< What is the 'why now' of your startup?

Note: This article is from 2017.

I first visited San Francisco in 2008. I have plenty of memories from that trip. In a roundabout way that visit led me to my first startup, and now living here.

The memory I'm going to open with is one of the least interesting. So that's a good start. And yet it still stuck with me.

One evening I ended up going out in The Mission. I'd been out late1 and was ready to head home. At that hour, most of the usual transport had already ended for the night. Perhaps the night service was running. As a tourist, I had no idea.

So get a taxi? Sadly not. It's nearly a decade hence, but I can still remember how hard it was to get a taxi in San Francisco. In fact, I'd been caught-out because I'd assumed it would be easy. Back then, I can't recall seeing even one in The Mission. And not past 2am on a Saturday night.

Today, I can't imagine living in San Francisco without ride-sharing. Now you'd grab a Lyft or an Uber2. Back then, there wasn't that option. I didn't even have a smartphone. In 2008 the iPhone had come out, but wasn't available where I was living. The App Store had only recently launched. UberX and Lyft wouldn't arrive until 2012.

I ended up walking home. From The Mission to Nob Hill. As someone new to San Francisco that can be an interesting experience. As much as San Francisco has changed, some things are the same.

So I was standing on the corner of Mission and 20th at 2am and looking to get home. As a consumer, there was a need that wasn't getting filled. That explains some of it. But there are other consumer needs. There are other solutions. None of them took off like ride-sharing did.

So why was there explosive growth in ride-sharing in particular? You can't discount the companies themselves. Both are unique in ways critical to their growth2. But they still needed to get started, so what were the pre-conditions?

It's also easy to point at San Francisco's taxi system one of the driving forces. However, it's a cocktail of opportunities and causes that made it possible. As with many things, timing is everything.

Here are some of the ones I highlight:

Smartphones: For both riders and drivers, the smartphone was essential. It connects the rider with the driver, in real-time. In 2008 the iPhone 3G bought GPS too3. Now you know where you are, and you can tell others.

GPS, Google Maps and Navigation: London's Black Cab drivers are famous for "The Knowledge". This requires drivers to have a detailed navigation knowledge of London's rather complex streets. It takes years to complete and is known to bring about structural changes to the Brain. It's tough to imagine now, but when maps and satnav came along, it was a big deal. Purists argue The Knowledge is better than GPS. Despite that, GPS navigation gave access to a vast array of new drivers. When I ride-share in San Francisco, the driver is often coming in from a surrounding area4.

A (significant) market need for point-to-point transport: You may disagree with my anecdotal experience with the San Fransciso Taxi system. However, it wasn't purely a lack of infrastructure. Demand was exploding. In 2012 the San Francisco Giants won the championship and the city was in full swing of the latest tech boom. As more people moved to the city, demand went up as did the willingness to pay.

A population that was happy to get in a car with a stranger: Today, jumping in an Lyft or an Uber is a commonplace thing. However, when these services first came out, the whole idea was pretty foreign. I can recall people who swore they'd never ride with a stranger. The same people use these services regularly today. Lyft's original "pink moustache" branding was a way of destressing the idea of getting in a car with a stranger. San Francisco has a famous/notorious open culture. When Lyft first launched it was (technically) free. You gave your drive a donation. They were able to tap in to this openness and create a community.

Terrible Parking and a growing city: It's tough to park in San Francisco. On many levels. In some cities people would cling to having their car. Not so here. Being able to function without a car is a huge advantage.

Modern payment systems: The last time I got a Black Cab in London, the driver said told me "cash only"5. You may be willing to jump in the car with a stranger. Or drive one to the airport. But doing for cash wasn't going to cut it6.

Willing drivers with cars: One of the big stories is marginal utility. It seems like a small thing, but it was one of the keys to rapid growth. Expanding the taxi or public transport network takes time and capital. Ride-sharing got it's start with capital (cars) that already existed.

Venture Capital: They want to get somewhere and they're willing to pay. Another piece of the puzzle is someone to build that. The final piece is someone willing to help them do that.

None of those things are unique or virtuous in themselves. But the confluence of them is at least rare.

Ride-sharing is now thriving in hundreds of cities worldwide. So there is a market in those cities. An alternative thought is: could ride-sharing have started in another city? Very likely there are a few, but it would be a short list. And San Francisco would be at the top78.

When I look at Blockchain, Machine Learning, or Bots it has the same feel9. As cynical as I am, you can see these technologies are presenting new solutions. Sometimes without a problem. But perhaps that doesn't matter. That's where the opportunity lies.

For ride-sharing, the "Why Now" was that a set of technologies meant transport could be different. And different on a profound scale. Lyft and Uber didn't invent smartphones, GPS or turn-by-turn navigation. But they put them together and found a market that was willing. It's a cocktail of effects that needed a catalyst.

It's easy to call the winners in hindsight. Calling in foresight is more difficult. In some cases impossible. But it's still instructional to at least try. Asking "Why Now" can help drive this out. It's one of the tougher questions to challenge a new idea. Technology enables more and more. So why this and why now?

It's not the only "Why" you should be asking, but it's a place to start10.

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Filed under Entrepreneurs.


  1. In California "late" is relative since bars can't serve after 2am. The good news is that might be changing

  2. I'm not going to unpack the relative merits of Lyft and Uber here. That's a whole set of (admittedly important) discussions in itself.  2

  3. Not the first smartphone to do so, but significant in terms of volume. 

  4. This has it's own downsides for sure. 

  5. Update: This was in early 2016. As @daveoflynn pointed out, all All London Black Cabs now accept cards

  6. Recently when I was travelling in South America, I used ride-sharing regularly. It was reliable, inexpensive and made the negotiation of location and payment significantly easier. 

  7. The nacent amount of technology in San Francisco makes these things more likely. For better or worse. 

  8. I'm arguing that San Francisco is a unique set of objective circumstances. Despite that, and despite living here (or perhaps because of) I'm really aware of it's limitations. I actually started writing "don't build the next Silicon Valley", but got distracted on this subject. I'll come back to it. 

  9. And, indeed, I imagine the same feel as numerous occasions before. 

  10. Turns out a decade is a long time. San Francisco feels totally different from 2008, as do I

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