Lee Hayhurst spoke to Henning Groß about how a genuine commitment to forging a sustainable future is helping the chauffeur service attract the right tech talent
Big Interview: How Blacklane's sense of purpose is making for a smoother journey
A culture that priorities people and a sense of purpose has become essential for any successful travel business, according to Blacklane chief technology officer Henning Groß.
The global chauffeur service brought Groß in as its fulltime head of tech in April after a short period working for it as an advisor having set up his own consultancy Zeile7 in 2019.
With a background of successfully scaling tech teams in other sectors experiencing significant change like the media and insurance, Groß now finds himself in travel.
Blacklane is seeing “massive growth” post-pandemic, said Groß, but is also fully committed to driving a sustainable future, a key factor in his decision to take the roll full time.
“I actually like the product a lot. It was appealing to me to work on and there was a point at which I realised there was a lot of good things about Blacklane’s sustainability efforts.
“There are a lot of humanistic touches, and how the company was built to create a healthy environment for its people, they really mean it.
“I have been to a lot of companies and seen a lot done around neutralising carbon footprints but usually that’s driven by marketing and not in the DNA of the business.
“There was a point in time when I realised that Jens (Wohltorf, co-founder an chief executive of Blacklane) really means what he was saying.”
Groß said he has worked for businesses where optimising for the next round of financing or an exit and not profitability was the priority.
In these businesses taking a long-term approach to operating with a purpose and being more sustainable was not possible.
“It takes decades to build something really complicated and sustainable,” he said, “therefore I was a bit frustrated by this model.
“Now everyone has to become profitable and sustainable, and long before I joined Blacklane that was already the goal.”
As Groß develops his technology team, he believes these values will help him attract the right talent to the Berlin-based firm.
“For candidates, not all of them necessarily want to save the planet, but I think everyone cares that they do not want to leave a bad footprint nowadays.
“That’s the least companies should do. This is not be something you do specifically to attract talent bit it’s something you must do and it will have a positive impact.”
Having experienced selling insurance, a product that remains invisible until the customer needs it when in trouble, working on a premium service like Blacklane is very different.
Groß said this has attracted people to work for Blacklane but so does the brand itself. “In general for tech talent, their priorities are the way that people collaborate.
“Of course, there are extremely competitive salaries currently in parts of the industry, especially in the US but this is not the key deciding factor for a lot of people.
“It’s more the culture and the people and the problem they are working on and the impact than can make. Purpose is the key deciding factor for people.”
Although Blacklane, like all companies in travel, was severely hit financially during the COVID pandemic, it managed to get through it without laying off a single employee.
The firm currently employs 400 people and although that number did fluctuate up and down during the pandemic that was due to organic departures and arrivals, said Groß.
Blacklane operates out of a number of hubs and wants to get as close as it can it its chauffeurs, trade partners and customers to provide tailored, local assistance.
As demand outstripped supply coming out of the pandemic Groß said it had to think creatively and review parts of the system to scale up.
As a platform sitting in the middle between chauffeur and customer, the firm also has to integrate services from multiple partners to support its drivers offering a premium service.
These chauffeurs are “doing the last mile” in service delivery so it is imperative they have the tools at their disposal to provide the value that the customer expects.
Now a 10-year-old company Blacklane has dealt with some of its technology debt by migrating to the AWS cloud and adopting a cloud-native approach.
Groß says a lot of the technological work has been done to prepare it for the future, but he said the job of digital progress and transformation is a “continuous flow” and never finished.
“Five or six years ago if you talked to big corporates they always asked when is it finished but you can never stop modernising, it’s a constant effort.
“People are aware that in a lot of areas technology can make a difference and can be the differentiator and they are willing to invest.
“The Blacklane technology team has been doing a great job, and I’m very optimistic building on top of that foundation.
“The challenge now is more about how the operational parts of the organisation interact with each other and less about the technology challenges.”
In terms of the travel sector as a whole, Groß sees similarities with the banking industry in that being an early adopter of technology can be a barrier to modernisation.
“Travel is an industry that was digitalised before the term became a thing,” he says.
“What happened 10 or 20 years ago, before a lot of other industries went into the digital game, was a lot of money was invested in systems.
“That means you end up sitting on legacy earlier and we have a lot of fragmentation and a lot of systems that were implemented pre-internet. That’s a huge legacy.
“That’s not true of Blacklane, but it is of platforms and products in the middle. It means we have to deal with a lot of technical debt and fragmentation with a lot of integrations.
“So you need to consolidate and probably simplify in some areas to constantly modernise some of the solutions. And you also need to allow new players to come in.”
Groß said Blacklane does not necessarily see ride hailing app Uber as a direct competitor because it does not believe its markets overlap.
But it does face similar challenges, like consumer behaviour becoming more short-term and on-demand, and surge pricing when events prompt high-demand periods.
However, Groß said Blacklane makes decisions about how it operates “from a different perspective, because we care about the service we offer to our customers”.
“We are always thinking about how to make our chauffeur’s lives more convenient, if we can integrate something that make the service more effortless.
“How can we integrate with flight data to ensure a better experience around airport pick ups. We are thinking about the user experience irrespective of extending revenue sources.
“We are very successful currently in growth and we are not thinking about how we get an extra 10% out of it but how to get a 10% better experience for the customers.
“There’s still lots of ways we can make chauffeurs and guests lives easier by understanding better the situations they are in.
“Everyone talks about data, but it’s understanding the situation, the problems they are confronted with and then responding better. That’s something I care about a lot.”