Like it or loathe it, Uber changed the face of modern urban transportation by providing a relatively pain-free way to order a car to take you from A to B. But the company’s growth has done more than catapult Uber into the ranks of the biggest (and most-watched) tech companies: it’s helped open the door to a new raft of transportation startups.
But while Uber’s aggressive growth has been fueled by huge fundraises and hefty losses, its approach is not the only way ahead. Blacklane, a transportation-on-demand startup from Berlin, provides a template for another kind of strategy, one based on minimal outside funding, a focus on very specific customer segments and slow growth that relies on partner ecosystems to achieve global reach.
“We’ve never been distracted. We have always wanted to be a channel player, largely playing a local game,” said CEO Jens Wohltorf in an interview in Berlin earlier this month.
Some have described Blacklane as something similar to what Uber was like when it first started out, and on the surface, there is some truth to that: users order cars through its app, and the vehicles are always “black cars;” larger sedans and comfort-oriented vehicles. But unlike Uber, which from its earliest days always traded on the idea of providing five-star service at an affordable price, Blacklane aims at the higher end of the market, targeting corporate workers, executives and those who have the means to pay extra for higher levels of service when they travel.
And its success has led to a whole new level of interest in the company.
“In the first couple of years, VCs always asked me the question of how we would react to the big ride-hailing players. How do we compete, and how could we be more similar?” said Wohltorf. “Today, it’s changed 180 degrees. Now the question is ‘what’s your strategy to be different?’”
Indeed, for those building or thinking about building or investing in a transportation-on-demand startup, it’s worth considering Blacklane’s example: for all of the outsized nature of biggies like Uber and Didi, Blacklane, with around $77 million in funding, is much closer to the average player in the world of transportation-on-demand.
Collectively, nearly $81 billion has been raised by 428 ride-sharing startups, according to data from Crunchbase. But it’s a very uneven spread: about 75% of that has been highly concentrated in about ten companies led by Uber and Didi (respectively raising around $25 billion and $21 billion), with the list rounded out by the likes of Grab, Lyft, Ola, Chinese trucking company Manbang, and bike companies like Ofo, HelloBike and Meituan.
If you take the rest of the funding and distribute it equally among the rest of the field, it works out to a significantly more modest $48 million per startup — with many raising far less than that (and some still significantly more, if not $25 billion more).
The most recent financials for the company cover 2017, when it reported revenues of 44 million euros and a net loss of 10.5 million euros. From what we understand, it’s managed to keep that net loss rate steady in 2018 and 2019 while revenues have continued to grow.
This also makes Blacklane a relatively rare thing in the ride-sharing world: a quiet but healthily growing startup.
The message here is that for the rest of the field, and for any other founders looking at building a transportation or on-demand-distribution-of-anything startup, there is an interesting lesson to be learned about whether it’s possible to build a long-term company in this space without going large like an Uber, and if so… how.
The concept for Blacklane first came to cofounders Jens Wohltorf and Frank Steuer in 2009 — the same year Uber was conceived, as it happens.