App developer riding high: Ottawa entrepreneur says latest product is more than Uber knockoff

When Toronto-based CellWand launched its new app, The Ride, on Dec.14, many media reports dubbed it the taxi industry’s response to Uber.

It is, however, meant to be much more than that, says CellWand’s Ottawa-based CEO, Nick Quain.

“We really wanted to do something beyond taxi,” says Mr. Quain, an OBJ Forty Under 40 recipient in 2003 and a judge for the competition between 2005 and 2014. “We wanted to make the ultimate transportation app because people who take taxis often take other forms of transportation. Taxis is just an option they use at a particular time.”

For starters, the app not only lets the customer hail a cab anywhere in the country, it is also the first app to show the user the location of every taxi stand in Canada, says Mr. Quain.

“If you walk out in downtown Ottawa, there are taxi stands on the corner and in a lot of these places, e-hailing a cab from us or a ride-hailing app often doesn’t make sense if you can walk 30 paces, look around a corner and see a cab stand with six cabs waiting there.”

While comparisons to Uber are obvious, being the ‘ultimate transportation app’ means The Ride will also help users plan transit routes, if it turns out that is the best option for them. What it means, says Mr. Quain, is the app will give the user options that may not generate any revenue for CellWand.

And that is all part of the plan, he says.

“We want them to use this app. We want this to be their go-to app. There can be lots of circumstances where we don’t make money through an engagement with them, but that’s why they’re going to come back to us and use us.”

Where The Ride does make money is the $2 convenience fee for hailing a cab. It’s the same model CellWand used for their phone service #TAXI, a one-stop phone number to hail a cab across the country.

Mr. Quain says the #TAXI experience shows the convenience fee, added to the customer’s mobile bill, shouldn’t become a deterrent to using The Ride.

“A lot of people are pretty surprised to learn that in Canada, we have had over 12 million calls to #TAXI and those people paid between $1.50 and $2.50 every time they used the service.”

Mr. Quain says people are already paying a premium for the convenience of taking a cab.

“We’re just making it more convenient,” he says, adding that the convenience includes giving the consumer all the other options that may be better – and free.

“You can walk to the local taxi stand or you can take transit or you can open up another app to compare it with our app. Game on. Absolutely. We have no problem that,” he says.

CellWand launched #TAXI more than ten years ago, a time when the taxi industry is not as interesting as it is today, says Mr. Quain.

“With #TAXI, it was a great solution for a lot of people but it still wasn’t that really killer product that we wanted to build which would layer in all the features and functionality that The Ride has,” he says.

The firm started thinking about a mobile app about four years ago, and really starting building it about two years ago, he says. There were a lot of discussions with its various partners, and with the taxi industry over that time about the opportunity to launch something before Uber arrived.

“Ride transparency” is an important function of the app, Mr. Quain says.

“You place an order and you get to see when it’s been assigned to a cab and you get to see where that cab is and you get to see the name of the driver and you get to see the estimated time until they get to you and really it’s a matter of managing your expectations,” he says.

Mr. Quain says some cab companies were a little “cautious” about the app, when they first saw it, as they weren’t too happy to see it promote transit as well. But Mr. Quain says while the app may convince some taxi customers to take the bus, it can also work the other way.

“In the end, though, (for) the cab industry, if we’re bringing them thousands and thousands of orders for their fleet, that’s a good thing,” he says.

There’s a social component to The Ride too, in a time where urban planners are trying to convince people to leave their cars at home. The holiday season, with its many parties, is also a time for the app to shine.

CellWand has been a national sponsor of Mothers Against Drunk Driving for over ten years, Mr. Quain says, and The Ride is now the group’s official taxi and transit app.

While the app may have already launched, there is still much work to do, Mr. Quain says.

“We’re going to be layering in all sorts of different transportation options into this app beyond taxi and transit,” he says adding that could include layering in transit e-passes as transit authorities make them available to third-parties.

The Ride will also one day include other verticals, such as shuttle and ride-share services. Mr. Quain says he is also looking at ways to work with concert and live event promoters.

Mr. Quain says The Ride doesn’t mean the end of #TAXI but, says he expects a gradual migration from the phone line to the app.

“That’s a natural evolution,” he says.