This winter is going to see something of a land grab – or rather, snow grab – as a wave of Canadian startups strive to become the Uber of snowplowing.
At least three separate businesses are launching apps this season that will let homeowners summon snowplow operators to clear their driveway. Similar to Uber, the apps will connect smartphone users with the nearest available operator and handle payments automatically, with the respective startup taking a cut off the top.
"Life's too busy for chores," says Tyler Meilleur, chief technology officer of Ottawa-based SnowMowr. "It's something that people need, especially somewhere like Canada."
SnowMowr will launch on Jan. 6 in six Ontario cities: Ottawa, London, Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo, Sudbury and Hamilton. Mr. Meilleur and his three co-founders, all of whom have worked in sales and telecommunications, have been working on the app for a year, with the past six months spent signing up operators.
Clearing a driveway will cost $35 to $75, depending on its size, with SnowMowr taking an unspecified percentage of the transaction.
Easyplow's app is already available, with registrations for operators open since Oct. 1. The company is aiming to go national, with service in both English and French and operators signed up in every province, according to co-founder Gustave Roy. Its revenue model is slightly different from that of its competitors, with operators paying a flat fee of $6.95 per job, rather than a percentage.
Mr. Roy, who has worked in sales in the pharmaceutical industry, decided to start on his app two years ago after shovelling his driveway. He found that it was difficult to find an available plow operator, especially online, and that there was little consistency in the way of standardized prices.
"I figured this makes no sense," he says. "We should have a system where you can easily order a plow."
As with its rivals, easyplow is signing up only licensed and insured professionals. While the apps themselves work much like Uber, the startups behind them want to avoid the controversy that the ride-sharing company has provoked by employing drivers who aren't regulated as taxi operators.
"We don't want to be the Uber of snowplowing. We really believe in the value of the operators," Mr. Roy says. "We don't want a repository of the worst snowplowers or the people who haven't made it in the business."
Each of the services is setting the prices that operators charge, which Mr. Roy says is the best way to prevent the business from becoming a race to the bottom. "There's always someone willing to do it for nothing to try and get market share."
The third competitor, Eden App, comes from serial entrepreneur Ben Zlotnick, who runs Toronto-based startup incubator and accelerator INcubes. Mr. Zlotnick has also been operating a landscaping business, Aden Earthworks, since 2003.
The company, which is initially targeting the 905 area code around Toronto, is banking on that experience to set it apart from rivals. "The difference is going to be, 'Do people trust us or do they not?' " Eden marketing spokeswoman Lucy Leiderman says.
All three companies are self-funded with a handful of employees or partners each. While an Uber-like snowplow service may be attractive to consumers, outside investors have doubts about how sustainable such a seasonal business can be, even if they add summertime landscaping and lawn-mowing, as SnowMowr and Eden App intend to do.
"There aren't many barriers to entry so competitors are going to come in and squeeze this thing to make it not quite as viable," says Martin Perry, managing director of Toronto-based Techno Ventures. "It doesn't make for a good predictable business model."
In that vein, there is the possibility that Uber itself could become the Uber of snowplowing by expanding its established ride-sharing infrastructure. The company is already experimenting with water taxis in several countries and is rolling out on-demand delivery, such as the recently launched UberEats services in Toronto.
Adding snowplows may not be immediately profitable, but it could further cement the company's position as a provider of on-demand services, Mr. Perry says.
Regardless of whether the startups succeed or not, technology is slowly permeating the snow-removal business as a number of cities are adding GPS-enabled apps that show where city-owned plows are at any given time. Ottawa and Montreal, for example, are introducing or have released apps that can tell homeowners when a plow is expected in their area.