'Taxi drivers aren't against change': How Hailo is taking on Uber in the taxi app wars

We flagged down Caspar Woolley, the co-founder of international taxi app Hailo, to talk taxis, apps, and Uber.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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An iconic British black cab run by Uber rival Hailo in Manchester, UK. Lee Boswell/Uber

Caspar Woolley, one of the the founders of e-hailing app Hailo, says the app solves a simple and universal problem: "Taxi drivers spend 30-50 percent of their time with no-one on their backseat -- while passengers stand on a street corner playing taxi roulette, and neither knows they're on the next street from each other."

Hailo is a smartphone app that allows you to call a car straight to you, and pay through the app without needing cash. Founded by Woolley along with three black cab drivers, the service launched in London in late 2011, and now operates around the world.

Last month Hailo launched in Manchester, its first UK city outside London. Woolley says the app went global before spreading across the UK because the founders "saw a global problem," so they went to what he describes as the "big taxi cities." The service now has its light on ready to take fares in London, New York, Toronto, Chicago, Boston, Madrid, Barcelona, Washington DC, Montreal, Osaka and all across Ireland.

Woolley says Hailo takes "remarkably little to set up" in a new city, with just a small team required on the ground and a global infrastructure that requires only small local adaptations. Inspired by previous experience building a similar service focused on couriers, Woolley and his co-founders deliberately created an app that could be easily taken to different cities with only small tweaks on the driver side, while the passenger side stayed pretty much the same.

Not every city is the same. For example, the app will direct drivers arriving at US airports to the holding points that are less congested. The way Hailo splits the money with drivers also varies. "In London, for example, where fares are relatively high, we operate on a pay-as-you-go basis. In Chicago, where fares are lower, the driver doesn't pay anything."

Woolley is keen to connect the rise of e-hailing apps to bigger changes in the world brought about by technology. "Hailo is at the forefront of a revolution in the way people think about technology. We have the Web and smartphones, which are all about purely digital things. But now we're seeing a second wave of technology: O2O -- online to offline. There's a new wave of change connecting technology with the real world."

Woolley believes the most important things about building an app and a business is "beautiful simplicity." He says "the challenge is to pick the things that you add and the things you leave out."

He believes that innovation and disruption of existing industries is important, but what's crucial is "how you go about it. We need creative disruption -- change through disruption, not change through destruction."

Putting the brakes on Uber

Ah yes, the elephant in the back of the cab: Uber. Like Hailo, Uber is operating around the world, although on a much wider scale: it's in more than 100 cities in 37 countries. Originally Uber only offered private hire cars -- minicabs and limos -- while Hailo only offered taxis -- individually-licensed black cabs.

Recently, Uber announced that it is adding black cabs to its London app. But Woolley is unconcerned that Uber now offers the exact same services as Hailo, noting he hasn't seen any Uber-branded black cabs yet.

That's probably because cabbies aren't, how shall we put this, uber-keen on Uber...

Uber has proved uber-controversial almost everywhere it launches, with some cities banning the service. In London, the transit authority Transport for London allowed Uber to operate -- but that proved such an unpopular decision with cabbies that TfL is passing the buck to the High Court to make a ruling once and for all -- which is itself not a popular plan. "TfL should be clear what the rules are," says Woolley, "instead of muddying the waters with the High Court."

Taxis paralyse cities across Europe in Uber protest (pictures)

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Last month, cabbies around the world protested against Uber, bringing cities and airports to a standstill. But Woolley denies that drivers are against change and innovation. "Taxi drivers want to provide a great service to passengers," he says. "They just don't think it's right for someone to be disadvantaged. Taxi drivers have certain obligations: they're obliged to pay £50,000 for a vehicle with a set turning circle, and that's wheelchair accessible.

"They're not against change, they just don't think it's reasonable to be undermined."

However, in the battle with Uber, Hailo has faced controversy of its own.

'Stabbed in the back'

Woolley is clear about the best form of promotion: positive word-of-mouth, largely from the mouths of drivers themselves. In one early case, a driver enthusiastically extolled the service to a passenger who as luck would have it was on his way to dinner with a venture capitalist. The investor was in turn so impressed by the service he sunk a load of cash into Hailo. I hope that cabbie got a decent tip that day, because it sounds like he earned it.

But cabbies that vocally extolled Hailo have proved equally vocal in criticism. Founded by cabbies and initially serving only black cabs, the service was seen by many drivers as a worthy venture. That's until it emerged in May that Hailo had applied for a private hire license too, which would add minicabs, executive cars and other vehicles to the app. "There is no point burying our heads in the sand," Hailo co-founder Ron Zeghibe told cabbies at the time. "People want a choice and taxis need to be in the mix."

But cabbies were up in arms. "It feels like they've stabbed us in the back," Grant Davis of the London Cab Drivers' Club told me at the time. A Hailo dispatch office was vandalised and the near-ubiquitous yellow Hailo stickers seen in the back windows of black cabs were replaced with a cheeky redesign reading "Failo."

Defending the change, Woolley argues the "key area is corporate work," which involves businesses setting up an account with the company so they can book cars to ferry their employees to and from meetings and three-Martini lunches. Woolley admits that "businesses ask for executive cars," but he maintains that bringing in corporate accounts will also bring more work for taxis. "This is a volume industry," he says, and pledges that "taxis remain front and centre" for Hailo.

Woolley refused to be drawn on how many cabbies ditched Hailo after the private hire controversy. Immediately following the debacle, at least one group of cabbies banded together to start their own rival app, TaxiCab, but Woolley plays down the negative reaction. "Put three taxi drivers in a room and you'll get six opinions," he jokes.

"The vast majority of taxi drivers are positive (about Hailo). Not everybody is going to be convinced, but that's life."