Living in an “uber-ified” service economy

News and commentaries

First, a personal note: After 9 weeks, I’m (hopefully) back to blogging after that hiatus. Caring for a newborn means being dazed with lack of sleep most of the time. It’s hard to explain but I’m not always all “there” and I hardly, if ever, get the “flow” hence not much blogging going on. I don’t know how full-time working moms do it especially in the US where the 12-week mandatory maternity leave (believe it or not) can be uncompensated depending on the company. By the way, the US is completely alone in not mandating paid leave. As things go, I’m starting to get a full night of sleep but every baby is different – for some moms, a peacefully sleeping baby may not come for way longer than that. The next time you see a new mom coming back to the workforce, understand that she may be operating on 4 hours of sleep the night before.

What is Uber-ification?

Beyond 140 characters, uber-ification describes on-demand mobile services (ODMS) which is:

…apps which aggregate consumer demand on mobile devices, but fulfill that demand through offline services.

From the same post with the quote above, it is a closed loop experience from discovery, ordering, payment, fulfillment (performed offline), and confirmation.

My most recent experience

On a Friday, a few weeks ago, my washer broke – while I was trying to wash a half-a-week’s worth of clothes. If I was single, that would not be a problem. With a family, while 8.5 months pregnant, that was a concern. I immediately called the manufacturer, Whirlpool, while searching online for appliance repairmen. The appliance is out of warranty so here’s what I got:

  • From the manufacturer, diagnostic fee of $98 or I could opt to buy an extended 1 year warranty of $360 which will include the service call + any other issues within the year (the washer is worth around $500, new)
  • From Sears, diagnostic fee of $79, no idea on actual repair cost but $79 will go towards repair quote
  • From a local repairman,diagnostic fee of $69 plus repairs/parts cost

I was leaning towards Sears but the next availability would have been on a Wednesday, a full 5 days without a washer and who knows what parts I would need. Then my husband had a brilliant idea, “why don’t you try Thumbtack?” We are involved with a startup that has worked with Thumbtack, a $100M-funded startup that connects consumers with local service professionals – anything from house-cleaning to graphic design.

I opened Thumbtack on my phone’s browser, posted the job and received a response within 30 minutes with this quote: diagnostic rate of $69.95, waived with repairs at a flat rate (repair and parts). The cherry on top? The repairman can come at 9 AM, next day on a Saturday. I clicked on “Hire.” He came the next day, diagnosed it as a washer timer (huh?), ordered the parts and fixed the washer on Wednesday, the same day I would have gotten a service call from Sears. On a side note, it actually would have been fixed the day before but he got into a minor car accident. The point is, a relatively small startup saved me while the major companies (Sears and Whirlpool) couldn’t.

Despite the ubiquity of and obvious value of on-demand services companies like Uber (transportation), Airbnb (hospitality), Postmates (delivery/logistics), etc, I’m surprised when I meet people who either have not heard of them or discount the viability of such business models. By the way, Uber is not the first of on-demand mobile services but its high profile has made the company synonymous with these types of apps. New startups would most likely use the term “Uber for x” when pitching to investors.

Why do I use it?

Like most people glued to their smartphones, I find calling a phone number to schedule something to be such an inconvenience. Most of the time, you’re put on hold, go through a loop of menu options and/or lose the call. Anyone who’s used Uber knows how effortless it is. Sure, you may still have to call if you’re in a weird and difficult-to-find location but this has seldom happened to me.

Beyond the ease of using the app, it is also a seamless experience. You click “Buy” or “Hire,” the service is performed, and most of the time, the payment is also in-app. There’s no need to take out your wallet at all (I paid cash offline for Thumbtack though). If you’re unhappy/happy with the service, you have the option of leaving a starred review. This kind of easy feedback mechanism pushes exceptional service providers at the very top and the not-so-exceptional at the bottom. Such a Darwinian scheme ensures that bad service providers will be pushed out at some point, leaving the consumer with good-to-great choices.

Why startups instead of big companies?

When we talk of ODMS, it’s usually a space populated by startups. This is because the ubiquity of mobile computing took most big companies by surprise. Even Google had to contend with struggling mobile ad revenues in 2014 as it had to adjust to the growth of mobile.  The very notion of on-demand relies on the mobility of the device by which those services are summoned, thus the smartphone.

Furthermore, ODMS operate in fragmented markets – think taxi industry and the bed-and-breakfast industry. What an ODMS does is connect a usually disorganized set of service providers with consumers – an undertaking that requires a lot of agility, something that big companies usually lack.

But are they profitable?

This is where I’m a little stumped. I am absolutely convinced that this model is here to stay but I also know that getting to profitability would be a long hard road. And forget valuations based on funding rounds that turn startups into unicorns – investors simply do not want to lose out so they keep putting up the money.

It’s not just the companies’ investments in technology and marketing but they also face uphill legal battles worldwide – from employee classification (independent contractor vs. employee) to the legality of the business itself (can people rent out their homes?).

Even if profitability is just a speck in the horizon, the relevance of ODMS increases as more and more people become familiar with and comfortable with the services. My sister*, who is probably the last person I know to buy a smartphone (and who recently bought an iPad Air!!), had a great experience with a Manhattan Airbnb a few months ago. I had to book it for her because she didn’t have a profile and was dubious about the whole thing. She even questioned the wisdom of giving her credit card information to a “startup” but came away from the experience very happy and satisfied. I wonder, how many more out there are like her who have yet to use ODMS?

What is the future for ODMS?

The underlying tech of ODMS is such that it can be applied in so many ways. Uber’s way of tracking drivers for example can be translated to deliveries – something that they do in some cities with food and package deliveries. Postmates is experimenting with Postmates Pop, a 15-minute lunch delivery program. It’s quite possible that we will see some consolidation among the startups with similar underlying technologies in a way that we saw the merger between Grubhub and Seamless; and the way that Grubhub Seamless have since acquired two delivery companies since.

In a post about Instacart, I said that it will probably be an acquisition target, giving investors decent returns. The same could be true for most ODMS as the space gets more saturated but it is hard to imagine Uber or Airbnb as acquisition targets – their valuations are simply getting too ridiculous to be viable acquisitions for any company. So at some point, after investing hundreds of millions in R&D, they will have to reach such a scale as to reach profitability. And I mentioned my sister because I think that we have yet to see the kind of massive adoption that would translate to profitability but I believe we are getting there.

When that happens, it would be interesting to see who are left standing – the billion-dollar startups or the old guards who either developed their own tech or acqui-hired ODMS startups.

Another personal note: I saw the stats on top of my WordPress dashboard and noticed that I still get a lot of views even though I haven’t posted in 2 months. If you are one of those readers, thank you for your patience. You are the reason why I try to post as much as I can, as best as I can.

*Apologies to my sister whose history with tech will probably feature several times in this blog as an example of the “laggards” in the technology adoption curve

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Smartphone apps to organize your life

Lifestyle, Technology

My first smartphone was the 1st generation iPhone in 2007. Back then, it was just a really cool and beautiful machine that you can use sometimes to browse the web or look up an address via Google maps. Everything was so slow probably because mobile network providers couldn’t really handle the load yet. Apps were still a new concept and app makers came and went so that an app that you liked one day could lose support the next.

Fast forward to today and this is what you get:

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 12.43.02 PM

With all that noise, we sometimes end up downloading apps that we use once or never. Over time, here are the apps that continually occupy my home screen and that I have found the most useful. I use an Android phone these days, the Nexus 6, so functionalities for Google’s suite of apps might be a little ornery on iOS and other mobile OS. But the rest of the apps I’ve outlined here should work just as beautifully and maybe even better on iOS since most of them were developed first for iOS. I hope these apps help you as much as they have helped me over the years. Remember, your smartphone is more than just for calling, it’s your mini-computer. Now, put that awesome and expensive device to work.

  1. Google apps
    • Gmail.This is a no-brainer. Even if you have an iPhone with a Mail app and use GMail extensively, nothing parses through Gmail better than the Gmail app itself. I don’t even have the Mail apps activated in my Macbook Pro and iPad. The last time I used the Mail app on my Macbook was in 2009.
    • Maps. Again, there’s not much to say except that Maps is a game-changer. I don’t mind driving but I really don’t like knowing where to go or how long it will take for me to get there. The longevity of Maps means that you have the best data available (for traffic, new routes, public transit/walking/biking directions). Plus, Maps now has data on major shopping centers and airports as well. Back when I used to have the iPhone, I refused to update my iOS (when Apple replaced Google Maps with its own Maps app) until I was sure that Google Maps was available for the iPhone.
    • Calendar. If you have an Android with the latest OS (Lollipop in this case), Calendar’s integration with other Google apps is amazing. If you received some sort of invitation via Gmail, Calendar automatically adds it as an event with all the details: location, time, date, phone number of organizer. On the day of the appointment (if the event has a location in it), it will appear as a Google Now card which tells you what time to leave for the appointment based on your current location. From what I can understand, a similar feature exists on the iPhone but you have to manually turn the settings on. Here’s a guide on how to do that.
    • Drive. This is probably not well understood by most people because of Google’s iterations over the years. Used to be simply called Docs, it became Drive. Within Drive, files can be opened/edited in 2 apps: Sheets (for spreadsheets) and Docs (similar to Word documents). But you don’t even have to think about that. Opening a file within Drive automatically opens it in those respective apps. If Sheets/Docs are not installed, Drive will simply ask you to install them. I used Drive for any document that I want to share and co-edit. If push comes to shove and I want some fancy formatting, then I simply do the final edits on Word or Excel but I hardly do that. I’ve submitted plenty of my MBA assignments formatted in Docs or Sheets.
    • Translate. If you’re planning to travel to a country where you don’t know the language, this is a must-have. For more on my thoughts about Translate, I talked about it and some of its new features here.
    • Wallet. I know, I know, Apple Pay is the bomb. But for Android users, Google Wallet has been around much longer and it does get handy (at least for online retailers where it’s accepted). I hope that Google’s latest moves of partnering with wireless carriers and acquiring of mobile payments systems Softcard will lead to Wallet’s widespread adoption. For now though, I use Wallet to keep track of my loyalty cards. You know those loyalty cards that you either clutter your wallet with or your key ring? Input or scan the barcode into the app and you can just use your phone to scan it at the store. Wallet can also keep track of gift cards via barcodes as well. For an alternative (before this Wallet feature), I’ve used the Cardstar app over the years as well.
    • Hangouts. There’s a lot of complaints about the replacement of the Voice app with Hangouts but I really can’t complain. I’ve moved 5 times in the past 5 years to different cities/countries. I’ve used numerous SIM cards/phone numbers but my friends/family only has one number to contact me by, which is my Google Voice number. No matter where I am in the world, I can forward phone calls to Hangouts and receive them. For US or Canada-based callers, the call stays free. The road has not been completely smooth on my phone because some network providers block Google from bypassing the default Phone dialer. For example, I want to use my Google voice number to call internationally which bills my Google account (at competitive rates) but my T-Mobile won’t allow it. With the release of Hangouts dialer though, I can now make those international phone calls using my Google Voice account. I would also mainly use the app for messaging but internationally, WhatsApp is still the leader.
    • Google Plus. G+ might be a joke for some people but it is my main photo storage provider. All my photos are automatically backed up in Google+. Only photos over 2048×2048 pixels and videos longer than 15 minutes count toward my free storage limit of 15GB. Any pictures/videos than these have unlimited storage in G+. When I’m ready, I can easily share them with families and friends via G+ or by sending a private link. As with any photo sharing feature, you can tweak the settings of each photo/album if you wan to make sure that photos/albums can or can’t be re-shared. Furthermore, G+ AutoAwesome automatically enhances some pictures or even transform series of photos into GIFs. Another great feature is “Stories” which automatically sifts through a series of photos, picks the best ones and give you travelogues that you can share or just keep.
  2. Flipboard. I’ve tried to look for alternative reading apps that curate the news for me but so far, this is the one that I keep going back to. It’s simply well-built and beautiful to boot. If you like to follow current events in any field (world news, tech, fashion, etc.), this app delivers in a beautiful format.
  3. Mint by Intuit. Other companies have tried and are trying to topple Mint’s dominance in personal finance but you can’t beat Mint’s integration with other products – most importantly Intuit’s TurboTax. Over the years, Mint has proven its worth – easy to navigate, easily integrated with banks/credit cards, great support.
  4. CamScanner. If you’re like me and don’t own a scanner but find yourself needing to scan something every once in a while all the time, then this app is for you. Via the app, you take a picture of the document, and the app transforms the picture into a PDF or JPG file that you can easily share via mail, upload to any cloud storage app on your phone or even over Bluetooth. On the iPhone, sharing options might be limited to Mail, iCloud and Bluetooth but on the Android, you can send it via messaging apps (doc link only), email, and any storage app you’ve installed on the phone.
  5. Trello. I’ve used other to-do-list apps such as Asana, but have since switched to Trello for its simplicity. You can organize to-dos based on timeline such as: To do this month, this week or Doing today. You can also organize it based on the person responsible if you’re sharing the lists with other people.
  6. Baby Connect. As a new mom, I needed a way to track my daughter’s sleep and feeding times. Even for parents, this may not be something that you will find useful. In fact, my doctor once told me to stop tracking the times and instead pay attention to visual cues from my daughter. Still, I find it fun to have all these data because I’ve learned to predict whether my daughter will be more or less resistant to naps based on the number of her sleep hours from previous days. You can also track milestones (first steps, first smile, etc.) which can also be exciting to do.
  7. SeatGuru. When I first traveled with my daughter, especially on airlines where we didn’t have any status, I wanted to avoid the most uncomfortable seats. I also needed to know where the bassinets can be attached or if they’re available at all. SeatGuru helped me figure this out because airline websites are not always reliable/transparent on seat information. Browsing seating maps also show specific notes for certain seats. Example: “Seat 17F (Economy, Standard, AC Power, Seatback, TV). Seat 17F is a standard Economy seat, however, this seat has extra space around it due to the blocking out of the middle seat… the armrests are still immovable which some may find uncomfortable.”
  8. Uber. You can use the same payment information in different countries, be able to track your driver, know the wait times and pay less compared to taxis. Enough said.
  9. Life360. I used to have Google Latitude to track my husband’s location or allow my husband to track mine. And no, it wasn’t that we wanted to control each other’s movements but every once in a while when I had to pick him up or vice versa, then we knew exactly where to go instead of getting frustrated with trying to describe a place (especially when traveling). Unfortunately, the app was retired in 2013 and I had to find a replacement. Life360 is a great alternative and can be shared with the whole family – especially useful for a growing family like mine.
  10. If this, then that (IFTT). To be honest, I have yet to set this up on my phone because it will require some planning on exactly how I want my activities to be organized. Furthermore, I find Google’s default actions (see Google apps above) to be more than sufficient for my needs. IFFT sets up of corresponding responses to certain actions. An example: if I post a photo on Instagram, upload that photo on a specific file on my Dropbox. If you’re very prolific and a power-power user, then IFFT can be very useful. IFFT users come up with different recipes all the time so you also don’t need to come up with your own recipes if you don’t feel like it.