Sam Gellman of Uber Hong Kong is leading Asia’s mobile revolution in taxi services
There is much talk about what it takes to go from start-up to sustainable business, but if you take the example of Sam Gellman, it is clear that, besides big dreams and tech wizardry, some good old-fashioned principles are paramount.
The general manager of Uber Hong Kong, the local arm of the app-based taxi service that is rapidly expanding in cities around the world, has been successful in blazing a trail – first in Europe, now in Asia – using the methods familiar to salesmen and brand pioneers over the decades. Essentially, you show up, make some contacts, present your wares, and don’t give up until things start going your way.
“When I joined, the company had 40 staff in San Francisco and was only operating in the US,” Gellman says. “I was told to go to Europe and make it happen. That’s the culture: we give people a ton of responsibility and hope they will step up, get people to try the service and, in critical moments, figure out how to get things done.”
Uber’s goal is to create a more efficient system. Via the app, users can order a taxi for the school run, the office commute, or just to shuttle around town. Drivers pay a service fee for every trip arranged and, to ensure standards, are subject to background and insurance checks.
“We don’t own any cars; we tap into the existing car-driving community to achieve better utilisation,” Gellman says. “In each new city, we work from the ground up and have a few months to find partners, hire staff, build the marketing side, and get it right.”
Hailing from Wisconsin, where his father was a stockbroker, Gellman studied international relations and computer science at Stanford University but, after graduating, was unsure about what to do next.
Then, working at a family summer camp for Stanford alumni at Lake Tahoe, he happened to overhear a guest talking about her job at Goldman Sachs. Feeling there was nothing to lose, he asked for an introduction.
“It was a bit serendipitous; the minute I felt there was a chance, I really focused on it,” he says. “I figured out what was needed to make the most of the opportunity, learned everything I could about the firm and, two months later - after a series of interviews — was offered a job in San Francisco. Looking back, I really found my drive that summer through meeting some very successful people and realising the importance of keeping your eyes and ears open and being assertive about opportunities when they come along.”
After meeting an employee at Goldman Sachs, he asked for an introduction and started working at the firm, specialising in derivative products. He soon adapted to a culture where individuals have high expectations of themselves – and others. Success led to a transfer to Hong Kong for a role in derivatives research, which involved contact with hedge funds and mutual funds all over the world. It was fast paced and challenging, but after seven years with the firm, Gellman sensed the need for something different.
“There came a point where I saw certain Stanford classmates working for companies which impacted people’s lives in a really meaningful way. I wanted to be part of that. Also, the mobile revolution was taking shape and changing the way people make decisions — that was exciting. When Uber popped up, I said this is exactly what I’m looking for. ”
His first big assignment was to establish a presence in London, working solo initially and doing almost everything from scratch. The priority was to find a good, strong limousine partner and make sure the business concept was more widely understood. Fortune then took a hand.
“The technology community tends to be very welcoming, but it was also the time of the 2012 Olympics, so there were people in town from the US and Canada who knew our name, and we could use that to kick-start demand.”
Soon, contracted drivers were getting trips and income. Clients were telling friends about the service. And from that point on, the whole project just started to snowball. For Gellman, it was “mission accomplished”.
The next stop was Amsterdam and, having lived in the Netherlands and learned Dutch as a high school exchange student in the late 1990s, he was on familiar ground.
“I got to know drivers who had heard of us through Twitter, and things moved very quickly after that.”
Appointed head of Asia expansion in 2013, Gellman was tasked with repeating the trick, but on an even larger scale. Hong Kong is now the regional headquarters, with operations up and running in cities stretching from South Korea to New Zealand. The immediate plans include tripling headcount in China during the next year and accelerating expansion in India and the Philippines. There is a feeling that the sky’s the limit.
”It is still early days in Asia, but we can see there is so much room to grow. Two years ago, it was me and a friend sitting in a Starbucks in Singapore figuring out how to hire people. My career, though, has been about finding opportunities which make sense and really going after them. So far, all the pieces have just fallen into place.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Taxis on demand.