355 Ferrari for Richard's confessions

Car wars

Posted on May 16, 2013 | in Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur | by Richard

My foster brother Ian called me from his home in New South Wales after a few beers. “I got to say I really love ya bro, but there’s one time I really thought you were a bustard.” I tried to remember if I’d ever been nasty to his teddy bear as a kid or something, but he continued “It’s when you got that bloody Ferrari. As a mechanic I love those things but I’ve never even sat in one. It’s unfair- you wouldn’t even know where the engine is!” I thought I’d wind him up a bit and said, “No, I know it’s at the back because I went to put some luggage there once but couldn’t.” He just groaned.

That was in the days I lived in Monaco and had nice cars and a boat I’d bought from Ralph Schumacher. At some point I went off the whole boys’ toys and decided there was an emptiness in the “poverty of possession.” Now living in London, I have a basic car but barely use it. The hassle of parking and fighting traffic lights have made me a Cab and mini-car user, and recently I’ve noticed interesting things going on in their business world.

Cabs have had two unique selling points. Unlike minicabs they can be legally hailed from the street, a huge advantage when so much hiring is done on the street on demand. Secondly, they have “The Knowledge”. Cabbies have such an amazing and unmatched memory of streets and locations that research has been done into their ability and techniques. At times it’s been a booming business and I remember a number of years ago when they increased their prices and were the most expensive in the world. That has probably changed with time and the weakness of the pound. Cabs have also benefitted from their awesome reputation and branding, while mini cabs have been seen as unregulated and even unreputable.

Then a number of years ago, that started to change. The minicab company Addison started to get organised and eat cabbies’ breakfast. Their distinctive branding and recognisable name brought a new respectability to mini cabs. But it was more than that. They hit at the heart of the cabbies’ USPs. Firstly, the advent of GPS has probably meant a severe devaluation in the value of the knowledge. Relatively novice and even foreign drivers can find their way around London with ease of inputting a postcode. Secondly, smartphone apps have made booking a car really easy for the consumer. They find the location, can remember past destinations and give you fixed price before the journey starts. It’s not been a surprise to see Add Lee cars more and more on London streets. To me there is a huge question looming: if you stand on the street and use an app to order a nearby car, is that not “hailing” a car, just because you don’t wave a hand in the air? If you can hail a car so easily, what’s the justification of an expensive cab license? And I don’t know if it’s this competition or the recession or just and exaggeration in recent gossip about cabbies being grumpy lately.  Recently I got abused for not giving a big enough tip after paying £15 for a £13.60 fare. The guy recognised me and shouted “the way you tip no wonder you live in Belgravia”. A mate got abused after a cabbie forgot to put his meter on for a few minutes. “You must have noticed” he shouted. If they’re struggling for business, perhaps they could lower their prices, which I’m not sure they’ve ever done. What they have done though is to finally release an app of their own. “”Hailo” works wonderfully and makes ordering a cab inexpensive and easy, so maybe they’ll claw back some market share. It’s certainly interesting, a US company, Uber, has launched a luxury car app service at a reasonable price. They asked me to be their first London customer and I have to say I enjoyed it.

Whoever wins this battle, it is probably good for you and me. No more standing in the rain, jostling against others, looking for a cab while a few streets away a driver looks unknowingly for passengers. In this age of information, that shouldn’t be possible.