Monday 23 January 2017

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? The child-friendly taxi is on the way

Many young parents don't have a car - and that was the eureka moment for a novel taxi service

Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30

Child Friendly Taxi: Sean Gallagher with Simon Connellan and four-year-old Thea Sykes (right) and her sister two-year-old Fleur. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Child Friendly Taxi: Sean Gallagher with Simon Connellan and four-year-old Thea Sykes (right) and her sister two-year-old Fleur. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Every week I receive emails from people all over the country. Many are business owners who feel their experiences would make for a good story. Others come from family members of business owners who are proud of what their inspiring husband, wife, son or daughter has achieved and would like to see their story shared with others.

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This week's story however, comes from a different source - a satisfied customer.

The woman who contacted me recently has two young children. She was so impressed by this week's entrepreneur after availing of his service, that she felt compelled to contact me to say she felt both he and his business deserved to be highlighted.

Simon Connellan runs his own taxi business. But it's a taxi business with a difference. The name of the business says it all - Child Friendly Taxi.

This week I went to meet him at a hotel where we was dropping off a family with small children he had picked up from the airport a little earlier.

"What makes us different from other taxi services is that we offer a full range of child car seats, toys and other child- friendly tools to help reduce the stress of travelling with infants and young children," explains Simon, with a smile that is in keeping with his business name.

While he is happy to cater for every type of customer, his main focus is on the child- friendly aspect of the business. His customers include parents and guardians with small children as well as crèches and child minders. And one of his key services is ferrying families with small children to and from the airport.

"For me, it's all about providing a hassle-free, reliable and safe taxi service," insists Simon.

Simon Connellan didn't however start out as a taxi driver. In fact, it was much later in his working life that he discovered his love of driving and of business.

He grew up in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines and remembers well his parents ferrying him and his four brothers and sisters around in the family's small car.

"It was long before car seats were introduced or legally required," explains Simon.

After finishing school, he tried his hand at a variety of jobs, including working in a local shop. However, his first real job was with a shipping agent where he looked after customs clearance for incoming cargo, as well as making sure that ships had enough fresh water and provisions on board for their onward sailings. Not feeling completely fulfilled in the role, he decided to return to education and enrolled in a FAS Business and Security course. After working for a period in the security industry, he decided to expand his career possibilities by getting a truck licence. And it was then he discovered he loved to drive.

"I really loved the freedom that came with the job. Being out and about on the road, meeting different people and seeing new and different places," Simon tells me cheerfully.

In 1999, he decided to get into the taxi business and secured his Public Service Vehicle licence.

"It was really my mother's idea initially," admits Simon. "I started out in the beginning as a hackney car - because getting a taxi licence cost around €80,000 at the time.

"A hackney differs from a taxi in that it doesn't have a roof sign and the driver can't pick up passengers off the street, so the vehicle has to be pre-booked by the customer. But there aren't many hackneys around these days," he explains. The following year saw the deregulation of the taxi sector and for approximately €7,000, Simon was able to buy a taxi plate. The fact that he could now put up a roof sign and pick up passengers off the street meant that both his work increased and so did his pay.

Business continued to well, at least, until in 2009, when the downturn took hold and his income fell dramatically.

"It was a bit of a shock at the time," admits Simon. "It even got to the stage where I was beginning to reassess the whole taxi thing and started considering other driving jobs.

"However, one day a woman got into the taxi. She had a young child with her. At the time I was driving a saloon car. It suddenly dawned on me that I didn't have any proper way of restraining the child in the event of an accident. Then the idea came to me - what if I were to provide the option of a range of child car seats, of different sizes to suit different ages of children? Would there be a market for this? " he adds excitedly

Luckily for him, the woman thought it was a great idea. Because she had young children and didn't drive herself, she said that, should such a service exist, she would certainly use it.

Spurred on by this initial positive feedback, he went on to interview as many as 200 passengers over the next few months. All thought it was a great idea and saw it as a genuinely unmet need.

"I did further research and could only find one taxi company that was providing the option of a car seat at the time," explains Simon.

"The taxi, however, kept the seat at their taxi base and every time it was requested, a driver had to go and collect it. The customer was then charged extra for this which I felt was totally unwarranted and should have been part of the service," he adds.

In order to cater for different ages of children, he quickly realised that he would need to carry a range of different sizes of child seats, which would mean a bigger vehicle.

He approached the bank and, based on his steady earnings up to that point, the bank agreed to finance the purchase of an eight-seat van. It meant that he could carry a variety of car seats and still have sufficient room for children's buggies and the family's luggage.

Having bought his shiny new van, his next challenge was to promote his new business idea to the market. Thankfully, his wife was a member of a number of local parenting forums and so she immediately helped by spreading the word to other parents in the area.

Simon then set up a Facebook page and later, a website where people could book his taxi service on line. As he received testimonials from satisfied customers, he also put these up on the site and business gradually began to grow.

In order to entertain his young passengers on their journey, Simon then invested in a range of toys for younger children and an iPad for older ones.

"Even though the business was expanding, I was still constrained because I was still a one-man band. I realised that I needed to build up a network of other drivers to whom I could refer work when I was booked up with a customer or on holidays," explains Simon.

He reached out to other taxi drivers who had similar eight-seater vans to his own and having trialled a few, found a small group of drivers with whom he felt he could work.

I am surprised to learn too that he doesn't charge other drivers for the business he refers to them.

"It's more important for me at this point that my customers are well looked after when I am not available to do the runs myself," explains Simon. "It's also important that these drivers have the same attitude towards safety and service as I have - and thankfully they have all worked out really great so far," he adds.

While a significant amount of his business is child focused, Simon also does standard taxi work.

His records show that in 2014, he personally did 2,300 taxi runs. Of these about 1,700 involved children.

"It's a business that has plenty of overheads too so it's not all profit," admits Simon. "There's the vehicle to pay for, as well as fuel, motor tax and servicing and maintenance. Then I have to buy the children's car seats and keep them constantly cleaned," he adds

Like many new entrepreneurs, he too is caught in the Catch 22 position that he could benefit from help in answering the phone and taking bookings or updating his website more frequently - but most of his time is currently taken up with driving.

"It's the sort of business where I could do with help, but the turnover doesn't allow that just yet," he says. "So for now I am focused on continuing to grow the business myself," he adds patiently.

Simon admits that he finally found something he loves to do. He enjoys the variety.

And he enjoys meeting different individuals and families. Many have grown to become friends.

Looking back he thinks the downturn was a blessing in disguise for him.

"My business wasn't just started in the recession - it was in fact started because of the recession," insists Simon. "And while I'm not necessarily going to become a millionaire any time soon, I love what I do and I enjoy helping others," he adds.

Looking to the future, he believes that there is scope to roll out his concept to other towns and cities across Ireland.

"I would also love to look at setting up a franchise or two in every big city in the world," says Simon. "And sure, why not? Someone is going to do it," he adds with a big smile.

Any parent or family who has ever needed to travel with young children will understand and appreciate the service that Simon Connellan provides.

And while he may not be about to launch his Child Friendly Taxi Service on the Nasdaq or Irish Stock Exchange in the near future, he has identified a need and a niche in the taxi market and is continuing to run a business for himself and to contribute to helping other like-minded taxi drivers do the same.

And true to his business's branding, he really is a friendly taxi driver.

For more information, contact Child Friendly Taxis on (087) 2824330 or go online to www.childfriendlytaxi.ie

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