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Investors laughed Daniel Rombouts out the room — now he’s running a $6.5 million company and taking on Uber

It’s hard enough to secure capital these days without your pitch involving going into competition with one of the biggest, and most talked about, companies in the world.

But that’s exactly what Daniel Rombouts, founder of Australian-owned transport company Get Picked Up, did in 2011, just as Uber, the $120 billion company more closely linked with the advent of the sharing economy than any other, was about to launch in Australia.

Working full time as the manager of Toll’s massive Woolworths contract in Sydney, Rombouts was doing the rounds with his vision for an Aussie-owned alternative that could stand up to the pressures of multinational competition.

Long story short, he was laughed out of the room.

“No-one wanted to put their investment dollars up against Uber … it was very high risk,” the business owner tells SmartCompany.

But eight years later, what started as an ambitious side-hustle has accomplished something even Uber hasn’t: booked a profit.

Without any external funding, Rombouts has taken Get Picked Up from less than $1 million in revenue back in 2015-16 to $6.5 million in 2018-19, expanding its operation to 50 cities and towns across Australia.

“Business-wise, it’s just like another transport company … personally, it’s an emotional rollercoaster,” Rombouts says of the journey so far.

The tortoise and the hare

Operating profitably from cashflow, Rombouts has managed to carve out a sizable niche in the fast-changing commercial transport market, connecting business travellers looking for transfers with contracted drivers who have, traditionally, catered for bespoke clientele. 

While Deloitte estimates Uber’s average fare in Australia hovers at about $22, Get Picked Up typically books longer fares, averaging $90 on 30-40 kilometre rides, typically two and from airports across the country.

In this respect, Get Picked Up currently differs from its larger competitors — drivers are offered a variety of scheduled rides and are encouraged to book return trips — but here Rombouts hopes to be the tortoise to Uber’s hare, revealing he will be investing in on-demand growth in 2020.

Because Get Picked Up’s existing business is trading profitably, Rombouts says he’ll be building his on-demand service gradually, hoping to offer a competitive alternative to the likes of Uber at the middle-to-upper side of its target market.

“A lot of people say I’ve found a niche. No, I’ve found the step to the front door,” Rombouts says.

“Other than technology and a lot of cash, Uber doesn’t have a clear and distinct value proposition to keep people coming back over and over again when there are alternatives.”

There are about 500 professional drivers working through Get Picked Up’s platform currently, many of which are long-term chauffer operators looking for a way into the digital transport ecosystem.

Rombouts hopes this focus on professional drivers and corporate clientele will pay off as the company increasingly expands the scope of its customer base with a focus on longer, not shorter, trips.

With fees structured in zones rather than by the kilometre nationwide, GPU is geared towards offering customers a compelling fare at the distance from airports to the CBD.

“The low end, cheap part of the market isn’t our strength,” Rombouts says.

“We aren’t price competitive for a one-kilometre trip.”

Uber runs a roaring trade out of Aussie airports and has been investing in growing the corporate side of its business for some time, but Rombouts says regular travellers want certainty and repeatability, not surge-pricing and a new driver every time.

The business is also looking to differentiate itself in other ways. Last week Rombouts launched a new service that offers pickups in Tesla cars in Sydney.

Rombouts says the price, equivalent with an Ube Premium booking, is affordable while offering Aussies a chance to try out the oft-talked about electric vehicles.

Cash burners

Uber is currently engaged in a nationwide battle with multinational competitors — India-headquartered Ola and China-based DiDi — for market share in Australia’s fast-growing rideshare market.

Roy Morgan figures indicate about 90,000 Aussies are now using a rideshare service other than Uber a statistic which would have been unthinkable only three years ago.

Ola and DiDi are throwing cash at the Australian market, running promotions to incentivise riders to jump onto their platforms and convince drivers to make the switch.

Rombouts has foregone the entire affair, opting to run his company without any peak hour charges or promotions, a decision which has helped support margins.

The founder believes the market has got ridesharing all wrong, leading to his big prediction, that the cash burn underway currently will lead nowhere fast for the platforms involved.

“People think throwing more money at something will achieve more market share and eventually lead to one company owning it,” Rombouts says, “but that’s flawed”.

“If one of the providers is offering a 30% discount you’re just going to flick off Uber and onto one of them … there’s no inherent value in what they’re doing.”

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