How James Bond, an abusive Parisian cabbie and one manâ€™s frustration with going out in San Francisco led to a transport revolution
The whole thing might not have happened without Bond â€“ James Bond. It was mid-2008, the Canadian entrepreneur Garrett Camp had just sold his first company, the website discovery engine StumbleUpon, to eBay for $75m. Now he was living large, enjoying San Franciscoâ€™s nightlife, and when relaxing at his apartment in the cityâ€™s South Park neighbourhood, he occasionally popped in the DVD of Daniel Craigâ€™s first Bond movie, Casino Royale.
Camp loved the movie, but something specific in it got him thinking. Thirty minutes into the film, Bond is driving his silver Ford Mondeo in the Bahamas on the trail of his adversary, Le Chiffre, when he glances down at his Sony Ericsson phone. Itâ€™s brazen product placement and by todayâ€™s standards the phone seems comically outdated. But at the time, what Bond saw on his phone startled Camp: a graphical icon of the Mondeo moving on a map toward his destination. The image stuck in his head and to understand why, you need to know more about the restless, inventive mind of Garrett Camp.
Camp was born in Calgary, Canada, and spent his early childhood playing sports, learning the electric guitar and asking lots of questions. Eventually, his curiosity settled on the world of personal computers. An uncle gave the family an early model Macintosh, from the days of floppy disks and point-and-click adventure games, and Camp spent hours on it during the frigid winters, toying with early computer graphics and writing basic programs.
By the time Camp graduated from high school, his parents had a three-storey home that included a comfortable office and a computer room in the basement. â€œThere wasnâ€™t much reason to leave,â€ he says. He enrolled at the nearby University of Calgary, saved money by living at home and spent the next few years there (aside from one year in Montreal, interning at a company called Nortel Networks). He got his undergraduate degree in 2001 and stayed at the university to pursue a master of science, finally leaving his comfortable nest after he turned 22 to move into a campus apartment with classmates.
Camp met Geoff Smith, who would become his StumbleUpon co-founder, through one of his childhood friends and they started the site as a way for users to share and find interesting things on the internet without having to search for them on Google. By the time Camp finished his degree in 2005, StumbleUpon was starting to show promise. Camp and Smith met an angel investor that year who convinced them to move to San Francisco to raise capital. Over the next 12 months, the number of users on StumbleUpon grew from 500,000 to 2 million.
With the trauma of the first dot-com bust fading and the scent of opportunity again wafting across Silicon Valley, offers for StumbleUpon started pouring in. In May 2007, eBay bought StumbleUpon for $75m, turning it into one of the early successes of what became known as Web 2.0, the movement in which companies such as Flickr and Facebook mined the social connections among internet users. For Camp, it seemed the highest possible level of success in Silicon Valley and it was, by any reasonable standard â€“ until the one that he achieved next.
Camp continued to work at eBay after the sale and he was now young, wealthy and single, with a taste for getting out of the house. This is when he ran headlong into San Franciscoâ€™s feeble taxi industry.
For decades, San Francisco had kept the number of taxi licences capped at about 1,500. Licences in the city were relatively inexpensive and couldnâ€™t be resold and owners could keep the permit as long as they liked if they logged a minimum number of hours on the road every year. So new permits usually became available only when drivers died and anyone who applied for one had to wait years to receive it. Stories abounded about a driver waiting for three decades to get a licence, only to die soon after.
The system guaranteed a healthy availability of passengers for the taxi companies even during slow times and ensured that full-time drivers could earn a living wage. But demand for cars greatly exceeded supply and so taxi service in San Francisco famously sucked. Trying to hail a cab in the outer neighbourhoods near the ocean, or even downtown on a weekend night, was an exercise in futility. Getting a cab to take you to the airport was a stomach-churning gamble that could easily result in a missed flight.
Attempts to improve the situation were fruitless, since the fleets and their drivers were adamant about limiting competition. Over the years, whenever the mayor or the cityâ€™s board of supervisors tried to increase the number of permits, angry drivers would fill city council chambers or surround city hall, causing havoc.
After the eBay acquisition, Camp splurged out on a red Mercedes-Benz C-Class sports car, but the vehicle sat in his garage. He hadnâ€™t driven much in Calgary and at college he preferred to take public transport. â€œDriving in San Francisco was too stressful,â€ he says. â€œI didnâ€™t want to park the car on the street and I didnâ€™t want people to break into it. Just logistically, it was much harder to drive.â€
So the cityâ€™s sad taxi situation seriously cramped his new lifestyle. Since he couldnâ€™t reliably hail a cab on the street, he began putting the yellow cab dispatch numbers in his phoneâ€™s speed dial. Even that was frustrating. â€œI would call and they wouldnâ€™t show up and while I was waiting on the street, two or three other cabs would go by,â€ he says. â€œThen Iâ€™d call them back and they wouldnâ€™t even remember that I called before. I remember being late for first or second dates. I could start getting ready 20 minutes early and still Iâ€™d end up being 30 minutes late.â€
Itâ€™s very straightforward. I want to push a button and get a ride. Thatâ€™s what itâ€™s about.
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