Uber CEO Targets Asia Rivals as Hong Kong Service Begins

Jul 17, 2014 6:06 am ET

(Updates with analyst comment in 10th paragraph.)

July 17 (Bloomberg) -- Uber Technologies Inc., the popular ride-sharing company that’s challenging traditional cab services worldwide, expanded into Hong Kong as it takes on the slew of similar applications sprouting in Asia.

Uber started its service in the city today, though it’s been available there for weeks on a trial basis. Those ordering an UberBlack in Hong Kong through their smartphone app will get to ride on a Mercedes-Benz S-class. By comparison, the typical vehicle in India is a Toyota Corolla.

Hong Kong joins the more than 100 cities that San Francisco-based Uber has entered since it was founded in 2009. Asian companies offering similar mobile services, including one backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., have sprouted in the region following Uber’s popularity in the U.S. and Europe.

“There are a couple of apps that say ‘Hey, we’re the Uber for Malaysia, we’re the Uber for China or the Uber for X,’ but Uber is actually the Uber for Asia,” Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick said in an interview in Hong Kong today. “The folks that use Uber as an inspiration will always be a few steps behind.”

While Uber, valued at $17 billion based on its most recent round of funding, is now available in most of Asia, Macau and Hanoi are among the few major cities it has yet to expand into.

‘Steps Behind’

“The growth we’re seeing in Asia is extraordinary,” said Kalanick, who also co-founded the company, declining to specify growth figures. “You got something like 200 cities in China alone with over 1 million people. So we got a long way to go.”

While Uber has faced protests by taxi drivers in cities from Boston to Berlin, Kalanick said he hasn’t seen any such backlash from cabbies in Asia.

In China, where Uber began services in Beijing this week, the company is competing against the likes of Alibaba-backed Hangzhou Kuaidi Technology Co. Ltd. Kuaidi has traditionally been focusing on an app for local taxi-booking and it recently introduced a service called “Kuaidi One” that offers high-end car bookings in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou.

Among other Uber-like services, Beijing-based Yongche.com is even planning to enter the U.S. market by targeting Chinese travelers, while GrabTaxi has become Southeast Asia’s largest taxi-booking mobile app and has attracted the likes of Temasek Holdings Pte as investors.

“In Asia, there’s a lot of image conscious-type of consumers that really want to be seen driven around in a slightly nicer car,” said Mark Tanner, founder of China Skinny, a Shanghai-based research and marketing company. “It’s pretty clear why they are so focused on Asia.”

In terms of Uber’s valuations, Kalanick said he’ll do “everything in my power so that it continues to go up.” In response to a comment from Bill Maris, managing partner of the Google Inc.’s venture capital arm that’s invested in Uber, who said the ride-sharing company may someday reach a valuation exceeding $200 billion, Kalanick said:

“He’s a VC. VCs say crazy things.”