By Phil Reiter
“Transportation as reliable as running water,” Lucas Samuels, Sr. Marketing Manager at Uber, imagines as he describes his company’s vision. And, having watched Uber grow in less than 5 years from a Silicon Valley startup to the international, seemingly ubiquitous ride-sharing service that it has become, I’m inclined to believe that the San Francisco-born, “black car” platform-that-could can make it happen.
Now that we know what Uber wants to be, let’s rewind and understand what Uber is today.
Unless you have become disconnected and gone feral-ly off-grid, you are aware of the recent legislative cases filed against Uber in cities from New York and Toronto to Paris and Hyderabad. To someone unfamiliar with the “big data,” massively interconnected platform that Uber (somewhat literally) drives, the outbursts of unmitigated anger towards the company from the membership of taxi operators around the globe is nonsensical. Why all the hate? Because Uber – and its increasing number of competitors – portends to not only revolutionize how we move around a city, but also redefine our perception of goods and services delivery. From a sleek, unassuming app on a smart phone, a user can order up a ride to anywhere, have a hot lunch delivered, or get hitched. As Lucas clarifies, Uber is not a transportation provider, it’s an “urban logistics company,” and its name is becoming synonymous with on-demand anywhere requests. It’s an Internet success story that ignites the imagination of what’s possible with just a single app, and I was yearning to find out more.
Standing before a packed room at Bitmaker Labs HQ in downtown Toronto, Lucas – affectionately known as Lucas@Uber by countless Uber users who have relied on his community management expertise to navigate the app and get to where they were going – enthusiastically presents “Marketing at Uber.” He is no stranger to the world of social networking, having previously worked at some of Toronto’s standout startups – including the Google-acquired PushLife –, and his passion for Uber’s accomplishments and ambitions is contagious. Over 300 cities in more than 58 countries with adamantly loyal legions of customers in each, it’s hard to resist not “drinking the Kool-Aid,” as Lucas did, and letting yourself become enamored with the potential of an on-demand world – where your every need is immediately fulfilled through the push of request button.
How was this meteoric rise in popularity possible? Lucas stresses that it came down to educating whoever wanted to listen in the early days, and getting the word out about what Uber is and what it can do. Toronto was one of the first 10 Uber cities, and the first in Canada, so Lucas and his pioneering team had to schmooze the influencers in T.dot and get them onboard and using the app. It definitely wasn’t an easy ride in the beginning, as guaranteeing around-the-clock customer support for Uber’s burgeoning user base in Toronto often meant “24x7 firefighting” on the part of Lucas et al. Uber’s users are its best marketers and biggest advocates, Lucas explains, so ensuring their happiness was paramount.
Of course, attention-getting stunts never hurt, and Uber’s marketing gurus have the formula for making their on-demand stunts go viral across the interwebs down to a science. Looking for a unique Valentine’s Day gift that says “I Love You” from 10,000 feet in the air? UberSKY (skywriting) has you covered. Want to cruise the lakes of Muskoka in a style? Order an UberBOAT. Do you find the formality of a traditional wedding too stuffy? Get married on the spot to your life partner with UberWEDDING. It’s less about marketing the product, Lucas clarifies as he showcases his and his cohorts’ handiwork, than bringing unforgettable experiences to users.
Sometimes, though, the marketing gods smile down on you and good fortune seemingly lands in your lap… or the driver’s seat. As was the case when world-renowned performer and music producer, deadmau5, asked to join as a driver and Uber passengers around Toronto in his uber-sweet McLaren.
Even controversy works in Uber’s favour. The bickering at Toronto City Hall over whether Uber should be considered a taxi operator, faced with all the same license and registration fees, cannot but be good press for the company as more Torontonians learn of the service and become interested in finding out what all the fuss is about.
Of course, when a single app has the power to alter traffic patterns and potentially reduce congestion, as is being heralded as Uber rolls out its UberPOOL carpooling service in New York and Toronto (only during the Pan Am Games – from July 13th-26th), it’s bound to get in hot water, as well. Case in point: Seemingly exploitative surge pricing. As the demand for Uber rides in an area increases, price levels are adjusted upwards. It’s basic supply-demand economics, but when power outages or transit strikes hit, and an influx of people are left scrambling to find a way to work or home, surge pricing begins to look like gauge pricing. It’s a growing pain for a company that continues venturing into unexplored territories of on-demand service delivery.
With an estimated net worth of $50 billion and plans to expand to even more urban centres, including additional cities in Canada, Uber shows no signs of slowing down. As it rewrites the on-demand transportation paradigm, and takes on stodgy incumbents in the process, we, like Lucas, are “on for the ride.”