In an age when it seems every industry is ripe for disruption from new technologies, a never-ending quest to overhaul the basic relationship between consumer and provider is a key driver of success and failure.
Uber’s assault on the sometime monopolistic taxi cab cartels in Western cities is now providing a target for entrepreneurs seeking an even more ambitious reinvention of how we travel.
Whim, a Finnish start-up, is pioneering a new mobility service app for urban markets. MaaS Global, the parent company, has set out its stall as the “world’s first mobility operator” – they want to make your city travel as seamless as possible.
“A tsunami of digitalisation is about to hit transportation. We want to offer possibility to get from car ownership to experience,” Sampo Hietanen, CEO and founder of MaaS Global said. “Users are having all the time more and more great options for their daily mobility but all service providers are having their own applications and ways for compare, book and pay the tickets. We want to free people from this hassle and offer possibility to move on a whim.”
For the purpose of illustration, Mr Hietanen, interrogates the travel experience at its home base in Helsinki.
“In our opinion no means of transport alone can fulfil the needs of modern, active lifestyle in a flexible and sustainable way,” he said. “For example, the new Länsimetro [an extension to the Helsinki underground system], even when fully functioning, raises the question of how to get to the terminus. Another dilemma might be how to take longer weekend trips without owning a car?
“Public transportation, taxis, car sharing, car leasing and even city bicycles each play an important role in making every-day life practical. These become a real alternative to, say, a second family car only when their best features are combined in an easy and alluring manner,” Mr Hietanen continues.
In fact, Whim is even aiming at removing the necessity of car ownership for many subscribers. “[Whim] aspires to improve the level of service in the transport sector by combining public and private transport services from brand-new cars to taxis, rental cars, trains, buses and city bikes,” the mission statement states.
The app allows the user to pay a monthly subscription which removes all need to pay fixed fees for other transport options, such as the many standing expenses of owning a car, or the lost expenditure of taking out a public transport travelcard which might not be fully used.
”For the same price as you keep an average car parked, unused, you now get the most functional way of moving around every day without the hassles of vehicle ownership. And if you, on certain occasions, need a bigger car or a more luxurious experience, that is possible by paying an extra fee for the day in question. We believe this kind of a solution appeals to the young, smart generation, to whom mobility is more important than ownership. In addition to that, we are competing especially with the decision of getting a second car for the family,” Mr Hietanen says.
When the service launched in the Finnish capital, the service was priced below the cost of running a car in Helsinki. The average driver pays €500 a month to run a car there; the original Whim Unlimited monthly package which offered free access to all means of transport, including a car, came in at €499.
This allowed subscribers access to a rental car every day as well as unlimited taxi rides for distances under 5km. The company originally offered three separate plans: a pay as you go service; Whim Urban, a medium rate of €49 a month that has total access to public transport; and the unlimited service.
Using the app is similar to Uber and other services: you establish your location, find the nearest possible option of whatever form of transport you want, order the vehicle or get your ticket, and then you are matched your car or taxi or bus.
Finland has a rich history of technological innovation: Nokia, the communications company which was one of the first companies to launch the first widely available mobile phones in the 1980s, is a source of intense national pride. In 1998 it was the best-selling mobile phone brand across the world.
Whim has received substantial backing from in its various funding rounds: in August 2017, MaaS Global raised €14.2 million with investments from companies such as Toyota Financial Services, an offshoot of the car company which provides many of the taxis run through services such as Uber.
The service is currently in use in Helsinki, as well as the Dutch cities of Antwerp and Amsterdam, and was launched last autumn in Birmingham, the second largest city in the United Kingdom, where it will initially just be used on public and private transport systems such as coaches, buses, trains and taxis. In Antwerp, Whim will cover taxis, street-rental bikes and scooters as well as car rental.
There are possible plans for the service to be rolled out in Seoul, South Korea, while the link up with funding partners Toyota could lead to Whim being launched in Japan.
As attractive as the potential for the company to spread further across the world – there are plans for Whim to be rolled out in 15 cities across the globe by the end of 2018 – it is far from certain that the proposal will work in every location.
Some cities, such as London, already have travel payment systems in place which allow users to travel freely on buses, trains and the underground at the tap of a network or credit card. In other locations there will likely be pushback from entrenched industries such as the licensed cab firms and local transport unions.
However, the aims of Mr Hietanen suggest that he is seeking a revolution in our approach to how we travel. In an interview with Business Insider in 2017, the app was described as the “Netflix of transportation” and the company’s founder expressed his ambition for the service.
“What if you had ‘unlimited Europe’ – ground and air transport included – through one app that would be your companion wherever you go? Then you could truly be a global citizen,” he said to Business Insider. He believes that by 2030 the global market for similar such services as Whim could be $1 trillion and that his company could grab a tenth of that market by being a pioneer of the service.
After the service launched in the Finnish capital in autumn 2016, Whim was overwhelmed by public interest. Thousands of locals applied to be part of the limited launch.
“There were more applicants than what we could take on board to keep service levels acceptable,” Mr Hietanen told Business Insider, saying it was “better than expected”.
After the initial seed capital round in 2016 of €2.2 million, investors such as Toyota were more than happy to come on board the following year. And it hasn’t just been interest from business – Mr Hietanen has said that the company has had incredible interest from cities in the service.
“It’s a rare thing to be in a company, where there is unfathomable interest from cities to try this. Cities are considered slow and resistant to change. But the truth is the opposite. We haven’t had to approach anyone, be it cities or investors.”
Indeed, so optimistic is he that the company is setting its sights on air travel too. “Flights will surely be part of this in the near future,” he told Business Insider. “As part of your flight ticket will be a three-day voucher to use the new city’s transport services. To make it happen, it will mostly come down to pricing.”
The biggest challenge to Mr Hietanen’s ambitions is likely be regulatory. As Uber have found in recent months, the traditional industries that they and other apps have set out to replace have fought back and the new services have come under attack from city authorities across the world.
Uber’s Pop car sharing service has been banned in Germany following a 2015 ruling, and the entire operation could be removed from London’s streets in October, if it cannot make satisfactory changes in the way it conducts its business.. Other disruptive tech firms such as Airbnb have run up against municipal opposition to their business practices across the globe.
Mr Hietanen remains evangelical about the benefits of Whim. “It’s time to shift from words to actions,” he said. “For only ten euros most people living in the Greater Helsinki Area can make their way to the metro or train station closest to them. Add to this the fact that you can get a car for longer weekend trips for under 50 euros a day, we believe we really can make every-day life easier for people.”