Who waits until the plane’s engines are “fully switched off” before switching on their mobile phones? No one, right? So I fired up my phone as soon as the wheels hit the ground. It vibrated merrily with an SMS message: “Your Blacklane driver is waiting for you, you can contact him at this number:”
I was arriving back in Zagreb from a wonderful several days at The Next Web Europe conference, where one of the entrepreneurs I had the chance to chat with was Blacklane CEO Jens Wohltorf. He and his co-founder Frank Steuer have built the company from a two-man team, working from a one-room office in Berlin, into an organization with 170 people (all in Berlin), providing professional driving services in premium cars and vans close to taxi rates in more than 185 cities and 300 airports.
More than Uber or Lyft, in fact.
Just at the time of my visit to The Next Web conference, newspapers and taxi drivers in Zagreb were abuzz about Uber. In a clever PR move, my friend and Netocratic editor Ivan Brezak Brkan had announced that “Uber is coming to Zagreb”. The fact of the matter was that a speaker from Uber was scheduled to speak at Ivan’s OMGcommerce conference in, yes, Zagreb. Whether or not the company itself would be adding Zagreb to its porfolio was another matter altogether.
However, Zagreb taxi drivers were fast discovering the wonders of Google search, looking up their colleagues’ battles against the American company in cities around the globe. I was all the more surprised to learn that Zagreb was up there on Blacklane’s list of cities.
Dr. Wohltorf explained how this was possible over black coffee and green tea in the sunny surroundings of Amsterdam’s Westergasfabriek campus – a marvelous example of old industrial architecture repurposed for the 21st century.
“All our drivers are licensed, insured professionals. Like Uber, we too own none of the cars which we use, nor are the drivers our employees. We partner with local, established chauffeur services in each city where we operate. Thus we don’t have any of the conflicts, regulatory mess or slashed tires which have come to symbolize Uber.”
Taking me home from the airport in a nice, black Mercedes, my driver Marko told me his company had been in partnership with Blacklane for more than a year now. I was literally amazed that no one I knew knew anything about this. They certainly will now!
Unlike many startup founders, who often start their companies after exiting a Web consultancy, or straight out of school, Jens Wohltorf is an ex-BCG guy. “BCG”, of course, refers to the Boston Consulting Group, one of the largest and best respected management consultancy firms on the planet.
He had been a principal at the Chicago and Berlin offices and had just been promoted two weeks earlier when, in 2011, he decided to dump the wonderful world of management consulting and team up with his old university buddy, Frank, in that one-room Berlin office.
“We planned and strategized about this for two years, since 2009, before starting to write any code. The deeper we went into analysis, the more stones we turned up, the more opportunities we would uncover.”
Talk about “getting out of the building early”. Obviously these guys had not drunk the Blank-Ries-Osterwalder Kool-Aid about rapidly shipping! It seems now, however, that they knew what they were doing. Later that day at The Next Web, after our chat, Jens climbed up on the stage for a panel featuring “Europe’s fastest growing startups”. Interviewed by Mic Wright of The Next Web, he was joined on the panel by Fairphone‘s Bas van Abel and Yplan‘s Davide Scalzo.
In fact, Fairphone would go on to win the “Fastest growing startup” prize at the conference (we will publish a profile of Bas and Fairphone soon).
Back to Blacklane. I asked Jens how it came to be that he decided he wanted to become an entrepreneur after six successful years in the management consulting business. Did he call up his old school buddy and say “Hey Frank, let’s go create one of Europe’s fastest-growing startups”?
“Well… not quite,” Jens replied. “Frank and I knew we wanted to do something together ever since those university days. We had kept in touch all the time and felt the opportunity was starting to present itself and the timing was right. The first taxi apps had started to show up in the Apple and Google app stores. I could especially see the need for professional car services from my own experience, traveling on business all the time just like all my colleagues at BCG and millions of professionals worldwide. Frank is the technical part of our team, I’m the business guy and we decided to give it a shot.”
Despite calling himself “the business guy” and his BCG experience, Jens has serious tech chops. The official Blacklane press releases refer to him as “Dr. Jens Wohltorf” – what gives?
“Yes, in fact I do have a technical education. My background is in industrial engineering and I have a PhD in telecommunications. I think you could say that founding a startup with quite a bit of real world experience gave us a significant advantage over some other early-stage projects.”
“We started in late 2011 with a really ugly, bootstrapped web site, to prove the concept,” Jens said.
“The very first customer, Blacklane customer No. 1, was actually my brother. Outside of friends and family, we acquired our first group of customers using online, performance marketing, targeting out-of-town travelers who were arriving in or leaving Berlin. Once the concept was validated, we started looking for investors.”
Blacklane has raised more than 22 million euros in six funding rounds to date. One of the investors backing the company is German automotive giant Daimler. In fact, Blacklane is one of only five companies Daimler has invested in via its Daimler Mobility Services arm. The others include mytaxi (which it ended up buying), Flixbus, RideScout and Carpooling (recently acquired by BlaBlaCar).
I asked Jens about the fact that the company reportedly has no offices outside of Berlin.
“Yes, all of our 170 people are in Berlin, despite the fact that we operate in more than 50 countries worldwide. Having everyone in the same place helps us to be lean and agile, to make decisions and implement change faster than if we were more distributed geographically. Obviously we need to travel a lot, we need to be in touch on the ground, especially on the supply side.”
Comparisons with American rivals such as Uber and Lyft are inevitable, so I was interested in learning how Jens considers Blacklane a different beast.
“On the surface, an important differentiator is that our pricing is fixed, predictable and all-inclusive and you can schedule the service. You saw it yourself when you booked your ride in Zagreb. No hidden fees, surge pricing etc. On a deeper level, however, the major difference is that we are integrating deeply into the travel value chain. It’s very important for us to be seen as a reliable partner within that chain, providing 24/7 multi-lingual customer support and service control, guaranteed reliability, taking great care about the customer experience – including a booking guarantee.”
Asked what’s next for Blacklane, Jens responded:
“We are always looking for ways to innovate. As an example, we introduced a service with Smart cars in Berlin. Very nicely outfitted, of course – we called it “the world’s smallest limousine”. It was quite successful, popular with our customers and the drivers as well but we had to kill it so we could focus on our rapid international expansion. That was a hard decision because the project was very dear to Frank’s heart and my own as well. It was “our baby” but we had to take that decision anyway.”
“As for the long term… We didn’t think about it this way when we started in 2011, but we have created a product that fits perfectly into the typical travel experience. People are used to booking their hotel, booking their flight but the connection from the plane is often a hassle. We’ve just signed a strategic partnership with Amadeus, the global flight reservation system. Blacklane will now be a part of that and the first of its kind, so online and offline agencies booking flights and perhaps rooms for their customers will now be able to simply tick a box and offer Blacklane as a convenient, price-effective way for their clients to get to their rooms or to their planes comfortably and on time.”
All images credit to Tech.eu