In 2016, the story of taxi driver Roderic Almeda went viral. He had been selling peanut butter from his cab when he met art director and graphic artist, Troy Sitosta, who gave the humble product a complete redesign, creating a new logo, writing brand copy, and even printing out hanging signs that told his story.
With Sitosta’s makeover, sales for Almeda’s peanut butter business – or “RJ’s” as it was now called – soared. Customers flooded his cell phone number, which was posted in many of the news stories on Alameda, and growing Facebook page with orders.
To top it all off, Sitosta did not charge for his work, calling it “good honest work for a good and honest family man.”
So why did this tale capture the public’s hearts and minds? On one level, there is the feel good element of someone taking their business to the next level with the help of a kind and talented good samaritan, but the real pull of this story is in its contrasts: Filipinos don’t typically associate cab drivers with being entrepreneurs, much less one as hardworking as Almeda. In terms of associations, the majority of Filipinos probably think of cab drivers as public servants who provide a service to the country’s commuters.
But all taxi drivers are entrepreneurs, not just the few ones like Almeda who may opt to sell a product from his taxi. Think about it: Like entrepreneurs, cab drivers provide both a product (i.e. the cab itself) and a service (transportation from point A to point B), and their success depends on their diskarte, or resourcefulness. They must know where their customers are in order to maximize their resources, serve their customers in a friendly and courteous manner if they wish to earn tips, and manage their finances on a day-to-day basis. In short, cab drivers are essentially entrepreneurs in yellow offices.
Why’s it important to think of cab drivers as entrepreneurs? There are many reasons, but the most significant is that they are an overlooked profession. Take for example a recent regulatory hearing I attended. At the hearing, a group of transportation network vehicle service (TNVS) drivers booed in response to the policy-maker’s questioning of Grab’s illegal two-peso per minute top-up on the base fare. One TNVS driver even said that “sixty thousand families will lose their livelihood” if the 2-peso per minute additional fare is removed. In other words, there is a vocal and organized contingent of TNVS drivers and their stakeholders that are routinely out to protect their interests.
Taxi drivers, in contrast to TNVS drivers, do not have supporters who are just as vocal in the transportation space. They are a forgotten demographic. Many transportation and mobility companies have come to the Philippines and spoke of “disruption” and “innovation,” often with little regard for the tens of thousands of taxi drivers who could lose their livelihoods as a result. That’s why I’ve made it Micab’s advocacy to try to shift the national branding of our cab drivers: If we begin to view them as professionals, they will act accordingly. As an industry, they will then be able to compete with anyone in the world.
I’ll be the first to admit: We have a long way to go. As the story of Almeda itself shows, cab drivers don’t have the best image with the country’s public—to the point that the tale of one of them selling peanut butter as an additional, honest living is newsworthy. But there are tens of thousands of Almedas across the country, each focused on providing the best service to their customers in order to succeed at their small business. They are our brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, friends, and neighbors, all of whom deserve respect as our nation’s most agile entrepreneurs: They go where the customers are and take them wherever they need to be.
What can other founders learn from how we are trying to empower cab drivers? As I mentioned above, I think it’s far too easy for some some startups to become technology-centric and focus on the “innovation” and “disruption” and lose sight of all the stakeholders in their ecosystem, especially those that are already commonly overlooked. We need to remember that tech is just a means to an end in serving our most important constituent: people.