Sometimes it seems like Über gets more press than any other company on earth. In recent months, it was banned in Ann Arbor, investigated in San Francisco, outlawed in Brussels, and protested in Milan. Soon it faces a 10,000 cab roadblock in London. As more than one writer has pointed out, with great innovation comes worldwide aggravation.
No matter how the legal fights shake out, Über has become the poster child for the sharing economy. As it should. Ever since I started using it, I’ve realised my whole idea of a good business destination has changed. I used to look forward to conferences in fun, family-friendly places. Now I have an Über reason as well. Does a city have the service or not? It matters. San Diego has great beaches and Über. I like San Diego. Miami has great beaches but no Über. I used to like Miami a lot more.
How did this happen? I think there are some obvious reasons that everyone mentions, and some less obvious ones that may be even more important. Above all, Über is the perfect match of form and function. It takes taxi service, something that most people dislike and turns it into a common cause. Not many of us enjoy hailing cabs, calling cabs, waiting for cabs and, if defections to Über are any indication, driving them.
The service makes everything better. You know where the driver is, and they know where you are. They show up, know your name, and give you a free bottle of water. It’s not a big deal, but much of the success of the new economy is based on small differences in user experience. YouTube doesn’t beat its competitors based on features — it is simply better.
A few additional characteristics make Über a cut above:
A new type of driver. Traditionally, cab drivers work hard for poor pay, mainly because they have to ante up more than $100 a day for a car. Uber slashes the overhead and makes it easy for anyone to be a driver. A recent survey by the Washington Post showed the service was attracting students and single moms, as well as traditional cab drivers who were happy to make more for working less.
Sense of ownership. A major prerequisite for becoming an Über driver is owning a nice, late-model car. Über drivers are independent contractors, essentially running their own show. They dictate when they work and when they don’t. This may account for the fact that in my experience, they seem a lot happier to be working when they are.
Transparency. I know where the driver is and they know where I am. We know each other’s first names. We also rate each other after every ride. This gives them an incentive to have a squeaky clean car and do a good job. It gives me an incentive not to be a pain (not that I am, but you get the point).
Ease of transaction. I used to travel with a lot of cash because I knew that half the taxis would have a “broken” credit card reader. Über makes it simple to pay with no awkward computation of tips and change. It also emails you a receipt, which makes expense tracking easy.
Constant innovation. This last part is really important. Über is constantly coming up with fun ideas. They offered helicopter service to the Hamptons one 4th of July. Then they had a kitten promotion that delivered you a ball of fur for 15 minutes for $20, with the proceeds going to animal shelters. Recently, they’ve come up with one of the smartest ads I’ve seen. Delta Airlines, which offers USB ports on its seats, delivered the same service to Über passengers.
Über, like other sharing services, faces big headwinds. Most taxi services operate in a strict regulatory environment that limits the number of cars they can have and the fares they can charge. This creates a vicious cycle where the cost of owning a car rises, and the need to make money from it, forces companies to provide the minimal service necessary to secure a fare. But the heavy sunk investments ensure that Über will face plenty of resistance moving forward. Will it survive? I certainly hope so.
In the meantime, my kids are pushing me to visit Mickey Mouse again. My two nearest options are Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney World in Orlando. The latter is, of course, much bigger and better. That said, Orlando doesn't have Über. This won’t be an easy choice.