Robin Chase is used to thinking outside of the box.
When Chase visits a congested city like Jakarta, she doesn’t look at the traffic and think that there are too many cars and too few roads. What she sees is excess capacity.
Chase, who served on the World Economic Forum Future of Transportation Council and was listed as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009, realized that reducing traffic congestion could be simply achieved by filling up cars that had a single driver and by clearing parking lots that were filled with cars for hours while their owners were at work.
So Chase, 54, created Buzzcar and Zipcar, two peer-to-peer car sharing services, and she also launched GoLoco.org, a venture combining online carpooling and social networking.
Zipcar, a carsharing program operating in the United States, Canada, Spain and Britain, was first launched in 2000 to allow members to reserve cars or rent out cars by the hour or day. Buzzcar, which follows the same carsharing concept, was then launched in France.
“Our resources are dwindling, soon everyone will have to start thinking less about owning and more about sharing,” Chase said.
She is on a crusade against excess capacity, a concept repeatedly mentioned in her presentations and writings. Currently a board member for the World Resources Institute and a member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the US Department of Commerce, Chase has written about the opportunities to be found in cooperative capitalism, the anatomy of sharing and the opportunities to be had in multi-purposing road user fee infrastructure.
Chase sat down with the Jakarta Globe to talk about the different ways to tackle transportation issues, how Indonesia provides many opportunities for transport innovations and what it takes to turn great ideas into a successful business.
What does our government need to do to manage traffic congestion?
One of the challenges is that everyone seems to be thinking about solving transportation problems with infrastructure and not a change in behavior. You can actually have more impact through changing behavior.
In Indonesia, I noticed that there’s a lot of informal transport and a lot of shared rides. But from the government perspective they’d say informal means anarchy, means chaos, means unstandardized service, they were considered unsafe.
That’s where technology comes in. It allows all this informal sector to finally have a platform where they can tap the right market, improve their services, have some kind of standard of conduct or vehicle because customers will be giving feedback online.
And if we can show what technology can do to improve this informal transport and that we can turn what used to be chaos into something which functions, maybe they’ll start to realize that this informal transport is actually reducing traffic.
We can incorporate them into the existing formal transport and suddenly they become the answer to our transportation dilemma which is surging demand and not enough money to add more buses or build more roads.
I think Indonesia provides more opportunities than European countries because there are so many options. You can pay more and take a taxi, pay less by having 10 people sharing a mini bus.
There are services for a whole range of socioeconomic classes, which is a good thing. Whereas in the US they have decided that they can only cater to this class and up. So the opportunities are greater here in Indonesia.
What about freight?
I’m not an expert on freight, but when we talk about excess capacity there seems to be a lot of interesting possibilities in freight. There are several small-scale projects which I like. They are very innovative, but I can’t tell if they are successful or not.
Wal-Mart is experimenting with getting their customers to do their home deliveries for them. Buses on off hours can go to the same route and pick up deliveries.
I’m constantly pushing for more young people to work in transportation because we need fresh and exciting ideas like these.
When did you come up with the idea for Zipcar?
My husband and I were living with one car. There was no way I wanted a second car because I drove so infrequently. Instead, I wanted a car that I could rent by the hour or the day and that I didn’t have to own, so the idea of car sharing instantly appealed to me.
In 1999, it was the peak of the dot-com boom. Fifty percent of the population had Internet access at work, and 25 percent had cell phones. I thought carsharing is what the Internet was meant for. With that idea, we decided to form a company. I did the fundraising, built the website, did the marketing, designed a payment system and everything else. We launched in June of 2000.
The idea is people can go to our website and choose a car to rent, view a brief information about the owner, and how the car runs, how it is maintained. Both sides meet at an agreed place and once done, the car is returned.
But the big part of the service is the ability to give reviews. Owners can say ‘don’t rent out your car to this person because he drives recklessly.’ Conversely, renters can comment on the vehicles they have rented.
What was the biggest hurdle when you started your business?
The biggest problem is convincing the insurers, because they haven’t thought about it before. Insurers are anti-risk, and they have been doing the same model since forever.
When do you know that an idea is great or could be a great business model?
Unfortunately, you don’t. You can be laughing at an idea which you think is crazy and three years later discover that that same idea is doing really well.
The founder of what would eventually become Taskrabbit [Leah Busque] came up to me with the idea for a start-up where you can have someone from your neighborhood buy groceries for you.
I told her I hated her idea. I don’t think I was very positive [toward her]. I told her that she needed a platform where people can communicate, would people be willing to front the payment for you and how much should you charge people to buy something cheap like a carton of milk.
But then she thought about it and twisted it and broadened it up and changed the tasks into something that is not real time. She eventually started Taskrabbit, where people can post jobs like assembling their Ikea [furniture], wash their cars, walk their dogs. And now Taskrabbit is a very successful company.
So I tell people that your idea no matter how brilliant it is will have its flaws, its downside. Being a successful company is about how well you listen to your customers, being able to watch how your business works and determine how you can improve it.