What we’ve learned from developing an “Uber for snow removal” app

One of the great parts about working for a mobile app agency is that you not only get to see first-hand the technological trends and consequent societal shifts as they occur, but also be a direct part of driving the change. Our clients don’t want to keep doing business the same way as always — they want to take advantage of new ways to engage with their customers and find new revenue models through mobile.

At this particular moment, in fact, many of the apps we’re building for clients are sharing economy or “Uber-style” apps: apps which connect customers who need a good/service to those willing to offer the goods/services. One of our recently-developed client apps, TouchPlow, made a big splash earlier this winter when it launched in cities across the country, offering residents the ability to order snow clearing services on-demand rather than through seasonal contracts.

Our framework for sharing economy apps connecting customers and service providers is a valuable tool for businesses looking to leverage similar experiences. Just as importantly, however, we’ve also learned a lot along the way. Here are some of our top takeaways, relevant to all types of organizations:

1. Your customers want on-demand services

Just because your customers may still be giving you their business, it doesn’t mean they aren’t hungry for more flexible approaches as well. Or, more importantly, there may be a whole new segment of customers-to-be who would quickly sign up for on-demand offerings.

Companies of all industries are quickly realizing that if they can’t help solve their customer problems immediately — for example, through quick online ordering or instant messaging — then someone else will.

In TouchPlow’s case, it was less about changing the value proposition for current snow removal clients than it was about creating an opportunity to engage with new customers who never would sign up for a seasonal contract. These are the people who don’t mind shovelling some of the time — but don’t necessarily want to do it after every snowstorm. Or the homeowner who is away on vacation for a few weeks and wants to be able to order a one-time service while sipping margaritas on the beach.

With thousands of customers signing up for TouchPlow the week of Ottawa’s first snowstorm of the winter, it was clear that the market is there for these types of services. So much so that the snow plow providers could hardly keep up — but such providers quickly learned that incorporating these new on-demand clients on their route made good business sense for them too.

2. The opportunity is just as important for traditional businesses

We do often work with start-up companies looking to disrupt industries with a new way of doing business. But it’s been equally rewarding to see traditional businesses realize that they can disrupt themselves too!

Touchplow was started by entrepreneur Ken Dale who also owns a traditional snow removal company. By working collaboratively with other plow companies across the country, he was able to put together a platform which worked for them all, not against them. In his case, the more of his ‘competition’ participates, the better it is for business since more customers can then be served.

In this way, him and other companies were able to proactively respond to new customer expectations, diversify their revenue streams, and leverage their otherwise underutilized resources between snowstorms (when some people still do want their driveways plowed!). Perhaps if taxi drivers had thought proactively about ways to use technology to improve the value for customers before Uber came along, they could also have stayed more competitive during Uber’s arrival.

3. It’s a competitive market but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing (as long as business case is strong)

Sometimes the great ideas (“It’s like Uber but for…”) seem so exciting until you take a quick Google search and come to the crushing realization: there are a dozen other companies with the exact same idea as you. And they’ve probably already laid claim to the hip name transforming “er”-ending words to end with “r”. (Perhaps nothing better sums up the company-branding state we’re in than this: Spoonr is actually the name of both an on-demand cuddling app and an on-demand food delivery app)

However our producer Matt has a great mantra worth repeating: you don’t have to be the first, you just have to be the best. Nowhere is this more true than in app development.

Last winter there were no on-demand snow removal apps. This winter several different ones launched across Canada. It suddenly became a very competitive market. But each offers their own user experience and there’s no reason why multiple companies can’t co-exist, particularly as this type of customer/business relationship becomes normalized.

Would you not open a coffee shop because there are already others out there? No, and in fact the more coffee shops there are, the more they become entrenched in our way of working and socializing. Ultimately, on-demand infrastructure will lose its novelty factor, and just become a part of doing business.

And like any other business idea, be sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons. Not because it’s the newest, shiny thing: but because you’ve identified a market opportunity and are ready to devote the blood, sweat and tears (aka. business plan, marketing strategy and right people) to make it work.

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