Thursday, October 15, 2015

Behind the Failure of Leap Transit’s Gentrified Buses in San Francisco

The first thing you notice when hanging around technology start-ups is the cultural importance that Silicon Valley ascribes to snacking. A company’s snack bar often stands as a rough proxy for the scope of its ambitions.

Square, Jack Dorsey’s payments business, has a gleaming coffee bar with a barista who conducts classes on the best ways to brew. On one trip to Facebook, I was treated to an otherworldly bag of popcorn. And just about every company has a refrigerator or two stocked with Hint, a subtly flavored brand of bottled water that seems to flow as freely in San Francisco as the tears of the people who were evicted to make room for the incoming software engineers.

Even when a start-up’s dreams are deferred, the snacks hang on, as I learned in a recent visit to the buses that were once owned by Leap Transit, a start-up that had aspirations of revolutionizing urban transportation.

Leap, which raised $2.5 million from some of the industry’s best-known investors, charged riders $6 to get across San Francisco, nearly three times the cost of riding a city bus. Its primary draw was luxury. Each bus had a wood-trimmed interior outfitted with black leather seats, individual USB ports and Wi-Fi. The buses also offered a steady stream of high-end snacks, sold via app.

I had come to the see the buses to find out what it looks like when a start-up bites the dust. The luxury vehicles were up for auction; Leap filed for bankruptcy in July. The end for Leap apparently came so suddenly that its founders didn’t have time to remove much from the vehicles. Inside each bus, sitting in an out-of-the-way parking lot near Oakland, Calif., was a state registration form pinned to the wall, a bundle of iPhone and HDMI cables, and a display case full of snacks. Among the choices were packages of That’s It — vegan, gluten-free, non-G.M.O. fruit bars — and organic, paleo Simple Squares.

Leap is one of at least several dozen tech companies that have failed this year. Their deaths are illuminating; dead start-ups show us which investors’ theories are bogus, which technologies aren’t ready for prime time and which common ways founders overextend themselves.

In particular, Leap’s death suggests one emerging cause of start-up doom, a problem that also did in the anonymous social network Secret: too close an association with Silicon Valley’s tech-bro sensibilities.

Leap, in retrospect, was a bold idea that might have had legs. Muni, San Francisco’s public bus system, is overloaded and underfunded, and the success of ride-hailing apps like Uber suggests a public willingness to try new tech-enabled options. But in its design and marketing — in its full-frontal embrace of the easily pilloried paleo-snack-bar techie lifestyle — Leap exuded a kind of bourgeoisie exceptionalism that fed into the city’s fears of gentrification and won it few fans. As I stood inside the abandoned buses, it became obvious why the start-up failed: Leap was created by and for techies. It was born inside the bubble, and it could never escape.

by Farhad Manjoo, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Jason Henry