Whim is a mobility app with a modest proposal: Give up your car

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with “mobility as a service” pioneer Sampo Hietanen.

By Eric Jaffe

A street in Helsinki

“We’re trying to give people the freedom of mobility,” says Sampo Hietanen of Helsinki-based MaaS Global. (Image: Flickr / Alph Thomas)

The term “mobility as a service” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but there’s a beautiful simplicity to the concept itself. “It’s a promise of anywhere, any time, on a whim,” says Sampo Hietanen. “It’s a promise of freedom.”

Widely considered a pioneer of the MaaS concept, Hietanen is also founder and CEO of MaaS Global, whose dutifully named Whim app launched in Helsinki in 2016 in an effort to fulfill that promise. The jury remains out, but the case is getting stronger by the day: Whim had a reported 60,000 monthly users as of last fall, and has started to expand into other cities.

Whim currently offers four tiers of subscriptions. A pay-as-you-go model charges people for each trip. A low-end package (€60 a month, or $67) includes unlimited public transport, bike-share access, guaranteed car prices, and fixed-rate taxis. A “weekend” package builds on the low-end option to offer households a different car every weekend for €249 ($279). Then there’s the unlimited option: all your trips for €500 a month ($560).

If that sounds like a lot, consider that the all-in cost of owning a car can average more than $10,000 a year in many cities, when including parking, maintenance, insurance, and gas. That’s much more money than even the most expensive Whim option—and that’s a conservative estimate, given that most car-owning households still pay to use public transit, bike-share, taxis, or other mobility options on a regular basis.

“The elements we need to create that freedom for you — all of the ones to make a relevant subscription for you — they exist,” he says. “What we have to do, actually, is to be able to digitally tap into them.”

Hietanen spoke with Sidewalk Talk about what’s surprised him since Whim launched, the challenges of integrating public and private services, and how trust — not data — is the primary currency of an API economy.

I guess it’s not an accident that the app for mobility as a service in Helsinki is called Whim.

There’s a nice story around that. We got the first money to see if the whole MaaS [concept] is possible in 2016. And of course, we’re smart startup people, so we hired a London-based agency to come up with really cool names. They came up with about 2,000 different suggestions, and we didn’t like any one of them. And then our CTO, it was one Friday, he just said, “Guys, if you don’t have a name by Monday, I’m just going to throw darts and I’m going to pick a name.”

We were on Slack over the weekend, and someone from our office, she said: “So what is the freedom of mobility? What does a car resemble? What is it to you? They all keep on saying the same thing: ‘Yeah, during the weekdays, I could be okay with this, but I want to be able to take my wife to the beach on a Saturday. I want to be able to go golfing on a whim. I want to be able to do this, this, this spontaneously.’ ”

Then she said: “Why don’t we just call it Whim?” And it took like five minutes to decide.

What does Whim offer travelers, and how would it work for a day-to-day commuter?

The basics of being able to offer this freedom is that, if you want freedom, we need public transport, which in Helsinki is really good. Like in New York, for example. We need that as a backbone. That does quite a lot of those trips.

As a fallback, we need of course a taxi and taxi-like services, but that’s not going to do it. Finns have a lot of summer houses, for example, so the people in Helsinki, over the weekends, they want to go there. So we need access to cars.

But also in the city center, we need access to bikes, we need access to e-scooters and all of the cool stuff. So we combine all of them into a really, really simple user interface. And with one payment, you can just ride them all. You don’t need to jump from one to another.

All you do is that one click, or at best case, not even a click. You just go. In a way, we open a golden key to your city and to your needs.

We’ve seen a lot of research in the mobility world of how difficult it is to change people’s trip habits. It’s really locked into their brains, especially when it comes to commuting.

There’s a good story about the whole concept of MaaS and where the value in all of it lies. I was in Ireland, in Dublin, and there were transport professionals. One said, “Look, I’ve got €700 for commuting to Dublin, and all of the transport needs I have in Dublin, all of the PT [public transit] there is covered, and that’s my MaaS.”

I said, “Yeah, that can be your MaaS, but at the same time you just raised your hand when I said, ‘Who here has a car?’”

He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have a car.”

So I said, “You’re a professional. You can probably say out of the trips you make, what’s the percentage you do with your car?” And then he calculated and said, “Somewhere between 5 to 10 percent. Closer to 5 percent.”

I said to the group, “You’re also professionals, so you probably know the cost of your car annually.” We came to a figure of €12,000. I said, “Okay. So for the 95 percent of your trips you do with €700, and the remaining 5 percent you use €12,000. Do you see where the business case is?”

When you made that point to him, did he give up his car?

No, and there’s a good reason. If you come from the transport world, we laugh at these things and say, “Oh, people are silly.” But that’s not the right answer or question. The right question would be, “Look. What do I have to do to get on the same level?”

In Tokyo, to be able to purchase a car, you need to have a dedicated parking space, and that costs more than the car. So it’s really expensive to have a car. At the same time, over 50 percent of the cars in Tokyo are used less than once a week, which means that you have a pretty, pretty, pretty expensive asset there that you’re using once or twice a month.

That just tells you how much they value their freedom.

That’s your point. At the end of the day, it’s just about convenience. If you can provide that, you’re doing that job.

Yeah. What we’re aiming at is this dream space, it’s not that we’re after the utility. If the question was, “Can I do all of your trips with $100?” It’s nice, but an even more relevant question is, “So what do I have to do to surprise you or amaze you so that you’re willing to pay $2,000 a month?” Because that’s what you pay for your car.

There’s an immense amount of collaboration that has to occur across providers, private and public sector, for this to work. I’m curious, what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in getting that collaboration?

This is true. And of course, it’s not easy. There are fair fears with the different transportation service providers of: What if we become too dominant? We become too big? We start white-labeling them, taking away their customership and such? It takes a lot of trust-building, it takes a lot of time to show how we do it, and really, we have to be extremely open.

In a way, everybody has to take a leap of faith at the same time, and that’s not an easy dance to dance. Having said that, let’s say over the last six months, I think the tide has turned. We’ve got quite a bit backlog of contracts that we’ve signed that we’re now integrating. First, you have to show, “Okay, this is how we do it,” and explain how we also make our money, and that we encourage all of our partners, “Do not do an exclusive deal with us.” That’s how you make sure that we don’t end up being the one bully.

I think many have seen that the, let’s say, a bit old-fashioned way of platform economy does not really apply in mobility. It’s just way too big. Maybe we should be talking about an API economy more, which means that there’s not one dominant platform across mobility.

Can you talk a little bit about how important open data standards are for something like mobility as a service to flourish?

If you don’t make these into standardized things, then you’re hooked with a partner, and eventually you might not like that partner and you’d like to do changes.

In the platform economy, there’s one bottleneck that collects everything and then holds the keys to everything. Whereas in the API economy, there’s a lot of players, nobody’s ruling or controlling it, but you do plug-ins here and there, and it’s just much more effective.

That’s why we’ve chosen that look. We want to plug in with everything. We’re not trying to control them. We embrace that there should be competition. We really have to up our game to be as good as owning a car. Like I said, one of the best things in cars is I get to choose my car. If there are several MaaS operators, if you want to jump out of your car and go to Whim, and you see that there’s fierce competition, you’re more likely to trust that: “Okay. I’ll be good, because they’re competing like hell here.”

You’ve been doing Whim a few years now, and you’ve been studying this area for even longer. What are some of the patterns of usage that you’ve noticed that may have surprised you?

We thought that the users would have what we call “car hesitance.” Twenty-five to 35. Single, double households. No kids. Just at a time when you’re about think: “I have enough money. So should I get a car, or not?” They would be the ones. And they are a good target. We target mostly all of the campaigns and everything to that segment.

Now what surprised me is that there’s a second peak, and over a third of our customers are above 45, which has completely struck me.

There was this one journalist who called me from the biggest local newspaper out of a comment for something completely different, a taxi business or something like that, and then at the end of the interview he said, “Me and my wife, we took up Whim.” I said, “That’s nice.” He said, “Yeah. I’m a 50 plus guy, and I’ve always been a big car enthusiast. Now we saw that this Whim came along.” This is where I almost got a heart attack and said, “You’re really not in the target group, so why on Earth?” I know it was a bad answer.

Then he said, “Look, just yesterday, we took this cheap taxi or this fixed taxi to a train station, we went with the train, walked to tennis and we played tennis with the wife, then we stayed for a glass of wine and we were able to then take the bikes and go with the train.” And me, still a bit shocked, I said, “But still, all of these elements existed before. So why on Earth now?”

And he said it nicely: “Look. Before it’s been too much hassle that I have to worry about these different modes, and there’s never been anyone who’s on my side. They just try to sell their part of the whole story. Now that you guys have it here, it felt convenient enough, so we gave up the car.”

What do you think stops some people from using Whim?

People really get the concept. They get it a bit too well, and that means that they expect a lot.

In the trial phases, there was this father with a family, with two kids, pretty close to downtown. On Sundays, he went for some kind of sports, the father, and of course wanted to use a taxi for that because the PT wasn’t working. The first Sunday, he had a taxi driver dropping out, not showing up. And of course, that’s not very nice. Next Sunday, the guy was late with about 20 minutes, and he was late for his sports.

Now this tells you about the expectations. If we were just a taxi app or ride-share app or something, we could tell you: “Well, this ride didn’t come. You won’t pay for this.” If you pay a monthly fee, you expect a lot. We really have to work and work to be able to give some sort of a service promise. Giving the service promise that the car provides you with is extremely hard.

At the end of the day, you’re showing the services that others operate, but the subscribers are paying you. So they want accountability from you, and you want accountability from the service. A chain of communication needs to happen.

It’s a chain of trust. In this API economy, the biggest value, the new oil, is not data. It’s trust. How do you build trust? Because you have to build on someone you don’t have complete control over. That just comes through trust. You just have to be able to get into that mode. “Hey, let’s get into this together. We do find a model that works and it fits everyone, but you have to take care of your part and we’ll have to take care of our part.”

How would you describe the ultimate goal of what you’re trying to do?

We’re trying to give people the freedom of mobility in a way that they love, without all of that hassle that comes along with it. That you’re polluting, you’re making a mess, and that you’re spending too much money.