Uber is arguably the best-known name in the on-demand car app space, and while it started with a focus on black cars, it has since launched its UberTAXI service to make yellow cabs available to users. Now available in over 30 cities, the company has faced its share of regulatory hurdles but seems to be growing steadily. There are others trying to make headway in the on-demand car service space, including taxi-hailing app Hailo, which just raised $30.6 million for its apps in February, when it also reported that it has $100 million in total sales since launching a year ago.
One competitor Uber faced in the Toronto market, where it launched in March 2012, was Winston, an on-demand black car app launched out of TheNext36 startup accelerator program. Founded by Aidan Nulman, Krista Caldwell and Yilun Zhang, Winston launched in beta in October 2011, letting users order and pay for black car rides using its iPhone or BlackBerry apps. Unlike Uber, Winston focused primarily on the corporate market, offering professional features like an online expense management dashboard.
Winston co-founder Nulman said in an interview last March that Uber’s presence in Toronto really helped Winston because of the attention it brought to on-demand car services. It seems that while that might have been true then, the company has decided to reevaluate its place in the transportation app space, and has pivoted to focus on building custom apps and websites for taxi companies, under the new name Fleetbit.
In an email yesterday to its user base, Winston’s founders said that despite the fact that 90 percent of passengers used the app again after booking a ride, they received a lot of feedback that there weren’t enough cars available during peak times. To solve that problem, the company started working with taxi companies, and at the same time had several requests from taxi companies who wanted to license their technology. So last year they decided that building custom apps for taxi companies was a bigger opportunity, and shifted to focus on white labeled transportation apps.
“A bunch of fleets were asking us to license them our software…and we had been at that point telling them to join the network…and they said we don’t want to be part of you, just sell us the software please, so we started saying okay because we realized we’d be able to reach a ton more people that way,” Nulman said in an interview. “We really committed to doing the white label [apps] in June after a little bit of research.”
The company is now launching custom apps for 13 taxi fleets in 12 cities, covering a total of 2,300 cars, the first of which is the Diamond Taxicab iPhone app for Toronto taxi company Diamond Taxi, which launched this week. The app lets passengers book rides, track their driver as they’re on the way, and rate drivers after their ride is completed. Winston also revamps the websites of the fleets they work with, and Diamond’s homepage now has a dynamic map of its cars in the city, and passengers can also now book rides online. Nulman said the Diamond app has 26 times more drivers in Toronto as Winston did, and they’re encouraging former Winston users to transfer over to using the new app.
With its first app out the door, the company will be looking to launch the rest of its partner apps and revamped websites in the coming weeks. Rather than charge a one-time fee to build out the app and website, Winston charges an initial setup fee, and an ongoing licensing fee for access to its technology based on how many cars a fleet has on the road, something fleets wouldn’t have to pay if they built the app in-house, but Nulman says they’re really paying for the team’s expertise when it comes to transportation apps.
“People seem to really be into the fact that for less than you would pay for an agency we come in not only with a core framework that can be rolled out very quickly and customized very easily, but we also come with a lot of expertise within the industry, which people seem to like,” Nulman said.
While the company no longer competes directly with Uber and Hailo, the apps it’s building do, since in cities like Toronto every taxi driver is an independent contractor and they can use apps like Hailo and Uber along with their own company’s apps and dispatch system. They also have to compete with other app developers and agencies, since companies like Beck Taxi in Toronto have released their own mobile apps to let users order and track their rides. There are also companies like TaxiStartup, Taxibookr, and TaxiStars providing similar white labeled apps, with varying degrees of customization.
While Winston launched around the same time as Hailo and Uber, it didn’t take off the way those apps did, even with a focus on corporate clients. This new focus should help it find a niche in the taxi industry, and with 13 fleets already signed on, it looks like there is a demand for what it’s providing, even if that means changing its model to fit that need.
Note: an earlier version of this article didn’t specify that the company is now operating under the name Fleetbit.