Uber, the startup that aims to serve as “everyone’s private driver,” had its soft launch in Honolulu today. Based in San Francisco and deployed in over 30 cities around the world, Uber empowers smartphone users to summon a “sleek black car” to take them to meetings, parties, or home (after perhaps too much partying).
Uber’s interest in the Honolulu market first surfaced in April, when Uber Community Manager Lauren Rigney reached out to me and other local contacts to spread the word that Uber was hiring. (At last check, they still are.) And last week, I heard from Paul Faguét and Tomas Campos, part of Uber’s international expansion team. The pair were on the ground on Oahu laying the groundwork for the local launch, and I invited them to meet with my partner in crime Burt Lum and me to learn more.
Over sushi and honey toast at Shokudo, we learned more about Uber’s model, the niche it fills in local transportation, and how it sets up shop in various cities.
One of the main milestones is today’s soft launch, in which a small network of Uber drivers and cars come online to serve the first few users of their service. Each city launch requires the first Uber request, and for Honolulu, the company’s “rider zero” was Kala Alexander, pictured above getting picked up on the North Shore.
“Very few cars will be available during Uber’s soft launch phase, and we don’t want to over promise and set the expectation that anyone can get a car in five minutes,” Campos noted yesterday. “That will only begin to happen after the official launch.”
Nevertheless, Honolulu’s growing community of mobile geeks and early adopters is invited to give Uber a try. This invite link will get new riders (and me) a $10 credit. You can set up your own invite link to spread the word and earn credit as well.
Uber has been widely described as a disruptor, coming up against often entrenched transportation service providers. As a result, Uber has had some contentious launches in other cities. The company has a number of offerings, from the “black car” service coming online here, to taxi service, to “UberX,” their lower-cost option that can be more of a local ride-sharing network. Campos and Faguét note that Uber in Honolulu is operating like a limo service, with state PUC-licensed and properly ensured drivers making up its network.
Indeed, Campos describes its “black car” service as “affordable luxury.” You wouldn’t use it to commute to and from work on a daily basis. But if you’re on your way to a client meeting in parking-constrained downtown Honolulu, or picking up a special someone for a night on the town, Uber brings a touch of class with its already compelling at-your-fingertips convenience.
There’s a pattern to how Uber grows in a new city, according to Uber founder Travis Kalanick. Earliest users tend to be people heading out on Friday and Saturday nights, arriving in style and getting home safely. But as they get used to firing up the app to get places.
“It sort of works its way from the weekend into the weekday,” Kalanick says. “That simplicity around not having to think about how I’m going to get from point A to point B is huge.”
One thing that the Uber team is curious about is how Hawaii’s visitors use their service, as Campos notes that Honolulu is one of the first cities in which Uber is launching where tourists comprise a significant portion of the day-to-day population.
Campos also takes pride in the fact that Uber is good for limo drivers as well as riders. The company is adamant that it’s a technology company, not a transportation company — Uber owns no vehicles and does not employ drivers. Instead, it brings its expertise in mobile, logistics, and demand response to independent operators that previously spent too much of their own time lost in the daily trappings of running a business.
He says there are small, hard-working operators that have been able to vastly expand their operations as part of the Uber network.
Today’s soft launch is only part of the work Uber is doing in Honolulu prior to its official launch later this year. Campos and Faguét are spending at least six weeks on the island. Having invested countless hours in researching the local market (and its regulatory requirements), the pair is now reaching out to local businesses, startups, and entrepreneurs to learn about and introduce Uber to the community. And they’re looking to establish a local team, seeking an associate general manager as well as a community manager.
“Rider zero” photo courtesy Uber.