Robin Chase, Founder and CEO of Zipcar
How Zipcar’s Robin Chase changed the way we look at transportation, and pioneered the sharing economy
The sharing of resources using the internet is commonplace in 2017. Just another aspect of our modern, connected lives. But it wasn’t always so, and to understand how we got here, you have to look a lot further back than companies like Airbnb and Uber.
Visionary entrepreneurs like Robin Chase put shared services on the map way back in the early noughties, when the web was still a collection of shoddy graphics, hyperlinks, and Times New Roman. Chase, co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar—aka one of the largest car sharing service on the planet—wasn’t just one of the first people on the sharing economy bus, she was driving it. Only instead of a bus, it was a lime-green Volkswagen Beetle named Betsy, and you picked the keys up from her house when you wanted to rent it.
As one of the first entrepreneurs to see the potential for online resource sharing on a grand scale, effectively paving the way for the “collaborative consumption” model to explode, Chase has an fascinating story. It begins on a park bench in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The idea for Zipcar arose following a playground conversation between Chase and the mother of her daughter’s playmate, Antje Danielson, in 1999. At the time, Chase, an MIT Sloan School of Management alum, and Danielson, and Harvard geochemist, had a shared interest in starting a business, and found themselves discussing the virtues of car sharing in Europe following a German vacation Danielson had taken.
The conversation was a major lightbulb moment for Chase, who saw how easily the internet might facilitate resource sharing among a large group of people.
The concept of car sharing also struck a chord with Chase on a practical level. Her busy household had an occasional need for a second vehicle, but not to the extent that she and her husband were prepared to buy one. On reflection, Chase believes it was a mixture of her professional background and personal experiences that made her the “right person at the right time to hear the idea.”
One of Chase and Danielson’s first stops was the then dean of Sloan School at MIT, who encouraged the pair to think much bigger than the plan they described. Three times bigger, in fact, when it came to the scope of their operation, the proposed timeline, and the target amount for investment funding.
Zipcar launched several months later, in June 2000, having raised just $75,000 in seed funding. The company proudly boasted one vehicle, Betsy, which helped them reel in 22 customers in the first six weeks. It might not have come with all the apps, plugins, bells and whistles of today—nor was the process ever as easy as Chase initially hoped—but it was the start of a company that would play a large part in opening up a wealth of possibilities for would-be entrepreneurs.
As Chase recalls, the initial process for collecting the car was, by today’s standards, somewhat relaxed. After arriving at her house, customers would walk down the driveway to the rear of the property, and onto the back porch, where they would retrieve Betsy’s key from under a chair cushion. To keep track of individual usage, Chase had them complete a paper form inside the car. It was a scant operation, but one that was designed just to get the business up and running—and proving itself—as quickly as possible.
“The Lean Startup concept of minimum viable product was not a concept when we were doing this, but let me tell you that’s what we were doing! It was [a case of], what is the least I need to expand upon to prove that people are interested in cars by the hour?” Chase says.
“We proved that point and started to have, as quickly as possible, real customers paying real money, so we could start learning about all the things we started to learn about.”
Something to Talk About
From the outset, Chase’s mission was for Zipcar to be a hot topic of conversation, and for the right reasons. To achieve this, the company’s early momentum was fueled by a two-part strategy, which focused on brand exposure and word of mouth.
In keeping with her low-fi approach, Chase employed old school guerrilla marketing to get the brand seen around town. She had casual staff hang up hundreds of six-cent postcards on the subway, using a hole punch and a roll of wire, and hand out flyers on the street. New customers were also pulled in by prominent signage around Zipcar parking spaces and branding on the cars themselves.
“Back then, people said no one will ever drive a car if you put a sign on it, they’ll feel like they’re in a pizza delivery truck. … I said to my staff, ‘No, we’re going to create a company that people will feel proud to drive, proud to be a part of that club. They’ll feel urban and hip and proud to do it.’ So we put a logo on the cars.”
To generate positive word of mouth, Chase jumped at every PR opportunity that came her way, and drilled the importance of offering flawless customer experience into her employees. Giving people something to “surprise and delight” them at every turn also involved correcting any mistakes so effectively that customers would be compelled to tell others about the experience.
Building the Fleet
Since the early days of Betsy the Beetle, Zipcar has expanded to 13,000 vehicles across North America, the UK, and other parts of Europe. The company, which was acquired by rental giant Avis in 2013, also boasts a million odd users and more than 500 employees. Chase, who was at the helm until 2003, was on hand to experience the many joys and frustrations of Zipcar’s explosive early growth.
“What’s interesting about going from yourself and your idea to a company that’s running with 10, 20, 50 staff, is it’s an incredible transition. You go from being a startup where you do everything yourself and you know how to do everything. Then, as you hire people, you have to let someone else be the expert, and that’s a difficult thing to do in the beginning. … It’s kinda scary to imagine anybody else could do it better.”
As Chase recalls it, the experience taught her several valuable lessons when it came to finding and onboarding new employees. The first of which is to pay attention to the finer aspects of a person’s résumé. Details like an individual’s hobbies, which are often buried at the bottom, all come into play in the chaotic life of a startup.
“All of those crazy small details are useful … because there’s going to be thousands of little details, so those networks and life experiences and funny little talents are things you are going to need.”
With early hires being so vitally important to your future success, Chase also encourages founders to hire people with can-do attitudes, who won’t shy away from problem-solving on their own. She further suggests engaging people on a trial basis before taking them on permanently, so you can assess them for both skill and cultural fit. Shared values and trust are particularly important for startups, Chase explains, due to the often-unpredictable nature of the work, and the fact that, at some point, employees will need to start making decisions without you.
“In a startup, there are lots of things that are novel. So, you need to be really comfortable that the people around you share your values around how you are going to treat people, and what sort of deals you are going to cut or not cut. Then, if they make a decision on the fly, it may not be one you like, but you will respect their thought process around it because you trust them.”
Setting the Agenda
Since the early days of Zipcar, Chase has gone on to become one of the most prodigious transportation entrepreneurs of our time, co-founding Buzzcar, a peer-to-peer carsharing service in Europe, which was acquired by Drivy in 2015; GoLoco, an online ridesharing community; and Veniam, a vehicle communications organization that turns vehicles into a connected network of wi-fi hotspots.
Author of the popular 2015 book, Peers Inc. How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism, Chase has also cemented her position as a thought leader in transportation and the greater business world. In the book, she explores the forces that are currently transforming our economy, and suggests that companies that successfully merge people power with technology can create a powerful new way of working.
Chase explains how the views outlined in the book have been shaped by both her own experiences, and acute observations of business trends over the past decade:
“If I think about why and how Zipcar succeeded back in 2000, and the kinds of companies that are succeeding today, there are three components. One is they are tapping into excess capacity; secondly they are building a platform that enables and harnesses this excess capacity; and thirdly, they are inviting in participation from people outside the company.”
Successful organizations are no longer those that build impenetrable walls around their companies, she says, but rather those that know how to extract the most value from the shared economy.
“Today, the best companies are those that are open, that share networks, assets, and people. … Sharing an asset makes that asset more efficiently used, or allows for new value to be extracted.
“Shared minds are also smarter, more creative and innovative than just a few people inside a company. Every company that can become not just a platform, but can very efficiently shape and leverage assets and data and minds outside the company, is the future.”
Visit peersincorporated.com to grab a copy of the book, or connect with Robin Chase via @rmchase on Twitter.
6 Lessons I Learned in Business, by Robin Chase
1. Broaden the search
I think there are a lot of interesting things happening in other countries that are “steal-able,” in a very lovely way, and I encourage people to think about that.
2. Do it better
Car sharing is an idea that we didn’t even invent. We just executed it way better than other people.
3. Keep it simple
When you think about the smallest thing you can do to start your company, whatever that is, it’s even smaller. Even smaller than the smallest thing you think you have to do.
4. Learn from real folks
When you’re doing a startup, you want to get as close to a customer as fast as you can, so you can work out what is going on with real people, and not what is going on in your mind.
5. Generate word of mouth
If you think about anything you buy, often it’s because a friend told you about it. So, that is the way to get new customers—have existing customers love it so much that they talk about it all the time.
6. Counter your weaknesses
Know what you’re not good at, and hire quickly to complement your skills. The very first people you hire should be people who know how to do things you can’t do, or are not as good at.
- What it means to create a true minimum viable product to validate your idea
- Why the best ideas come from solving your own problems
- Advice on who to hire when you’re a struggling startup
- What qualities you should be looking for when bringing in new people to your team
- The importance of user feedback and always listening to your customer
Full Transcript of the Podcast with Robin Chase
Nathan: Hello, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to another episode of the “Foundr Podcast.” My name is Nathan Chan. And I am coming to you live from hometown, home-grown, born and raised Melbourne, Australia. So what’s happening in my world? I mentioned this to you guys before in some previous episodes when I give you a little update, kind of documenting the journey, I guess. Because I started Foundr, what, three and a half years ago? And it’s come a long way in three and a half years. And right now, we’re going through some growth pains.
And I wanted to share with you a recent takeaway that I think has been incredible for my growth and progression as I’m making this transition from founder, to CEO, when we start to hire people. And that transition is when you’re looking to scale up your company, you know, and you transition from solopreneur to building out a team, you can only take the company so far by yourself. And you know, you have to get more help and build out a team.
And I think what’s really critically important when you do that is it’s your responsibility as a leader to show every single person, every single individual in your team what success looks like. Because if they don’t know what success looks like, how will they know, you know, if they’re meeting expectations? And so, this is why it’s incredibly important that you set goals for every individual in your team, and you track those goals, and you show them what success looks like. It’s your responsibility as a leader. And I’m learning lots and lots and lots about leadership, and how important it is. And I want to start actually bringing in more experts around this topic, because I think it’s incredibly important as a founder and as you make that transition.
So that’s what’s been happening in my world. Now, let’s talk about today’s guest, Robin Chase. She’s an extremely successful founder and entrepreneur. She started a company called Zipcar, which is, and still to this day, is the largest car sharing company in the world. And this company actually was acquired by another company called Drivy. And it’s been absolutely incredible what she’s done. And it’s another founder and entrepreneur that has disrupted the sharing economy. If you check out last week’s episode, we spoke to Casey Fenton from couchsurfing.com. And this is another amazing entrepreneur and founded that has disrupted an industry through utilizing the sharing economy.
So one thing that Robin shares with us is she really goes back to the roots of how she started this company, how she grew it, how she scaled it, the marketing tactics and strategies she used, leadership, team building, you name it. She doesn’t hold back. And this is a really, really in-depth episode that I know you’re gonna absolutely love.
So if you are enjoying these episodes, please do take the time to check out the magazine, do check out the blog, do check out our website, foundrmag.com. It’s where all the fruits of our labor is. All right, guys. Now, let’s jump into the show.
So the first question that I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Robin: My current job or at past jobs, or this starting at companies’ jobs?
Nathan: Yeah, let’s start with Zipcar.
Robin: I think…so my co-founder was my six-year-old’s best friend, and she was German and she had been on home on vacation and had seen a shared car across the street. And she came back to Boston and chatted with me because I had had a business background.
What’s interesting to me, if I think about this from an entrepreneurial perspective, is Zipcar is now the largest car sharing company in the world, and it is an idea that we didn’t even invent. We just exceuted it way better than other people. So I think there’s a lot of interesting things that happen in other countries that are stealable in a very lovely way. So I encourage people to think about that.
And what I saw, and I joke that I had a light bulb that went on over my head when she told me about it…this was in the fall of 1999. And I thought, “Wow. Sharing a very specific resource among lots of people easily is exactly what the internet is made for. And this is what wireless will make possible, getting that reservation from the internet directly to the car. And this is what I personally want to have.” That I had three children and a husband and one car and I lived in a city, and I wanted a car sometimes, but I definitely did not want to own another car.
So I look at this and I think I was the right person at the right time to hear that idea. It really did jump out at me. And I loved it from the first I heard of it. And if I think of other people, I do think that individuals’ personal life experiences make them the right person to be doing certain things. And so, instead of trying to be who you are not or start things that are very far from you, think about problems that are within your life, and that you see and are irritated by, and try to solve those.
Nathan: Awesome. So you scratched your own itch?
Robin: Definitely. And it’s one I hadn’t realized that I had. When I heard about it, I thought, “Oh, yeah. I want a car by the hour and by the day that takes 15 seconds to get. Yes, that’s what I want.” But then, of course, making that happen was not so quite as easy as I had imagined at that moment.
Nathan: I see. So can you tell me…you mentioned that you had a previous background in business. What were you doing before you founded Zipcar?
Robin: So I had gone to business school at MIT ten years earlier. And I had been doing a lot of work in international public health. So I had been…I felt…as an individual, I felt comfortable doing operations and marketing, and dealing with buying things and paying for things, and keeping general ledgers on accounting. So all of my…when I started Zipcar, I thought, “Wow, all of my life experience is coming to bear on making this particular startup.”
And at that precise year in which I started, I actually had not been working because I have three children. And during the rearing of these children, I sometimes took off entire years, and sometimes, I worked part-time, and sometimes, I worked full-time. And when my co-founder came up with this idea and said, “What do you think about this car-sharing idea?” it was a year in which I had just finished taking a year off, and I was exactly at that moment looking to do a startup. I had been thinking of different things, and it was just really well-timed.
Nathan: I see. And how did you get started? You said that this idea existed in other places. But how did you particularly start? Like, tell us about, you know, how you built, like, the largest…
Robin: Here’s an amazing story that, my co-founder in the fall of ’99, we sat at a cafe and she said, “What do you think of this idea?” And then I spent three months writing a business plan and doing some financial modeling, and seeing what was out there. And in December, I met with the dean of my business school at MIT, and I had decided to meet with him; he was the first outsider that wasn’t, you know, a friend to say, “What do you think of this idea?” And I sent him…we had given him a four-page executive summary.
When we met with him, he said, “Wow, this is an amazing idea, and you should be doing it three times as fast, and raising three times as much money. You should really make this big.” And so, it was a moment of high anxiety, and I walked around the house for three days thinking, “Ah, did I really want to take this on?” My children were six, nine, and twelve. And I decided, “Yep.” And so, in January, we incorporated.
Now, here’s the timeline that is remarkable. So we incorporated in January of 2000. I raised $50,000 in February. And we were three days from launch in June when I raised another $25,000. So to repeat, we launched the company, within six months, having only raised $75,000. And I am not an engineer, and it was 16 years ago when all the things you can do on the internet did not exist. There was no, you know, shopping cart that you can just load on there. There’s no beautiful graphs. There’s no website in a box. There was none of that. We had to do it all ourselves. And we launched that company, as I say, in six months, with $75,000. So I look at that and I think, “That is amazing. It’s a miracle. I don’t know how in the heck…it’s just a crazy thing.” And then we did go on to spend a lot more money over the subsequent months.
So if I’m precise about how we did that…so two things is one, I did work 12 and 14-hour days six days a week, and I did do as much as I possibly could myself. So I did write the text for the website, I did take the photographs that were going to be on the website. I talked to the banks about letting us do things. I did try to do the fundraising. I did, you know, the marketing, I did every piece. And I enlisted friends at an hourly wage that was low to do spot things. So that $75,000 that we raised was spent entirely on engineers, I will say. We had a few…I had one car that we started with that I got the way everyone gets a car; we were paying $300 a month for this lime green Volkswagen Beetle. And we talk…today, there’s an idea of doing something as a minimum viable product…
Robin: …that was not a concept when we were doing this in 2000. But let me tell you, that’s what we were doing. So this first car that was our little beta car, it was a Volkswagen Beetle named “Betsy.” We named it “Betsy,” all the cars were named. As I said, we were paying $300 a month for it and I was paying that.
And when people went to the website, zipcar.com, they would see a calendar for that car. And they could make a reservation if it was free. And that reservation, that calendar on the car had nothing to do with the car. So the car was parked in front of my house. You would walk to the street in front of my house. You would walk up the back garden. You would walk onto the porch. There was a glider on the porch. And you would lift up the pillow and there was the car key. And you would take that car key and walk back out to the car. And in the glove box was a piece of paper that would say “Start time. Stop time. Start odometer reading, and Stop odometer reading.” And people would take the car out for whatever they reserved it for, park it back in front of my house, fill out the form, and then return the key to underneath the pillow.
So we did that with one car and 22 people for six weeks. And then we launched the company with four cars, so I got three more. And the only thing that was different then was that you would use this proximity card to unlock the door. But to this minimum viable product, if you had that company’s proximity card, it would have unlocked the door. Like, if you held that card on the windshield, it would unlock.
And I had the keys dangling from the steering column just as we had them today. But if you had seen those keys and you had taken a brick and broken into that car, you could have started that car and driven away. So it was “What is the least I need to expand in order to prove that people are interested in cars by the hour, that you don’t need to have an attendant walk around the car and instruct them to do things and say whether it’s good or bad?” So we proved that point and we started to have…as quickly as possible, we had real customers paying real money. And we could start learning about all the things we needed to learn about.
And in my next company, which was a ride-sharing company, a long-distance ride-sharing company, at that time, I thought, “Oh, I’m really clever. I know a lot about transportation. I know, you know, I’m gonna make this fancy website,” and we spent a lot of money, because I could now raise a lot of money. So I spent a lot of money building this first website, and it was way, way, way too clever. And by the time I had hit consumers, I had way overbuilt it. And we spent the first three months unbuilding and make it simpler and simpler and simpler because I had overdone it. And so, I had not learned my lesson about the minimum viable product, as I say. It was not an idea.
So when we think about “What is the smallest thing that you can do to start your company?” Whatever you think it is, it’s smaller than that. It’s even smaller than what you think is the least you have to do. So just going to this ridesharing company called GoLoco, I would have thought that, at a minimum, to share a ride, you would have to put in the time of day you’re leaving, and the time of day you’re gonna get there, and origin and destination, and how many seats you had to rent, and a price. That was too much. People are not interested in putting all of those details in. They just want to put in, “I’m going to New York. Period.”
So it was a very funny thing that what we think is the least is not the least. So when you’re doing these startups, you want to get as close to a customer as fast as you can, so that you can start learning from real people, and not what’s going on in your mind.
Nathan: I see. So in the early days, how did you get your first 1,000 customers with Zipcar?
Robin: I’m laughing that we did it the guerilla marketing way, you know? We had…postcards were six cents each to print in bulk. And one of my hourly employees would take a hole punch, and he would put a hole in the corner, and then he would take a wire tie, and he would, in a guerilla fashion, take, you know, 50 postcards with a wire, plastic wire tie, and attach them to subway stairs.
Robin: taking the subway say, “Oh, my god. There’s my customer.” You know? And so, yeah, there were flyers, and we would hand leaflets as people got in and out of subways and on the streets. And I was also monitoring how people actually joined the company. And so, there were…the three ways that most people joined the company was, one, they saw a car, or its parking space. And that had been me. Back in 2000, we were the first people to ever put a sign on a car. And everyone said, “No one will drive a car if you put a sign on it,logo, and that they’ll feel like in a pizza delivery truck,” and no one did it. And I said to myself and to my staff, “No, we’re gonna build a company which people are proud to drive and proud to be part of that club, and they’ll feel cool and urban and hip, and they will be happy to do it.” So we put a logo on the car.
The second way people would hear about it was through PR and press. So I did a ton of press every opportunity I ever could do, so that was free. And the third way that people would hear about it was someone told them. And the reason someone would talk about it is that I always gave people something to talk about. I would try to surprise and delight. And so, our service was great and it was fantastic, and if we made a mistake, we would correct it in such a way that people would want to talk about how fabulous we were that we had corrected the mistake in this amazing way. Like, if you think about anything that you buy, most of the stuff we buy is because a friend told you it was great.
And so, really, that is the way to get new customers, is to have existing customers love it so much that they talk about it all the time. And that’s how you get your most customers. So it was not money. Everything we did was not money.
Nathan: I see. When it…like, since you’ve exited the company, would you be able to give us, like, some stats or some numbers around, like, how many users when you left and you guys were acquired?
Robin: So Zipcar went public and when it went public…and now, Avis bought them and that’s a public company. So today, as I understand it only from looking at these public numbers, I think Zipcar has a million users using 13,000 cars that are parked across North America, major cities, and in the UK with a couple of outposts and Paris, Vienna, and in Spain. And that also 300 university towns across the U.S.
Robin: So most major metro areas in North America and parts of the UK.
Nathan: Wow. That’s really impressive. And I’m curious, when you went public, how many staff did you have?
Robin: I think there were maybe 450, something around there, give or take.
Nathan: I see. And when you were growing the company, how did you build your team? How did you manage people to scale? Because that’s something that’s not particularly very easy.
Robin: So if we’re talking about startups right now, and with the people who are possibly listening to this, what’s very interesting about going from yourself and your idea to a company that’s actually running with, you know, 10, 20, 40, 60 staff, is there’s an incredible transition. Because when you’re doing a startup, you’re doing everything yourself. And you, of course, know how to do things best and know all the details yourself. And then as you hire people, you are having to, really, let someone else be the expert. And that’s a very difficult thing in the beginning. Because you think, “I’m the one who’s been thinking about this. I’m the one who’s been doing it.” And it’s kind of scary to imagine anyone could be doing it better.
So my first thing to say is as a very, very early company, and you as an individual always, you should really know what you’re not good at, and hire quickly to be complementing your skills. So the very first hires are people, who are doing things that you don’t know how to do, that you’re not as good at. So that now, you’re getting… you know, instead of one person, now you have two sets of expertise, and then three.
And in these early days, I was also very struck by the fact that if you think of people’s resumes, young people, in particular, that at the very bottom, it says, “Hobbies. I’m good at skateboarding, and I used to do pizza delivery, and I’m interested in music and funny mechanics.” I mean, all of those crazy, small details are going to be useful when you’re doing a startup. Because there are thousands and thousands of details that have to be done, and all of those networks and life experiences, and funny little talents are things that you need in these startups.
So it was interesting to me that if I’ve thought of these first people…I was really hiring people who were can-do and had lots of talents. And at one point, I was using a headhunter for something, and the headhunter was interviewing me to find out the corporate culture. So he had asked me, “Robin, if you were to buy a house, would you be hiring contractors to fix it up for you, or would you fix it up yourself?”
So I think of entrepreneurs as people who are…ones who are saying, “I can do that,” or “I will do that myself.” And that you don’t have the money to be hiring out. And so, all the people you hire in the early days have got to be problem solvers that are gonna scrabble together, “Let me figure out how I can do that myself, because you don’t have any money.” So all of the first hires should be can-do people who think about how to get the job done. “I don’t know how to do this thing. I go do this research. I go figure it out. I go get it done.”
And I think I said this before, but I want to reiterate. It’s a really good idea to be hiring people hourly before you hire them full-time. Because each one of these first employees, you’re only having one, you only have five, you only have seven. They are so critically important that you don’t have time to make a really big mistake. Because it’s one-fifth or one-seventh of your entire workforce. So by hiring people hourly, you know, “Can they do these things? Do we have good chemistry? Are they a good fit? Are they a can-do person?” before you make that commitment. So you’re less likely to make mistakes.
I was also talking to someone else who gave me another piece of advice that I thought was really good, which was that you want to hire, in addition, people who share your values. Again, these are people that you have to trust their decision making when they’re not next to you or you’re not within earshot. And if you’re doing a startup, there are a lot of things that are novel. There are new circumstances, new ideas, new ways you…new things you have to think up on the fly. And you need to be able to be really comfortable that the people who are making these decisions share your values around how you’re going to treat people, customers, or suppliers, or what kind of deals you’re gonna cut or not cut. That they really have to share your value system. And you need to be able to trust that they will.
So if they make a decision on the fly, it may not be the one that you liked, but it would be one that you respected, that you respect how their thought process…and the fact that you can understand, you trust them. So you’ve really got to trust and respect these early hires. And if you don’t, those are the people that you fire right away. Because you have to have them…it’s too small a company to be making big mistakes.
Nathan: I see. Awesome. Well, look, we have to work towards wrapping up, Robin. But I wanted to talk about your book, “Peers Inc.” Can you tell us a little bit more about the book and the whole thought process around how people and platforms are inventing the colloborative economy and reinventing capitalism?
Robin: So if I think about why and how Zipcar succeeded way back in, you know, 2000, and the kinds of companies that I’m seeing succeed in the world today, all of the companies that exist in and if I were talking to…and I do talk to young entrepreneurs, I think there’s three components, three building blocks of companies. One is they are tapping into excess capacity, and they are building a platform that enables and harnesses this excess capacity, and they are inviting in the participation of people outside the company.
So a very dumb example, quickly, would be Airbnb. So Airbnb is tapping the excess capacity that exists in people’s own homes. And they built a platform to make it incredibly simple to get it that. And they are growing by inviting other people to co-invest onto their platform.
So if we think of these companies like Twitter and Facebook and your Foundr Magazine, and all of these things that are cool today–Skype, Wikipedia, the massive online courses, OkCupid, TransferWise–all these companies…eBay, Etsy, they are all tapping into excess capacity on a platform for participation, and inviting the co-investment of others.
So this book is describing that reality. And then there’s a chapter on how to build one of these yourself, and how if for other…then there’s a chapter on if you were a big company, how you would do it, and if you were a government, how you would do it. But how this…if I think about what I call now “industrial capitalism,” the old way of extracting the most value out of people and assets was to build a very strong barrier around your company. It was very clear what was inside the company was outside the company. We did these sort of patents and trademarks and copyrights and certifications and employee expertise. And that used to be the way to get the most out of things.
But today, the internet exists, and we can tap lots of small parts and people and assets very, very easily without transaction costs. So today, the best companies are those that are open and shared networks and assets and people. So if we think about…it’s unclear today who owns the asset. It’s unclear today “Are you an employee or are you not an employee?” You know, “Is this personal time or commercial time?” Like, all of these things are now very mixed up, and that’s because that is the way to get the most out of things. So sharing an asset makes that asset more efficiently used, or new value can be extracted, or more shared minds are smarter and more creative and more innovative than a few people inside a company.
This is the future and every company that can become just a platform very efficiently shaped and leveraging assets and people and minds and data outside the company is the future. So that’s what this book…and it’s this collaboration that I’m calling “Peers Inc.” This new collaboration between people and platforms, or devices and platforms, or data and platforms. And I think of it as the collaborative economy, which is just trying to open people’s minds more. When we think about the sharing economy, which Zipcar would be the cornerstone of, people are kind of stuck on this physical asset shared between two people. But what I’m trying to get people to understand is “No, no, this is happening in a much, much larger way. It’s not just physical assets, but virtual data, time of day, experiences, networks, processes, keystrokes that are being harnessed and multipurposed, and to create new services and new products and new ways of living.” And that really is the way forward.
Nathan: I see. Awesome. Well, look, I just wanted to say before we wrap, is there any final words of wisdom? Where is the best place people can find you if they want to find out more or purchase your book or anything…
Robin: So I’m on…people can talk to me via Twitter. I’m @rmchase. And if you are building a company like this or want to build a company like this, I really do recommend this book, “Peers Inc.” People absolutely love it. I had this great VC comment that this book had more startup ideas than any book he’d ever read. It’s a really great holistic manual. It’s a pleasant thing to read. And I urge people to really think about their own set of circumstances, and what needs to be changed in the world that they’re in. And to think of themselves as the changemaker.
And so, I think the world actually is…I don’t want to say their oyster, there’s a lot of challenging things right now, but people have amazingly new powers bringing together and using other people’s platforms to create new things.
- Learn more about Robin on her website
- Follow Robin on Twitter
- Check out Robin’s Ted Talks
- Explore Zipcar
- Follow Zipcar on Twitter
- Check our Robin’s book Peers Inc.