One startup, one story: what if drivers shared their empty car seats?

How a carpooling service with 40 million members in 22 countries was created. Let’s meet BlaBlaCar.

One Christmas, Frédéric Mazzella almost found himself stranded in Paris, miles away from his family in Vendée, western France. He hadn’t reserved a ticket, and the trains were all full. Luckily for Fred, he had a younger sister – with a car. She agreed to make a detour to take him home.

The route to Vendée follows the train line. As his sister drove, Fred stared out of the window. The roads were as jam-packed as the train. He looked from road to track and back again, noting with a growing obsession the number of empty seats in the cars around him. What if it was possible to index and search all those places? Surely some drivers would be happy to offer passengers a seat in exchange for a share in petrol costs and conversation…

He spent the next 72 hours thinking about it – throughout most of the Christmas festivities. He couldn’t believe no-one had thought of such a website. The BlaBlaCar adventure had begun!

In the era before smartphones, when Facebook was just starting, Fred had imagined a transport network built on empty car seats. It would make road transport more efficient, solving congestion problems, as well as making travel affordable and social.

He set up a first site online and the community began to grow. He then teamed up with cofounders Francis Nappez and Nicolas Brusson. Together they built the company into a carpooling platform that boasts 40 million members in 22 countries.

They called it BlaBlaCar because members can indicate their level of in-car chattiness in their profiles, from “Bla” (not very chatty), “BlaBla” (enjoys a natter) to “BlaBlaBla” (won’t shut up).

BlaBlaCar drivers register the details of their planned itinerary in advance: start and end points, departure times, available seats, as well as other options such as baggage limits, flexibility, and possible detours. BlaBlaCar recommends a price based on fuel costs and tolls, and passenger pay online in advance, ensuring they show up. Leeway is afforded for change of plans, as long as this is notified ahead of time. BlaBlaCar checks the profiles of both parties, who can rate each other online after the trip.

Besides a well-designed and easy-to-use website, BlaBlaCar’s main innovation is societal. Ten years ago, carpooling was something that happened only among friends and acquaintances. BlaBlaCar enlarged the circle, creating a massive international online community based on trust. In some countries, this has required a major educational effort.

The French took naturally to BlaBlaCar, a reflection perhaps of an underlying culture of fraternité. More widely, France has been an enthusiastic adopter of the sharing economy, from Airbnb to Drivy. Furthermore, geography is on BlaBlaCar’s side, with many journeys of 180-250 miles: the ideal distance, company data would suggest, to share a ride with a stranger.

If you’d like to know more about startups in France, click here to read the new Business France book about 35 success stories.

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