Are web solutions about technology, about people or about money? The answer depends on who you ask but the case of Blablacar (formerly covoiturage.fr) can help us understand them better.
Carpooling allows people to share car rides and split the costs. The car owner pays less for fuel and tolls, the rider avoids other more expensive and cumbersome transportation like buses and trains. The recent SNCF (train) strike in France provided an additional incentive to use this alternative.
Carpooling has a straightforward financial element: save money; it also has social components:
- Meet other people, perhaps even engage in interesting conversations, see a bit of the countryside; or endure painful silences and unsavoury characters (or worse): it is the modern, more efficient equivalent of auto stop.
- Individuals organize themselves by the thousands, so that drivers can establish routes, times, number of passengers, ride price or costs, passengers can ask about luggage size, smoking and even music preferences, and they can make specific enquiries about each other and accept or refuse rides.
- Less pollution is generated (for instance with less cars on the roads, each with more occupants), and some governments have attempted to reward car pooling (for instance with carpooling only lanes) for this reason and to improve traffic.
Car pooling web solutions have two possible origins:
A community of individuals which organizes itself, usually with the help of a benevolent tech savvy user; this is a service for users by users, which usually runs into specific limitations: not easy to use, doesn’t cover as many routes, doesn’t have all the options (is it easy to know if I can take my cat? Is it easy to specify that I’m allergic to cats?), there’s no easy and safe way to check the reputation of the driver (is he a maniac?) or the rider (is she a psychopath?). A core of users will think it’s perfect, but the overall numbers remain limited and there are specific costs: for instance if a rider doesn’t show up and the driver still has to make the trip, it will cost him more than he had planned for.
A company trying to offer a specific service, usually following the logic of “capture the market, charge later”; this type of company requires a financial backer that demands growth in users and can wait for a return; it has the incentive to provide a polished service that covers most of what users want, particularly if it has competition on its heels: if done right the number of users and routes will be greater, the service more efficient and potentially the costs lower, for instance if the driver is paid even if the rider doesn’t show up (with a prepaid service) – which gives the riders the incentive to keep their word. It’s important to realize that while the solution may be more refined, the main input remains the community of drivers and riders.
One fine day, a company decides that to keep offering a useful and reliable service, and / or to repay the investment, it needs to start charging its users. The reaction to blablacar when it did just this is telling:
- Many users felt betrayed, for it is their community.
- Others cannot understand why they have to pay for a service which they see as occurring among themselves.
- Others are opposed in principle to any form of payment, which would introduce the awful stench of capitalism.
- Some drivers confessed that having an assurance of being paid was better.
- Many drivers and riders find that the service is useful and offers convenient routes.
- There are other carpooling options, some of which will remain staunchly free.
Apart from a few cultural idiosyncrasies (commerce and marketing being the work of the devil) the case helps us see a few lessons:
- There is a lot of value unlocked when individual consumers organize themselves massively: this is consumer side innovation, as opposed to production side innovation, and can be very interesting for companies looking for a competitive advantage and differentiation.
- The web makes this massive organization potentially much easier and faster.
- Normal consumers depend on more tech savvy individuals, but this limits the benefits and reach of the solution as techies think about technology, not about consumers.
- Companies that grow from a community need to cultivate it, so that everyone understands the individual and communitarian benefits of a better service, even if some will be opposed in principle. This is not just a communication effort but also a genuine operational issue, as the company benefits from the input of each individual.
- Offering a better service can be a noble goal in itself and an option to less involved, nine to five jobs.
- All companies can gain from thinking of their customers as a community, in which they need to be better integrated. For instance that community can help a company see which products are in demand, which problems they face, which changes would be desirable, before the competition can.