The interview: Tom Barr, chief executive of Hailo (video)

20 Jun 2014

Tom Barr, CEO of Hailo

Dublin is to be the test-bed for a fleet of new soon-to-go-global executive services from Hailo, the app player revolutionising the taxi business around the world. Hailo CEO Tom Barr reveals why Dublin is the perfect destination for Hailo.

“The first time that you use Hailo you are surprised … it’s frictionless,” says Hailo CEO Tom Barr of the app that has been quickly embraced by passengers and taxi drivers in 16 cities worldwide. Hailo began first in London, moving next to Dublin and then on to cities such as New York, Barcelona, Boston, Chicago, Montreal and Tokyo, to name a few.

Ireland has been the perfect test-bed for Hailo, beginning with compact-sized cities such as Dublin, Cork and Galway, and it is on the verge of going countrywide. So far, more than 9,000 taxi drivers in Ireland are subscribed to Hailo, which requires only a smartphone to get them going.

Barr, who has swapped selling coffee beans as the VP of Global Coffee at Starbucks, to potentially changing the way we view transport forever as CEO of Hailo, isn’t wrong when he says you’d be surprised at how frictionless it is.

Consumers love the service because in just one click a taxi is just minutes away. It is all mapped so users can see where their driver is and if they don’t want to pay in cash they can pay via an account linked to their credit card. Even if a Hailo user loses an umbrella or bag in the back of a taxi, they can just tap a button and the driver will wing his or her way back with their belongings.

Revving up for a revolution

“Hailo has been a fantastic growth story … We’re about to have our second anniversary in Dublin in July.

“Dublin is one of our stronger markets. It caught on like fire and we believe it has because it makes people’s lives easier.”

Barr says the apps revolution has moved beyond people just downloading games or checking the weather to a whole new world where digital is delivering real, tangible and physical results.

“You could be just sitting in your office and use the app and all of a sudden your taxi comes right to you. Go to your destination, the payment taken care of, an e-receipt is sent to you, it’s beautiful. You forget your umbrella there’s a part of the app that will have it returned to you, it makes people’s lives easier and that has been the success and when you do something like that you grow. We’ve been very fortunate to have been in the space and to be the leader in it.”

Barr explains it was at the behest of an Irish employee that the founders of Hailo were encouraged to consider Dublin as their second launch market.

“We weren’t sure but we looked at the demographics and decided that this is a perfect market and we got it up and running and we have never looked back, it’s been exciting.”

From coffee beans to taxi miles

Whether its apps like Hailo or Handybook in New York run by Irishman Oisin Hanrahan that gets handymen and cleaners on demand, the interfusion of apps with real-world needs is a compelling revolution to watch.

It was compelling enough for Barr, who built a US$1bn business as VP of Global Coffee at Starbucks to jump on board Hailo, still quintessentially a start-up since it was founded in 2011 in London.

The company has raised an estimated US$77m in venture capital funding to date and plans to expand into 50 markets in a dozen countries by the end of the year.

“Whether its coffee with Starbucks or whether its technology in taxis with Hailo, you find something that changes how people live their lives and surprises them … that’s the type of organisation I look for and like to be involved with.”

Vroom with a view

Hailo is about to embark on the next exciting stage in its journey. It is about to launch three new services that will up the ante in terms of the range services it offers, the style of cars consumers can expect to hire and, of course, the competitive battle in terms of its rivalry with competitors such as Uber.

The company has been beta-testing and is in the pilot stages in Dublin and London of a new service called Hailo for Business that allows firms to set up business accounts for their executives. That new service, which allows firms to track taxi usage by employees, launches in July in Dublin.

A second product being launched is HailoExec, a new premium service that provides luxury executive vehicles, such as Audi A8s or BMW 7-series cars, driven by suited-and-booted drivers.

“Businesses can decide if they want a driver to open the door for guests in a suit-and-tie driving a luxury vehicle to deliver a premium experience via HailoExec or go back to using our main taxi product, Hailo.”

Barr explains that in studying these two new areas, a third opportunity emerged in terms of providing consumers with an opportunity to hire a luxury car by opting for Hailo+.

Hailo looked at the 9,000 registered taxi drivers in its fleet and realised a considerable few had premium cars, such as E-class Mercedes and 5-series BMWs, that could be ideal for special occasions.

“For a couple of euros more, you can ride around with a little more upscaled experience, not all the way up to HailoExec but somewhere in the middle and we think our Irish customers are going to love it. It will someday be right across the world but we can say it started here.”

This obviously begs the question if this is a direct attack on rival player Uber, which focuses mainly on premium vehicles.

“I don’t look at it that way,” Barr says. “I see it as a better way to serve our customers. Our businesses customers are very clear, they wanted us to provide business accounts and many of our competitors aren’t in the business accounts space.

“Some business accounts need to have executive cars and for this type of business we have to have a range of vehicle classes so going into the private executive are made sense.

“The middle one, Hailo+, we struck on by pure luck because while doing the research and talking to customers we realised that actually there is this group of taxis that people really enjoy being in, let’s make it its own service.

“I see it as a way of being in front of our competitors and some day (the competition) will try to do the same thing we’re doing, but we’ll be there first and doing it better.”

Barr believes Ireland will continue to be a good test-bed for Hailo’s products and services because of the rate of technology adoption and consumers’ progressive attitude to new things.

“This is our second anniversary, these are our three new products. We’ll be back on our third anniversary talking about the next three products. Some will be test, some will be proven, but we believe in our Irish customers and how they are really being well served by us.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years