Monday, September 26, 2005

If I were an indepedent carshare today...

Given the recent news that both Zipcar and Flexcar have received substantial new funding and are now going to seriously undertake expansion to many new cities, there will be several US cities (and perhaps some in Canadian cities, eventually) where competition with local independent carsharing companies is likely to happen.

First, it's worth remembering that Zipcar and Flexcar have been competing with each other in Washington DC since 2002 and both appear to be doing well there, with cars busier than ever and more cars on the way every month. And doesn't seem to have been a problem for the local governmental agencies - City of Arlington, WMATA (transit agency), to name two, either.

And it's worth realizing that competition can be good - if you use the experience to your benefit - sort of like judo or aikido where you take the other person's energy and use it to your advantage. Yes, the old days of having the city all to yourself is over, or soon will be. Get over it. So, whatever your organization's shortcomings are now, they will be magnified in the process - for you, the public and your board to see.

In any case, competition between carsharing companies is probably inevitable in most bigger city markets. So what are you going to do about it?

So, if I were an independent carsharing operator in the US right now, I'd be asking myself, what do I offer to my customers, and to the city in general, that the big guys don't? How can I distinguish myself in my customer's eyes and my partners' eyes.

First, and probably most important, are you doing what you say do really well. If my customer service is a little slow, it's time to get on top of it. Sure, people will put up with lot's of things because they believe in you and because you're the only game in town.

Another thing to ask yourself is how can I add value to my service? With the increased visibility that carsharing will have in the new competitive marketplace, you should be able to form more partnership (though perhaps not exclusive partnerships) and deals with other organizations than ever before.

Look at your organization - are there any functions you could outsource or restructure to your advantage - such as billing? Perhaps this is the time for independents to band together to take care of common functions.

Another area you may be tempted to distinguish yourself with is pricing. You may think you have lower prices, but be careful. If you calculate out how your hours+miles pricing works out per trip compared to the hourly with (most if not all) miles included, you may find that your pricing is closer than you think. And the big guys have lower up-front joining costs. So what does your customers get for their money with you?

Another area is vehicles - perhaps you let them become the "premium" carsharing brand. For example, you could take a page from CommunAuto's book and keep your vehicles in service a few years longer and lower your cost of ownership considerably.

And what about marketing? Do you have a real relationship with your customers? Are you taking advantage of your "local-ness" in recruiting new members? Although it probably doesn't hurt to play the "buy local" card, either - keep more money in the community, support local business, etc., it will only get you so far.

So if you're an independent, ask yourself, deep down, do I feel like I'm under attack from the new company(s)? If so, it's time for some serious attitude adjustment, because the public, the government agencies and the press don't respond well to whining. Note: your friends may not be the best gauge of whether you're whining or not, either.

Finally, here's a little heresy - if you're a non-profit, another possible way of looking at the situation might be to say, we've accomplished what we set out to do - commercialized carsharing is here so we can get out. If you aren't in debt up to your eyeballs, you may be able to sell your service and make a good experience out of the change for everyone. But it will be a change - and change, even just letting to, can be difficult (I speak from experience on that matter).

A related strategy might be to attempt to partner with the big guys. Possibly, you can continue to do the socially-innovative stuff - low income, car-free housing projects, etc. and let them build the overall market.

San Francisco looks like it's going to be the first testing ground of non-profit/for profit competition, but it's inevitable in other cities, I'm sure. Stay tuned.