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VALLEY@WORK

Nationwide Taxi Service Calls Valley Home

November 28, 2000|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS

VAN NUYS — L.A.'s not known for being a taxi-taking town.

But a Van Nuys-based start-up is hoping to use Los Angeles as the home base for a nationwide network of taxicabs, operated by a zillion different franchise holders but linked by the catchy handle 1-800-Taxicab.

The concept is simple: You're in Austin or Atlanta on a sultry summer day. Wearing a suit. Walking. Sweating. Boy, would it be nice if you could catch a cab.

But this is not New York. So you can't just lift your arm and yell "Taxi!" And you don't know the number for the local cab company.

For Mark Adkins, the 26-year-old Harvard trained lawyer who serves as chief executive officer of 1-800-Taxicab Inc., the answer is simple.

From just about any place in the nation--from a pay phone, from your cell phone or even your Palm Pilot--dial his digits. The company's Camarillo-based call center will route the order to the local cab company authorized to serve your area.

One industry expert said it's been tried before without much success. Earlier backers were never able to sign up enough taxi fleets to make a go of it.

But Adkins is determined not only to expand the nascent cab network--which now stands at about 150 companies--but eventually to leverage that network into a body that can wield some collective clout in buying goods and services.

"There are 18,000 taxis represented by our network," said Adkins, who next year plans to launch a similar service for consumers wanting limos or sedans. "That's a lot of buying power. And there are a lot of ways to pass savings on to our local affiliates."

Adkins sees his service as not only a boon to taxi companies by generating business they might not otherwise have had, but also as a help to consumers, who need remember only one taxi number no matter the locale.

"I feel like we're creating a business that has a significant impact on a huge industry that everybody knows," said Adkins, who runs the business with his Harvard Law School buddy Ted Sichelman. "It makes it easy for passengers to get their service and it's helping the taxi companies as well.

"This is an industry in which people already call for service," Adkins added. "So we don't have to change people's behavior, we just make it easier for them to do what they were already doing."

Cab companies that sign on for the service pay 1-800-Taxicab a per-order fee of about $1 (it could be lower depending on the city). The per order fee is the same regardless of the size of the fare.

Eventually Adkins envisions being able to offer dispatching services to cab companies, which he says will save them labor costs. But currently his riches will come with a steadily growing share of the estimated 1 billion calls placed each year for ground transportation in North America.

He said call volume is growing at a rate of about 50% per month, and now stands at about 25,000 calls per month. Eventually, he hopes to garner a tenth of those 1 billion calls.

About 90% of his orders come in over the telephone. But he said he expects the number of orders from the Internet and personal digital assistants to grow as more people learn about the service, which is accessible online at http://www.1800taxicab.com.

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Alfred LaGasse, executive vice president of the Maryland-based Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Assn., said Adkins' current monthly call volume is equivalent to a few days' worth of calls for some of the nation's major taxi fleets. "It may be launched but it's obviously nothing significant yet," said LaGasse.

Adkins said the privately held company, which employs 10 people, has several million in investor funding already in hand, and another more generous round is scheduled to be concluded soon.

But Adkins' firm is not the only taxi network inviting investor attention.

One of his chief competitors, Oregon-based Qsent Inc., has announced $25 million in venture capital funding since mid-September. And that company advertises that the network of taxis, limos and sedans that participate in its Internet-based system includes 1,000 companies. In addition, 1-800-Taxicab faces competition from Mountain View-based ridesource.com and AnyTaxi.com, based in San Francisco.

"There are a lot of good players out there, but they can't all make it," said LaGasse. "And that's what the industry is looking at. Who's going to make it?"

LaGasse said Adkins' company and Qsent are currently "pushing the hardest" and have been aggressively trying to sign up cab companies. But he said the industry has seen similar efforts in the past, albeit non-Internet related.

"In the past, it never really caught on, quite frankly," LaGasse said, noting that some cabbies were reticent to promote another brand name phone number over their own, while others remained unconvinced about the value of the service.

"About every other year, we get a toll-free number group," he added. "You see them, then in a year, you don't."

Adkins remains undaunted.

*

While some test markets have been operating since last spring, Adkins said the service officially launched the nationwide program only a few weeks ago. In that time, he said, the growth in call volume has been "dramatic" and "thrilling."

He said the investments to date have been used to help fuel the company's growth. And while the company is not yet profitable, he envisions achieving that milestone in a little over a year.

"In a few months we've gone from a handful of calls to this," he said of the service's growth so far. "That's been one of the most exciting things. To me, it's thrilling.

"We're using technology to change an industry that's been around for a long time."

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Valley@Work runs each Tuesday. Karen Robinson-Jacobs can be reached at Karen.Robinson@latimes.com.

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