‘Old’ Europe Fights Back as Software Eats Taxis

Taxi apps are disrupting personal travelNEVER again! Gatwick airport. Midnight. Exhausted kids with school the next day. And… NO sign of the cab I’d pre-booked two weeks earlier.

That was last Summer.

Last week, having touched down again at Gatwick en famille I turned on the phone to find a reassuring text telling me the cab was waiting outside. Clean. Courteous. Smooth.

I’d booked the cab from the hotel, just hours before leaving for the airport with just a few taps on a mobile app over the hotel’s free WIFI. No phone charges. Quick and easy. (I couldn’t quite believe how easy it was until I got a confirmation email)

London 1985 to 2013

I’ve lived in London since the mid-1980s and until recently getting a cab has always been stressful:

… either you can’t find one (outside zone 1 or after 11pm), or they don’t show up (mini-cabs), and when they do they’re either too late (mini-cabs), or filthy (mini-cabs) or expensive (black cabs).

London 2014

Want a black cab but none in sight? Don’t fancy hanging on street corners for hours in the rain? The Hailo taxi app tells you how many minutes away the nearest black cab is and lets you book one in a few taps. Backed by Sir Richard Branson and a slew of VCs, Hailo has just been slated as the UK’s fastest growing tech startup.

Want to impress a client or round-off a special date? Summon a sleek limo with the Uber app. San Francisco based Uber entered London in 2012 and now offer lower-cost UberX cars as an alternative to their limos. Uber operates in 70 cities around the world, has raised $360m and is valued at $3.6b.

Need to get to the airport for 5am? Book a big clean Addison Lee car with tons of space for luggage. Again, all with a few taps on your phone.

Happy to take a chance on a mini-cab that should be cheaper than a limo or black cab? Get tapping on the Kabbee app. They claim to cover 70 mini-cab fleets across London.

All these apps track your car on a map on your phone as it draws closer, and send you helpful text messages to confirm your car’s registration number and the driver’s mobile phone number. No cash? No problem, pay seamlessly by card.

With all these companies, the drivers are self-employed and take a percentage of the fares they earn.

‘Old’ Europe Fights Back

While London is enjoying a perfect storm of innovation and competition, other parts of Europe are putting up a fight.

On 1 January a regulation came into effect in Paris to force so-called “voitures de tourisme avec chauffeurs” (as opposed to licensed taxis) to have to wait 15 minutes from the time of booking before picking-up their customers! Meanwhile, the FT have reported that striking licensed taxi drivers have physically attacked Uber drivers and riders. Not cool.

A Brussels court have banned Uber, and drivers caught carrying private passengers will be fined 10,000 euros. Neelie Kroes, the EU’s digital commissioner, called the court’s decision “crazy” and “outrageous” and has blogged her anger.

Meanwhile things are looking grim in Berlin too as its taxi association is now challenging the legality of Uber and other app-based cab services.

Resistance is futile

As Silicon Valley VC Marc Andreessen said back in 2011:

Uber is software eats taxis. It’s almost entirely a smartphone-based application bringing town cars to you…. It’s a killer experience.

Outside Silicon Valley (and Tech City) nobody likes change. It’s understandable that some taxi drivers feel threatened by these new-fangled ways of doing things.

And yet, thousands of drivers are embracing these new business models as an entrepreneurial opportunity to take control of their lives: watch an Uber driver talk about his experience.

Ultimately, innovation and fair competition offer the best hope for all of us.

What next?

In the short-term it’ll be fascinating to see what happens next in Europe and elsewhere as the ‘old’ world tries to resist being eaten by software.

Meanwhile, Lyft connects drivers’ personal cars with others who want a … lift. Already in 30 US cities, Lyft is now ready for international take-off.

With Google investing £258m into Uber the logical conclusion of all this is for fully automated self-driving taxis summoned via an invisible reincarnation of Google Glass.

Perhaps we’ll all become modern-day Queen Victorias with robot drivers at our beck and call. As the old-saying goes, “Home James, and don’t spare the horses.

Photo credit: William Creswell

Update (23 April 2014): Uber launch in Beijing, their 100th city

Should Our Children be Encouraged to Fail?

The only reason I get a newspaper these days is to line the cat litter tray – even then I use the London Evening Standard, because it’s free.

Yesterday was different though as it was Mothers day, and my job is to organise tea, pastries and a certain Sunday paper that’s so fat it will keep the cat happy for the next 6 months. Of course, it’s all a throwback to the halcyon and carefree pre-children (and pre-cat) days when lazing around on a Sunday was the norm.

Back to the newspaper… the one story that struck me was about the Duke of York (aka Prince Andrew, the Queens second son) and why he believes children should be encouraged to fail, and the best way to do that is to plug into the internet and start a business.

Failure allows you to succeed in the future because we are an experience-based learning organism. All animals are. Give someone the experience and they will learn.” ~ Prince Andrew

As it happens, I couldn’t agree more. Starting a business over the internet is indeed a fast and sure-fire way to failure. And that’s the great thing about it.

How can that be good? Well, it turns out that failing, failing fast and failing early is the surest way to success. Ask any Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Of course, there’s a caveat which boils down to: knowing when to cut your losses, learning from the experience, and getting right back in the saddle.

For bonus points: start early. In other words, the earlier you start failing the more runway you have to get past failure, and on to success.

The problem is that our (at least in the UK) education system is still based on the 20th century delusion that there’s a magical conveyor belt from school to university to ‘permanent’ employment. In that illusory world, success is all about fitting in rather than standing out, and playing it safe rather than taking a chance. And that means ‘failure’ is something to be avoided at all costs.

The irony is that playing it safe, waiting to be picked and following the rulebook is probably the riskiest thing any of us can do. Why? Because ‘safe’ jobs are being outsourced, off-shored & automated at breakneck speed.

Instead, we need to be encouraging our kids to stand out, take a chance, and experiment with what might not work. Creativity, innovation and entrepreneurialism are the order of the day. The keys to success (via a fast-track of failure) have never been more accessible or cheaper. And the younger you start the better…

Recent surveys show that while 55% of young people want to start their own businesses, 70% are held back by ‘fear of failure’, and only 14% are actually doing it. We owe it to them and their futures to help them as best we can.

I applaud what the Prince is trying to do with his iDEA scheme, launched today, to help 1 million 16 to 25 year-olds start their own businesses over the next 5 years.

Photo credit: Labyrinth of Failure by Chris Hackett and Eleanor Lovinsky at Flickr

Betting on Bitcoin’s Future


If you’d bet $5k on Bitcoin 2 years ago, you’d be able to sell them today for around $634,800, a return of 12,596%.

$5k happens to be 0.01% of what a leading Venture Capitalist firm have invested in Bitcoin-related startups. Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz makes a strong case for the future of Bitcoin.

According to BitCoin Watch, the total value of all bitcoins today is $8.8 billion. Small change compared to mainstream traditional currencies like the mighty US dollar.

To write-off cryptocurrencies in general and Bitcoin in particular would however be a mistake. A cryptocurrency is a digital means of exchange. Bitcoin is the most well-known and first to be traded in 2009.

Bitcoin is lurching toward mainstream at an incredible rate, online and in the physical world. You can now spend your bitcoins at British pubs, Berlin bars and even tuition fees at a public UK university.

While Bitcoin certainly has momentum there remain big challenges like security and anonymity. But it’s only a matter of time before Bitcoin or its successors like Litecoin, Peercoin, Namecoin and Dogecoin overcome these issues.

Around the turn of the century, I spent nearly fifteen years making some of the biggest banks in the world get even bigger. It could be that the traditional banking model has the most to lose by the take-up of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Ultimately I’m bullish on cryptocurrencies because we now know we don’t have to put up with the sheer hassle and cost of transacting (in both the online and physical world) with last century’s payment systems & currencies.

Enough of us have now seen that a faster, cheaper and more flexible alternative is possible.

Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz has made a bet with Felix Salmon a prominent finance blogger at Reuters. Ben has bet a pair Alpaca socks that Bitcoin has a bright future. You can listen to Ben and Felix make the bet here on the excellent NPR Planet Money podcast.

Somehow I think Ben has rather more than a nice pair of Alpaca socks to look forward to if Bitcoin does work out.

Photo credit: BTC Keychain

Marketing Is Storytelling

Wondering why your crappy website, ad or Facebook page isn’t working?

The thing is, nobody is interested in you, or what you have to offer. Features? Boring. Discounts? Desperate. Benefits? Meh.

So, what the hell does work?


Watch this three-minute video to see a superb example of what I mean. (If you don’t understand Hindi then just hit the Caption button to see what they’re saying in your language)

This story from Google India has struck a chord all around the Web. Watch it. Experience it. And you’ll see why.

I know. It’s Google. No matter. The story carries us away on a wave of emotion. The fact that a technology company with so much baggage can do this shows just how powerful this approach can be.

So, what’s happening here?

I think there are four factors at play: story, emotion, connection & outcome


We’re hard-wired to ‘get’ stories. I started reading stories to my kids when they were 12 months old. They come home from school, they tell stories. You meet-up with friends, you tell stories. We all love stories.

The better the story & the better you tell it, the more we’ll respond to it – and to you.


The more emotion you spark with your story the more it will resonate. The more it will be remembered. And, the more it will be shared.


The better storyteller you are then the more of a bond you make with the recipient. The greater the bond, the more liked and trusted you will become. And of course trust leads to success in business as in life.


If you’re selling a commodity and you do it efficiently then all that people care about is price. If so then good luck.

The rest of us need to be using stories to gain attention and build trust. But the trick is to conjure up an outcome that your ideal audience wants and weave that into your stories.

Note: We’re not talking about the outcome you want. Nobody else cares about that. The outcome that matters is the outcome your ideal audience want.

What stories are you telling? How well are you telling them? Who are you telling them to? And, how are they responding?

Worth a try if you’re not getting anywhere by shouting ‘come buy my stuff’ at them. Don’t you think?

Why ‘Project Managers’ are Key to Your Company’s Survival


(I first published this article over at Medium.com)

I don’t care if your company is a tech startup or a Fortune 100, unless it’s fast, fluid and flexible* it’s not going to survive.

Unless you and your company learns to spot, nurture and value the few people who can make this happen then your business is screwed.

The problem is that most companies are just not set up that way.

What happens to those (let’s call them project managers or PMs** for short) who do take the initiative, show creativity and take calculated risks?

They get firedignored, or promoted.

And they are nearly always the wrong things to do. Here’s why…
[Read more…]

Don’t Ignore People Who Pay for Your Help

Clients vs Customers

This is a true story. And it’s making me nervous.

How could a company with a great product end up with customers talking openly about jumping ship. On their own website!

It starts with…

Why haven’t they updated the product in 8 months?

Why don’t they tell us what’s coming up?


Are they listening to us?

Why the hell aren’t they responding to us?


Those other guys are great: they’re listening and talking… and their product looks really cool.

I’m switching… Me too…

No, this isn’t a story about some ‘last century’ corporation that doesn’t know or care that the world has changed.

This is about a small tech company with a great software product and lots of paying customers who love it. They deserve to do well, and I’m still using their product. For now.

But, I’m worried because all I’m getting is radio silence. I can’t help but wonder if something’s wrong.

Are they mulling over offers to buy them out?

Do they really think they are ‘too busy’ to talk with us?

Has their lead developer died?

Who knows.

Point is, if they don’t keep talking with us (the people who pay them to help us) then we will assume the worst. We’ll gossip. We’ll speculate. We’ll look elsewhere.

Finally, we’ll go to someone else. Someone who gives a damn.

Here in 2013, we can’t afford to ignore the people who pay us, to help them. No matter how smart we are or how great our widgets are.

If we want them to stay with us then we need to keep listening and talking with the people we’re in the business of helping.

Ignore someone who pays for your help, and you’ll lose a customer. Build a relationship with them and you’ll have a client who sticks around for more.

I’m still with these guys for now but they’re skating on very thin ice.

Photo credit: André P. Meyer-Vitali