Pinpoint Pickup, the Car-Booking Startup Facing off Against Uber, has Seven Cities Under its Belt—and Wants More

5/4/11Follow @curtwoodward

For anyone who’s ever stood in the rain waiting for a cramped bus, or wondered if that hurried call to the taxi dispatcher was going to pay off, there’s now a quick way to book a pricier, but more luxurious ride by tapping a few times on your smartphone.

I’m not talking about Uber, the San Francisco town-car booking service that’s attracted big investment dollars and tons of positive press. Nope—it’s Pinpoint Pickup, a bootstrapped Seattle-area startup that’s already way ahead of Uber in market share, and even has its eyes an international expansion.

Pinpoint Pickup is run by a trio of entrepreneurs—two here in the Seattle area, a third in Southern California—who still have their day jobs while growing their new company. Pinpoint Pickup just released its “Ride in Style” app for Android smartphones, joining existing apps for iPhone and BlackBerry.

And while flashier competitor Uber is making its first major expansions—testing in New York City and planning to hire in Seattle, Boston and elsewhere—Pinpoint Pickup is already operating in Seattle and a half-dozen other metropolitan areas, and expanding to more cities in the coming weeks.

Co-founder Desiree Phair says the Los Angeles area is the company’s busiest market so far, but she wasn’t sharing many detailed statistics yet—”We have earned revenue, I can go on record saying that,” she says with a laugh. Pinpoint Pickup also serves Boston, Las Vegas, the San Francisco Bay Area, Phoenix and Tucson, AZ, with more cities queued up.

That’s a pretty rapid pace for a company that started in late 2009. And it’s meant a lot of airports, fast food joints, and test-rides for Phair, an economist by trade whose day job is analyzing labor markets for the state government. Before Pinpoint Pickup started, Phair says she always thought those wild founder stories were probably a bit exaggerated. But now she gets it.

“Oh my goodness, I just had no idea how much there was to learn,” Phair says. “I don’t think I’m a super-duper cocky person. But I went into it a little bit cocky.’”

The company’s smartphone app automatically detects the user’s location and guides them through a simple four-step booking process. The price is quoted in a round figure, tip included—think “about $50″— with a disclaimer that some fees could be added for tolls or long wait times. There’s a pretty broad footprint for the network of operators in each area, connecting to nearby cities and suburbs. In Seattle, for instance, it’s possible to get cars all the way out to Snohomish or Pierce counties.

I didn’t use the service, but a test of the booking system quoted me a rate of about $90 from Sea-Tac Airport to the Tacoma suburbs—cheaper than I’ve paid on some cab rides for the same trip. Pinpoint Pickup makes its money through fees on successful bookings, not charging a monthly software-as-a-service or lead-generation fee to the businesses.

Right now, payments are made to the driver, but Pinpoint Pickup is integrating a credit card option into its app for future releases. One key point, Phair says, is that Pinpoint pickup won’t compel customers to enter a credit card number to set up an account, like some of its competitors.

Pickup reservations need an hour lead time, which Phair says is a legal requirement in some markets to distinguish town cars from taxis. But Pinpoint Pickup is working on a “the sooner the better” type of feature for locations where that option wouldn’t run afoul of regulators.

The market for high-tech driver booking does already have a few players. Along with the aforementioned Uber, there are more established companies like LimoRes.com and Limos.com, which run the gamut of nicer-than-a-cab autos. Other companies, like Taxi Magic, use the power of smartphones to help users hail cabs, without having to look up the dispatch phone numbers.

The distinction between cabs and town cars is a key one in this business. Taxis in many cities are very heavily regulated, to the point where government has a strict limit on the number of cabs allowed on the streets. That can make for conflict with town car services, and so state or local officials have different rules attempting to keep the markets separate.

San Francisco’s Uber has already felt the sting of this regulatory environment—it was hit with cease-and-desist letters by city and state regulators last year, when it was still known as UberCab, for operating an unlicensed taxi agency. That dispute apparently is still being worked out, although Uber does charge taxi-like fares based on an initial fee and distance- or time-metered additional charges.

Against more established competitors, Phair says Pinpoint Pickup seeks to distinguish itself by being more technologically savvy. Her co-founders, Dirk Groeneveld and Jonathan Tai, are software pros who handle the technical heavy lifting. Plus, it aims to be more responsive to the small businesses that often run car services in individual cities.

“Some of the first attempts out there were pretty rickety. They have iterated, their products have gotten better,” Phair says of larger competitors. “But the perspective that we’re coming from is about making things convenient for both sides.”

Pinpoint Pickup’s booking system, which serves each request to the next driver in line, also means that customers aren’t going to get chased down by a ton of competing drivers trying to grab the same fare.

“With some services … you get 20 follow-up calls, and every one of those companies will try to pitch you,” she says. “I don’t know a single customer that is looking for a 16th company to call them and say, ‘I’ll do it for five bucks less—cancel your reservation.’”

The rise of these tech-savvy middlemen for car booking mirrors a lot of the business stories we’ve seen in the past few years: Cheap, abundant computing power and software smarts applied to a highly fragmented market ripe for technologies that can make it more efficient for consumers.

But in Pinpoint Pickup’s case, building the car-operator network to make it all happen was an old-school business tale: Phair simply took a lot of plane rides to new cities, jumped in the back of a lot of town cars, and chatted up a ton of business owners. “If I wanted to get into a car on the same day, I’d call seven companies,” Phair says. “Some of them were wonderful, extremely professional. Some of them, I was clearly waking someone up.”

All that aggressive screening paid off with a growing network of cities—Dallas-Fort Worth is currently testing, and New Orleans might be next. The company is also eyeing New York City, but also doesn’t want to make that move haphazardly. Beyond that, Phair says her economics-nerd side gets really excited by the possibility of expanding internationally—”we’re in serious negotiations,” Phair says.

The company isn’t necessarily beating the bushes for financing—you get the sense that the founders have enjoyed building this thing from the ground up on their own. But Pinpoint Pickup is starting to talk more about itself and the large network of cities it’s built in pretty quick fashion, and knows that it will take more resources, particularly more marketing muscle, to expand even more rapidly.

“We’re more than happy to talk to funders, and if we could find somebody that’s a great fit, we’d be more than happy to explore that opportunity,” Phair says. “We’re competing against people that have millions of dollars worth of funding, so at some point if we really want to take those technological leaps, we’ll need to compete.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • Town Car Chris

    I have tried both Uber and Pinpoint Pickup as a driver. Uber is sleek in many ways, but Pinpoint Pickup has a more complete system. They understand and empower drivers. Pinpoint also offers choices for customers that Uber doesn’t: cash payments, advance reservations, web based booking, and a blackberry app.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.radkowski Christopher Radkowski

    Uber is a great service but during extreme traffic in Chicago on Friday evenings for a example, sometimes it makes sense to hire a traditional limo company such as http://stretchlimochicago.com with flat rates rather then being surcharged for time and traffic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.radkowski Christopher Radkowski

    Uber is a great service but during extreme traffic in Chicago on Friday evenings for a example, sometimes it makes sense to hire a traditional limo company such as http://stretchlimochicago.com with flat rates rather then being surcharged for time and traffic.