Published on January 17th, 2013 | by Lewis Parker

Hitching through Europe with BlaBlarCar

BlaBlaCar is a lift-share service which is doing more than connecting drivers to empty seats.

Since launching in 2006, the Paris-based company now operates in nine countries across Europe, where it hooks up 500,000 users a month for a €2 fee per ride. But the men in charge say they’re about more than just sharing lifts.

Nicolas Brusson is one of the company’s three co-founders and head of its international expansion. He said BlaBlaCar –  known as Covoiturage in France – is more of a social network than just another online tool. But is he just trying to jump on the bandwagon of sites like CouchSurfing, which boast a very real sense of community?

Service-orientated social network

“We are a service-oriented social network, which is, in fact, much more concrete than a social network and better described by the word community,” Brusson said. “Our members meet in real life to share their long distance journeys together. The BlaBlaCar website, with online trusted profiles and verified contact information, is only the tip of the iceberg of our service.”

That’s certainly true in comparison to its competitors such as Liftshare, which is little more than a series of classified advertisements.

BlaBlaCar’s security features verify users’ identities – and their phone numbers in case you’re waiting nervously by the side of the road. They also allow users to specify their riding experience down to the last detail. So for example, how much conversation to expect en-route, and whether smoking and pets are allowed.

But does that make it a community, or just a very well-designed website?

“We have a community of 2.7 million members and over 230,000 fans on Facebook,” argues Brusson. “That’s close to 10 per cent of our members who have chosen to keep in touch with us through a social network, which speaks well to the sense of community within our user base. That’s also more fans than Couchsurfing!”

The beginning

BlaBlaCar started when Nicolas’s co-founder Frédéric Mazzella was struggling to get home through Europe one Christmas. He didn’t have a car, and public transport was all booked up. So he decided to go about changing the way Europeans travel, in a way that was cheap, practical and good for the environment.

He co-founded BlaBlaCar with Brusson, his friend from the INSEAD MBA programme in Paris. But it were their experiences in California that were the genesis of BlaBlaCar. “I started working in Silicon Valley in 2000, during the dot-com era,” said Brusson.

“Everything seemed easy then, it was a strange time. Of course, it didn’t last, and I learnt that you can grow companies fast and blow them out even faster. I saw the aftermath of this when my company went from 150 employees to 10 from late 2000 to 2002.

“Then from 2002 to 2006, I learnt how to build a company in a more capital constrained environment. Living through a full economic cycle was a very valuable experience, and what I bring to BlaBlaCar, now, is a culture of sustainable growth and capital efficiency.”

For Mazzella, living between San Francisco and Palo Alto, it was his first exposure to ‘carpooling’.

 Trans-Europe Express

“We started our European expansion very early, before we had even proven our business model,” said Brusson. “We now have 2.7 million members in nine European countries, and five European offices, in Paris, London, Madrid, Milan and Warsaw.

“Building our European footprint early was the right thing to do, and it has paid off, but it is clearly a challenge to scale an Internet business in Europe, as you essentially need to re-start the activity in every new market. For us, the key to success was to have local managers in each market and to keep operations lean, avoiding complex and expensive structures.”

“We are pretty focused on Europe at the moment, where we are seeing phenomenal growth, but we are constantly looking at other markets too. I look more at the merit of each market independently, rather than geographical proximity to headquarters. For example, we started and staffed Poland this year, before other, closer, European markets, because we saw an opportunity there.”

Growing community

BlaBlaCar also claims to be the fastest-growing collaborative consumption website in Europe, which Brusson puts down to going the extra mile for his users.

“Car sharing via an online community is a relatively new behaviour. It requires people are educated to understand how it works and what the benefits are, so education is big part of our job.

“Second, word of mouth really helps our community grow. Car sharing is so useful that people just want to spread the word of their own accord. Once people start car sharing, they find it makes so much sense that they become powerful advocates and ambassadors for BlaBlaCar.

“Remember, BlaBlaCar has massive benefits for drivers, who offset their motoring costs by taking fuel contributions, and for passengers, for whom it’s a convenient and affordable travel alternative.

“Essentially, it’s because members get so much benefit from being part of the community that it’s so strong.”

Community organisers

“We also have an exceptional member relations team that makes sure our members are always getting the best experience out of BlaBlaCar,” continues Brusson. “And then there’s our team of community managers, working in every language, doing a fantastic job interacting with our community on a daily basis. Social media is a powerful tool for maintaining a community.”

Ultimately, the possibilities of collaborative consumption could rejuvenate people’s belief in business as a social good.

“A great number of talented and passionate entrepreneurs are working on new services that create value through shared resources, be it space, knowledge, services or goods,” said Brusson, perhaps thinking of himself. “The possibilities are infinite – the internet can solve any number of efficiency problems. And with the current economic and environmental situation, better management of our resources is an urgent need.”

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