Matthew: We know founders face unique challenges when they decide to start a company. What was the hardest part about building RelayRides, and how did you overcome this obstacle?
Shelby: One of the toughest things about building RelayRides was that for us to succeed requires changing a really ingrained conservative behavior or conservative perception. Cars are something that’s a part of the fabric of the American culture. It’s part of the American dream of owning a house and a car; and for many people, a car is a really strong personality statement. It says something about them; it’s a luxury, it’s a status symbol.
I read a really interesting article that was called “Rebel without a Car”, and it talked about James Dean and how central his car was to his character. What would he have been without his car? This same article talks about how consumer behavior is really shifting and changing and that the millennial generation, they identify more with their mobile phone than they do with their car.
And so, this is a core you have. The concept of car ownership is something that’s really ingrained in American culture, and so what we wanted to do is completely change that. That is to say, we are going to make it easier for you to live without a car and that for people who do own cars, we’re going to let strangers drive them. And that was a really strange value perception.
People early on were like, people will never let strangers drive their cars. And so, that was a perception that had to change. And so, I remember going and meeting with investors early on and hearing them say exactly that. People are never going to let a stranger drive their car. And so, I did a survey and waved the survey in their face, and they didn’t really care.
And so, that’s what we did, we picked a city and spent about $1,000 on a web site. It was something pretty crappy, but it had a little video and some content and a place to sign up your car. You couldn’t really do anything if you signed up your car, but it was sort of expressing interest. And so, we had the website.
We went out to the street corner with 10,000 postcards. The colors, as you can see, are blue and gray. I handed these postcards out until my fingers literally turned blue from the postcards. At the end of this, 30 people signed up their cars, and they were complete strangers. And so, I was able to go back into meetings with the same investors with a list of 30 people and said: here we go, there are 30 strangers who will lend their car, and it changed their perception completely overnight.
This little crappy $1000 website was able to change them and prove the interest and prove that I wasn’t a crazy person for letting a stranger drive my car.
Matthew: Lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make starting companies look easy; they know it can be very challenging. So my question for you is: what talents or skills come intuitively or easily for you, what has been difficult, and how have you managed that.
Shelby: I think that one strength that I have is sort of being a relentless problem solver.
So, as I was an engineer in college, and my first job was a management consultant. So, I really didn’t enjoy the experience, but it was a great experience in that it really helped me learn how to structure and tackle really big problems. And so, I think when you really get into a startup you’re sort of thrown all these curve balls, there’s all these hurdles that you don’t expect and all these questions that come out of the blue.
And you sort of create this plan, and you have this course that you think you’re going to go on and it never goes how you expect. And so, I think one of the really important things was that we remained really flexible, and really reactive, and really able to tackle any problem that came up.
It can be tough and can be very demoralizing. It took us a year and a half to get the insurance product, and there were times when I just didn’t believe that it was going to happen. I felt very powerless: what could I do to sort of influence these big insurance companies.
So, I think it’s that it’s being resourceful, being creative to look for unique answers to tough problems and really being able to rebound. Whenever something goes wrong, just continue to look for another path forward.
Matthew: What bit of advice do you wish you would have known before starting RelayRides?
Shelby: I think that there were three pieces of advice that I was given before starting RelayRides. I heard them, but I didn’t fully appreciate them.
Those three were it’s all about the idea; it’s all about the team. It was really painful to be a sole founder, and it just felt very lonely sometimes, and you know, you can do it, and we literally said, we’ve made a lot of progress, and we’ve really built a team, and I’m no longer alone, but the first year and a half were really a lot more painful and lonely than it had to have been. And so, the one thing I’d say is, don’t do it on your own, find a great partner. You really should have a partner. None of this stuff was my idea, like 90/10 equity or something like that; I think you should be looking for a true partner.
The second thing is it’s more about the execution than the idea. And I’ve heard this, wait until you hear my great idea. You can’t build a great company out of a crappy idea, and you can easily build a great company out of a great idea. And I think even the best idea really relies on execution, being able to …you know it’s tough to sort of build a company, to get a lot of people in a room and get them coordinated and all moving in the same direction. Setting up annoying things like HR, and getting employment contracts in place, you always have to think about these things.
And then, figuring out all the different pieces of your business. How do you get the word out of what you’re doing? How do you get consumers to come in and sign up for your service, and how do you meet your technology infrastructure right? What do you keep in-house and what can you can externally for? How do build a great product that you can scale? So, I think getting all the pieces together and of running a team and building a team was a lot harder than I expected, and I undervalued the difficulty and importance of great execution.
The last thing I want to mention is about the emotional roller-coaster. The highs, you spend so much time working on the startup that it becomes a part of you. You’re inextricably tied with the startup, and there are huge emotional roller coasters. There are really high highs and really low lows, and it’s really tough not to get so emotionally wrapped up in it. It’s emotionally been a crazy roller coaster for the past couple of years, but it’s also a blast, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
The last piece of advice that I would give is that there is never a good time to start a company. There’s always a reason why you shouldn’t do something, or why you should take the safe road. But eventually, you’ve got to pull the trigger, and you’ve got to have faith in yourself and your idea and your ability to change and pivot as you learn more about your idea. So, if you have an idea, go for it.
Matthew: Since you’ve been in operation, what have you learned about your business or your users that you didn’t realize?
Shelby: One thing that I learned is that you can’t make anything too simple. I remember that the very first reservation we had with RapidRides was very eye-opening for me. It was actually my car, I had bought a Prius, I was living in Cambridge, and I lived in a new apartment and so, to help to get the word out I put a door hanger on every door with a personal letter, and we wanted people to set up.
And this woman saw the note, made our first reservation. It was 10:30 at night, and she was going to the airport. I knew this because she called four times for her reservation to ask tons of different questions. I had thought we had provided all the content and information that she really needed but we didn’t. But also, she just asked a lot of questions. One phone call was entirely dedicated to tolls. What should we do at the toll? Well, pay it. Some of these things were extremely self-evident.
When the time of the reservation came, I was watching my watch and got all excited. It was 10:30 before she comes. She had gotten into the car and couldn’t get the car started. And so, I was like, hey now, I’ll be right down because it was right at the building. So I went downstairs; we had this little device in the car and you had to answer two questions before you could start the car: was the car clean and was there any damage? And this was all very clear and on a card and all the training materials, and I thought it was resolved. Clearly, it wasn’t. So you just press these two buttons, and you’re on your way.
So, she backed out and started to drive away. I’m just thrilled, oh my god, I can’t believe this is really working, she got in the car, this is so great. It was so cool to finally see something actually, physically moving. So, she got to the end of the driveway and she stopped. She was there for 30 seconds, a minute, and I’m starting to scratch my head and wondering: is something wrong, is she trying to figure out the GPS or something like that?
After a minute and a half, I finally walked up to the car. I went hi, is everything OK, and she goes, “Oh my god, the car, it was fine, and then it just turned off” and I said, “it’s a hybrid, it’s just really quiet.” And so, she took her foot off the brake and the car moved, and I helped show her that the car was still on, got her comfortable, and then finally she took off.
But after this experience, I was sort of like, wow, we need to build a service that was simple. And time and time again, we’ve seen different, similar things, but we really do aim and have aimed to make the service as intuitive and easy to use as possible.
Matthew: Before we close, Shelby, I’d love you to give our audience your vision for RelayRides and how you hope it will continue to change the world.
Shelby: Sure. So, I think that RelayRides has the power to fundamentally change the paradigm of personal mobility. So, we think about: I’m here and I need to go somewhere. We want to change the way that happens. Previously, you had to own a car or you could use a taxi or the bus. But for a lot of Americans, it was that they get into a car that they own, and I really want to change that. I really want to make it that mobility is something that works for you and is totally accessible, and can provide the right type of mobility at the right times.
I imagine this world where it is totally spontaneous, that I can pull out my mobile phone and know where I need to go. I walk down the street and I say: here is where I am and here is where I’m going. And maybe, the RelayRides will respond and maybe, it says hey, go to this car, it’s right over here, it belongs to Matthew, and this is how much it’s going to cost you. Or maybe, it includes rideshare, and somebody else is driving in this direction and I can hop in the car and it’s ready for you to go. And the service figures all this out in real time.
And it takes a look at all the resources that are around us, all the people and all the connections that we have, and it creates a spontaneous, a safe and a really flexible mobility system, that it’s economical, it’s environmental, and it’s smart. It’s exciting to think about whenever you can collaborate with the people around you and all the resources in the neighborhood and you can introduce smart technology. I think that we can create a lot smarter and better ways to get around.
Matthew: Excellent spin. A pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. We are rooting for your continued success at RelayRides. For those in our audience who would like to learn more and join the community, you can visit their website at www.relayrides.com. This is Matthew Wise with FounderLY. Thanks so much, Shelby.
Shelby: Thanks a lot. Appreciate it. It was great.