Attend “Swap Don’t Shop” in NYC on Apil 24th to gain insights from entrepreneurs in the sharing economy. To reserve your spot, register here.
By Michelle Hardy
Why clutter the earth with more of your products when you have enough to loan and trade? It’s a philosophy that’s gaining steam as rapid growth continues for service-oriented “mesh companies” (think Zip Car), as well as facilitators of product trading and sharing. In other words, the way we buy and sell products may be fundamentally changing. Cringe as they might, it’s time for marketers to consider how this likely unstoppable trend could yield lucrative new business units – if not entirely new business models – for their brands.
To explore the untapped opportunities of this sharing economy, the Columbia Business School Alumni Club of New York is hosting “Swap Don’t Shop: Making Green in the Sharing Economy.” This April 24th event in New York City will feature successful entrepreneurs and visionaries eager to provide insights on the untapped potential of the sharing economy.
I had the privilege of interviewing panelist Odile Beniflah, the international Senior Product Manager for Carpooling.com. This successful European company now facilitates carpooling in 45 countries, creating a car-sharing culture that’s “easy, safe, and accessible to all.” Read her responses below, and don’t forget to register for “Swap Don’t Shop” today.
How would you describe your company Carpooling.com as part of the sharing economy?
Carpooling.com helps people share rides in 5,000 cities and 45 countries. With just a few clicks, drivers can offer available seats and passengers can book a ride. By sharing a ride, people save gas and money, reduce auto emissions, and meet new friends. Pollution, traffic, parking and road maintenance are reduced, so everyone benefits!
With one billion cars in the world, carpooling.com believes that everyone should have access to affordable transport.
What observations led you to believe a company like this would benefit people?
Our growing user base! Today we transport 1 million people per month and we have more than 100,000 Facebook fans who tell us how we help them travel, protect the planet, and have great adventures. We even counted 10 weddings.
Initially, the site “mitfahrgelegenheit.de” was created to benefit the founders themselves. As students in Germany, they wanted to find a cheap way to go visit their family and friends. One of them had a girlfriend who lived far away, and none of them could afford to drive alone or buy a train ticket.
The service got 41,000 registered users in its first year without any marketing budget, only through word of mouth. While the founders had other jobs, the site continued to grow quickly, reaching 1.5 million visits a month in 2007. That’s when the founders understood that people really needed a cheaper, greener way to travel.
In 2008, they started the business and offered the service in 8 other countries. The site had instant success in every country where it launched: Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, France, Spain, the UK and Greece.
Today we get requests from people living all over the world – Brazil, India, Ukraine, Bulgaria to name just a few. Ridesharing is a simple solution with enormous economical, ecological and social benefits for people and communities.
What elements of your personal background qualified you or inspired you to start this initiative?
My husband and I gave up car ownership in New York in 2000 and we have managed to live quite happily with 3 children in 5 countries ever since. We use cars when we need them or we take public transportation. When I moved to Germany and found out about the ride-sharing phenomenon, I could not believe that something so simple did not exist anywhere else.
I joined the company to launch the service in France. Then, when I had to move to New York, I had an incredible opportunity to promote carpooling in America – the country that needs to reduce its gas consumption and carbon emissions the most!
As a European who has lived in the States for 10 years, I know how much better our public transportation system is in Europe. However, as a car-centered society, America can lead the way in showing how to use cars in a smarter way.
These are 2 of my passions: sharing experiences and using technology to improve people’s life. With carpooling, people get to know each other by spending a few hours together in a car, and they get access to cheap, green and social transportation.
Based on your experience, do you foresee potential negative effects of a growing sharing economy?
On a large scale, I only see positive effects. By sharing resources, we have access to what we need while preserving the environment. We connect with people around us and feel less isolated. We share, trade, barter or swap, and in doing so, we can reach out to each other when we face difficulties. On the other hand, the sharing economy is also enabling powerful peer-to-peer networks that threaten traditional industries. These companies need to adapt their business models to the changing needs of the consumers if they don’t want to become obsolete. Finally, there should not be any negative feeling associated to the people who can’t or don’t want to share. The sharing economy is about enabling the people who want to share to do it. Empowering these people is already a huge step forward in the right direction.
Which mesh companies or sharing models do you tend to draw inspiration from?
My old time favorites are eBay and Craigslist, who helped me so much in my life. On eBay, I try to follow a simple rule of not buying a large item before I manage to sell a similar one I already own. The other sharing model I love is the car-sharing model. Not owning a car gives you so much happiness: you don’t have to deal with parking, insurance and maintenance and you choose the car you like when you need one. I can’t wait to register to a peer-to-peer car sharing service when it becomes available in New York. Finally I love space sharing sites such as Homeexchange, Couchsurfing, AirBnB or Bedycasa.
What do you hope to convey to attendees at the “Swap Don’t Shop” event?
I hope to make everyone want to try it! Swap, share, trade, sell, buy, give… share what you have and you will love it!
Our experience shows that people always start sharing for the money-saving opportunity but come back to it because they enjoy the experience. On our site, we connect people who end up spending a few hours together in a car. We get so many amazing stories about their rides. It makes me want to hop on a car and hit the road with carpoolers each time I read them…
Hear more from Odile by registering for the April 24th event “Swap Don’t Shop”