Having helped to found and grow the successful online travel company Expedia, Simon Breakwell knows his stuff when it comes to international expansion. That’s just as well, as he took on the job of being head of EMEA for luxury car platform Uber last September – and has barely stopped launching in new cities since.
As of Wednesday, that now officially includes Berlin. Silicon Allee caught up with the British entrepreneur ahead of the launch event and he told us that Uber has the potential to become a larger global brand than Expedia.
SILICON ALLEE: Why has Uber chosen Berlin for its next launch?
SIMON BREAKWELL: When we think about the world, there are certain cities that strike you immediately as being truly global cities – San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, and you’ve got to put Berlin in that category as well.
SA: But why Berlin over other German cities with more money – Munich or Frankfurt, say?
SB: If you look at Berlin as a city, it’s got many great characteristics – firstly, it’s got size and scale; secondly, there is a huge tech community inside Berlin, and its getting bigger – there is a huge amount of investment going into Berlin; thirdly, it’s a cool city. It’s edgy, it’s got a bit of attitude, there is a vibrant party and club scene. You put all of those things together and we think Uber could be great here.
SA: Why would people use Uber rather than, say, a taxi app?
SB: If you want to grab a taxi, then grab a taxi. If you want to ride around in a [Mercedes] S-Class, an [Audi] A8, a BM[W 7-Series] or a Porsche Cayenne and you want to have a great driver with a personal service for a premium over a taxi then Uber is the business to use. It depends what you’re looking for. Increasingly, a lot of people are looking for what we call everyone’s personal driver; a personal experience.
SA: The European market is quite fractured, and Uber has faced regulatory problems elsewhere – are you worried that there will be issues in Berlin?
SB: Any city that we go into, we look at the regulatory environment. It’s the very first thing we do. We’re confident that, having looked at the regulatory environment here in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, we’re able to operate here. The way Uber works is it’s essentially a technology platform that allows existing owners of cars, independent operators or limo companies, to reach out to new demand. We’re very careful about making sure we work with licensed companies, licensed limo operators. We’ve got really strong quality standards, and if a driver doesn’t get good ratings, we are aggressive about telling him or her why and then kicking them off if they don’t improve. So we do take it really seriously.
SA: How does Uber appeal to its drivers?
SB: These [cars] are expensive assets and they want their cars being used as often as possible. Uber allows them to do that. Once the business reaches a certain scale, it flips and drivers come to us and say they want to get on the system.
SA: The company is driving expansion aggressively. What’s the ultimate goal?
SB: The idea is that wherever you are around the world, if you are in a major city, you know that you can fire up your phone, fire up Uber and be guaranteed to get a really great drive from someone who is safe, has a quality car and is properly licensed, and that there is continuity of service wherever you are.
SA: Like any successful startup model, you’re facing increasing amounts of competition…
SB: There are a whole raft of competitors. Here in Germany you’ve got competitors like for example MyTaxi, although it’s in a different segment. You’ve got Sixt starting up their service aimed at premium; you’ve got various car sharing services which is a different market niche but it’s out there. I think whilst the market is immature, there are going to be loads of people coming to try it. And in many ways, it reminds me of online travel 15 years or so ago, where when we started up our business Expedia, there were maybe 70 online travel companies. And in the end, now, there are only two or three, and I’m sure that is what is going to happen here because many of the dynamics that existed in online travel exist in this space as well. Operational excellence is really important, the ability to scale the technology globally is really important and finding great people is really important. My bet is that lots of companies can do this in one or two cities, but to do it in 300 or 500, 24 hours a day; it’s not trivial. We think we’ve got a head start but there are loads of people chomping at our heels so we are constantly neurotic about whether we are doing all we can – are we doing a good enough job, do we have the right people, is our service as good as it possibly can be – and the trick when you are building a company like this is to be constantly worried that you are not going a good enough job.
SA: What kind of reaction are you expecting in Berlin?
SB: We don’t know for sure. We hope that the reaction is going to be, ‘it’s a cool service, it’s innovative,’ and once people get in the cars they”ll love the service. That’s what we’re hoping for.
SA: Since word slipped out about Uber’s presence here, many people have been saying it’s not very ‘Berlin’…
SB: It’s interesting you say that – we heard similar things in London and Paris and Amsterdam. In London we heard, ‘why would people be interested in Uber. There’s a great black cab service out there.’ In Paris, we heard, ‘this is not very parisian. Parisians don’t like driving around in big, big cars. It’s not a very French thing.’ In Amsterdam we heard, ‘the Dutch like keeping themselves to themselves.’ But what we’ve seen is that every city we’ve gone into, the business just grows, quicker in Europe than it has in the US.
SA: Have you ever entered a market where it hasn’t worked?
SB: Not yet.
SA: With your experience in building companies, what potential do you see in Uber in the long run?
SB: I see a lot of early Expedia in Uber. That’s one of the reasons I joined up. Three things stand out – one, really great people; two, fantastic technology – operating at scale is a really complicated technology problem and Uber understands that – and three, just a great brand that you could build globally. And when I put those three things together, I think that Uber as a company could have a larger brand globally than Expedia for example. It absolutely could.
SA: Once a new Uber market is successfully up and running, does it look after itself?
SB: I wouldn’t say it looks after itself. Was it Tony Jacklin* who, when someone said to him, ‘oh you’re lucky,’ he said ‘the funny thing is, the harder I practice the luckier I get.’ And it’s kind of like that with business as well. A business doesn’t grow on its own; it grows through a load of hard work and graft and battling through the things that you hadn’t anticipated. It’s like that at Uber. You’ve just got to work really, really hard to make things happen and then ten years from now when people look back, they’ll say, ‘God, look at Uber, that was fantastic. But I suppose they were in the right place at the right time.’ But that’s just nonsense. It’s just hard work that gets you there.
Check back later for news of Wednesday’s launch which was attended by Uber’s first CEO and current VP of operations, Ryan Graves.
* The source of that quote is actually not all that clear