Zebigo, Led by Boeing and Blue Origin Vet, Rolls Out Ride-Sharing Network in Seattle

6/2/10Follow @gthuang

Mark Russell spent 13 years commuting the 50-odd miles from Graham, WA, to Kirkland and back. Driving alone, he couldn’t use the carpool lane, so he spent countless hours sitting in traffic. Now he is channeling years of pent-up frustration to help solve the broader ride-sharing problem, using a confluence of social networks, mobile applications, and smart optimization algorithms.

Russell’s company, Zebigo, is introducing its new service in Seattle later this week, when it will begin signing up customers. The Web-based service will start in earnest on June 17 in Seattle, Bellevue, and Tacoma. It works sort of like a cross between Zipcar and eBay, without the bidding. Customers set up accounts with Zebigo, and the software and Web interface matches up riders trying to go from A to B at a certain time with drivers already heading there or planning to go—all within a minute or two. If both parties agree to the rideshare, then the rider will pay the driver after they carpool together (much less than a taxi fare), with Zebigo taking a flat fee of 49 cents from each transaction. The whole thing can be done with smartphones; Zebigo sends information to the rider and driver by e-mail and text message.

“Our goal is to turn your mobile phone into a set of keys,” Russell says.

Although the service is meant for strangers to be able to share rides—more on this social barrier below—repeat carpoolers might drive a lot of business, and build their own network of people they get to know. “I feel like I am the customer for this system. I wasted three and a half hours a day in traffic,” Russell says. “I want to amalgamate all these technologies into something that really has an impact on society and the environment.”

Russell is no stranger to high-impact work. He’s a veteran of Boeing, Intel, and Blue Origin, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s aerospace firm. Perhaps what’s most intriguing about Zebigo is that its team of seven full-timers (and about a dozen people in all) comes largely from the aerospace industry, where they solved technical problems ranging from flight routing to intelligent database programming to spacecraft separation for launching satellites.

But it isn’t too surprising that they’ve turned their efforts to a big transportation problem. There seems to be renewed interest in sharing cars, exemplified by Cambridge, MA-based Zipcar’s plans for an initial public offering, as we reported just yesterday. And online ride-sharing services, such as Zimride, PickupPal, and GoLoco, have been sprouting up around the U.S. and Canada in the past couple of years. Meanwhile, the granddaddy of instant carpooling is the “slugging” system around Washington DC, whereby commuters line up to hitch rides with strangers who need extra people to use the three-person carpool lanes. That system, which is free, has been in full swing since the 1980s.

The competing online carpooling services “haven’t really addressed the real-time nature of the problem,” Russell says. Some need a larger critical mass of riders and drivers to make it work, he says, as compared to Zebigo, which is optimized so that “with fewer numbers of people in the system, we can intelligently match them together.” Other competitors depend on riders having Facebook friends who are going their way.

Of course, the social barrier of riding with strangers is probably greater than the technological problem that Zebigo solves. How will the company deal with privacy, security, and safety issues? For starters, there is an eBay-style rating system for riders and drivers, and each member has a searchable profile. Members can choose to include a background check done by LexisNexis. Women can request that they ride only with other women. In terms of privacy, only the matched-up rider and driver can see each other’s pictures, so they can recognize one another. Once they meet, either party can cancel the ride at any time, with no fee.

At the end of the day, drivers get paid a little bit, but mostly the service is about convenience and speeding up the commute. “It’s a lot about time savings,” Russell says. “Money legitimizes the transaction.”

Zebigo has been privately funded to this point, mostly through Russell and his friends and family. His team has built its first product on about $750,000, and is currently looking for more funding as it hopes to wend its way to break-even. “If you want to do well in green [tech] and time savings, you’ve got to make it profitable or it’s not sustainable,” Russell says. “I learned well from Jeff Bezos—you don’t bet the farm on one thing, you build a platform.”

By the end of the summer, Russell hopes to have 3,000 to 5,000 members signed up in the Seattle area. On any given day, he’d like to see hundreds of transactions. His plan is to prove the business model in Seattle, and eventually roll out the service in other cities on the West Coast and in the Southwest.

Russell says he takes pride in “bringing a small team of highly skilled, intelligent folks together and making something fly.” His standard procedure, born of the aerospace industry, is “We research, we build, we test, we fly.” We’ll be watching to see if Zebigo flies in Seattle, and beyond.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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