Robin Chase | BCBusiness

Robin Chase | BCBusiness
Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, will deliver the keynote speech at the inaugural FUEL Conference.

Robin Chase, the woman who founded Zipcar, delivers the keynote speech at the FUEL Conference on May 29

One of the animating themes for FUEL—the inaugural Vancouver conference from PechaKucha producers Steven and Jane Cox on "the future of urbanity, the environment and our lifestyle”—is the disruption of typical business structures and the rise of the collaborative economy. And who better to launch that discussion than Robin Chase, the woman who co-founded Zipcar in 2000 and helped introduce the idea of car sharing to the masses?

Today, Zipcar has over 850,000 members across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain and Austria, and is part of Avis Budget Group Inc. (one of several car-share organizations now owned by the rental car goliaths, who are seizing on growing consumer desire for flexible transportation options). Chase has since moved on to found Buzzcar, a service that "empowers individuals to take control of their mobility, without looking to governments or big businesses for solutions" (in essence, the Airbnb model: people renting out their cars to their peers), which is part of a broader concept she's developed called Peers Incorporated, where companies, institutions and governments collaborate with people as unique economic agents.

The Harvard University Loeb Fellow has been named to several noteworthy lists, including the Time 100 Most Influential People, Fast Company Fast 50 Innovators and BusinessWeek Top 10 Designers. BCBusiness reached Robin Chase earlier this week at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The notion of a collaborative economy has deep historical roots. Why are we returning to this idea now, in the 21st century?
Finding a unique thing and buying it is much more simple than it used to be. The transaction costs have been lowered because of technology. And then the whole piece around fear of strangers has been transformed by the new idea of ratings and commentary on social networks, which didn’t used to exist before. So those have changed our access to shared items and made it easier to find, easier to pay for and easier to trust.
 
That seems to fly in the face of the perception that, as a society, we’re not as trusting as we used to be.
I disagree with that. I hear it all the time—that culture is trusting, but we’re not like that here. But people do trusting things all the time. If I went to a conference and I needed a ride home, I could say, Is anybody going my way? And they would say, yes. As it has ever been. You talk to strangers all the time; you help them out all the time; you do things for your friends and neighbours all the time. We just don’t classify it or call it “sharing”—but in people’s day-to-day lives, people do these things all the time.
 
Do you believe that the success of some of these platforms will eventually undermine the reason for their creation? When the Zipcars of the world get bought by the car rental companies—you’ve talked about the antagonistic relationship between car rental companies and consumers—do you believe the car-share model is at risk?
I think the nomenclature of “sharing economy” is a convenience and it has no implications for anything. People want to tie, to those words, all sorts of meaning: community, good feelings, democratization. I think this type of business model can go in any direction; this business model is non-predictive. There’s been a lot of negative press about who’s buying them—“they’re losing their values”—and I look at that and I think, These are symptoms of our larger societal issues, and the values and priorities that government and we as individuals are bringing to bear. Avis has bought Zipcar and they’re going to run it however they like. I have to say, the CEO after me ran it in a different way than I would have run it. I don’t see there being a significant difference.

A lot of the emphasis of the collaborative economy has been on housing, with services like Airbnb, and transportation options, with Zipcar, because of the huge inefficiencies there. Where else in the economy do you see there being opportunities for sharing?
The reason houses were so obvious is because that’s the most expensive asset in your life; the second most expensive thing is your car. The sites that are trying to do “stuff” sharing—the challenge is that the effort of the transaction, just listing it and finding it, is not worth it to people. I don’t like that word "sharing" because it makes people think that it’s a transaction that can only happen between individuals, and a transaction that only involves physical assets. I’m more interested in all kinds of assets and I’m interested in recognizing that there’s a significant role that business and government can play.

I was reading a very interesting editorial in The New York Times the other day on crop rotation. There was this one statistic that caught me eye: 1.1 per cent of farms in the United States produce 45 per cent of the revenue. That's a phenomenal number. When I read that number, I thought, What’s the Peers Incorporated version for farms? That is, if I went to the farming sector, what are things that only big institutions and only big corporations can do that the small independent farmer is totally screwed because he can’t do? That’s ripe for some kind of rethinking; there must be some buying things at low cost. I don’t know—I’m not in that industry—but what are the economies of scale that are being given to those big farmers, and can we build a platform so that those economies of scale are delivered to the small guys?
 

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Hear Zipcar founder Robin Chase speak on the collaborative economy and the future of Peers Inc. at the FUEL Conference, 9:00-9:30 a.m. on Thursday, May 29, at the Vancouver Playhouse. Her presentation will be followed by a 10-minute Q&A with BCBusiness editor-in-chief Matt O'Grady. Do you have a question for Robin on the future of the collaborative economy? Send it to us at bcb@canadawide.com. If your question is chosen and used on stage, you could win free tickets to the Thursday daytime sessions of FUEL—a $250 value!