Taxi driver Yohannes Taye at San Jose Mineta International Airport in San Jose, Calif. Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012. Inspired by the valley's social media giants, he's launched a Web site aimed at cabbies nationwide, where they can exchange tips (as in suggestions, not cash), buy and sell tools of the trade and do some other stuff.
Let's just say Yohannes Taye knows his way around Silicon Valley.
He's spent a dozen years covering every square mile in a cab, ferrying fares from Mineta San Jose International Airport to Palo Alto, Gilroy, downtown San Jose, Milpitas, you name it. And as he'd drive passengers to and fro, he'd do what cabbies do: Strike up some chatter, watch for crazy drivers and think big thoughts.
And one thing the San Jose cabbie thought about a lot was what a wonder Silicon Valley is. He'd drive executives to Google (GOOG) and Facebook and Apple (AAPL) and elsewhere and marvel at the way Silicon Valley was changing the world.
"New technology is giving us innovations, the iPhone and stuff," he says. "All this innovation around us."
And he couldn't help but wonder: With all this innovation around, was there a way it could be deployed to make life better for his people -- cabdrivers?
Then one day, he picked up a Japanese documentary crew headed from the airport to Palo Alto to produce a feature on a startup long since forgotten. The Japanese visitors started talking about Facebook and Taye mentioned that Facebook was not that far from where they were headed. Let's go, Taye's passengers suggested.
"I showed them the entrance," he says. "They took pictures of the sign and me, their new cabdriver friend."
And it hit him: Cabdrivers needed a digital place to build community; a go-to site that could help with work and life; a place that cabdrivers would feel so much a part of, that they might want to take pictures of it some day.
"The idea came to me," Taye explains. "We are not connected. We don't know what's going on on the other side of the nation. If we could come up with a website whereby all cabdrivers can get together and exchange information and ideas, that would be a perfect thing to do."
Now, 14 months after the Facebook trip, he's launched Forcabdrivers.com. It's a soft launch. Taye has cabdriver buddies and others checking the site out, sending along ideas. He knows he has work to do and he has no illusions of building some hugely popular or profitable site.
But Taye's effort is notable for what it says about Silicon Valley. It's a reminder that there really is a valley vibe, an undefinable force that pushes those with ideas and ambition to do something. The place is crackling with innovation.
"That's what you hear in the morning," Taye says. "It's what you hear at lunch. It's what you hear in the evening. The innovation rubs off on society."
Taye, an Ethiopian immigrant and a father of two who puts in 14-hour days in his cab, says he can't imagine he'd be working on his website had he ended up anywhere else in the world.
He arrived in the valley by way of Canada in 1999. And it was clear as we spoke this week in a remote airport parking lot that he hasn't lost his sense of awe.
"I'm very proud to talk about Google with customers. Two kids from Stanford change the world," he says, explaining how Google's tools can translate his site into 64 languages for the benefit of his largely immigrant audience.
Taye is looking to have a more modest impact with his site, which includes cabbie news from around the world, a classifieds section, a personal section announcing births and other life milestones and an area of tips on car maintenance, customer service, safety and the like.
Selamu Abebe, a San Jose cabbie and one of Taye's beta testers, says the site will give cabbies a chance to learn from each other. If a trend develops in one part of the country -- say passengers come up with a scam to skip out on paying fares -- cabbies nationwide will know to be on the lookout for it.
"He's just trying to connect us with this site like one family," Abebe says. "It's a brilliant idea."
An idea, Taye says, that is still in its early stages. For one thing, there is no Forcabdrivers.com app, a natural for such a mobile user base. (Taye is enrolling in an online app development course.) And when the site is live, it will need constant updating. (Taye has recruited his daughters -- one in high school, one in college -- to help.) Building traffic for any website is a big undertaking. And there's the matter of a business model.
In the long-honored Silicon Valley tradition, the idea of actually making money from the site is far down Taye's list.
"I hope to get something out of it," he says. "I don't think I'm going to become a millionaire."
But it's not the money he's focused on now. He's working to connect people, other people like him, who spend their days getting to know every inch of wherever it is they live.