17. Lyft

Proposed by Porter Gale.

If, just a few years back, we’d suggested that automobiles would be THE hotbed of innovation and disruption in 2016, and that picking a challenger to watch in the space would be a tough call, you might have thought we’d been spending a little too much time at Mary’s Medicinals. But wherever we look in autos we see challengers: Truecar, Beepi, and Carvana challenging aspects of the dealership model. Vroom trying to become the Amazon of used cars. And no less of a commentator than Marc Andreessen has suggested, “we're seeing the birth of 4 new American car companies [Google, Apple, Tesla & Uber]”

So why choose Lyft? Hope.

Hope that, with Sidecar now extinct, some of the $1billion Lyft recently raised could fund further bold innovation in the ride-sharing experience — for both drivers and riders — and help keep Uber honest.

Thiel himself describes Uber as “the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley
— Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley investor

In today’s tech-business ecosystems a “winner takes all” outcome is increasingly common, as network effects and large infrastructure plays concentrate data and therefore power: Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Airbnb, for example. Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, flipping classical economic theory on it’s head, tells us not to worry, that monopoly power incentivizes greater innovation (Buy Thiel's book, Zero to One here). Okay. But Thiel himself describes Uber as “the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley,” with one dodgy news report after another in recent years. We don’t want those guys hogging the market do we?

Ride-sharing needs a classic challenger contest to keep everyone on their toes and at their best and there are signs that Lyft might have the stomach for it.

Lyft must double down on its “real and human” challenger story to battle Uber’s more mercenary ways. We need more Disco Lyft, Karaoke Lyft, and Chalkboard Lyft, like the early days. A slew of recent improvements nudge the brand along in that direction: car colours in the app that match the colours on the street, better profiles for riders and drivers with potential conversation starters (which has worked well for your writer). Then there’s the glowstache. And Lyft just announced a wonderful partnership with National MedTrans Network to provide seniors in NYC without access to a smart phone a way to get to their medical appointments using Lyft. A good idea with good optics.

Finally, Lyft must commit to taking better care of its drivers than Uber does, especially as most drivers drive for both companies. In a commodity business, it’s the attitude of people serving that makes all the difference (compare Virgin America to United) and with life in the gig economy proving to be much tougher than the tech-utopians would have us believe, the company that does the most to win driver goodwill will win in the market. Lyft already has the edge there so its surprising that they haven’t made much more of the difference. Their driver perks program, Accelerate, could be crucial if developed further.

With the market for ride-sharing growing like kudzu there’s more than enough rides to go around. Lyft may not try to shift the dynamic of the category more in its favor by mounting a challenge. It could simply draft behind Uber and still making a healthy return on the extra billion. This would be a shame. It’s early days in ride-sharing and we’ll all benefit from a challenger trying to change the rules and improve the category for us all. 

And if Lyft fails, well, there’s always La’Zooz. But we’ll save that for next year. 

www.lyft.com


Thanks to Porter Gale, American marketing expert, and author of Your Network is your net work: Unlock the hidden power of connections for wealth, success and happiness in the Digital Age. Follow Porter on Twitter @portergale. 


Challenging ideas, something out of nothing, lover of progress. Mark Barden is a partner at eatbigfish and based in San Francisco.