Car sharing. On paper, it makes perfect sense. People taking long journeys, travelling in the same direction, should share a vehicle. The benefits are clear – lower fuel costs, a companion to travel with and kinder to the environment. But in reality, few of us seek out car sharing options. If it means travelling with a stranger, we’d rather stick with the expense of travelling alone or pay for public transport.
But the rise of start-up BlaBlaCar could change all that. The ride-sharing service is challenging the perception of car sharing, using mobile technology to make it easier and more appealing than ever to offer a ride or seek a lift with a fellow traveller.
It was Christmas 2003 when BlaBlaCar’s founder Frédéric Mazzella needed to travel from Paris to his family home 420 kilometres away. But he didn’t have a car and couldn’t find any availability to travel by train.
With no success finding public transport options, he asked his sister to make a lengthy detour to pick him up. As he travelled with his sister on the A10 autoroute, Mazzella glanced around and noticed that most of the cars had no passengers.
This was Mazzella’s lightbulb moment. He realised what was needed was a search engine that would allow people to search for empty seats in cars in the same way travellers can search for seats on a train or plane.
On his return to Paris, Mazzella explored the idea further and found that no such service existed for creating car-sharing connections. So together with a friend, he created BlaBlaCar – a car sharing service that matches drivers and passengers wanting to make the same journey.
Just over a decade later and BlaBlaCar is now Europe’s largest car sharing service, used by over 35 million customers in 22 countries throughout the world.
From the beginning, it was obvious to the founders that mobile would be crucial to the success of the brand. As the company’s co-founder Francis Nappezz says: “We knew that the experience would be mobile first. In those days, that meant creating a site optimised for mobile access.”
So why was mobile so important to the BlaBlaCar brand? Well, as I explain in my article about the importance of mobile for start-ups, an effective mobile strategy is essential for any start-up aimed at younger consumers.
It’s easy to see why younger people would be a key audience for BlaBlaCar. With limited budgets yet likely to want to travel long distances to visit friends, work or study; they are precisely the people likely to respond positively to a service such as BlaBlaCar.
And as they are used to connecting with others on social networks or using the internet to collaborate with strangers, they’re often less nervous than older generations about sharing a journey with a stranger. As a result, younger people are more likely to trust the power of the internet to match them with drivers or passengers in a way that older people may not feel comfortable with.
And of course, there’s another practical reason why mobile is so important for BlaBlaCar. Travellers are often nowhere near a desktop computer when they are researching transport options. They could be stood at a train station after finding out that the travel options they hoped to find there aren’t available. Or they might be sat in a bar planning a social trip with friends.
The value of mobile also becomes apparent on the day of the journey when the passenger is waiting at the meeting point and wants to check last-minute details. Using the BlaBlaCar app, members can easily look at the estimated arrival time, check details or message their fellow traveller.
From researching potential journeys, comparing prices and managing trips to reading or writing reviews and splitting fares; everything can be managed via the mobile app.
BlaBlaCar’s model, as with so many successful start-ups, is incredibly simple. People with spare seats in their car can use the app to advertise their journey and the cost per seat. Drivers are not allowed to make a profit but can charge passengers an amount to help cover their costs. This system has allowed BlaBlaCar to avoid the regulations that govern other transport services.
People looking for a ride can then use the app to find drivers making the same journey and book and pay for the seat. Then the passenger simply meets the driver at the pre-arranged spot and they share the journey. The benefits are simple – drivers offset some of the cost of their journey while passengers gain transport that they might not otherwise have been able to afford.
Creating a community of trust is important for BlaBlaCar. As people are naturally hesitant about sharing car space with a stranger, it was important for the brand to address and overcome these concerns head on.
Each member creates a profile and all profiles, photos, ratings and rides are moderated by BlaBlaCar. It’s also easy to view the wider social profiles of members by looking at how many Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections a member has.
After using the service, drivers and passengers can rate one another to further boost trust within the community and give future users more information about who they are travelling with. A secure messaging service means drivers and passengers can chat before sharing a ride – to find out more about one another and to arrange practical details about the journey.
BlaBlaCar also offers a ‘ladies only’ option where women can choose to only share with other women. However, the company says this option is rarely used, such are the levels of trust and security already offered. When women do opt for the ‘ladies only’ option, it’s usually only for their first journey.
Members can also rate a driver’s ability and once they start using the service can move through the ranks from ‘newcomer’ to ‘ambassador’. A fun feature allows members to choose the chattiness of their fellow traveller by selecting ‘bla’ for not very chatty, ‘bla bla’ for quite chatty or ‘bla bla bla’ for very chatty.
As the popularity of BlaBlaCar continues to grow, alongside our increasing willingness to co-operate with strangers for a common aim; I predict that car-sharing will become increasingly popular. Particularly as consumers are forced to find more economical and eco-friendly alternatives to making lone journeys. And with our mobile phones an ever-present technology, they will be the gadget we instinctively reach for when making travel plans.
But the BlaBlaCar story isn’t just relevant for the transport industry. The way they have used mobile technology to disrupt a traditional industry shows how start-ups can gain an advantage in any industry by using mobile to offer customers a better, easier and more efficient option.