In a fiercely competitive economy, all products and services face the threat of "commoditization." They become just another mass-produced item, with nothing special to set them apart from others of their kind. Is there really much difference between one cell-phone and another, one laptop and another, one airline seat and another? Even taxi rides all seem the same.
Jon Barnes, 41, doesn't want to be just another commodity. So the Aspen, Colorado - based cabbie has come up with a way to make his cab rides unique. For $100 a ride, you can have what he calls the "Ultimate Taxi experience" — one that actor Kevin Costner, former senator Bob Dole, and Disney CEO Michael Eisner have all enjoyed.
What distinguishes the Ultimate Taxi from the standard fare? First, there's the atmosphere. From the front seat of his 1978 Checker Cab, Barnes orchestrates a sophisticated in-taxi light show, complete with 9 lasers, 14 miniature stage lights, a revolving disco ball, and a $2,000 haze machine that pumps smoke at his passengers' feet.
Then there's the personal touch. As he navigates the streets of Aspen, Barnes is happy to slow down for the occasional magic trick or saxophone solo. "There's no hurry to get anywhere," says Barnes. "It's not where the passengers are going that's important — it's where they are now."
Finally, there's the digital dimension. Using a wireless Internet connection, Barnes runs a Web site from the front seat of his cab. Want to alert him to your impending arrival? Just send him an email. Want a preview of your riding experience? Then listen to audio files of his sax solos, or look at photos of passengers that he's shot with his digital "taxicam."
"I like to think of this ride as a nondeletable file," says Barnes. "It's an experience that you're stuck with forever."
Visit Jon Barnes on the Web (www.ultimatetaxi.com).
A version of this article appeared in the November 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.