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HBX Business Blog

Patrick Mullane

Recent Posts

Uber vs. Arro: The Comeback of the Yellow Taxi?

Posted by Patrick Mullane on June 7, 2016 at 11:22 AM


I was recently in New York City to speak at the Harvard Business School club there and, for the first time in a while, had the opportunity to ride in a few iconic Yellow Taxis. While sitting in the back seat of two of these taxis during my stay, lurching to and fro through the canyons of Manhattan, I watched looping video snippets on the flat panel television in front of me. Scenes from Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel and Live with Kelly encouraged riders to tune in when at home. But what caught my eye more than these was a promotion for Arro, Yellow Taxi’s answer to Uber.

Arro is a mobile-based application that allows users to order a Yellow Taxi, see taxi locations, and pay via a stored credit card. Sound familiar? If you are thinking “Uber,” so was I. 

Generally, I am an Uber fan for two reasons: I love being able to order a car from my phone of a certain level of luxury and I love not worrying about having payment handy. 

But there are two things I dislike about Uber’s business model, both ultimately driven by the fundamentals of economics. The first is related to the fact that Uber drivers are not tied to a city or region, they can float to where demand is. On the surface, this is a great thing. Why have drivers in one location twiddling their thumbs reading the paper while some short distance away others are inundated with requests for a pickup? One day while touring Boston with my family, I ordered an Uber to take us back to the Harvard Business School campus where my car was parked. The driver told us he was from Providence, Rhode Island, about an hour south of Boston. He said he came to Boston on the weekends because there was more demand than in smaller, sleepier Providence. This mobility of supply has a drawback though: drivers outside of their “home” area typically don’t have a good understanding of the city they are driving in, and that can cause frustration for the rider, even in the age of GPS. 

In my case, the problem came about because the listed address for Harvard Business School isn’t as much an address as a suggestion. This is an issue for a driver compensating for his lack of knowledge by using GPS. I would have directed the driver myself but after 11 years in the Boston area, I still get flummoxed when in the financial district; I needed help to get to the main highways before I could help the driver. So we spent nearly 30 minutes trying to figure out how to get the GPS to direct us to the school. Even if we had a good address, the other problem is likely familiar to many who live in cities with roads buried deeply between buildings and poor sightlines to the sky – GPS can be unreliable. So, we had a driver who didn't know where he was going and a GPS that didn't know where it was. Not a good combo.

Contrast that with all my time as a student at the business school years ago. There wasn’t a single taxi driver who didn’t know what I meant when I said, “Take me to HBS, please.” They not only knew where to point their vehicle but they knew the exact location the school had designated as a taxi stand. 

The other thing I don’t like about Uber is surge pricing. For the uninitiated, surge pricing involves charging the customer more when demand is higher. On the surface, it’s another creative exploitation of fundamental economics: raise your price when demand is high to optimize the revenue of the available supply. But as a user, it can be a bit off-putting, given how much of a premium you can pay. In one instance I paid a 100% markup to get a car – one that arrived much later than the app told me it would. 

To date, these minor hassles were just that, minor. The alternative to Uber and its few problems was a taxi service and its many: not able to take my credit card payment, not able to let me easily order a taxi, and not able to let me see where available taxis are. But the new Arro app appears to change that to a great degree. And here’s the kicker … Yellow Taxi (with Arro) has differentiated itself with a key distinction: no surge pricing. So, it begs the question, why use Uber if I essentially get Uber without the surge pricing and, in some cases, more knowledgeable drivers? In fairness, I have not compared Uber standard pricing or surge pricing to taxi rates but some people have. But even if the numbers don’t always work, the messaging does… I hear no surge pricing and I think, “Thank goodness.” 

There are some areas where Uber can still claim a leg up in many cases. The ability to order a level of car, for example, allows me to get an upscale car when I’m feeling more like a movie star with cash to burn, rather than a leader in an academic institution. And I can’t remember the last time a taxi driver had a bottle of water, candy, or a newspaper available for me to enjoy during my ride. 

Still, the release of Arro without surge pricing has me thinking about another fundamental law of economics: in a competitive market, no one player has an advantage forever. The Uber/Arro battle is an example of that. The world of business is one filled with punch and counterpunch. Success often relies on anticipating the competitions’ counter-punch and having a counter-punch to their counter-punch teed up. And this is hard to do. It’s especially hard when the future is hard to predict, and we are biased by what we know of the present. If you had asked a taxi cab company in New York ten years ago if a startup car service would threaten them, the response might have been, “It won’t happen, they would have to buy a medallion (a license to operate a taxi in many parts of the country). Medallions cost way too much to make a start-up competitor a viable threat (before Uber introduced competition, a medallion in New York could sell for $1MM).” The answer would have seemed perfectly reasonable, but it didn’t anticipate a world where the startup wouldn’t bother with a medallion. 

That is the challenge of running a business today. Are you thinking about all the “medallions” that stand in the way of a current or potential competitor, blind to the fact that they may bypass that obstacle completely? Have you considered what a competitor is likely to do in response to your actions? Are your differentiators only temporarily setting you apart from your competition and, if so, do you have an innovation pipeline that ensures another differentiator is on the horizon? If not, then use the Arro/Uber example as a motivator. 

As for what happens next in the Uber/Arro arms race, if either of then is looking for their next counter-punch, then how about this one: I’d pay a premium for an Uber or taxi driver that had more speeds than full accelerator and full brake. Now there’s an innovation!


About the Author

Patrick Mullane is the Executive Director of HBX and is responsible for managing HBX’s growth, expansion in global markets, and long-term success.

Topics: Executive Insights

HBX ConneXt - The Power of Community

Posted by Patrick Mullane on May 14, 2016 at 10:30 AM


This past Saturday, May 7th, I had the privilege of being involved in something that at first glance is replete with contradictions. I gathered with people I knew, but didn’t. I talked with students of an institution who had finished their program of study but who were, in many cases, making their first visit to that institution’s campus. I saw men and women who had taken a course together interact as if they were long lost classmates from an in-residence, multi-year program despite never having been in the same room. And I saw this from people who had to make travel arrangements and purchase tickets to come from all areas of the globe: from Australia to India, from Colombia to Qatar.  

HBX ConneXt was wonderful in its own right but it was most important in the evidence it offered of what an online education program can be. When we set out to create HBX, we started by putting ourselves in the student’s shoes and thinking about the pedagogy (for HBS, this means the case method of study). In starting there, we realized quickly how important interaction between members of the community would be if the case study would be at the center of the learning experience. After all, the case method relies on students questioning and challenging each other. Through this back-and-forth, they come to induce principles and, in having to work for the answer to a problem, they come away with a more fundamental understanding of how to apply their thinking to a host of situations. 

So our efforts to include a community in the platform had much to do with our pedagogy. What wasn’t anticipated at the time but which, in retrospect, should have been obvious, is that this online community that engaged to solve a real-world problem would form bonds that would transcend the course platform. That is what we saw at HBX ConneXt.

We saw digital world relationships become physical world friendships. We saw how helping peers online led to bonding with colleagues offline. We saw what I believe is the beginning of something very special.

As an employee and graduate of the school, I had an amplified sense of pride in what I saw. The employee in me thought about how well the team here executed in creating a wonderful platform and the courses that go on it. The graduate in me took pride in seeing the extension of the school’s mission – to educate leaders that make a difference in the world – take root in so many lives across so much of the world. HBS Dean Nitin Nohria noted to the HBXers assembled during one of the day’s sessions that the world is in desperate need of leadership everywhere. After seeing the enthusiasm of the HBX students, relatively early pioneers in the new world of digital education, I think I can say with confidence that we have many who are ready to answer that call of leadership.



About the Author

Patrick Mullane is the Executive Director of HBX and is responsible for managing HBX’s growth, expansion in global markets, and long-term success.

Topics: Leadership, HBX Insights, Executive Insights, HBX ConneXt

HBX ConneXt - Welcome to Campus!

Posted by Patrick Mullane on May 5, 2016 at 11:31 AM


Hello HBXers! After months of planning and preparation, HBXConneXt is finally here. We are excited to meet many of you in person for the first time this weekend!

We weren't sure what to expect when we sent out the invitations for this event, but we were absolutely blown away by your response: More than 600 people from over 30 countries RSVP'd, jumping at the chance to travel to the Harvard Business School campus for a day of continued learning, networking, and exploration into the future of online education. 

We started talking about HBXConneXt about five months ago. We wanted to help you, as a community, strengthen the bonds that begin on the platform and give you a sneak peak into Harvard Business School. 

Beyond that, we wanted to share with you what we have learned in developing and delivering CORe and Disruptive Strategy with Clay Christensen. As many of you have noted in feedback to us and each other, HBX is "not just another online course."

We believe that the three C's (community, career, and connections) set HBX apart from many other online courses and make it a truly special learning experience. We look forward to hearing how you have been impacted in those areas and discovering ways that we can improve on your experiences.

In the weeks dedicated to preparing for the event, I have been reminded of something German writer Johann Wofgang von Goethe once wrote:

“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.” 

We hope that HBX has succeeded in making the earth a bit more of an inhabited garden for you through the connections it helped foster and look forward to hearing your stories on Saturday. Please come ready to be inspired and make connections with the incredible community of HBXers that will be traveling from around the world to our hometown of Boston. 

For those who cannot make it to the event, know that you have as much to do with creating that inhabited garden as those who will physically be here!

Whether you're able to join us in Boston or are following along from afar, please visit our social media channels for updates and highlights throughout the weekend and join in the conversation using #HBXConneXt.



About the Author

Patrick Mullane is the Executive Director of HBX and is responsible for managing HBX’s growth, expansion in global markets, and long-term success.

Topics: Executive Insights, HBX ConneXt