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, 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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