“If this was actually a good idea, it would have already been done in the United States.”
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That was the feedback Brazilian entrepreneur Tallis Gomes got at Startup Weekend in Rio de Janeiro in 2011, for his idea to create an app that called taxis to your doorstep and paid them via credit card. Sound familiar? Luckily, he ignored that initial rejection and brought the ride-app phenomenon to Brazil with Easy Taxi years before Uber arrived.
Now he’s one of the best-known young entrepreneurs in Brazil and has caught the eyes of Silicon Valley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Forbes magazine. His latest mission is to revolutionize the beauty industry, empowering the low-wage women who are its backbone. In a country where both upward mobility and starting a business are infamously difficult, Gomes rose from humble beginnings to join the ranks of innovators changing our everyday lives.
These phones weren’t cheap, so to prove their value, he showed the taxi drivers how to download porn — on the condition they also download Easy Taxi.
Gomes, 31, grew up in rural Minas Gerais, the son of a hairdresser and a policeman. After his mom packed up and left to Brazil’s northeast, Gomes was left with his domestic worker grandmother. He lived in the maid’s quarters of his grandma’s elderly boss, who became a father figure and put Gomes through private high school and university.
He started his first business when he was 14. Seeking to save up for a drum set for his teenage rock band, he started selling cellphones from a secondhand e-commerce site at a 25 percent markup to internet-illiterate people in the early 2000s. He had the money for the drum set in no time — but the real takeaway was a thirst for entrepreneurship.
In his early 20s, after finishing university in Rio de Janeiro, he was ridiculed for his taxi-hailing app idea. “It’s classic Brazilian thinking,” he says, invoking a common saying to describe Brazilians’ collective inferiority complex, the complexo de vira-lata — literally referring to a street dog begging for waste. “For something to be considered good,” he adds, “it has to come from the U.S.”
Beyond a lack of faith from investors, Gomes had a bigger problem: In 2011, only 4 percent of Brazilians had smartphones. So he went from taxi stand to taxi stand, convincing drivers to buy smartphones. These phones weren’t cheap, so to prove their value, he showed them how to download porn — on the condition they also download Easy Taxi. “They loved it,” he says.
Next, he had to get users. Bearing the “stray dog” complex in mind, Gomes went on a mission to convince consumers and drivers that Easy Taxi was a foreign company. “I terrorized the gringos,” he says, explaining he went to hotels and sold foreigners on his app by scaring them into thinking they’d get robbed or kidnapped hailing street taxis, an admitted exaggeration.
As word about Easy Taxi spread and smartphone ownership exploded, Easy Taxi received $ 5 million from German VC Rocket Internet, the largest series A round in Brazil at the time. It grew to half a million taxi drivers, with 20 million monthly users in more than 400 cities in 35 countries on Gomes’ watch.
Gomes left as Easy Taxi’s CEO in 2014 — the same year Uber arrived in Brazil — itching for a new challenge. Searching for ideas for a marketplace app, he started looking into Brazil’s $ 30 billion beauty industry — the world’s third-largest market after China and the U.S. “I realized it was totally untapped. No one has done anything different in that sector. It’s still all traditional salons,” he says.
So he created Singu — the Uber for beauty, as MIT called it. The app brings beauty professionals to your home or office, eliminating the need for a brick-and-mortar salon.
It’s both cheaper for consumers and more profitable for the service provider. An algorithm determines the closest professional and also dictates the price based on demand. At a normal salon in São Paulo, a manicure/pedicure costs around $ 15–$ 20. Singu’s rates can be as low as $ 5. While salon service providers usually get only 30 percent of client payments, Singu provides them with 70 percent and takes a 30 percent cut.
The mostly female workers in Brazil’s beauty industry make about $ 250 per month on average. Singu’s average service provider makes double that, with full-time workers making up to $ 1,500. “We give flexibility, we give income, and we pay more,” he says. “We’ve sort of created a social business here, with a strong proposal of transforming the lives of many people. But it also happens to be a very lucrative social business inside a $ 30 billion industry.”
That’s no accident. “Tallis is not going to mess around with a small market; he won’t use his time to do something that’s not going to be big,” said João Fernandes Chambola, Singu’s director of operations and founding board member. “He believes more in sweat than intelligence.”
But at-home beauty salons may pose more challenges than ride-hailing, according to Letícia Menegon, a professor at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Development at ESPM University, who points out other developers have tried something similar in Brazil. “Tallis may have the star power, and the capital, to make it take off,” she says.
Gomes has two major challenges: skirting health agency regulations and security. “Brazilians are afraid: Calling a stranger into your house is not normal,” Menegon says. “Where this fear culture worked in Tallis’ favor was Easy Taxi, because a lot of consumers actually prefer taxis because they’re registered and certified.”
Gomes bemoans “protectionist” rules in Brazil as compared to the United States, “the Disneyland of regulation.” Salon sanitation rules from the state health regulator, as well as Brazil’s strict and costly workers’ rights laws, have the potential to stop Gomes in his tracks, according to Menegon.
But that hasn’t scared off investors: As of March, Singu had received $ 2.5 million in outside investment. It now boasts 2,000 registered beauty professionals and 200,000 users in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
The entrepreneur has settled down a bit from the guerrilla marketing blitz of his early Easy Taxi days. Now, in the industrious beauty professionals who use the app, Gomes sees his working-class family. “The only thing you have to do is give the opportunity to work,” says Gomes, who’s happy to take a cut.