We live in a city with an excellent public service network. Despite price hikes, public transport remains cheap and convenient. But many people feel frustrated with the existing taxi service.
“There is a significant number of people who aren’t receiving the service they want,” says Kenneth She, the young General Manager of Uber Hong Kong. “The mode of operation has barely changed for the past three decades. We saw a gap which we could tap into.”
And so it was, four years ago, Kenneth launched Uber Hong Kong. “The street level feeling was ignored,” he says. “Everyone was looking for an alternative.”
In response, the local taxi services introduced of a fleet of fancy new taxis resembling London cabs. An attempt to offer more choice.
“The newer taxis didn’t address the issues in any comprehensive way,” explains Kenneth. “It was only half a step towards providing a more inclusive, community-based service.”
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Kenneth She has achieved a lot in a short space of time. After school he won a scholarship to study Civil Engineering at Oxford University. “It was an interesting time. Without the scholarship, I couldn’t have dreamed of attending. It was a real privilege.”
He moved back to Hong Kong after graduating. But rather than engineering, he took a bank job and worked in investment for four years.
“There are pros and cons to being a banker. But on the positive side, I learned a lot. Many things I do now, like project management, communications and negotiations, are partly from what I learned through banking.” The tough working environment provided the foundation for his next move.
“There’s never a wasted opportunity. Everything provides a platform for future development.”
“At some point, I developed my own thinking,” Kenneth recalls. “I knew I wanted a challenge.”
So, when a banking friend offered him the opportunity to join Uber and launch the business in Hong Kong, he leapt at the chance.
He started the local operation from theDesk in Sai Ying Pun. Given Uber’s global prominence, the launch generated a lot of publicity, not all positive.
“It’s good for people to know the controversial side of things. We don’t have any secrets. We don’t hide things. If people have concerns about legality, insurance or other things, we can tell you exactly what you need to know.”
So, what attracted him to Uber? One factor was the chance to make an impact by bringing positive change to an existing market. “It was a time when the sharing economy went bang and became global,” he says. “It was definitely attractive to me. The challenge was great. We wondered if the concept would even work in Hong Kong.”
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“Joining Uber came at a time. when I’d accumulated some experience, but wanted to try things our in real life,” he reflects. “When we started I was doing stuff I’d not done before. I didn’t even have a driving licence.”
Four years on and the company now employs 120 people and works from their headquarters at Leighton Centre, Causeway Bay.
Uber doesn’t only do rides. Uber Eats, the food delivery service, recently celebrated its first anniversary.
Since then, there’s been an explosion in the number of businesses offering similar services. While Uber isn’t yet the largest in Hong Kong, they are the largest globally. “It’s an area of business that we’re keen to develop in the city,” Kenneth says.
Technology is the backbone of Uber’s offer. “People could think that technology pulls people apart. People nowadays often sit in restaurants, looking at their phones. Not talking with each other, as in the past.”
“But what we do is bring people closer together. The fundamental change we see in the transport sector is the development of genuine relationships, built on trust. Trust between drivers and riders. This is close to non-existent in the existing taxi market,” Kenneth says.
“No offence to the taxi market,” he explains. “It’s efficient. They’ve served people in Hong Kong for many years. But what we need is trust. And there is a real market for that.”
“Of course, there’s a financial incentive. We invest our time in driving people for a small reward. That’s reasonable. But at the same time we’re connecting people in the community.”
“Our drivers appreciate how the platform helps them make an extra living. It broadens their horizons. It enables them to meet different people.”
Many drivers are retirees, including ex-taxi drivers. “We found that they hated the working life of a taxi driver. Once they switched to Uber, they could enjoy the work in a completely different way.”
The benefits for passengers are self-explanatory. “Our business is able to offer a much better service and after-sales support,” She says.
Enhancing connectivity and inclusion is a significant focus, too. One example is the Uber Assist service. “This is a big area for us in 2018,” he says.
In Hong Kong, there are more than 500,000 people who need special transport services. “They’re not currently served at all. There is no proper disabled-friendly taxi fleet, only a few small companies. They represent around 100 vehicles out of the 18,000 taxis in the city. It’s not enough.”
And these special taxis need to be pre-booked. “I have friends who are wheelchair users. If we want to meet for lunch, we need to organise days in advance. You couldn’t book something right away. You need to make phones calls. Uber can help people a lot,” he adds.
“It’s about people feeling like they’re part of an inclusive society.”
The ageing population makes the service more needed than ever. “It’s not that people aren’t willing to pay. It’s that they currently have no options.”
“If I were mobility impaired, using the MTR could be a hassle. It’s possible, of course, but not ideal. Like many people, I’d rather pay a little more and get a more personalised point-to-point service.”
Companies like Uber and Airbnb originated in the USA. Why didn’t they develop here? Kenneth suggests several possible reasons.
“It’s partly cultural,” he reflects. “If I own a car, at first I may be hesitant. I don’t want people making my vehicle dirty or smelly. But when people see others doing it, and they recognise the benefits, they change their mind.”
But culture is not the biggest issue. A greater hurdle is the legal aspect. “People fear being arrested by the police. They also wonder if this is a business model the government will support in the long term. These are things that have an impact on their lives. It’s real, right? Getting arrested is real.”
Kenneth expects the market to grow further. “There is strong demand. It’s not something we’re trying to prove, it’s already there.”
“Once we provided a solution, people rushed to enjoy the service. We have data to support that. I’m not too worried about us having no market at all.”
But to increase reach and impact, he knows the company has work to do in educating people. Moreover, he’s aware that they have something to prove to the establishment. “We need to show how our services don’t pose any significant risk to the government.”
“All officials are concerned with risk. By nature, they’re quite conservative. We find that governments around the world are quite similar in this respect.”
“We’re here to compete, but we’re also here to talk. We’re open for a discussion.”
“Initiatives like Uber Assist create job opportunities, especially for people with low incomes. This is concrete and in line with what the government wants to achieve.”
“We’re all concerned with how to solve traffic congestion, how to encourage people to pool their cars.”
With the recent Consumer Council report, which recommends that the taxi market opens up, it’s clear that there is the beginning of change at a policy level.
“It’s hard to put a stop in it unless you have a compelling reason. The only true obstacle we face is from taxi firms, which will be the next big topic that we work on.”
Traditional business models – from banking to retail – are built on shifting sands. Recent history shows how many established industries are ripe for disruption from consumers.
“It’s good that the government now sees a strong need to open up the market. It’s a positive step in the right direction. But how far they will embrace the modern sharing economy, needs more time.”
“Everywhere system has its flaws. But if there is a clear market demand, someone will have to address it.”
“From what I see, we get a lot of public support. It proves that there is a strong force for change and that urges the government do something about it.”
A lot happened for Uber in 2017. Press reports painted a dark picture of Uber’s internal organisation and culture. How does Kenneth frame the often negative publicity?
“Personally, I don’t find it as bad as the media reports,” he explains. “Firstly, the US and Canada are different markets.”
“A good thing about Uber is that at the local level we have a lot of autonomy. I hire my own team – we’re 99% local people. Of course, we still report to HQ in the US. But our business culture in HK is good.”
“Some companies send a lot of white guys to different parts of the world. We have a bit of that. But Uber respects local teams and local talents.”
Kenneth sees this ‘glocalisation’ as something that differentiates Uber from many competitors. It’s about empowering people working in local markets. “We have the strong structure, but at the same time our people know what’s happening in their hometowns.”
“What happened in the USA was unfortunate. There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement. But the change of CEO is a good sign.”
“Now we have a seasoned executive who knows how to manage people in teams At this stage, we need those skills. We need that force to redefine and restructure; to get rid of bad aspects and generally make the whole company culture more positive.”
“Every company that experiences high growth has a period where things are messy. We’re no different from other companies.”
“There is stuff we need to fix from time to time. It’s just that for us it happened within a concentrated 12 month period.”
“As long as we’re clear that we need to fix things, we’re definitely heading in the right direction. So, I’m optimistic.”
We live in times of comprehensive change. The world of business is evolving in fast forward, and companies need to prepare for rapid transformation.
“Every operator needs to keep in mind that we’re no longer in a place where you can only focus on what you’re doing right now.”
For his own career, this is something Kenneth takes to heart. “There’s a ton of stuff I need to learn, even within Uber. I’ll keep learning so I can better deal with challenging situations which, for us, happens on a daily basis!”
“As long as I keep learning and finding ways to solve these challenging questions, that’s the way to go.”
“I don’t see myself confined to one specific industry or business, to be honest. Even for Uber, I imagine that in 5 years we may be doing some even crazier business than just cars!”
One thing’s for sure, Kenneth’s personal drive and commitment demonstrate how Hong Kong people have what it takes to bring change to traditional industries; challenging the status quo and delivering real value to people, while running a successful business.