Robin Chase is the co-founder of Zipcar, one of the biggest car sharing services in the world. In 1999, she already used the Internet to share surplus goods.
“This is where it all began.” Robin Chase points to a little table in the Andala Coffee House, in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. “This is where our car sharing idea originated. My children were six, nine and twelve years old back then. My husband drove the car to work every day. I was mostly getting around by foot, bike or public transportation.” Now and then, however, she missed a second car – such as whenever she had to shop for a lot of things, or when she had to take one of her kids to the doctor’s unexpectedly. But then she met Antje Danielson in that café.
Danielson’s son Max was attending the same kindergarten as Chase’s youngest daughter Linnea. The two mothers were also united in their interest in protecting the environment and in their belief in community spirit. Back in the fall of 1999, Danielson had just returned from a trip to Berlin, and told Chase enthusiastically about how you could rent cars there by the hour. Chase had a business degree from the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Danielson wanted to know if she felt this could be a viable business idea in the USA too.
“It was the ideal moment, and I was just the person who needed to hear this,” says Robin Chase with complete conviction. After two years in which she’d concentrated on bringing up her children, she was keen to work again and was looking for a good idea for a start-up. It wasn’t just about getting independence and money. She wanted to do something to help improve society and protect the climate and was convinced that a car sharing service would work in Boston. It’s densely populated, and its inhabitants are innovation-friendly.
But potential investors weren’t as convinced about her business model. They argued that US citizens saw their car as a status symbol to be owned. And they also didn’t believe that the Internet could provide the necessary platform. Back then, just 40 percent of Bostonians had access to the World Wide Web, and most of them only had it at their workplace. Investors also feared that customers would be careless with the cars they borrowed. To make matters worse, the word “share” triggered negative associations. “It brought hippies to mind along with poor quality, grungy goods and slow service,” laughs Robin Chase as she reminisces about the early days.
Chase had been used to sharing things since she was small, and she was also accustomed to forms of transportation other than cars. She’s the daughter of a US diplomat, has five siblings, and in her youth she explored Damascus, Jerusalem, Swaziland and parts of the USA by foot, bike and scooter. That helped her to develop a love of freedom and adventure, and to become self-confident. Throughout her life she has found it more exciting and more important to check out different places and cultures than to acquire material things.
Given her own experience, Chase is convinced that most people will gladly offer help and time if they can, and if they see that others need it. She was also sure that the Internet would provide an effortless means of renting cars by the hour, and that even US citizens would rather share cars than own them if the financial bottom line looked good.
That’s why she refused to be constrained by any resistance. She found investors, got insurance for three light-green Volkswagen cars, and came up with a name that would provide a cool image for her new company: Zipcar. She told her team they were not allowed to call their service “sharing,” and coined the following slogan: “Zipcar makes renting a car as easy and convenient as getting cash from an ATM.” The Zipcar website had barely gone online in June 2000 when the first customers got in touch – and the company developed into the biggest car sharing service in the world.
In 2013 the Avis Budget Group acquired the company for USD 500 million. Chase and Danielson had long left the company management, and after several rounds of financing, they only held a few percent of the shares. “It was really difficult to give up running the company. Zipcar was my fourth kid,” says Chase. She decided to leave in 2003, mostly for personal reasons. Her father had died in the previous six months, and her eldest daughter – 15 years old at the time – was becoming a model. “I really wanted to be there for her the whole time. And I’d just been through a really strenuous financing round, right in the middle of the dotcom bubble. Physically, I was a wreck.”
Looking back now, she sees this as a blessing, because withdrawing from Zipcar gave her the freedom and the time to create other start-ups – always with the support of her husband, Roy Russell. He was an electrical engineer, but quit his job while Chase was spending over a hundred hours a week getting Zipcar off the ground. “Our kids were in danger of running wild,” she says – only half-jokingly. “For two years, he became the primary child caretaker.” Russell later became Zipcar’s Chief Technology Officer – a job he has since had in all her start-ups.
In 2009, TIME Magazine listed Chase as one of their “100 most influential people” in the world. Her TED Talk “Excuse me, may I rent your car?” has been watched more than 59 000 times since 2012. In 2010, she and Russell moved to Paris for two years in order to set up Buzzcar, a platform that lets users rent cars directly from their owners. In 2012, she co-founded Veniam, a company that installs technology in vehicles to serve as hotspots and deliver reliable WiFi even on the outskirts of urban centers.
Robin Chase is certain that an economy founded on collaboration is the best. And she’s also convinced that capitalism will have to be completely reinvented to this end. She explains her ideas in her book “Peers Inc.” Here, “Inc” means companies that create online platforms, while the “peers” are the individual entrepreneurs who offer their services, knowledge, goods and resources via those platforms. “The most efficient organizational structure for a company is to be a platform and have as little as possible on it that’s owned and engage as much as possible from outside.” Chase believes that such companies can grow and learn faster, and can attract more diversity and creativity, and thereby realize more innovations. They can also be quicker at finding the perfect person for every job: “Like the needle in a haystack.”
Since founding Zipcar, Chase has been discovering potential everywhere for utilizing and sharing surplus things – from cars, beds and smartphones to talent, experience and creativity, energy from the sun and the wind, and even empty school gyms and theaters. She sees almost completely inexhaustible reserves of undiscovered, unexploited resources that could benefit both producers and consumers. In "Peers Inc.", she writes: “There is more than enough physical stuff already; we just need to think about and organize it differently."
Images: Sally Montana
This article was first published in LGT's client journal CREDO.