“The support from locals is tremendous here:” Hawaiian entrepreneur founds Lyft’s competitor, Uber

As tourists return to Hawaii in record numbers, the rental car shortage has sent prices skyrocketing like meme stocks. In some cases, it can cost you as much as $700 to rent a car for the day, if you can get one at all. Tourists were so desperate for ground transportation that they eventually turned to U-Haul. Local media dubbed it “The Great Hawaiian Car Rental Crisis.”

Meanwhile, prices for Uber and Lyft have skyrocketed due to driver shortages.

Enter Cecil Morton: an executive with over 20 years of local ground transportation experience. He recently launched a Hawaii-based ride-hailing alternative called Holoholo — which loosely translates to “let’s take a cruise” in Hawaiian pidgin.

Anyone who downloads the app can request a ride across Oahu, Maui, the island of Hawaii, Kauai, and Lanai. The company states that there are no price increases and no fixed upfront costs. This means that the fares hover around a standard fare regardless of demand, offering a consistent fare to both passengers and drivers. They call it fair prices.

Holoholo joins a growing number of ground transportation startups popping up in cities across the country. Many of these pop-up ride-hailing companies aim to be a more driver-friendly alternative to Uber or Lyft. In New York, for example, some drivers are trying Co-op Ride, a startup that says its drivers own a stake in the company, and drivers are reportedly able to vote on company decisions. On the opposite coast, in Los Angeles, drivers can opt for Dumpling, which promises no commissions for a monthly fee. This also differs from Uber and Lyft, both of which can charge different commissions from drivers.

Despite increasing competition, Uber and Lyft remain the undisputed leaders in this space. Uber currently has about 3.5 million drivers, while Lyft has over 1 million.

For Holoholo, his fleet will be much smaller; The company plans to hire 150 drivers. The company didn’t disclose how many drivers it currently has, calling it “proprietary information” due to the competitive nature of the industry. But the company is “currently reaching its numbers,” spokesman Rob Mora said.

“We’re playing in the same playground as these really big companies,” Mora said. “But Holoholo is really focused on the people of Hawaii.”

Morton got his start in ridesharing in Hawaii in 1999 when he founded SpeediShuttle, a service that shuttles passengers to and from airports in Sprinter vans. From there he expanded to other major island destinations beginning with Big Island and coming to Oahu and Kaui in 2007.

Over the years, the company has contracted with on-demand shuttle services at Kahului and Honolulu airports, as well as a variety of island hospitality companies.

“We’ve ministered to millions of people for 21 years,” Morton said during a phone call. “Literally millions of people on our shuttles.”

Ride-hailing has been on his radar since it first invaded his space about a decade ago. After the pandemic restrictions eased, Morton saw an opportunity to try.

He’s teamed up with Rideshare Pro — a mainland-based software company focused on developing ride-hailing apps — to create Holoholo. He financed it from his own resources. As the sole owner, he has no plans to make outside investments to grow the business with additional funds. The company declined to put any dollar amount on the amount of money Morton invested, but said it was “years in the making.”

Its competition, meanwhile, has received significant funding from both public and private investors. For example, Uber’s current market cap is approximately $94 billion. That’s larger than Hawaii’s total GDP in 2020, which was $75.86 billion, according to Statista.

“I would describe Cecil as quite a bold, adventurous entrepreneur,” said David Jung, former EcoCab owner, in an interview with Star Advertiser. “It’s the boldness enough to try to go head-to-head with Uber and Lyft — but they’re multi-billion dollar public companies.”

Morton hopes to draw on his experience and network in Hawaii to set Holoholo apart from its mainland competitors. In the 21 years that he has run SpeediShuttle, he has become intimately familiar with the unique barriers to entry of starting and running a business in Hawaii.

For example, while he was coming up with a name, Morton hired a cultural consultant to ensure it accurately reflected the Hawaiian language. The company also committed to incorporating environmental elements, including providing customers with an option to opt for an electric vehicle. The feature, which is similar to Lyft’s “Green Mode,” helps the company align with Hawaii’s sustainability goals.

Morton says he also uses his extensive network with local businesses on the islands to create benefits for his drivers. Because of the connections and deals he’s made through SpeediShuttle, he’s able to offer bulk fuel discounts through dealers like the Maui Oil Company. Its drivers can also receive discounted auto body repairs on Oahu through a similar business arrangement with the Elite Collision Center.

Another difference is Morton’s estate, which will serve as the physical headquarters for holoholo riders. It currently has locations on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Island of Hawaii. The headquarters will serve as a hub for drivers to ask questions, receive vehicle inspections and network with other drivers over coffee, the company says.

Finally, Morton brings his years of customer service experience to his driver screening efforts. He says he “storytelles” — a Hawaiian term for stories and conversations — with each take to create an early connection.

“Part of my DNA is starting ohana (family),” he said. “I like to get to know everyone. I want to understand what makes them tick.”

Hawaii’s newest ride-sharing company, Holoholo, is up against big rivals like Uber and Lyft.

Lance Arinaga / Courtesy of Holoholo

That Holoholo offering was perhaps the most important selling point for Corrina Payne, a 55-year-old Kihei resident who currently drives for both Uber and Holoholo.

While being searched as a driver for Holoholo, Payne said SpeediShuttle’s Danielle Morton, Cecil Morton’s daughter, met her in person to inspect her silver 2016 Honda CRV. She was struck by the intimacy and rigor of the screening process, she said.

Payne said she also worked directly with Cecil Morton to address some of her concerns. For example, one issue she brought up had to do with the processing time for driver payouts. Because Payne said she lives “ride-to-ride” — meaning she has to withdraw cash every day to cover expenses like car payments — she suggested changing the current policy from weekly payments to daily payments.

When asked about the concern, Morton said he’s currently working with payment processing software company Stripe to explore daily payout options for drivers.

He said there have been no further comments from drivers so far.

“They make sure I’m safe and I feel like they’re safer,” Payne said. “The support from the locals is enormous here.”

Payne said she’s still accepting rides on the Uber platform to earn a steady income, but hopes demand for ride requests on Holoholo will increase soon and that it will one day become her main platform. She added that she’s already done a few rides through Holoholo on Maui.

“It’s important that locals feel like they can talk to someone on the phone,” Mora said. “That they can talk to someone who understands what they might be going through and where their region is.”

As part of a promotional bonus during the company’s launch, holoholo offered a $30-per-hour guarantee to drivers who accepted ride requests for a period of six hours. However, the company said the stimulus was not a sustainable business model and ended it after completing its startup phase.

At a time when Hawaii is actively trying to diversify its economy away from tourism, Morton will be one of the first technology-focused entrepreneurs to focus solely on Hawaii. Though he’s had to compete with big companies from the start, Morton says the Hawaii ridesharing market is big enough for his business.

“I don’t feel like we’re in competition with the Goliaths,” he said. “We compete with ourselves to get better every day – one rider, one rider at a time.”

Nathan Bek is a finance and journalism major at UH Mānoa and currently chairs the Calvin Shindo Student Venture Fund.

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