Zipcar Cofounder Robin Chase Bids Adieu to U.S., Launches Car Sharing Startup in France

5/5/11Follow @bbuderi

Oh là là. Pronouncing the European market far more primed for a transportation revolution than the U.S., Zipcar cofounder Robin Chase has quietly left GoLoco, her Cambridge, MA-based ride sharing company, to fend for itself and launched a car sharing startup in Paris. Called Buzzcar, the company began pilot testing in two French cities a few weeks ago and plans to open for business in France later this month.

“It’s the project of my dreams,” says Chase, Buzzcar’s CEO or Directrice Générale. She launched the company with the help of husband Roy Russell, who serves as CTO (Directeur Technique), a similar role to what he had with both Zipcar and GoLoco.

Think of Buzzcar as a mix of her two previous startups. Zipcar is essentially a twist on car rentals, allowing rentals by the hour from easy-to-access neighborhood lots or stations, while GoLoco is (or was, since the site is apparently out of service), a ride sharing startup in which people pay to ride along with others in the network, and the drivers take a cut of the fees. Buzzcar, by contrast, is a car sharing service whereby citizens allow their idle cars to be used by others in the network—also for a slice of the pie.

“It’s peer-to-peer car-sharing. We’re leveraging excess capacity of individuals and giving them a platform for participation,” is how Chase describes it. As such, Buzzcar is much like UK-based Whipcar or RelayRides, which started in Cambridge last year but has since moved to Silicon Valley—and Chase says she has no illusions about Buzzcar being first of a kind. “It’s a space that has exploded over the last year, so it’s not a novel thought,” she says. But, she adds, there are many differences between Buzzcar and other car sharing services that set it apart (read on for details).

I’ve actually been following Chase’s progress off and on for months. There was a hint of what she was up to in a tweet last summer: “Looking to rent a furnished 2-3br apt in Paris (1,2,3,4,9.10.18e) contact me…” I met her last August for fresh-squeezed lemonade at the Andala Coffee House in Cambridge’s Central Square, where she gave a brief sketch of her plans while declining to provide any specifics. And I’ve been checking in periodically ever since. Finally, earlier this week, she was ready to parlez.

Indeed, Chase, who terms herself “all but fluent” in French, says she moved to Paris in September, and even though she already had financing lined up for Buzzcar took until last month to launch the company. “That’s how long it takes to make a company live in another language,” she quips. “I’ve been experiencing the French bureaucracy—that was the fall. Here we are in the spring and finally things are moving at a much faster pace.”

Chase says she has been thinking about car sharing for roughly a decade. “Ten years ago, I had an e-mail stalker who was constantly telling me this is what I should be doing with Zipcar. And I would listen to him and say, ‘Let me just do one thing at a time.’” In 2007, after leaving Zipcar, she launched GoLoco, which offered ride sharing rather than car sharing. The company apparently never gained the traction to become self sustaining, and the website now appears down—although Chase says she left GoLoco to operate “without attention” and thought it was still functioning.

Truth be told, the world wasn’t ready for car sharing 10 years ago. But a lot has happened in recent years to make it far more feasible, Chase says. For one thing, technology has advanced to the point you can do almost everything, including reserving a car, with a smartphone. For another, the rise of social media and Web 2.0 companies has gotten people far more used to sharing information and services amongst their friends and even people they don’t know. That’s why car sharing is finally starting to gain traction. A few months ago, for instance, RelayRides attracted $5.1 million from a mix of investors who include Google Ventures and August Capital. “I had to watch them launch in my own back yard when I was full on negotiating [Buzzcar], which was fine,” Chase says of RelayRides.

So let’s get to those differences between Buzzcar and other car-sharing companies.

“I look at all those companies worldwide, and I have couple observations,” Chase says. “One, … Next Page »

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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