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

5/5/11Follow @bbuderi

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our team is vastly more experienced than any of them.” Another observation is about the approach or model. “Each of those companies has a different approach, and I, of course, am liking the approach that we are taking,” she says. Buzzcar is really geared at building a community, she says (more on this in a minute). It is also very easy to implement, working off an iPhone app (apps for other devices are coming soon) or desktop computer. (Contrast that to RelayRides, which requires car owners to submit to the installation of a computer that controls a car’s ignition and locks so only approved riders can use it: “There isn’t a contraption in the car,” says Chase of Buzzcar’s service.)

In fact, she says, people can set their vehicle up for Buzzcar service in 5-7 minutes. They download the app, enter details of their car such as year, model, and location, and upload some photos. “Then people who are drivers can search and find the cars near them and reserve them using the app and also online,” she says. A message about the impending deal, including the start time and duration of the rental, is sent to owners by text or email, and they can either confirm or, if it doesn’t fit their schedule, say, “Non.”

If it’s a go, then at the appointed time and location, the user picks up the keys-either directly from the owner, or, more likely, a pre-arranged drop spot or intermediary—enters the start odometer reading into their smart phone, and logs the exact location and start time (Smart phones are essential, and drivers have to bring the car and keys back to the same location). Drivers pay by the hour and by the kilometer—there’s a maximum daily rate—with Buzzcar covering the insurance for the sharing period. The prices differ for each car depending on its value, but Chase says because the cars aren’t brand new like they are with Zipcar or rental car companies, the prices should be very attractive. To help the process, Buzzcar has an algorithm that suggests a price, which owners can choose to accept or change. The saying in French is “Nous proposons, vous decidez“—We propose, you decide.

There’s a 20 euro annual membership fee for owners and drivers that is currently waived. From the rental fee, Buzzcar takes out the insurance cost plus a 10-15 percent cut, depending on whether the lead for the rental comes through its network or is a personal acquaintance of the renter. Another 1 percent of gross revenues is “for the planet,” says Chase, meaning it goes to charity—with members determining which organizations get the donations. Not counting wear and tear on the car, that leaves the car owner netting somewhere between 65 percent and 75 percent of the total rental fee, Chase estimates.

Buzzcar has six full-time employees, including Chase and Russell. The company has found offices in Paris, but won’t be able to move in for a few more weeks, she says.

The soft or pilot launch is taking place right now in Lille and Nantes, two mid-sized cities that Chase says aren’t super dense like Paris but are true cities. Residents of those cities can’t yet rent out or reserve a car, however. Rather, the point of the pilots is to add cars to the network. Buzzcar will be open to car sharing later this month all over France, although most of the marketing initially will take place in the areas around the pilots and Paris.

Buzzcar is funded by Mobivia Groupe, a privately held French company focused on vehicle servicing and parts (the Midas European franchise and Norauto, a company Chase describes as a European AutoZone, are among its operations). Chase declined to reveal the extent of the investment, but calls Mobivia “an excellent partner…deep into building an ecomobility future for them as a company.” She says Mobivia will be key to Buzzcar’s marketing efforts.

Chase says the European market is far more ready for car sharing than the U.S. “For car owners, the market is people who are looking to save some money on their car,” she says. “The cost of owning and operating a car in Europe is maybe 20 percent higher than in the U.S. So therefore I have more motivated owners. If we look at the drivers, the market is people who can be car independent, very much like Zipcar. Out of any 100 people, there’s a higher percentage of those kind of people in France than there are in the U.S.”

As evidence of the sharing culture, she points to the success of Velib, which has stationed bicycles all over Paris that you can jump on for one-way rides for a small fee—kind of like a bicycle version of Zipcar. That has proven so successful that Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë plans to launch Autolib, which will do the same thing for green vehicles by stationing 4,000 all-electric cars around Paris and its suburbs. “I want Buzzcar to be here and be part of that ongoing national conversation,” Chase says.

Chase is all about building community to help with that. The Buzzcar logo includes twin circles, one with the company name, the other showing a bee on a blue background. “The Bee believes in the power of the group, the power of collaborative work and the richness of diversity,” reads a Google translation of Buzzcar’s website. Buzzcar members choose from a variety of insects for their own personal logo—butterfly, dragonfly, ladybug, and scarab among them—depending on their affinity. Allowing members to personalize their logo helps build community, Chase explains.

“The idea of Buzzcar is the power of many,” she says. The company will provide a network of different kinds of cars in different locations to be used by different people in a wide variety of ways. And allowing people to get the car they want, where and when they want it, and to pay only when they use it, Chase believes, “will change the way people think about cars.”

Le fin.

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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