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Visionaries: Zipcar Founder Sees Success In Sharing

This article is more than 10 years old.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Robin Chase first thought about resource-sharing as a young girl living in Africa and the Middle East while her father served as a U.S. diplomat.

"I remember when we lived in Saudi Arabia, where water is particularly scarce, and my mother was relatively unique among the Americans who lived there," Chase recalled. "She would guard her bathtub water and water her plants with it every day."

That inspired Chase to think about the environment. And after graduating from Wellesley College, Chase worked in public health. She married, had three kids, and held several health-related jobs. Then she decided to go to MIT’s Sloan School of Management to get her MBA because she believed that public health companies would be more effective if they were run by someone with business experience, instead of by doctors. However, a conversation she had in 1999 with the mother of her daughter’s best friend led her in a different direction.

At a meeting at Andala Cafe in Central Square, her friend suggested the idea of car sharing.

"She told me what she had seen in Europe," Chase said at Andala recently. "I had the light bulb go on in my head. We shook our hands, 50-50, and this is the spot."

'A Million Small Visions'

Zipcar was born. Members of the car sharing network can reserve a car online for short periods of time, with gas and insurance included. Despite the handshake, it was Chase who raised the capital and spent 16-hour days building the business. She naively thought a startup would give her flexibility to be a CEO and a mom.

A Toyota RAV-4 EV Zipcar, in March 2002 (Courtesy Roy Russell)
A Toyota RAV-4 EV Zipcar, in March 2002 (Courtesy Roy Russell)

"I will say, I think one of my worst parenting days ever happened in that summer of Zipcar’s launch," Chase said. Her children were 6, 9 and 12 and the incident involved her son’s stolen bike and a lot of tears. She didn’t react well, so she asked her husband to quit his job and take on the parenting duties.

Now at age 54, Chase projects intensity and competency. She doesn’t dye her short, salt-and-pepper hair. She often wears red cowboy boots made from ostrich skin, which she notes she bought used. She was able to get funding for the company at a time when less than 10 percent of venture-backed companies were run by women. She was a pioneer who had no experience in the auto business and no car sharing model to follow.

"I think I was member No. 7, and I signed up in Robin’s kitchen," recalled Paul Davis, head of a data warehouse company and an early Zipcar member and financial backer.

"Robin's version of big vision involves a million small visions," Davis said, "because she doesn’t just see that big goal at the end, she sees every implementation step."

Collaborative Consumption 

Today, Zipcar has 11,000 cars in North America and England and 760,000 members. The company's concept remains very similar to its original business plan, which is unusual for a startup. But Chase quit Zipcar in 2003 because she says she was completely burnt out.

Soon after, Chase was awarded a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. She says that fellowship "absolutely jelled things" for her. It was there that her vision of collaborative consumption, a term she coined, clicked. It means using things to their highest potential.

"When we talk about sharing physical assets, that clearly has real implications for sustainability and environmental outcomes."

Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar

"I realized, wow, Zipcar was in fact collaborative consumption," Chase said. "But more fascinating to me was the idea of Zipcar as collaborative infrastructure that was collaboratively financed."

And the best way to collaborate, Chase says, is to share your excess capacity — that is, anything you have and are not using. But when she started Zipcar, sharing was a dirty word. She learned this by testing different names for the company, including one that had the word sharing in it.

"For 40 percent of the people, when the word sharing was in it, they thought it was bad, it was going to be a dirty, hippy-ish, co-op. 'I’m going to have to wait my turn, definitely don’t want to deal with it.' So sharing had this really negative connotation," Chase said.

Since that time, Facebook has made sharing cool. And the Internet has made sharing your extra things, time, computer storage much easier. With this vision of how to better use excess capacity, Chase has what she calls her "sneaky goal": to address global warming.

"When we talk about sharing physical assets, that clearly has real implications for sustainability and environmental outcomes," Chase said.

For example, Zipcar says it reduces CO2 emissions because for every shared car, 15 privately owned cars are taken off the road, and its members drive less.

Peer-To-Peer Car Sharing

In every new idea and company, Chase is joined by her husband, Roy Russell.

In Zipcar's early days, Russell left his job as an electrical engineer to take care of the kids. Then he joined Zipcar as chief technical officer, a title he holds at all of Robin’s companies.

"I’ll tell her this is what we can do technically and she won’t be happy with that. It’s got to be, 'No, no, no, you don’t realize this is where we have to go,' " Russell explained. "It’s clear to me she’s been thinking three to four steps ahead of where I’m seeing things."

Chase and Russell are back in Cambridge after spending two years in Paris. They didn’t go there to enjoy the good life with the proceeds from Zipcar. In fact, Chase says she profited very little. Even though the public company is now valued at more $330 million, Chase’s share shrank after several rounds of financing. She jokingly calls herself a "hundred-thousandaire." They moved to France to start her next company, Buzzcar, a business where people rent out their cars when they aren't using them.

"It means you can have excess cars that are available for sharing in any density anywhere, everywhere," Chase explained. "And that is the incredible beauty of it. You can have a shared car in Billerica, you can have one out at Walden Pond."

But there are no Buzzcars at Walden Pond.  That’s because after a year and a half of trying to navigate insurance rules, Chase determined that a peer-to-peer car sharing company in Massachusetts would be illegal.

"I’m looking at which will be the next countries for Buzzcar to expand to," Chase said. "Every country I consider I have to figure out the insurance piece first, and I have not done that to my satisfaction in the U.S. yet."

Positive Social Outcomes

Meanwhile, always on to the next idea, she’s starting another company with partners in Portugal.

"Imagine if we had a device in our car — a wireless device — that can both receive signals and can also send them, so it’s like a mini cell tower," Chase pondered. "So each person buying the device for their car can create a local wireless infrastructure."

As Chase figures out her next ventures, she says she won’t spend her time on a company that won’t have some positive social outcome, especially when it comes to climate change. She calls global warming the most important issue facing humanity.

"We are now at a crisis situation and for me, really, my only optimism, the thing that’s going to solve this, is to figure out platforms for participation and individuals will be able to provide those solutions at an amazing speed and scale that no government and no company could ever produce that speed and scale," Chase said.

All of Robin Chase’s companies involve collaboration. And it’s this collaboration model that Chase believes is needed to solve the world’s most pressing problems.


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