Zipcar Founder Robin Chase on Starting Buzzcar and a Portugal Venture

Having launched not one but two car sharing services, Chase is now testing spectrum sharing in Portugal

Zipcar Founder Robin Chase on Starting Buzzcar and a Portugal Venture
???In a flash, I saw this is what the Internet was made for, and wireless technology is going to make this possible??? (Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg Businessweek)
Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg Businessweek

How did Zipcar come about?
I had a co-founder, and she’s German and was on vacation in Germany, where car sharing existed. She was sitting in a cafe, saw a shared car, and thought, “Wow, that’s cool,” and came back to Cambridge and talked to me because I had a business background. In a flash, I saw this is what the Internet was made for, and wireless technology is going to make this possible.

You’ve said people don’t buy green. They buy convenience.
I would say I did not do it for the environmental reasons, except that I personally wasn’t going to work 100 hours a week on something that didn’t have any social benefit. But we sold it and branded it absolutely as a cool, urban, hip, smart thing to do.

Why did you leave?
I had raised a round of $7 million as a B round, and the lead investor pulled out three days before the money was due, $5 million. I personally went out and raised another $4 million, and it was an enormous, enormous, enormous effort. That fall, 2002, Zipcar was going gangbusters. And meantime there was this financing issue. After those four months, I was a shell of myself. I was 10 pounds down. I was looking ancient. And my father died three months after I left Zipcar, and my daughter [Cameron Russell] became a famous model. So it was well-timed.

By the time it went public, and then ultimately was sold to Avis earlier this year, your share in it was …

How do you deal with that?
I have never been motivated by money. I would love to have had much more money so that I could be a philanthropist. But I definitely made money at Zipcar. For the rest of my life, I’m not going to have to worry about having money. But nothing like what we hear founders of fabulous companies make.

Why start Buzzcar in France?
With Zipcar, people would ask, “How come it’s not in my neighborhood?” The reason is that Zipcar puts cars where it knows it can get a good return—because it owns those cars. Buzzcar is making use of people’s own excess capacity. You can rent out your car. And people drive their cars only 5 percent of the time. Buzzcar, after two years, has 5,000 cars parked across France and 15,000 members.

Will you bring it to the U.S.?
I continue to pound in the U.S. for insurance that I think is acceptable. While drivers are covered for driving, the issue is the owner’s underlying insurance. If their personal policyholder finds out that they’re renting out their car, they can choose to cancel.

Tell us about your new venture in Portugal.
One of my delights in thinking about excess capacity as an input for innovation is that it transforms the economics of what’s possible. For example, with spectrum licensing: When we license a portion of the spectrum to one company, it is used very inefficiently. So much excess capacity! So the company in Portugal, Veniam ’Works, is a vehicle communications company that lets you take advantage of excess wireless capacity. We’re putting black boxes in cars. They can communicate in a mesh fashion, which means among the cars themselves, and they can communicate to Wi-Fi hotspots and to cell towers.

What would it do for me?
It would mean that if you opened up your laptop in your car, you could have 100 percent connectivity, and you could also have almost all of it go through free Wi-Fi hotspots. So you would have Internet access all the time for free in the city.

You’re testing this in Portugal now?
In Porto, we have 200 vehicles running around, and we’re installing another 500 over the next three months. We have 30 trucks that are meshing and communicating among each other. It’s in 100 taxis. We’re also going to be installing it in 300 buses as a pilot.

What’s it like to be a mom of a supermodel?
I’ve been telling my children and myself that we all have some genetic luck, and that we can’t take credit for genetic luck. And the genetic luck would include what’s in your brain and what you might look like. And so, what’s it like to have a supermodel who is also a Columbia graduate who is brilliant, is—there is a lot of discounting going on in my family for all of the things that are beyond her control. But I am truly proud of her work ethic and her values; I really admire both enormously.

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