Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Lyft Tries to Think More Locally

The company is shifting to an Uber-like system of city managers

Rex Tibbens is the kind of guy who likes to spend hours cruising around a track in the dinged-up Porsche 944 he bought for $500. So it’s a little weird that his job is to make owning a car unnecessary. During his first five months as chief operating officer of Lyft, he’s had to think more like customers his children’s age, who don’t have quite the same affinity for owning vehicles. “When I was a teenager, the car was freedom. Not so much for kids,” says Tibbens. “Their freedom is in their pocket.”

After about a decade apiece at Toyota and Dell, Tibbens spent four years as a vice president at Amazon.com, helping to manage the Kindle e-reader, the tech support service Mayday, and the logistical nightmares that come with same-day delivery. His latest challenge is bringing a dose of Amazon’s obsessive efficiency to three-year-old Lyft, San Francisco’s second-place ride-hailing service. “He’s impatient about things being better, which is great,” says Lyft co-founder John Zimmer. “He is a no-bulls--- type of leader.” (Lyft’s investors include venture firm Andreessen Horowitz. Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg Businessweek, is an investor in Andreessen Horowitz.)

Compared with Uber, Lyft looks scrappy, friendly, and a bit hapless. Uber is valued at $51 billion, Lyft $2.5 billion. Uber operates in more than 300 cities around the world, Lyft in 65, and only in the U.S. In June, term sheets for an Uber fundraising round put its annualized revenue at $415 million. Earlier this year, a Lyft fundraising presentation put its 2014 revenue at about $130 million.

In terms of management, one of the biggest differences is delegation. Uber has hundreds of local managers operating as mini-CEOs in each city where it operates. Lyft’s co-founders, Zimmer and Chief Executive Officer Logan Green, resisted Uber’s decentralized model for years, choosing to directly oversee the vast majority of its driver networks from the company’s San Francisco headquarters. Lyft has 10 city managers—one each for the nine biggest markets, such as New York and Chicago, and one who covers 40 smaller cities. The strategy saved money but meant the service often didn’t know enough about the cities it was working in, says Tibbens.

Soon after starting at Lyft, Tibbens, a plain-spoken, Mountain Dew-drinking Kentuckian, organized a weeklong field trip for executives to meet with drivers and passengers in five cities. He, Green, and two other executives spent the trip debating Lyft’s local strategy. Tibbens started to win the argument for more local managers as they met with a series of drivers and passengers who complained about Lyft’s mapping tools and raised questions about hang-ups that Lyft’s San Francisco-based executives hadn’t predicted because they applied to individual cities. “I think the realization is that we are local and we have this bias to our own market,” says Zimmer. Tibbens says he’ll hire 10 more city managers this year, focusing on cities where Lyft hasn’t yet set up shop.

In a business where more drivers lure more passengers and vice versa, being No. 2 is hard. Lyft testified to the New York City Council’s transportation committee in June that it had 7 percent of the ride-hailing market in town, while Uber had 90 percent. Drivers who say they prefer Lyft often drive for Uber as well. Even Travis VanderZanden, who preceded Tibbens as COO, defected to Uber. Lyft is suing VanderZanden for allegedly taking confidential internal documents with him. VanderZanden has counter-filed, denying the charges. Both companies declined to comment on the suit. “Uber is way ahead,” says Evan Rawley, a professor at Columbia Business School who studies the taxi industry. For Lyft to catch up, he says, “All they can really compete on is time.”

At headquarters, Tibbens’s team spends much of its time working to reduce the number of minutes between Lyft hail and pickup in a particular city. In April, Austin riders spent an average of four minutes waiting for a car; riders in Denver, Seattle, and Miami, five minutes; New York took six, a modern-day eternity. Today, Tibbens says, the number is below three minutes in each case, thanks to weekly planning that zeroes in on particular problems (flooding in Austin, bridge delays in New York) rather than trying to make changes across the country.

“We’re back to basics,” says Woody Hartman, Lyft’s vice president for operations. “Does this block have enough cars?”

The bottom line: Lyft is giving up on managing most of its operations from San Francisco and recruiting more specialists in individual cities.

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