Austin’s RideScout Picks Up Steam, Rolling Out to Dozens of Cities
The last time we met Joseph Kopser, he was pitching his newly hatched startup, RideScout, at a Start Houston pitch night.
Nine months later, the RideScout app, which Kopser describes as “Kayak for ground transportation,” is preparing to roll out to 40 cities by the end of the summer. Currently, commuters in four cities—Austin, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, DC—can open the app and peruse real-time transport options, from taxis, buses, and trains to Zipcars, Uber, and B-cycle.
The 20-year Army veteran and West Point graduate has become an evangelist for getting around without a car on his blog, “The Austin Road Scholar,” as well as his tweets detailing his cross-country travels using RideScout.
The startup, which has 12 employees, has raised $2.5 million in funding and is in the middle of soliciting investors for its Series A round, which it hopes to close by August. Here is an edited version of my recent conversation with Kopser on what’s powering RideScout’s growth and how an app could prevent drunk driving.
Xconomy: How many cities have you now rolled out to?
Joseph Kopser: We’re live in four cities; we have three more to go—Chicago, New York, and Houston—in the next month and a half. By the end of summer, we will have turned on 36 more cities, and we expect to have a total of 200 cities by wintertime.
X: Whoa. How can you suddenly add so many cities at one time?
JK: We have made it possible from a tech standpoint. Now we have configured it so that ride providers can upload their own companies onto RideScout. We’re finishing that [software change] now. Until now, we’ve added the ride providers one by one. Now, it’s a self-service process where they can put themselves into the RideScout solution.
That gives us the ability to add cities at a much faster speed over the summer and fall. In the same way that someone can go to Ebay and sell items on Ebay, a ride provider can go to RideScout, upload their services at their prices and at their schedule. We’re just the marketplace. That’s big and exciting change.
From a tech standpoint, the challenge was we had to find a way to standardize four or five different experiences. Transit is not the same across the country: car share, large car rental companies, they also have their own styles. At the end of the day, we want someone who is looking for a car for the day to very quickly compare apples to apples. Is my best option Cartogo or Zipcar or a more traditional rental car company?
It was a software challenge but also a people challenge, too. The ones with older business models, those companies that in the first 100 years of their existence didn’t have to operate in a marketplace like this. We’re changing not just technology, but changing mindsets and changing behavior.
X: How do you change the mindsets of legacy providers?
JK: Their product will be served up in our app in a way they want it to be shown: their logos, their pictures, and their text. Technology now creates competition in the marketplace, like there wasn’t before. They’re smart companies.
X: RideScout is running into some of the same controversy at city governments between legacy operators and new services like Uber or Lyft. What is this like?
JK: We’re not running into it: we’re proud to be in the middle of it. We’re showing old legacy systems and newer emerging systems how we can use transparency in time, prices, safety, and reliability to promote their services. Each has a ratings system on the app, which becomes self-policing. That’s a really powerful tool to regulate the market and adds an additional layer of safety that doesn’t exist in the current taxi industry.
It’s a challenge to go through all of the different systems, city councils, or state agencies that control taxi and limousine services. Even private companies have standing relationships with different agencies. Hotels have always done it the same way; they call the one taxi company for guests. But now guests can use on-demand ride services on RideScout and they can choose how to get to the airport.
Our rule is if it’s safe, legal, and reliable, we’ll show it. In Austin, you’re not allowed to use Sidecar, so we don’t show Sidecar as a solution.
X: What made you come up with an idea like RideScout?
JK: I think everybody’s been at that point in the day when they get stuck and their transportation requirements change at the last minute. You’re drinking a beer and now don’t want to drive a car.
I was standing at my corner in Arlington, Virginia, trying to catch a bus to get to work [at the Pentagon]. There were two or three [transportation] agencies for me to get to work. Which is better? I went looking for a website that would do all this for me. I didn’t find it.
So I’m crazy enough to try to build it. If it’s a problem for me, and I’m an aerospace engineer, what happens in the lives of everyone else, who can’t apply the same rigor and math to this? My friends got involved, and we turned it into a company. That was in spring 2011, and I moved to Austin that summer.
X: Talk about the recent drunk driving deaths in Austin lately, and the conversation around reliable transportation, either public or private, to keep people from getting behind the wheel?
JK: The only way to do it right is you have to give people options to get downtown without their car. Otherwise you’re not going to solve the DUI problem. The car is the problem. We show people lots of different options to get down there and ways to get back reliably and safely.