Alice Kahrmann gets behind the brand with Amer Hasan, founder of minicabit, the UK cab comparison site.

It’s a fascinating industry, the service of transport on four wheels; the Uber wars, driverless cars, traditional taxis up in arms and, thrumming away in the background a vast fleet of minicab drivers delivering the nation safe and sound to their airport of choice. No Uber did not kill off the hundreds of fleets nationwide, but there was a chink in the system, a low tech sector not keeping speed in the digital age where booking online had become the norm. Cue Amer Hasan’s lightbulb moment (that would ultimately lead to a virtuoso performance on Dragon’s Den - more of that later); what if there were an app he thought to himself, an on demand service that allowed you to ‘fish around for the best price.’

That’s how minicabit was born, the idea fermenting during the last recession when at weekends, the entrepreneur did a stint as a minicab driver to make ends meet. Several years later after ‘itching to do a startup’ he left a secure corporate role at Vodafone to make the leap. ‘I talked to a lot of cab operator and even posed as an MBA student, calling up popular music venues in order to understand how they managed their cab arrangements. What they all told me was that it’s a mad scramble after a show. The security guards will be doling out cab numbers of local firms, we thought this is pretty old school.’

‘If you call the same cab firm you get a different price on any given day just because they’re not used to quoting,’ Hasan says. ‘That’s where we thought we could bring more incremental business to the cab firms and for customers to book.’ We now have one in eight of the UK’s operators. Which brings us to his entrepreneurial advice for other self starters: ‘You need the persistence to get a yes and the resilience to take a no. You need a thick determined skin!’

An apt summary of the skills required for the most hair raising of Dens, currently stalked by the leonine fivesome: Peter Jackson, Deborah Meaden, Toukey Suleyman, Nick Jenkins and Sarah Willingham. ‘The build up to the filming was more nerve wracking than the actual filming itself,’ Hasan says. More nerve wracking perhaps given that Hasan was scouted by a BBC scout at an event, rather than applying through the traditional route. ‘They can literally ask anything. I had all the numbers, that’s probably one of the most important things, no matter how cool the product is, you’ve got to be vigilant about the model and how it works.’

Interestingly though the deal (Hasan secured offers from three dragons and took up the offer from two) was secured in the iconic on camera handshake, off camera things didn’t go quite to plan. ‘We were the first mobile app to win offers on the show. I shook hands with Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden but we couldn’t conclude the deal off camera. They wanted a third of the company for 35k.’ Ouch. ‘They were still supportive’ Hasan says graciously and of course there were other significant upsides to appearing on the show. The biggest legacy is the cab firms that have joined. ‘We went from 200 fleets at the time to 400 within six weeks of the broadcast. The BBC kindly broadcast it during the tube strike in London which also helped!’

Which brings us to the importance of investors, what they bring for what they seek. ‘The most important thing I’ve looked for is not cash, it’s the value of the investor… The closer your business is to a blank sheet or concept then the more exposed you are to giving more equity away. My advice is to really try and get your concept past that stage - it’s a lot easier to do that now than in the past.’ Google ad words, feedback tests, ‘the more you risk the better deal you’ll get’.

For those starting out Hasan has the following advice: ‘A long long time ago I did a startup in the last dot com boom, and there’s been a sea change since then; it’s now cool to be an entrepreneur, there are lots of forums now, meetups in the The City. There are organisational bodies such as Tech London Advocates, they hold a surgery at Google campus. Seek out an expert in your field to become a mentor. Before I’d even built the mincabit platform, I was on the tube next to Steve Norris the ex transport minister. I sounded him out [Hasan quite literally approached him cold turkey on the tube]. There are lots of senior people who want to give back. Nowadays things move so quickly in tech that you learn as much from an entrepreneur as you do from a corporate.’

Speaking of corporates what of the gargantuan reach of Uber? ‘Ultimately they’ve been a positive force for us, I don’t agree with all their practices, but the sector is huge, five billion. There was a lot of inefficiency and they helped raise awareness amongst customers. They’ve driven the cab drivers to raise their game in terms of offering a better service with optimised pricing. Also there are a lot of things you can’t do on Uber that you can do with us; pre booking, we scan the best six quotes from operators, and we also do flash sales where a cab company can schedule X percent off their prices.’

Driverless cars are also the hot topic du jour, ‘You can’t compare a driven cab to a driverless one’. Hasan believes we will soon see a dedicated fleet of driverless cars in shuttle routes (‘not in Times Square but rather between a business park and a train station’). He also believes there to be a happy medium in which the two will merrily coexist, ’the coffee machine did not put the barista out of business. There are still large segments of society who want the personal touch of a driver behind the wheel. The elderly, parents of kids for example.’

In five short years minicabit has grown exponentially. For Hasan it’s rewarding to have ‘built something from scratch into something that is relevant and productive, and helps you get around a bit more. If I’ve built a business with a trusted brand I’d be very proud of that.’ He counts amongst his inspiration Bob Iger CEO of Walt Disney who bought Starwars, Pixar, and Marvel. ‘I’ve read about how he engineered those deals,’ Hasan says, ‘and there was a lot of foresight in the process, the way he persuaded very sensitive owners of those brands to sell. Steve Jobs owned Pixar, and had a fractious relationship with Disney, Iger offered a lot of trust, he made Disney a place that these companies would want to join. It shows that the titans of industry can be entrepreneurially minded as well.’ Branson is also an important figure for Hasan, ‘I’ve read two biographies or Branson. The Virgin King by Tom Bower is really good. I also like a book called From Vision to Exit by Guy Rigby, it’s a really useful book for any kind of business.’ As the interview draws to a close we ruminate on the referendum, polling booths closing as this article goes to print. ‘I’m a remain person and I think what I’m sensing is that the mood.’ Exactly the mood of Branson himself.

Alice Kahrmann

July 2016