Interview with Robin Chase
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO for the National Center for Women and Information Technology, or NCWIT.
This is part of a continuing series that we're doing of interviews with wonderful, creative, innovative women who have started successful tech companies.
With me, Larry Nelson, w3w3. Hi Larry.
Larry Nelson: It's my pleasure to be here. We've got about...
Lucy: About a hundred.
Larry: ...About a hundred interviews with women in this area. It's very exciting. It's very popular on our website.
Lucy: It's wonderful. We've got a great one coming today. Larry, it's summer. People are hitting the road. All kinds of car trips everywhere.
The person we're interviewing today is a serial entrepreneur in the transportation sector, as well as being one of "Time 100 Most Influential People in 2009." Today we're interviewing Robin Chase, who is the founder and CEO of Buzzcar. Got to love that. Before that, the founder and former CEO of Zipcar.
I'm sure all of our listeners have seen Zipcars out and about. A very novel concept. We've seen them everywhere. Zipcar is an industry leader today in car sharing in the United States, but Buzzcar's only available in Europe. It does some things slightly different, in that it allows users to rent out their own cars.
Lucy: I know. Pretty interesting, right? Has over 5,000 cars in France, with 15,000 users. That's a real novel twist to ride sharing, for sure.
Robin has also appeared in national media on "The Today Show," the "New York Times," and "National Public Radio." Welcome, Robin. Why don't you tell us a little about what's going on at Buzzcar?
Robin Chase: It's nice to be here. The update on Buzzcar is that we have now about 7,500 cars owned by people across France available for rent, and about 80,000 users who are renting them.
What's exciting and fun for me when I think about this company, that the reason I started it is that Zipcar will only place cars where it knows that it's going to get a return on investment.
I was constantly being asked as CEO, and once I left, "How come Zipcar doesn't have cars in my neighborhood, downstairs in my building in my town?" Zipcar doesn't want to take those risks. We only put them where we're really sure that it's going to happen.
What's exciting for me with Buzzcar is, since we're using people's own cars, and if they rent it once a year, they're happy, because they've already paid for it. If they rent it once a month, better. A couple of times a week, best yet. It means we can have cars for rent in places that are any population density.
While we do rent a lot in Paris and major cities, it's always exciting for me to see a rental happen in a place where there would never be any car chain or car rental for that matter, because it's such a small location. It's a new way of providing services I'm very excited about.
Lucy: It's certainly very novel. We were just in Europe, my husband and I. We used Uber for the first time...
Lucy: ...which is a great way of finding a cab or a ride when there aren't any taxis.
Robin: Both of those services and many others, is something that I see happening now. I think there's a real organizational shift. There's this new organizational paradigm that I've been calling "Peers Incorporated," which is a collaboration between independent individuals or small companies and a larger institution or government of company on a platform for participation.
If you think about Buzz Car, we are doing that. As a company, we made this platform, got insurance through the nice online payments, great apps facilitate everything. We give individuals the power of the corporation and the individuals are micro‑entrepreneurs. I call them auto‑preneurs.
Lucy: That's great.
Robin: Uber is the same organizational structure, in that Uber offers a platform and then people who are current black car drivers or current taxi drivers or current individuals who want to drive their cars as taxis, can leverage the Uber platform.
It's something we are seeing. Other examples would be Arabian Bee. I look at them and I think Google, Facebook, Flicker, and YouTube are all examples of this new kind of business model that is really on the rise and has a lot of great attributes.
Lucy: I'm sure it uses a lot of technology. These kinds of platforms do. Why don't you tell our listeners how you first got into technology, Robin?
What kind of technologies do you like? You've already talked a little bit about these types of sharing platforms but do you see any other technologies out there that you think are especially interesting?
Robin: My other fascination, and also still in the realm of transportation, is I'm interested in mesh networks and how wireless is going to be playing out in the future. What we're seeing increasingly is that we need heterogeneous networks that we don't use.
Lots of healthcare products use different types of...spectrum, and in our cars we use Bluetooth or the upcoming vehicle to vehicle. I see the future as having these heterogeneous networks and a lot more emphasis on WiFi and getting to WiFi through these mesh peer to peer networks.
Two things. One is, I've co‑founded another company in Portugal called "Veniam Works," that is providing vehicle communications for public buses and in ports to the trucks.
If we think about dark spots or urban canyons, having a box in your car in your car that has 3G WiFi and vehicle‑to‑vehicle means that we can use vehicle to vehicle to get to a WiFi hotspot without you having to pay for cellular. It gives you a very low‑cost, reliable network.
Back to my earlier comment, this is of the same ilk, which with mesh networks, which means my wireless device doesn't just send things and receive things, it also can serve as a router. We, as individuals with our own devices, can create a wireless infrastructure on the back of the assets that we've already bought.
We're rolling this out now in cars. Why cars? Because cars are batteries that are being recharged constantly and it's an easier start than in your cell phone.
For me, it's an incredibly exciting part of the future of thinking about infrastructure as being built by stuff that we already own. It's infrastructure being collaboratively built and collaboratively financed. I'm excited also about it because of the resilience and redundancy it gives, so that we don't have to be reliant on an uphill.
Larry: With your interesting background, I have to ask this question. What is it that made you become an entrepreneur, and what is it about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Robin: I was talking to my mother about this, and I think that I've always been a person who's very interested in how things work and doing things myself, doing it myself.
Way back, when I had braces, I was constantly asking the orthodontist, "Why are you doing that? What's happening now?" Or the person's cutting my hair, I now am a great hair‑cutter, so say my children.
I've always been a person who wants to make it themselves, to try that. That is a fundamental piece of an entrepreneur, maybe there's two parts.
One is that every problem I see, I'm always thinking about how you solve that problem. Some of them, I put my hand in and try to start it, try to make it. I make things before I buy things. I think I've had that in me for a long time.
Larry: [laughs] Good.
Lucy: She's a maker.
Lucy: A maker entrepreneur. Along the same line of questioning, who influenced you or supported you to take this type of an entrepreneurial career choice?
Robin: I feel that especially since we're talking about women and technology, I am a woman in technology but I'm not an engineer.
My husband is an electrical engineer from MIT and he was my CTO for Zipcar, was my CTO for seven years. He's been my CTO in my later efforts.
I definitely have relied on him to advise and to do the technology piece that is not something that I pretend to have skill in. I was listening to something recently, and there are needs for translators. I would say I'm perhaps a translator between engineers and the common man.
If we think about Zipcar or other things that I've done, I could do Zipcar because I'd never done car rental, and I didn't have any firm stereotypes about how people mistreat cars.
I could do Zipcar also because I didn't know anything about wireless networking, and I had no idea that we were going to have to build our own from scratch, doing a consumer product for wireless that no one had ever done before.
I could see issues that made sense, but I didn't know all the barriers and impediments. In general, I think that multidisciplinary endeavors and diversity of people is incredibly helpful.
I've been lucky that I've had my husband as a great help, and that I've had a lot of advisors. I have my go‑to in the technology realm, and today my inspiration is people who are building what I see as new economy companies.
There's a whole bunch of them and I'm always awestruck how these individuals are breaking the mold and doing brand‑new things that are hard, and some of them successfully. When you see people doing hard, crazy things and succeeding at it, in places where no one imagined it was possible, it's very inspiring.
Larry: Robin, with all of the different things you've done, and doing a lot of business outside of the United States, what is the toughest thing that you've had to do in your career?
Robin: I think some of the toughest things that I had to do are firing people, which is remarkable thing. I've done business issues and negotiations that were incredibly difficult, but having to do negative things with people that you know and like was the hardest thing.
For me, those interpersonal, unpleasant things were harder than technology barriers. I want to give you a metaphor that I came up with talking to my cofounder [indecipherable 10:41] that talks about these issues. I was thinking about what it's like to be a start‑up versus an old company, so here, listen to my metaphor.
When you're a start‑up, you have your hand‑plough in an untilled field that is something completely overgrown. You're there pushing your plough through things and you'll hit pebbles and you'll hit rocks and then, "Darn it!" You hit these gigantic boulders and you have to go round, and you didn't expect it and it's a gigantic, gigantic effort.
You're pushing and slogging and sweating, and it's huge [indecipherable 11:13] , and you have this vision of what you're going to do with this piece of land. Then you look over to the right, and you see the person on their tractor riding high and their field that's been ploughed thousands of times going down the same furrows.
It's like that's the legacy that is [indecipherable 11:32] . And you look to the left and right, and it seems so easy that all the money, and it just seems so clear sailing. In meantime there you are, pushing, pushing tons of instructions. It's hard work doing this, thinking novel thing. You think, "How is that start‑ups ever manage to succeed?"
Lucy: That's a wonderful metaphor, and obviously start‑ups do succeed. Entrepreneurs have great skills and have great advice to give to others, so if you were sitting here talking to a young person about a career, an entrepreneurship, what would you tell them?
Robin: Generally overall, I talk a lot about intellectual honesty ‑‑ there's a lot wrapped up into that. To be an entrepreneur, you are constantly selling your concept, your vision, and you're selling it to prospective employees or selling it to prospective suppliers, to consumers, to investors.
You're hyping it because it doesn't exist yet, and it's always got plenty of problems.
I think intellectual honesty is constantly being aware of what isn't working and what you personally aren't good at, and whether your idea is a worthwhile one.
I think of entrepreneurs, and we can think of people who can waste too much time on bad ideas and ruin their lives or people who don't hire others to match their own weaknesses, so to be very clear on what your own weaknesses are.
I'd say the most important thing to going back to the plough versus the tractor, start‑ups succeed when they are fast‑learners, when they are learning organizations. It still comes back to this intellectual honesty.
When you hit that rock and that giant boulder, recognize it for what it is. Instead of keep pushing into that same spot, figure out, "How do I go around this? What do I need to do? Do I make some serious adjustments?"
Start‑ups can move very quickly, because they hit the rock right away and they can decide and make decisions that same day. Whereas if you think of big companies, it takes some months to realize there's an issue, months for it to go up the ladder, months for people to decide, "What in heck is going to go on?" and correct it.
So this is how I do think start‑ups succeed, is that they can be learning organizations and learn at a pace that is just so much faster than a bigger organization that has bureaucracy and lots of layers of people and separation from their customers.
Larry: With all the different things you've done and your different companies and all, what are your personal characteristics that have given you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Robin: [laughs] I have to say the luck of fabulous parents and a good education, and the luck of some great genes. I have to attribute a lot of that to things that were outside of my personal control.
To give myself some credit, I am very tenacious and incredibly hardworking, and I do my homework and I work hard at things. I give myself lots of credit for the hard work part.
Larry: Boy, that is for sure.
Lucy: We hear a lot from entrepreneurs about being tenacious, relentless, and resilient ‑‑ not quite the same word. [laughs] But we hear that a lot. You mentioned earlier that you've become quite a good hair‑cutter with your children's hair.
Lucy: Our next question has to do with this sort of, always talked about balance between professional and personal lives. What are your secrets for achieving it, if it in fact exists? Or how do you manage to integrate the two?
Robin: I think my children will tell you that I'm a terrible balancer. I constantly have my laptop open, and the joking refrain is I'm always saying, "Let me just finish this email, let me erase this one email before I go do something."
Robin: On the other hand, I feel that I have demonstrated to my family ‑‑ I have a husband and three children that are now really grown ‑‑ that there's a real consistency in my values and my interest within work and my personal life, that they are very integrated.
That itself is a kind of balance, that I work on things that I care about, I am interested in those topics, and my values and many of my friends and things I like to do all match.
While I am terrible on the balance and trying very hard to work on it, it feels very unified inside myself.
Lucy: That word, "unified" is an interesting word, like, "integrated." And I don't think we've heard it used before, that unifying family and work. It's interesting.
Larry: I like it. Being a father of five, I like unity.
Robin: I particularly think about values, and I would like business to have the same values as I would have in my personal life. I'm reading right now a book by Michael Lewis called "Flash Boys," and there's this one aspect in it that it's about a young Wall Street‑technology‑guy.
At a certain point, he's thinking he's figured out how everyone or a large percentage of firms on Wall Street are screwing other investors. He has this choice, this young Canadian‑blood, that he can either correct the problem or start making money in the same, very deceptive, horrible way.
He decides to figure out how to correct it and have everyone do things in a less deceptive way, rather than having uncovered the secret and starting to cheat people.
I was struck by that this is a great book, and that this is the subject of the book, and I think, "Wow! Why is it that that's a novel idea, that we begin to know fair value for things that we do, and we are honest and helpful and fair and all of those things?"
That's where this unity‑piece is coming from me. I'd like to businesses ‑‑ I think we're seeing more and more of them ‑‑ that have social and environmental goals that are now very embedded in their mission statement and how they do things.
I don't know if you've heard of this, but there's a new form of corporation called the Dcorp. Dcorp embeds in its mission some social attributes, and therefore we think of companies that always must be following in other shareholders, and what's the best for shareholders.
These Dcorps are required to follow their mission, and they are not for profit, but it's a balance that they have to be a profitable company and they have to fulfill their other mission, goals. I think we'll see more of those.
Lucy: Maybe there'll be a financial investment fund for B Corps.
Larry: All right, let's go. Let's do it.
Larry: Boy, we are certainly very impressed with everything you've been through, what you've done and accomplished, but I have to ask this. What's next?
Robin: Right at this very minute, and at the very minute I'm talking to you, I'm writing, and not writing, a book on this new organizational paradigm that I've been calling "Peers Incorporated," and how it's going to be changing the way we build businesses, the way we work, and the way we use assets.
I think it's kind of leading edge to what I see is a new collaborative economy. That's what I'm doing right now when I'm not doing all the other things I do.
Lucy: [laughs] Fascinating.
Larry: It really does. [laughs]
Larry: It really does, wow. So, Robin, thank you very much. Our listeners will just love this interview and all of your insights into the different kinds of business models and everything is just very interesting so thank you very much.
I want to remind listeners they can find this on W3W3.com, and also on the NCWIT website, NCWIT.org. So, thank you.
Larry: You bet.
Robin: You're welcome, bye.
Larry: Thank you so much, Robin.