Hailo - cabbies and capitalists

Black cab on Westminster Bridge

It's hard to think of many UK tech firms that have gone global in recent years - but a business started by three entrepreneurs and three London cab drivers may well be the cream of the crop.

Hailo, a mobile phone app which allows you to virtually hail a cab, has unveiled a major new investment and plans to launch in New York and Tokyo.

The app was launched in London in November 2011. Its success was by no means guaranteed, as at least half a dozen similar ideas were already on offer to the capital's taxi and minicab users.

I've been chatting to Hailo's chairman, American entrepreneur Ron Zeghibe, and to Russell Hall, one of the three cabbies involved from the start, about what really made a difference.

Ron, who's spent 20 years outside the US launching various businesses, explains that he and two other entrepreneurs had come up with an idea for a taxi app. But they realised that the key to success would be an intimate knowledge of the cab trade, and that's when they met up with Russell Hall and his two colleagues.

The cabbies had already been operating their own web-based service, Taxilight, for a couple of years but wanted to move it on to a new level. The two groups clicked.

"We sat in a cafe in Charlotte Street," says Russell, "and chatted for hours on end about the moans and groans of cabbies and customers, and after endless cups of teas and rounds of toast we shook hands on a new concept."

Hailo screen grab

The key appears to have been making the Hailo app work first as a useful tool for cabbies, even before it was launched to consumers. Ron says what they came up with was "a working tool for drivers, with a whole series of aspects which made their working day more useful and effective".

This meant that when they did launch to customers, they already had hundreds of drivers signed up - so when you clicked to request a taxi there was a fair chance of getting one.

Today, more than 10,000 London cabbies are using the app - that's probably at least half of those who are actually out on any one day.

In my experience, the app works pretty well for the customer, although the cabbies I've spoken to, have given it mixed reviews. Some swear by it. Others say they resent having to hand over commission to Hailo, but feel they have to be part of a system which has quickly become almost compulsory.

That in a way is a measure of its success, and Hailo is hoping to reproduce that network effect in New York and Tokyo.

The founders admit that New York, in particular, is a very different taxi market. Far from doing the knowledge, it sometimes seems that cabbies rely on passengers to navigate them across the city. And instead of asking drivers to pay commission, users will incur a small fee every time they book a cab.

But having already launched successfully in Chicago and Boston, the Hailo team is confident its recipe will work anywhere.

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Cabbies and capitalists have come together to build a global business from nothing, inside two years”

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I ask Russell Hall whether he has been taken aback by his progress from cabbie to part of a global business. He says he's not: "I've always believed it's what's been missing in any taxi market in any city in the world. What we've created in London will go to any city."

That kind of global ambition is what marks Hailo out from many other UK technology start-ups.

What also makes it different is the willingness of the venture capital community here and in the US to back it. The latest $30m investment round includes Union Square Ventures, which backed Twitter, along with original European backers Accel Partners and Atomico Ventures.

Ron Zeghibe, who has spent two decades trying to get businesses off the ground, says he has seen a real evolution in venture capital in Britain. "It is so different from 20 years ago. Today you truly have real money chasing good ideas."

So cabbies and capitalists have come together to build a global business from nothing, inside two years.

Maybe London's ambitions to be a rival to Silicon Valley aren't so bonkers after all - although as far as I can see, the Hailo team have got this far without straying anywhere near trendy Shoreditch.

Except perhaps to pick up a fare...

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Blimey! You mean people can still afford taxis? Last year I missed the last train from Waterloo. I only live 10 miles away, a journey of about half-an-hour by car. Drivers at the taxi rank quoted me £60! Needless to say, I took the night bus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @10 Is there 'a cab firm'? Kabee (or whatever it's called) does a similarish thing based on minicab companies so would be similar to what you say - other than calling several at once.
    Assuming taxi drivers are usually working on their own account, there wouldn't be any option to do that (other than via this, or a similar, app)

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    @10.Under-Used Why can the user not call the cab firm?

    The app cuts out the "cab firm", it knows exactly where all the available taxis around you are, and how long they'll take to get to you. When you request one, the driver immediately drives to you, and you can even watch them approach on a map. It works incredibly well; it gives you the power to hail a taxi that's a few streets away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Not all cabs are black, surely this is a clear case of racism, and after all, I have seen White Cabs, Yellow cabs, even green and purple ones oh so? oh sorry they are outside London so not important.…. Although I am sure this was just an over sight?

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Another Non Topic on HYS!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I'm not really seeing the point of this app. Why can the user not use that very same phone to... you know... call the cab firm?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Surprised this is a goer in NYC - the reason the traffic is so bad there is that is that there are permanently thousands of empty taxis driving around - just hail one within seconds on any street and save yourself the few pence commission you will be charged!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Just goes to show that simple ideas can become a global success.
    If people see a problem or feel a system can be improved, rather than just pointing the issue out, actually try to alter it for the better.

    Well done to the lads who did it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I wish this would be rolled out in Beijing. At the moment, we have surly drivers who refuse to take you if (a) they don't want to go where you want to, (b) they think they won't earn enough if you want to go a short way, (c) they claim they "don't know where it is" and refuse to be guided by you, (d) they are rushing home for a meal or at the end of their shift (e) they dislike the look of you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    someone's been reading wired.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Brilliant idea!. . . . . And the cabbies are allowed to use mobiles to recieve this information to get to their 'pick up'?. . . . . . . I thought it was illegal to use your mobile when driving

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Just goes to prove that niche ideas will always find success beyond demographic stereotypes, who says we need to be in Silicon Valley to be inspired or successful!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    "Perhaps if we just taught hailing a taxi in University today's modern sophisticated youth could manage it without an "app"."
    Perhaps, together with fewer corners / roads without a regular flow of taxis on them.
    I can't see the harm in reducing uncertainty. Yes you could potentially get a cab in a few seconds of standing in a downpour - or you could wait a few minutes and get very wet

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Perhaps if we just taught hailing a taxi in University today's modern sophisticated youth could manage it without an "app".

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Rory, I knew your twitter account had been hacked when I saw you tweet something that was neither about about Apple nor something only available in London!



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