We all love the sharing economy don’t we? We’ve swallowed the entrepreneurial dogma that regulation = bad, and disruption = good. We’ve booked hip apartments on AirBnB. We’ve been driven to the airport in a limo thanks to Uber. Sharing is caring, and if you don’t like it, you’re a dinosaur.
Well, you’d think as the co-founder of a travel/technology startup I’d be one of the cheerleaders of the sharing economy. But whilst I think AirBnB, Uber and Grab Taxi, to name but three, are fantastic ideas, recent events have left me questioning the execution.
Event 1. A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine was arriving in Bangkok from the UK, and so I booked an Uber car to take my wife to Suvarnabhumi Airport to pick him up, at the usual flat fee of 1000BHT. Not only did the driver spend the entire journey harassing my wife to sign up to his Amway sales pyramid (which I wasn’t aware was part of the Uber service), but after the trip I received an email to tell me that the fare had been charged at 2000BHT.
When I queried this with Uber, they said it was a surge fee “because it was raining”. Whilst I might grudgingly accept a surge fee being applied to their usual per-km rate, a flat fee is, by its very nature, a flat fee. Uber offered to refund me 500BHT; I refused and closed my account. The company’s reputation has previously made me uneasy about using them anyway, and this was the final prod I needed for me to uninstall the app.
Event 2. A couple of days ago I received an email from my bank informing me that the security of my debit card had been compromised and that they had cancelled it and issued a new one. When I queried this, I was told that there had been an incident linked to an internet merchant in the Netherlands, and that my usage of Uber was the most likely cause – “I do know that we have had a significant amount of fraud originating from them over the past few months” they told me.
Event 3. This morning my friend was flying home and so, my Uber account now closed, we tried Grab Taxi instead. I gave up on this app last year after numerous unsuccessful attempts to use it (the success rate was about 5%), but recently decided to give it a second chance. After a long wait, a driver finally accepted our booking, only for us to find out that he already had a passenger and wouldn’t be picking us up for another 30 minutes; we cancelled the booking. At which point the driver began making threatening calls to my wife’s number – she was so scared she called our friendly local motorbike taxi drivers for protection, and then left the house altogether. Another app uninstalled.
Regulation may be the bête noire of capitalists and entrepreneurs, but it is there for a reason – to make sure that businesses operate safely and ethically. The financial collapse of 2008 is a prime example of what happens when you remove regulation from an industry; the behaviour of Uber and their drivers is another. Disruption of existing business models can be a good thing, but not when the disruptors flout regulations, pay little or no tax on their earnings, and put the safety of the public at risk. Hoteliers and licensed taxi companies all have to jump through a lot of often expensive hoops in order to operate legally, so you can imagine their frustration when they lose business to unlicensed competitors.
As for me, I’ll join the sharing economy when it shows it can be trusted. Until then, I’ll be watching from the sidelines through somewhat sceptical eyes…and buying a can of mace for my wife.