Apr 7, 2017 · 6 minutes

Reasons I’m not cut out for tech journalism, #42,555: My obnoxious handling of press releases.

For a while, I had an autoresponder on my Pando email account which -- helpfully, I thought -- encouraged PR folks to send their promotional emails to publications who might make better use of them.

Product announcements, my autoresponse suggested, might be better sent to tips@techcrunch.com, and imminent executive hirings and reshuffles might find a more welcome home at  Re/Code (aka Minority Report LinkedIn.) Anything to do with supporting and promoting Donald Trump and then later regretting could, I guess, be sent to Business Insider.

But then people started telling me that my autoresponder was unforgivably disrespectful to the hardworking professional publicists who toil in the tech trenches. No one was forcing me to read the press announcements, they argued, even the ones that were chased by a half dozen “just checking in” follow-ups.

It’s a fair point. No need to be rude.

So now I just send ‘em straight to spam.

Still, despite my best efforts, the occasional promotional message will still make it through the cracks, disguised as a real email. These tend to be the pre-press release emails -- the introductory “just reaching out” notes which promise untold promotional riches if only I’ll agree to an “embargo.”


noun  em·bar·go \im-ˈbär-(ˌ)gō\

  • an order of a government prohibiting the departure of commercial ships from its ports
  • a legal prohibition on commerce a trade embargo

  • an order by a common carrier or public regulatory agency prohibiting or restricting freight transportation

One such email arrived last evening from Uber-for-taxis app Flywheel. The company apparently had a “HUGE Corporate Announcement” to share, embargoed til 9am today. Was I interested?

I was not.

And yet. Flywheel is an interesting company -- and one I should love given my four year embargo against using Uber. In fact, before getting rid of my smartphone I was a regular user of the app, or at least a regular attempted user.

Here in San Francisco -- where we constantly hear that cab drivers are being put out of work by evil ridesharing companies -- I frequently experienced 10+ minute wait times for Flywheel cabs while my Lyft-loving friends were able to scoop up cars almost immediately. More infuriatingly, while waiting for my Flywheel, I’d often see cabs whizz by, empty of passengers -- cabs I couldn’t hail without suffering a Flywheel cancellation penalty. For every well-executed ride (and there were many), there was at least one no-show or abruptly cancelled pickup. Once, the app froze for an entire month when my credit card expired and wouldn’t let me login to update it.

Then, of course there’s the reality that, even when Flywheel did its job perfectly, I was still faced with the total crapshoot of San Francisco cab drivers who don’t know the names of major streets, insist on sharing loony racist conspiracy theories and -- in one case -- refused to take me two miles to an urgent appointment because “I’m only taking an airport ride today and exercise is good for you.” There’s a reason, I was frequently reminded, why so many people were thrilled by the launch of Uber in the Bay Area.

The last straw with Flywheel was when I lost my wallet in the back of one of their cabs and discovered there was no way to find out the cab company that had delivered my ride, let alone contact the driver. Flywheel offered no central telephone number for lost and found, just an email address -- from which I received a response TWO DAYS AFTER I’D CANCELLED ALL MY CARDS.

So, no, I’m good for HUGE Corporate Announcements from Flywheel, thanks.

Still, when the HUGE news eventually broke this morning, I was curious to see if it would deliver on those CAPS. It did not -- but it was at least genuinely significant for users and employees of Flywheel.  The company has been acquired by Cabconnect which, according to the description on Cabconnect.com is “a technology company whose goal is to improve operations for ground transportation companies” and according to the design of Cabconnect.com is a free webmail provider from 1998.

The company offers no information about its founders or executives, nor does it seem to have a profile on Crunchbase or any of the other major tech company databases. According to Venturebeat, which did pick up the press announcement, bless them…

Cabconnect has more than 60,000 drivers using its technology, which offers similar functionality, including mobile payment processing, GPS services, personalized card-swipe programs, and more. The inclusion of Flywheel’s offering may encourage the taxi industry to update its experiences across the United States and help it fend off Uber and Lyft.

Give the opacity of Cabconnect and the - uh - difficult experience of using Flywheel, it’s hard to say if this deal will have any implications for the wider taxi vs ridesharing war. It’s hard even to say what the implications will be for Flywheel although, certainly, the optics of the acquisition don’t suggest a company that’s headed to the moon. By comparison to Cabconnect’s 60,000 drivers, back in 2015 Uber had a reported 327,000 drivers on its system. That same year, Lyft claimed more than 100,000.

A clearer takeaway is that ridesharing and taxi remain an incredibly frustrating industry sector to write about, especially as Uber’s legal and ethical troubles continue to mount. The raw numbers just from Uber and Lyft show us that getting people from A to B is a huge potential market; one that certainly has room for multiple service providers.

And yet, whether it be Lyft’s constant refusal to throw a goddamned punch or Flywheel’s infuriating user experience and apparently middling business performance, all signs point to the fact that Uber’s rivals can’t (or won’t) mount a serious challenge. Even at a time when Uber seems determined to commit suicide by dousing itself in institutional sexism kerosene, lighting an Emil Michael in a Korean brothel -shaped match, throwing itself off a massive intellectual property theft bridge while simultaneously shooting itself in the head with a we-hire-CIA-operatives-to-spy-on-critics gun.  

I’m no free market zealot, but I recognise competition as a good way to reward good behavior and punish bad. For that reason, and for a thousand others, I desperately want there to be a great, global rival to Uber. (One that isn’t Didi which owns Uber China and has Travis Kalanick on its board)  I don’t care if that non-Travis rival is Lyft or Flywheel or something Tesla conjures up with Didi involving self-driving electric vehicles on Mars -- I just want it to exist.

Today’s Flywheel announcement is just another little reminder that it doesn’t and perhaps never will.

Lucky I like to walk.