Much ink is spilled about the convenience virtues of the blossoming on-demand economy. But perhaps the real value of on-demand services lies in those moments when they go beyond satisfying wants to assisting quickly during emergencies.
Urgent.ly is a company that quite literally comes to the rescue. Its sophisticated app helps stranded motorists in situations ranging from running out of gas to getting in an accident. Street Fight caught up with Urgent.ly’s co-founder and CEO, Chris Spanos, for a conversation about bringing technology to roadside assistance and ending AAA‘s run as the dominant player in the industry.
We’re at a point in which companies are trying to apply the on-demand model to every conceivable thing. Where are we in the life cycle of on-demand?
I’ve long been a believer that on-demand is going to revolutionize every service sector in the economy. There will be different flavors of it, based on the characteristics of particular verticals. Summoning a tow truck or a car, like Urgent.ly or Uber, is a pretty simple transaction, but getting someone for a home services project may be a little more complex, in terms of your interaction with the service provider. But generally, the more transparency and information you can give consumers to help with a decision, the easier that tends to make things. If they have a need and have the ability to see who’s around them, available, and capable, it will make it easier for them to transact. On the servicer provider side, it’s easier for them to utilize their capabilities.
We’re in this really interesting phase where there’s going to be a broadening and then a refocusing. We’re at the beginning of the broadening phase, and I think we’ll also see a phase where people have to narrow their focus back down, or they won’t make it.
Just like I can’t remember a world without email or my iPhone, we won’t remember that we couldn’t get service on-demand without full transparency as to the where, the when, the how, and the who. Five years from now, this is how everybody’s going to get service for everything.
Urgent.ly is bringing online savvy to a traditionally offline industry. What are some of the challenges in doing that?
The old model was a completely black-box experience. You bought AAA and they gave you a plastic card with an 800 number. And the [towing] industry isn’t one that I would say is super-sophisticated. There’s definitely technology there, but it’s not like with, say, plumbers, where everybody in the local search and SMB space is throwing solutions at them left and right. We were able to overcome that because of some of the value propositions we offered them: paying them more, paying them faster, and paying them with less hassle than AAA and the insurance companies. We were able to treat them better. At the end of the day, they’re businesspeople. They’re rational, and they’re interested in anything that will help them grow their business. We weren’t selling them something, and we weren’t asking them to pay on a promise of future rewards.
Real-time data and analytics are huge elements of on-demand. What do they mean to Urgent.ly?
If you’re a consumer, someone in need, what matters to you in a roadside situation is timeliness — “How quickly am I going to get out of this?” That’s by far your number one concern. Safety is the second, and cost is the third. People’s lives have been interrupted, and they want to get it over with. The towing companies are running around with our tech in their trucks, and we show consumers all the open and available trucks near them. They don’t have to wonder, “Is there anybody around who can help me?” They don’t have to search. They have insight as to where the truck is and they can see it coming to them. We found something really fascinating — let’s say our ETA was 20 minutes, and there was traffic and it became 30 minutes. Our customers told us, “That’s okay, because I can see that the truck is on its way.” Their anxiety level changes.
Knowledge is power, transparency is comfort. Seeing is believing, seeing is trusting. In this case, seeing is actually calming. Traditionally, the antiquated model is some operator telling you they’re 45 minutes away. Or you might be getting automated texts. Those aren’t very intelligent, and they aren’t real-time. Consumers have been conditioned over decades to not believe what they’re told, and we flip that. Using location and other dimensions, we give our customers comfort in letting them know that help is on the way.
Looking ahead, what matters most in continuing to evolve past all of the hype of being the “Uber for __?”
There’s an “on-demand for x” popping up every five minutes, and I think that’s great from the standpoint of changing the culture. More verticals, more companies, more discussion — it gets diffused through the culture to the market. The more it happens, the more the market’s going to become educated and engaged, and ultimately switch behavior. Our focus is really around building a big business that’s going to be part of that overall cultural change, reinvent this space, and be around for a long time. AAA’s been around for a hundred years. That’s a great run, but it’s time for change.
Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.