides,” De Alwis said.
In December 2015, De Alwis launched SKY Rides as a company and began using the tools he learned at WSU to create a business model.
The current fare is $25 for an airport trip in a car and $35 in a minivan. Minimum fare comes to $6.20 plus $1.25 per mile in a car, and $7.85 plus a $1.49 per mile in the minivan.
Since graduating in 2015, De Alwis has been hard at work developing every aspect of the company from a mobile app to combating surge pricing— he says SKY Rides does not use surge pricing as another advantage over other rideshare companies.
For De Alwis, it is important to only add students and faculty as riders in order to give people who are a part of WSU the confidence that they’re being driven by a person who knows the campus and community.
“When considering drivers, we only add from the community - only from Wayne State,” De Alwis said. “We have so many customers who trust us over Uber. When they are going to the airport or an interview, they will call me.”
Christopher Gregory, a current undergraduate student majoring in mechanical engineering technology, started driving with SKY Rides after he noticed major rideshare companies had too much competition for work without the focus on community that he found with De Alwis.
“The most significant [difference between SKY Rides and other rideshare services] is how many drivers stated there are so many drivers, it is difficult to get a steady amount of work,” Gregory said.
De Alwis said he has dedicated his time to creating a company that offers more to its employees and he aims to do that as a small, community-centric startup.
He has offered more to his drivers with about 82 to 85 percent of fare going to drivers, in comparison to Uber’s 80 percent, as well as the ability to schedule rides ahead of time—a feature that is not currently offered by any rideshare service in Michigan.
For Gregory, this attention to the drivers and the people they serve has kept him with SKY Rides.
“[De Alwis] cares a lot about those that drive for him and considers safety a top priority,” Gregory said. “He also makes sure that all of his drivers get an equal amount of work offered to them, rather than just allowing the drivers who are on at any given time to take all the scheduled fares.”
Since SKY Rides has focused on the community, Gregory said the biggest edge it has on bigger companies like Uber and Lyft is its relationship to university.
For freshman dance major Angelique Stringer, that is what makes SKY Rides a more valuable option than other rideshare services.
“When you get a ride from a person from here with a connection to you, they can show you around, in a way of saying, ‘This is the city, this is the school and there are other things to do here,’ to help the person they’re driving,” Stringer said.
SKY Rides has been serving WSU for three years and hopes to expand to other universities across Michigan and launch its new mobile app this year.
Gregory said that the company, while still fairly new, has built up trust with WSU riders and drivers and that can keep SKY Rides going.
“In all honesty, I trust [De Alwis] more than I would a corporate entity. I know, without question, that I will be treated fairly as a driver working for him. Even many of his clients who will only use SKY Rides say the same thing,” Gregory said.