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Friday, Sep 19, 2014
Business News

Do you need a lift? There’s an app for that

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Growing up, my parents taught me that just about the most dangerous thing you could possibly do besides run with scissors was either a.) hitchhike, or b.) pick up a hitchhiker. Since then, I’ve figured doing so was the best way possible to get chainsawed.

Yet, the bedrock presumption in the world of venture capital and startups is that “all presumptions must be disrupted,” followed closely thereafter by “profits cCome lLater.”

Hence, we have a growing pack of proto-taxi/limo hitchhiking services sprouting up all over the nation, wherein smartphone apps match ambitious drivers with those who need driving — all lickety split and digitally hip. Which brings me to the car service start-up, Lyft.

Lyft is already in a dozen cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Denver. This month, it started recruiting drivers in Tampa to “join the community and make up to $20/hour while meeting great people around the city ... With your help, we’ll change the face of transportation.”

The Lyft business model works this way: Drivers sign up to drive, pass a background check and make themselves available for passengers. People who need a ride fire up the Lyft app, find nearby Lyft drivers and sort through their profiles — almost like online dating. (Photos included, handily.)

When a matchup seems right, Lyft alerts the driver to pick up the passenger, who is encouraged to sit up front, give a hearty fistbump and make it a social thing.

All payments go through the Lyft app, so no cash changes hands in the car. You can’t miss the cars, either. Each Lyft driver gets a HUGE pink mustache to strap on the front of the car. Why pink? The founders originally envisioned Lyft as a women-friendly, safety-conscious car service. Things grew from there.

Lyft promotes itself as a social thing beyond just a ride service, and people tend to view it as a lot like other social projects, Foursquare, Instagram, Vine and Meetups. You can watch the hip Lyft meetup video here: youtube.com/watch?v=GfS2BsdntIo.

Lyft officials remain coyly secretive about their plans for Tampa, other than to say they’re always looking at new markets. (Their Facebook job posting gives that all away, but that’s kind of part of the publicity game, right?) And thus, I’m reduced to quoting from previous articles. “We try to find aspirational, friendly people, and when you take a ride with a person, you think ‘Hey, that could be me’,” Lyft’s co-founder, John Zimmer, once told Techcrunch.

And that leads us to Uber, which is kind of, sort of, like a taxi service. Professional drivers enroll in the Uber network. Customers use a smartphone app to call for a car and can watch on their screen how their driver is approaching. There’s a pre-set rate, but that can vary depending on demand. If 1,000 people suddenly call for an Uber ride, the going rate goes up, sometimes by a factor of five or more. Economic theory holds that demand creates supply and more drivers will join the system to garner revenue.

And then there’s Zipcar, which is mostly like a car rental service, except you don’t have to go to the @#&^& airport. Zipcars are parked around town, and when you need a ride, the Zipcar app tells you where to find one. Take your ride, pay your fee and park it for the next driver. There are other car services like Sidecar, and heck, Tampa even has a growing community of bike-share programs to take transportation off the carbon-industrial complex.

All these new services sprout from the fertile gray area between highly regulated industries like taxis and limos, which are more organized than standing in a bar, holding up a $20 bill and yelling “Anyone give me a ride home?!!”

The whole ride-sharing marketplace is maturing, by the way. There’s now a Peer-to-Peer Rideshare Insurance Coalition, with representatives from Lyft, Sidecar, Uber, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Farmers Insurance, Allstate and the California Public Utilities Commission.

Surely I’m leaving out a half-dozen startup transportation ventures out there. Bigger cities like New York and San Francisco have hordes. It’s only a matter of time before the most well-funded ones reach Tampa Bay. So, why buy a car and lock yourself into a monthly payment when you can borrow one just when you need it? Presumably, you have a cruiser bike to roll around town all the other days, and you only rarely need a Lyft to the airport for that flight to SXSW or Burning Man.

Economists call this a “self-selecting” population. Those with car seats and diaper bags and soccer games and $150 worth of groceries to haul around might opt for predictability more than sociability. For others, there is Lyft.

Meanwhile, here’s other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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As of today, we are officially T-minus five days from the opening of Trader Joe’s. The quirky grocer with the rabid fan base plans to open its site at 3808 W. Swann Avenue at 8 a.m. on Friday. As with other openings nationwide, expect a traffic and parking dogpile. Some locations have seen a rash of towed cars as nearby retailers try to survive the near-riot scene of shoppers trying to get organic burritos, spiced chai tea, cheap wine and anything else T.J.-branded. T.J. relishes its oddball ethos and introduces lots of new products each week. For instance, one current highlight is “Colliers Welsh Cheddar Cheese,” which T.J.’s describes this way: “Welsh coal miners (or ‘Colliers’) of the Industrial Revolution learned that the flavor of a cheese sandwich could cut through the dust they’d been breathing since before dawn. ... At $6.99 per pound, Collier’s Welsh Cheddar fits the bill, whether you mine coal or you just want to enjoy some really good cheese!”

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The new Spanx store will open in Tampa at International Plaza with, I kid you not, a “jiggle-free jubilee” on April 11. We broke the news of the opening last January of the opening a few weeks ago,. According to the Official Spanx Announcement from founder Sara Blakely (who will personally be at the opening event), “It is especially meaningful to me because I grew up shopping at International Plaza; now I can share Spanx with my hometown and the community that supported me from the beginning.”

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A few months ago, we took a test drive of a Tesla Model S electric car that blew our minds. So fast. So luxurious. So ... electric. Teslas are selling briskly through the company’s model of direct factory sales to the customer. There are demonstration lots, including one in Tampa, but there are no “dealers,” and that very much bugs the community of car dealers between the factory and the buyer. Dealers contend they protect the consumer by promoting competition and preventing factories from dictating prices. (A similar theory is why Budweiser must go through beer distributors and Hollywood movie companies must go through separate movie theater companies, and so on.) Car dealer groups are fighting Tesla’s sales model nationwide and just won a huge victory in New Jersey, which will effectively shut down Tesla’s sales operations. “Unfortunately, Monday we received news that Gov. Christie’s administration has gone back on its word to delay a proposed anti-Tesla regulation so that the matter could be handled through a fair process in the Legislature,” Tesla officials wrote on their company blog. “This is an affront to the very concept of a free market.”

In case you’re wondering, Tesla has a license to sell cars directly in Florida.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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