Ayubowan Uber! Welcome to Sri Lanka

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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.

Photo credits: Uber
Photo credits: Uber

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.

Varun Mundkur, the senior launcher at Uber responsible for bringing it to Sri Lanka (Photo credits: Varun Mundkur)
Varun Mundkur, the senior launcher at Uber responsible for bringing it to Sri Lanka (Photo credits: Varun Mundkur)

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.

 Jordan Condo, Head of Public Policy, North Asia & India. Karthik. Me. Varun. Neeraj Singhal, Head of Expansion - India & the Subcontinent
Uber’s core team in Colombo From Left to Right: Jordan Condo, Head of Public Policy, North Asia & India. Karthik Balachandran, Operations & Logistics Manager, Sri Lanka. Nuzreth Jalaldeen, Community Manager, Sri Lanka Varun Mundkur, Senior Launcher. Neeraj Singhal, Head of Expansion – India & the Subcontinent (Photo credits: Uber)

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:

  1. UberX – The budget uber cab
  2. UberTaxi – The normal taxi
  3. UberBLACK – The original Uber cab
  4. UberSUV – The SUV with enough space to fit 6 people at any given time
  5. 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?

UberX: The budget uber cab you'll see on the streets of Colombo (Photo credits: Uber)
UberX: The budget uber cab you’ll see on the streets of Colombo (Photo credits: Uber)

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.

Controversy

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.

Beyond testing

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.

100 COMMENTS

  1. I know some drivers in some cab companies that uses unmarked cars are also taking side hires apart from the cab company. So this could be an alternative revenue stream for them.

    Now only if the airport van drivers from airport taxi have some way of getting hires on their off days…

  2. I used uber yesterday to travel from Nawala to barns place. This was around 5.30. Driver couldn’t find the place at once and it took more than half hour to reach my office.

    And in the end of trip it cost me 815 with a massive cost for time with the traffic. This being costly more than any other cab service I usually use.

    However I appreciate the convenience in credit card payments but it’s doubtful how this pricing model will work.

    • I am also having some serious concerns about their pricing module. Unlike regular taxis, they are charging for the traveling time too.
      Considering the traffic in Colombo it’s going to cost pretty much more than the regular rides.

  3. Used Uber to travel from Sampath Bank head office to Majestic City. Driver was nice and the car was comfortable one (Axio). Fare breakdown was “Base Fare – 100.00, Distance – 206.02 and Time – 36.50. So Subtotal – 342.52.” It took 18 minutes to travel 4.12KMs. I happy with their service.

  4. I just realized that my Credit Card has been charged from overseas for my UBER ride in Colombo. Isn’t this violating Central Bank Exchange Rate regulations ?

  5. If Kangaroo cabs removes the branding they can easily compete with Uber. Nothing major in Uber. Pickme is the best for quick transportation. Uber is a rip off. Cost + travel distance cost. What bloody nonsense.

  6. Please do not support uber in Sri Lanka as we r a poor nation and we need our poor self employeed drivers to survive. Take this to 1st world countries as there taxis are ridiculously expensive. Not a tiny little country like Sri Lanka where d unemployment rate is high and most of all the taxis are SUPER CHEAP. So please take it somewherelse.

  7. I have traveled with kangaroo quite often and have had few bad experiences too. When ever i complain they respond promptly, extend apologies and in some occasions even refunded the money they charged and fired drivers too.

    In the case of UBER are you also doing the same where as you take responsibility of ensuring quality, well dressed drivers

  8. I own a brand new Mazda 3 automatic sedan 2014 model. I meet all your requirements to drive for your Company. How can I register.

  9. would like to speak to u. I have a vehicle and was partner in Melbourne and Canberra. presently in sri lanka.
    my contact number is XX

  10. Dear Sir,
    My Name is Nimal Perera and I am 53 years old.
    I have a newly purchase Axio Hibrid Toyota Corolla car and it was resisted January this year.

    If you could give me your contacts numbers or tell me how to register in your company, I would like to joint you with my car for better service. If you could give me an appointment, I will come with my car and with all documents meet you.

    Please contact my H.P number XXX

    Yours faithfully,
    Nimal Perera.

  11. I have been try to register to vehicles on behalf of cousins since Saturday last. Many reasons are given for the inability and this morning my driver goes to find out the fact. He has been cold shouldered and refused to be given a name or a phone contact number of personal in charge . 10.45 am … Is this … UBER ???

  12. I started driving for uber with a grate trust as I have used uber while I was living in Netherlands. Still you have not paid my earning of first two weeks though I visited four time to your office. I have sent three emails but no one is interested in rectifying this. Hope you will do the needful to sort this out.
    Nishantha

  13. Manager Uber.

    Dear Sir, Madam,

    I frequently treavel by Uber to my office at Nawala juction and back almost daily and to else where as well.
    However, I note that I have been incorrectly heavily charged presumably a fault of the vehicle, driver or your mechanism to calculate the fare.

    When I requested for Uber just before 5 p.m. today at Nawal junction to go to my home at 1st lane Maharagama the fare quoted was about LKR361.There was no surcharge fare to be levy indicated to me in your system in the internet Uber web site in my mobile.
    The distance travelled for which the chrage was made indicated as 13.78 kms is totally wrong and excessive since I took the same route from Nawala junction to home and it is very mush less to my surprise.Moreover, there was no major traffic jams and long time stoppage during the journey.Mostly I may have stopped on 2 occasions and the total time taken would have been 5 minutes.
    Normally my fare comes to LKR 335 and about LKR 350 in traffic and maximum LKR 390 or LKR400 or LKR410 when there is heavy traffic.

    As such, please make early arrangements to refund the excess charges levied.

    My office is situated just opposite Cargills Food City in Senanayake Mawatha just almost at the Nawala junction very close to Uber office.I am working at the Internal Audit on the 2nd floor of Soft logic Finance.

    I also note that you do not have arrangements to provide the passenger with a cash receipt in case of need.

    My ‘phone number is 0774697958.

    Regards,

    Ranjith Amarsinghe

  14. Thanks Lahiru I directed my complaint at the site you mentioned and todayin the morning I received a discounted fare with the vrefund.

    Regards

  15. Dear readers.
    I have started getting uber service since 4 days befor and i love the small car service.
    But then today 10th jan 2017 i took a ride from my lacation to lanka hospital .at 14:01 lt.
    After entring the hospital around 10mins time i have noticed that my cell phone was missing .
    So i called my wife she is living in cmb and i ask her to call my number .
    So she called my number then the cab driver took the phone after her calling several tines late and answred then he said he is on a ride to airport.
    So we asked him to call when he finished the trip .
    So I got his number from my wife and started commiunicating with my sons phone .
    And when we called him he said he is on a ride so after that he will come to us .
    As we got out from the hospital we took an uber and called him and asked him for the location he said he will come to our place.
    So due to taraffic we reached the home area at around 15:40lt. And i found the cab driver is on the main road so I went to him and ask the phone and I took 1000 rupees and tryed to give him as a gift but he rejected and while holding my phone, he said he was not having any ride due to hand over the phone and 2000 rupees should be given to him. Otherwise he will not give the phnone.
    So the phone is very important to me cox it has all my important numbers msg mails and for most memorabal pic so i gave the money and got back the phone .
    I just want to tell uber management that this act of your driver sampath cab 1706 mob number 0767724205.
    Made me feel that his act of demanding for money to handover the phone is rude and disshonest act. After I get in home my wife call him and said to driver that we will inform this to uber and pilice that you behave like rober. He said I dont care uber or pokice. I just have money now okkk do what ever you want like this. For these kind of attitude, which the repiutation of uber will get bad, and the loyalty of the drivees and unsecure will get. So I request uber management to advice your drivers not to do such acts which the company and nations image goes. Being a forigner i felt this was done because he know that I am not a local .
    But still I love the uber cab service.
    Rewords are not taken its something given.

    Hassanm 7661ue

  16. I used to hire urber frequntly on cash basis but recently when i requested urber the following massage is coming
    “you have a LKR 632.45 payment due’ and ask credit card numbers to recover it
    I paid on the spot by cash when i used uber but i can believe this out-stand
    hence please write off this amount as soon as possible. it is great help for me
    my contact details are as follows
    Rasika Jayasinghe – 0773833733
    email jmru1968@gmail.com

  17. I am very disappointed how your service is run when I went to Colombo you text me rs 632 coming back you never quote me a figure the driver told me rs 1014 I was very surprised three times the amount I think you repping customer for your service may Allah Will be the judge

  18. We should be very carwful when dealing with credit card for uber service. Once you book a trip and if the payment is via cash then if you cancel the trip to a fair reason then no isue but if the mode of payment is credit card we cannot cancel. The cash will be debited even though you dont travel. I mean when you click cancel you will be charged. Uber doesnt have a hotline or an address. Be aware of this cheating.

  19. I used to travel with UBER.. One day I got a 50 % off for four days promotion from them .. So I traveled with them. But I had to pay full amount.. After I complained them they said there is a specific time to get the promotion. But in my message there is no any time have mentioned. So I complained them again with snap shots of every raveling details as well as the promotion message which I received.. But there is no any single reply from them now.. Still I’m waiting.

  20. Disappointed with give get inviter promotion.

    Yesterday my invitees got LKR 600 off for their first ride and claimed it by downloading uber through my app.
    But as an inviter I didn’t get any , I should have got 600Lkr from each account .
    Could you plz explain me why I didn’t get that ?
    Didn’t get a propose response from uber team .
    Kindly let me know as soon as possible .

    Regards ,

  21. Dear uber,

    I lost my items in the black colour car.
    Driver name : jayantha
    Car no: 3829
    I don’t have driver contact no please help.

  22. What’s the contact number get support.am using huawei anroide phone & uber app is not functioning properly. One time I was waiting to take my small one hospital but car has gone to some where else. I really like to use uber but this high tech situ is a real pain. My name is gayantha wickremasinghe. E mail gayanthawick$gmail.com
    00 94 773080857

    • I’m honestly not sure if that’s possible. You can always try reaching out to Uber on their website though.

  23. I was a uber rider for a long period but suddenly my uber account got a problem and i couldn’t log in and request rides anymore
    Sent so many complains but never got any response. Their customer care vety is poor as they don’t have a contact person / center is Sri Lanka.

  24. can i know how much i earn in one month if i am in uber driver.. and i have a car too i wanna drive in my car join with uber.

  25. I used UBER yesterday to got to Christy Perera Mawatha from World trade centre. Normally UBER TUK charge me Rs. 130.00 for this Distance. I had an offer of Rs. 100.00. When I booked the Three Wheeler It showed Rs. 30.00 (Rs. 130.00 minus Rs. 100.00). When I ended the trip it Showed Rs. 219.00 and I paid Rs. 219.00 and made a complaint too. Can any responsible person in UBER Reply me regarding this.

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