Desiree Phair

You’ve probably heard of Uber, the heavily-funded, private driving service that’s transforming the way people hail rides in San Francisco, New York and, some time later this summer, in Seattle. And while Uber certainly has a lot of buzz, a group of self-described Seattle area geeks are looking to stop Uber in its tracks with Pinpoint Pickup.

Founded in 2009, the Seattle area upstart already operates in nine markets in the U.S.

“Uber used to be called ‘Uber Cab’ because that’s how they treat their drivers – like cabbies,” co-founder Desiree Phair tells GeekWire. “That’s not the kind of relationship we foster. They get you a car, but Pinpoint Pickup gives you a luxury experience.”

We chatted with Phair to find out how they came up with the idea and why one day she’d like to figure out how to offer luxury car rides in Antartica.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Pinpoint Pickup lets you book a quality sedan ride using the web or with just a few taps on one of our free smartphone apps. We pre-screen cooperating companies to ensure a smooth experience, and we cover a wide geographic range — we’ll pick you up in the city or the ‘burbs.”

Inspiration hit when: “One of the co-founders wondered why he had to call six different companies, sit on hold multiple times, and then spend five minutes per call trying to explain himself, just to try to get a same-day ride to the airport. There are great ride providers out there, but we got tired of having to hunt for them every time. Given our tech background, we knew there was a way to make information exchange easier for both the customers and the transportation companies.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Definitely bootstrapped so far. We have enjoyed being able to stay focused on customer needs, keeping the team small and cohesive, and charting our own course. However, there are companies out there working on solving related problems, and some of them have millions of dollars in resources — so we are open to talking with the right investors in order to beef up resources and keep our product top notch.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “A simple user experience. We constantly ask if there’s a faster way to do something, a way to make things more intuitive for customers, one fewer button to include. At the end of the day, the product design team rules the roost.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Choosing a model that actually scales. Whether you’re in New York or the Dallas suburbs, whether you’re a company with thousands of employees or an individual trying to catch a plane, we’ve got you covered. We’re not cornered into one set up indefinitely. We can move with the market and adapt to a wide variety of customer.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “We started early, but we should have started even earlier. We had the idea several months before forming the company. Months are an eternity in entrepreneurship.”

Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bezos. All four bring something strong to the table, but Bezos is the guy who went from building his own solar microwave as a child to being a CEO applying technology to a very targeted, real-world idea. He somehow made selling books seem sexy and high-tech, yet easily accessible to the average person. We’d love to follow that model. Bezos is still running the show and taking care of business all while chasing after private space flight. That’s a man who appreciates transportation possibilities.”

Our world domination strategy starts when: “We figure out how to deliver luxury rides to researchers in Antarctica. We won’t quit until we hit all seven continents.”

Rivals should fear us because: “For some people, inspiration strikes at a convenient time, like right after a school year before taking on too many obligations, or after having worked in a lucrative industry just long enough to save up a big pot of money and amass an arsenal of powerful contacts. For us, the idea came along while we had mortgages without built up equity, no huge stockpiles of cash, no millionaire best friends. But we went for it anyway. As a result, not only have we been bootstrapping, we’ve held down full-time jobs to keep paying those mortgages, too. We accomplished more fueled by pizza and cola in the middle of the night than some companies with a complete full-time tech staff. We’re like the Powerthirst of Seattle startups; we’re made of real lightning.”

We are truly unique because: “We’re spread out across state lines, and we don’t all get as much face time in the same room as we’d like (Our first company purchase was an air mattress)… yet we’re genuinely friends. Most decisions are still consensus-based, and the occasional passionate difference of opinion can be resolved via expressive Rage Comics. We’re still going to like each other in 20 years. The tell-all book would be pretty lame.”

The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: “We’re geeks, our friends are mostly geeks, and our business contacts are mostly geeks. This was a great advantage until it was time to roll out the marketing. We looked around and said: ‘Okay, who has a strong relationship with a marketing professional? Anyone? We can’t do luxury ride stick figure theater, people.’ We’ve had to work to establish new connections, and it has been exciting to watch the brand evolve as those connections have deepened and as we’ve matured as founders.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “If your background is in tech, don’t underestimate the non-tech components like marketing and sales. If your background is non-tech, don’t tell yourself that you’ll ‘just hire some contractor to code it up’ — most products require a real partnership of people with different talents. Both sides of the equation take knowledge and hard work.”

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  • Austin Geidt

    Hey John! Austin from Uber here. Thanks for the mention! Those who rock Uber know our partners are our #1 advocates of Uber. The same way our riders have been spreading the word to their friends, drivers have been doing the same. Our name change was to reflect that we were not a cab company, rather, we’re an on-demand black car service. We’re SUPER excited to be coming to Seattle and delivering awesome rides for both our rad Uber riders and equally rad partners. Stay tuned…:)

  • Airporter

    Must say, I do love the ease of Pinpoint Pickup’s web app. I’ve used it a few times to get to and from the airport. It’s quick, simple and the drivers on their network have always treated me great.

  • Kyle Kesterson

    Love the Glenn Kelman approach of getting your name known by stepping into the ring with some healthy instigation! The soundbite could use some work though if they want to be taken seriously…

    From my perspective, it was actually a smart initial thought to call them “Uber cabs”, as it quickly helps to make the association to its function without needing a grand marketing scheme to alter people’s behaviors. Brand is important, even in Antarctica, and I think a “pickup” is a bit too vague to catch on.

  • Chris Grumbles

    Pinpoint actually has a pretty sweet site. Its like google maps, but I can get a car to drive me to all my sexy parties (ok, really… the airport)

  • Kristina M.

    Since I have not joined the smart phone generation, I used the website to book a ride.  It arrived early, with a friendly, interactive driver, clean car, and oh-so-comfortable seats.  We knew the price before the ride, tip included, so no guess work!  The driver even took a credit card.  Easy experience from beginning to end!

  • Samuel Leaver

    As a small, independent start-up, it takes a lot of balls to go up against any service that is ‘heavily-funded!’ Kudos to Desiree and her team…marketing can be the hardest thing to do right when you don’t have mountains of seed money.

    The keys to success in any start-up are to stay cutting-edge without losing sight of your customer and provide the best product possible as simply as possible. Out of curiosity, I checked out Uber and Pinpoint’s websites. Some thoughts/observations: Uber makes you ‘sign up’ to book a ride – Pinpoint doesn’t. Pinpoint appears to let you negotiate directly with the drivers – Uber looks to be a mite Draconian in that respect.
    If it were me, I’d prefer to do business with a smaller, more service-oriented group, but I realize that some people prefer shopping at Wal-mart. Hey, good thing there are options!

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