How Firefly is turning the ride-hailing industry on its head

The San Francisco startup has set its sights on improving the lives of drivers and aiding smart city development with its digital smart screens


It is undeniable that the ride-hailing industry has been disrupted beyond recognition since Uber stormed onto the scene in 2012, bringing with it a brand-new level of convenience for customers. Its model was quickly adopted by a number of smaller firms who are nipping at its heels, most notably Lyft.

What is also – unfortunately – undeniable is the struggles that their drivers face as their employers' struggle to achieve profitability, which more often than not include long hours and below average wages.

It is this issue that San Francisco-based startup Firefly looked to address when it launched its platform which allows rideshare drivers to make money through digital advertising in December 2018 after it raised $21.5m in seed funding.

While advertising in cabs is not a new concept, the startup has revolutionized the concept by providing drivers with a digital smart screen running targeted, geofenced campaigns at customers. Drivers, who often make below minimum wage – Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research recently found that 54% of US drivers' profit is less than their state's minimum wage ­– can therefore supplement their wage with money made from advertising.

The company has another aim with its smart screens: The development of smart cities. It has planned to dedicate the coming year to working with municipal governments to utilize collected data to provide insights and address pressing urban issues such as pavement conditions, air quality and traffic lighting.

DATAx sat down with Firefly's co-founder and CEO Kaan Gunay to discuss the ride-hailing industry, how Firefly is changing drivers' lives and how the collected data could transform cities of the future.

DATAx: Do you think the gig economy will always involve exploiting freelance workers such as drivers of ridesharing vehicles?

Kaan Gunay: While I'm not in a position to comment on the long-term models of companies in the gig economy, as it stands now, drivers are at a disadvantage in the rideshare sector, especially given the current saturation of the market. As that's happened, driver wages have stagnated, meaning they are forced to work longer hours in order to earn a healthier return. Firefly's model is set up to offset that challenge.

One of our drivers, Jackeline Arana, was one of our earliest Firefly drivers. As a full-time driver and single mom of two, she was looking for an entrepreneurial way to add additional income to her drive time. She saw one of our screens out on the road, and she followed the driver, ultimately flagging him down to ask him about it. Today, as a Firefly driver, she's making an additional $400 a month and credits Firefly as one way she's been able to pay for her daughter's university tuition.

DATAx: Can you explain how Firefly is changing the game by ensuring drivers have the opportunity to make money as they drive?

KG: In short, Firefly is a smart city media network. We connect people, governments and businesses to help build intelligent, safe and sustainable cities.

To do this, we leverage existing networks of rideshare vehicles and install our proprietary media displays atop their cars. These screens deliver geo-targeted advertising based on driver routes and location, delivering the right message at the right time for highly effective campaign-engagement.

We partner directly with drivers, using the advertising revenue to help boost their income, effectively adding 20% more profit to their drive time. In other words, Firefly drivers don't have to increase their drive time to increase their bottom line.

DATAx: How is the data Firefly shares with governments and nonprofits changing the quality of life for city dwellers?

KG: Through dedicated city partnerships, we are offering our platform to help cities generate a variety of smart city data, which ranges from air temperature to humidity to other data that gives cities a better idea of the environment over time.

We're building Firefly to benefit the rapid modernization of urban areas directly, acting as an asset that works for the city to better the lives of the people who work and live within it. Firefly is the modern convergence of mobility and big data, effective marketing and the principles of social good, all coming together in an invaluable, mobility-based source of insight to power tomorrow's cities.

DATAx: What are your predictions for how the ride hailing industry will change over the coming five years?

KG: We are witnessing the rapid evolution of urban areas across the country. I see better futures powered by platforms like Firefly – in the cities of tomorrow, I believe transportation will be subsidized by media platforms like ours, which simultaneously generate revenue while also providing a valuable service to municipalities.

Our belief is that not just ride-sharing ads, but advertising generally, has the potential to subsidize aspects of smart cities – not the city itself, but certainly something like public transportation, which is an integral part of any flourishing city. The revenue generated from ads, from platforms like ours, may one day cover the out-of-pocket transit costs of citizens.

Already, there are city-based organizations providing things like free Wi-Fi and charging docks to the public. Like Firefly, these offerings are funded by advertising, using a sustainable engine to create public services that benefit anyone in the city.

Hear from more inspiring San Francisco startups and meet those individuals and organizations making a difference in the Bay Area's tech scene at DATAx San Francisco on May 14–15 . Check out the full agenda across five stages and book your tickets HERE.


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