What happened next may sound familiar to would-be moguls piling into an Uber-inspired gold rush with wide eyes and iPhones for spades. The Mayfair meeting rooms of venture capitalists are echoing with the same phrase: “It’s Uber for …” Takeaway, haircuts, parking, handymen, cleaners, massage, couriers, supply teachers, barmen, postage – think of a service, and if someone hasn’t invented an Uber for it, they’re probably working on it.
On-demand apps pair consumers with workers to provide a service, silently and automatically doing the work that, in the case of Uber, it would take a minicab office the size of the Pentagon to achieve. That efficiency – and the typically self-employed status of the workers – means they can grow at speed. Deliveroo, the Uber for food delivery, deployed an army of wobbly cyclists using the same model. Three years after its launch, the London-based firm has more than 5,000 riders in 60 cities across Europe and Asia.
It also means we are starting to use our phones as bells to command enough staff to make Lord Grantham blush. In this new, digital service era, Uber gave us the chauffeurs; it is now worth as much as $65bn (£50bn), and operates in 400 cities. For aspiring entrepreneurs, these numbers are worth digging for. “Ten years ago, everyone was trying to build the Facebook for X,” says Jordan Poulton, co-founder of the Makers Academy, a heavily oversubscribed east London coding school. “Now it’s the Uber for X, and the difference is that the ideas are usually better.”
But there are signs that the gold is running low, or at least losing its lustre, as startups with virtual shopfronts collide with cold reality. Last month, Valk Fleet, an “Uber for fast food”, which delivered for Burger King and other outlets, went into administration. The margins on Whoppers were just too small. In the US, Spoonrocket, a meal delivery service, also went under. Figures are hard to come by in the wild west of on-demand, but tech blogs report almost weekly on services that are struggling to grow and stay cheap while satisfying customers and workers. As US investors begin, according to some reports, to plough less into on-demand apps, there are big questions about the future.
All Guy Westlake wanted to do was wash your underwear. And your shirts, and sheets and skirts and suits. His Lavanda app, launched in London two years ago, would do it all seamlessly, efficiently, affordably. About 20 minutes after you hit the wash button, a Lavanda Pro arrived to collect your load. Using their own washing machine or a dry cleaner, they would return your stuff at a time of your choosing. It was, Westlake told excited investors and journalists, “Uber for laundry”.