For Uber rivals, it's all about the drivers

An Uber driver in Washington, D.C.
Evelyn Hockstein | The Washington Post | Getty Images
An Uber driver in Washington, D.C.

For some start-ups taking on Uber and Lyft, the road to growth is paved with happy drivers.

Two companies — San Francisco's DriverCars, and New York's Juno — are trying to lure drivers disenchanted with the two dominant players in the ride-on-demand market onto their platforms.

One of these start-ups, DriverCars, has even attracted an early investor in Uber — Keith Teare.

"DriverCars believes that the weak spot of Uber is the drivers, because as the prices are being constrained and the share taken from the drivers is going up, there's a lot of drivers starting to protest outside Uber's offices," said Teare.

Uber drivers protest the company's recent fare cuts and go on strike in front of the car service's New York offices on February 1, 2016 in New York City.
Getty Images
Uber drivers protest the company's recent fare cuts and go on strike in front of the car service's New York offices on February 1, 2016 in New York City.

With help from Teare's accelerator Archimedes Labs, DriverCars is raising a $1 million seed round. It then expects to raise its first institutional round of about $10 million. The goal is to launch the app within six months.

Founded by former limo driver Keith Hale, DriverCars' business model is subscription-based. Drivers pay $300 per month after they make their first $1,500, and get to keep all of their fares.

"There's obviously quite a big opening there for a software company that gives drivers the software to behave like Uber, but keep all the money," said Teare. "Now there's a fleet with iPhones on the dashboard and all it would take is for them to run a different piece of software to become your fleet."

That some drivers are unhappy with the dominant players is hard to argue with. Drivers in New York and San Francisco staged protests on Feb. 1 over Uber's fare cuts, which drivers said prevent them from earning a living wage. Uber said those cuts — initiated on Jan. 9 — were necessary to combat the post-holiday slump in demand, and that the reductions lead to more work, and ultimately higher earnings for drivers.

Another issue that drivers have with Uber is the lack of tips. Lyft said that its platform has paid out more than $65 million to divers in tips.

"The issue with Uber and Lyft's model is that it's really dependent on how far the drivers drive, and San Francisco is small," said Hale. The average Uber driver that Hale speaks to makes between $1,500 and $2,500 per month if they are working full time, he said. (Uber said driver earnings differ from market to market.)

Hale compared the business models employed by Uber and Lyft to those employed by strip clubs. "You can never have a repeat client with either model and you can't ever own the client, because the client belongs to Uber or Lyft," he said.

He said his model is a better fit because it was created by someone who actually works as a driver. "These are tech guys, so they have never been in the vehicle and they don't understand from a driver's perspective what we know," said Hale. "The drivers care about building a sustainable business and the ability to provide for a family."

Uber, Lyft pressure taxi companies
Uber, Lyft pressure taxi companies   

Hale's goals are unarguably ambitious. He believes that within the first year the company will have 35 percent of Lyft drivers and 50 percent of Uber drivers. (Any driver can sign up with multiple companies, of course.) But convincing drivers may be the easy part.

The company's success, of course, hinges on persuading users to download yet another app. To do that, DriverCars is planning a mass marketing campaign and to leverage an army of drivers on the ground to spread the word.

Importantly, DriverCars rides will on average be 25 percent cheaper than Uber and the app will not have surge pricing, said Hale. The company will also offer some additional services, such as the ability to pre-book rides or specify driver gender for late-night pickups. As DriverCars gets ready to launch, Hale is secretly working with about 30 Uber drivers across several major cities on the West Coast to gather market data.

"What we're attacking is the market that Uber and Lyft has already created," said Hale.

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On the other side of the country, New York-based Juno, currently operating in stealth mode, is also aiming to create a more driver-friendly service. Its website landing page invites drivers to "come meet us for coffee."

According to CB Insights, the secretive company was founded by Talmon Marco, who sold his last company to Rakuten for $900 million. Like DriverCars, it's leveraging Uber's existing fleet to gather market data, reportedly paying drivers to gather information.

The company recently rented a large office at 1 World Trade Center, said CB Insights founder Anand Sanwal. (CB Insights tracks private companies and their investors.)

"It looks like Juno has some resources and a successful founder at the helm based on what we could piece together," said Sanwal. "Whether Juno is some sort of other sharing economy play or a direct competitor to Uber remains to be seen." Juno did not respond to requests for comment.

Taking on Uber and Lyft is a tall order, of course. Uber — reportedly valued at $62.5 billion — hit its billionth ride in December. The company already has more than a million active drivers and is in 68 countries and 400 cities globally. Its nearest U.S. competitor Lyft, valued at $5.5 billion, has more than 315,000 drivers, operates in 200 U.S. cities and has international partnerships with Didi Kuaidi, Ola and GrabTaxi, and a gross revenue run rate of more than $2 billion.