A View from David Zax
World Moto set out to make a meter for motorcycle taxis. Its users had other ideas.
It has become an axiom that while startups may make a product, users ultimately determine how it’s used. Twitter was originally conceived as a status-updating service, rather than the amorphous, expansive link-sharing and news-breaking entity it’s evolved into–to choose just one famous example.
While this phenomenon of user repurposing is common in software or the web, it’s less widespread in the realm of hardware. Gadgets are extremely expensive to make and mass-produce, so their creators tend to have a pretty strong idea of how exactly they intend the gadget to be used. If they were vague, or simply said, “We’ll let the users figure it out,” they’d never be able to justify the expense.
In some rare instances, though, even hardware manufacturers may have not understood their product as well as their customers. Such is the case with Moto-Meter, a device I first wrote about back in February. The idea behind Moto-Meter, a venture from a few expats living in Thailand, was that in the developing world, motorcycle taxis were ubiquitous, but unmetered and thus semi-illegitimate. Throughout Asia, Africa, and South America, moto-taxis are big business, a source of employment for tens of millions of people–and yet they rarely have meters to standardize their rate. A million bucks of research and development later, World Moto’s first product, a ruggedized, portable taximeter for motorcycles, was born.
Only, “something we didn’t expect” happened, founder Paul Giles now tells me.
World Moto did find its way into the moto-taxi market: City-Bird of France, Moto-City of Spain, and Moto Limos of Beverly Hills (the U.S.’s first moto-taxi company) are among those who have sent in purchase inquiries. But it also found favor among entire classes of driver the team hadn’t anticipated. “We’ve received many purchase requests from a wide range of transport services such as taxi services, scooter taxi services, car retrieval, non-emergency transport services, ridesharing and individual drivers,” he tells me. It wasn’t just motorcyclists who wanted the thing: people in cars, in vans, in traditional taxis even wanted it. Not that Giles is complaining: it’s a happy situation for any businessman to discover that there were many use cases for your product beyond what you had imagined.
Giles and his colleagues realized they’d been thinking too small: “Generally speaking, it enables anyone with a vehicle to make money,” Giles says of the device. They thought they had made a meter for motorcycle taxis. Really, they made a meter for anyone looking for a fare. “We’ll continue to explore ride share on the side,” he says, “though our mission is to transform the largest taxi force on earth.”
There’s one other curious use case of Moto-Meter. Many people flaunt gadgets to appear sexy, fanning out their array of Apple iThings like a peacock’s tail. But in courtship, sometimes certain gadgets may best be hidden. “I asked one person why he was interested in a portable taxi meter over a standard taxi meter,” says Giles, “and he said he doesn’t want a date to see a taxi meter in his vehicle.”