In 2009, Garret Camp and Travis Kalanick built a startup that was worth $200,000. Little did they know that by 2015, their little startup would be worth $50bn and operate in 60 countries across the world. This is the story of Uber. The startup that became the world’s largest taxi company in just 4 short years, without owning a single vehicle. Since then, Uber has set the bar of what’s expected from a startup. It’s no surprise that the phrase, “You could build the next Uber” is all too common at hackathons these days.
Soon you’ll be getting a first-hand look at how exactly Uber works. Why? Because starting today, Uber will be testing its service in Colombo. Here’s the story of Uber’s journey into Sri Lanka and how it’ll work during this testing phase.
Meet Varun Mundkur
Varun is a Senior Launcher at Uber. He joined Uber, after completing his MBA at the Indian School of Business. He already had 4 ½ years experience in the corporate world working at Mahindra & Mahindra.
However, Varun didn’t want to go back to the corporate world. He wanted to join a startup. So in 2013, he made the decision to join Uber as it’s 2nd employee in India. He would then go on to establish Uber in 25 cities across India.
Today, as a Senior Launcher at Uber, Varun is the man responsible for taking it into new markets. His job is to first study the city and see if it’s viable for them to enter the market. If it is viable then his next task is to assemble the core team that will be in charge and create a fleet. Afterward, he becomes a mentor to the core team for a period of 3-4 months. Then he repeats the entire process in a new city.
This is the man bringing Uber to Sri Lanka.
How Uber came to Sri Lanka
There was never any doubt to ever come to Sri Lanka. Uber’s vision is to go into every city in the world. It’s only a matter of time and how quickly we can achieve that vision. – Varun Mundkur
In October 2014, Uber opened up three Colombo based positions. Suddenly, everyone was ecstatic. Uber was coming to Sri Lanka! Then time passed, nothing materialized and the listings were soon forgotten. So what happened behind the scenes?
The three positions that Uber opened up were the ones that would make up the core team in Colombo. Uber received many responses from interested candidates. As the core team is responsible for ensuring Uber’s success in Colombo, the selection process was tough.
At the time of writing, only 2 out of 3 positions in the core team have been filled. These two positions went to Nuzreth Jalaldeen and Kartik Balachandran.
Nuzreth is a veteran in the PR industry and is now Uber’s 1st Community Manager in Sri Lanka. She is the face and voice of Uber in Colombo. Her job is to ensure anyone that uses the service, ends their ride loving the experience. Karthik, is Uber’s 1st Operations & Logistics Manager in Sri Lanka. His job is to optimize the quantity and quality of cars available to users and continually improve the rider experience via scheduling, asset utilization and driver incentive programs.
The only position on this team that remains unfilled is that of the General Manager. When we went through the job specification for the role, it’s easy to see why. The General Managers at Uber have the most demanding task. This is because they are the leaders of that team. It’s their responsibility to ensure the development and growth of Uber in their city. The role of the General Manager is a challenging one. Just like the other positions on the core team, it can’t be given to anyone except the right person. If you think you have what it takes, then you can apply for the post here.
Despite only 2 out of 3 positions in the core team being filled, Varun wasn’t going to be stopped. There are two sides to Uber as he describes it: supply and demand. Karthik was there to manage the supply side. Nuzreth was there to manage the demand side. Varun was already here to act as temporary GM.
The core team for Colombo was ready. After securing a base of operations inside the Regus office in Nawala, they began to speak to various drivers. Hidden in the shadows, they slowly began building their fleet, one car at a time.
Today, the fleet is finally ready and so is the core Uber team.
How to get a Uber cab
As of this moment, the Uber fleet in Colombo is active and operational. All you need to do is simply download the app and sign up with your basic details and a credit/debit card. For further details, the video below will tell you everything you need to know about getting from Point A to Point B with Uber.
If you want to test out the service, then don’t forget to use the promo code: UBERINCMB to get Rs. 500 off your first two rides. During the testing phase, you can travel anywhere within the Colombo City limits and to the airport.
Our options and how much they cost
Currently, Uber has five options you can choose to get you from point A to point B. These options are:
- UberX – The budget uber cab
- UberTaxi – The normal taxi
- UberBLACK – The original Uber cab
- UberSUV – The SUV with enough space to fit 6 people at any given time
- UberLUX – The luxury option for those who only want the finest cars
However, the availability of these options and their prices varies from each city. Yes, not by country but by the city! For example, if you look in India the prices of Uber cabs in Bangalore and totally different from those in Mumbai. Furthermore, in some cities there are also localized options available. One such localized example would be UberAuto in India that helps users get trishaws instead of cars.
So which Uber cabs are we going to see on the streets of Colombo at launch and how much will they cost?
According to Varun, the testing phase will only see UberX cabs being available. During this testing phase, the base price of an UberX cab will be Rs. 100. On top of the base price, you will be charged for the distance you travel which is Rs. 50 per kilometer. You will also be charged the time taken to get to your destination which is Rs. 2 per minute.
Therefore final fare of an UberX cab = Base price + Rs. 50 per kilometer + Rs. 2 per minute traveled.
Interestingly, there are no waiting charges. This is because the cabs won’t wait for you. From what Varun told us, the basic concept of Uber is to get you from Point A to Point B. If you need to go to another place soon after, then you’ll need to request a new cab.
Needless to say, its a weird pricing model. Whether this means cheaper trips around Colombo, especially during rush hour, is something we can only figure out after testing.
The fleet and its drivers
At the time of writing, the Uber fleet in Sri Lanka has an undisclosed number of the following vehicles:
- Toyota Allion
- Toyota Prius
- Toyota Axio
- Nissan Bluebird
- Honda City
- Mitsubishi Lancer
During the testing phase, the fleet will only operate inside the Colombo city limits and trips to the airport. After the official launch, we might see different vehicles join the fleet. However, one thing will remain the same: Uber will not own any of these vehicles or employ any of it’s drivers.
As Varun emphasized during his interview with us, Uber is a technology company that provides a platform to connect taxi drivers and taxi companies with customers. It’s simply the middleman. However, this middleman has some strict requirements. The requirements to be a driver are:
- a valid driver’s license;
- a valid registration for the vehicle;
- commercial insurance covering the driver + 4 passengers;
- a national identity card
- a valid revenue certificate
If you have the above-listed documents and working vehicle, then you are qualified to drive for Uber. To register as driver simply head over here and fill out the necessary details. Afterward, you’ll have to face an interview and a short training session on how to use the partner app before you can be qualified to use Uber as a driver.
As a driver, you’ll always get the hires closest to your current location. With each hire, Uber has an undisclosed service charge that will be deducted from the fare. However, due to its cashless nature, you can only get your earnings from rides at the end of the week.
PickMe: the local challenger
Currently in Sri Lanka, the only direct competitor Uber has to face is PickMe. Both apps are platforms that connect taxi drivers with customers. There are only three differences between the two services.
Firstly, Uber is cashless whereas PickMe lets you pay for your ride with cash. Secondly, PickMe offers 3 types of vehicles: trishaws, nano cabs and cars. Uber on the other hand only offers cars. Thirdly, Uber requires all its partners to have no branding on their cars, whereas PickMe doesn’t have this restriction.
Considering the prices for UberX cabs here in Colombo, it’s possible that the company could disrupt the market for trishaws. On the other hand, there is a possibility that Uber will be challenging PickMe for nano cabs and normal taxi hires. However, since both apps have their own pricing models we can’t give you a definite answer as to which app is cheaper without carrying out a few tests.
Another area Uber would be challenging PickMe in would be for partners. Both apps connect with you with individual drivers and those from various companies that have partnered with the platform. This is why in Sri Lanka, they won’t be indirectly competing with taxi companies unlike in other western countries.
Varun shared with us that any taxi company can use their platform to connect with customers. The only catch is that their vehicles must not have any branding whatsoever. PickMe on the other hand doesn’t have this catch. While this might not mean much for individual drivers, for taxi companies it could be an important factor in deciding which platform they partner with.
It’s clear that PickMe presents a challenge to Uber. However, at our meeting Varun didn’t seem to be worried in any way. It looks like the team has formulated a strategy to deal with PickMe.
If there’s one thing Uber is famous for besides disrupting the transport industry, it’s stirring up controversy. Since it started expanding, the company has had to solve a mountain of legal issues wherever it went. The problem is that these issues have always surrounded the company in a layer of controversy. None of it pretty.
At it’s best you’ll get something like South Korea, where a judge ruled that Uber was illegal and ordered an arrest warrant for its founder Garret Camp. At it’s worst you’ll see absolute chaos like France did when protests by licensed taxi drivers turned into full-scale riots. In between you have London, where the infamous black cab taxi drivers caused massive traffic jams grinding the city to a halt. Across the world, Uber has a tough time making friends.
So the big question is: can Uber operate in Sri Lanka WITHOUT causing unnecessary controversy? The answer to that question is yes. Our taxi industry doesn’t seem to be as regulated as those countries where we keep seeing massive protests. Furthermore, Varun shared with us that they aren’t bringing their own cabs. It will only use the existing infrastructure that’s currently in place.
In other words, Uber will be doing the same thing that PickMe is already doing, with a few differences. Therefore, there is a legal precedent that allows them to operate here in Sri Lanka.
The current testing phase is set to last a few weeks. At the end of it, the core team hopes to have a clear understanding of what they need to do to operate in Colombo. After optimizing their procedures, Uber will be officially launching their service in Colombo. According to Varun, this is expected to happen around early November.
Our thoughts about the Uber experience
To see the Uber experience coming to Sri Lanka is an exciting surprise to say the least. It’s likely that the company will make its mark on the local transportation industry as it has everywhere else globally. However, one question still remains: is the Uber experience worth it? This is a tough question due to the mysterious pricing model compared to existing ones in the market. So we’ll have to answer that question on another day.