Zimride reinvents the carpool with Facebook

Hitchhiking is so yesterday. A San Francisco-based startup called Zimride is using the power of social media to connect drivers with people needing rides -- saving people money, helping the environment and sometimes helping its customers make new friends.

"Zimriding is really fun," says John Zimmer, the company's co-founder and chief operating officer."We've had people who have met a girlfriend or boyfriend, or found a new job."

When I first heard about Zimride, I was dubious. Is there really a business in car pooling, especially when it requires riding with a stranger?

After talking with John, and learning more about the company, I've changed my mind. Zimride could grow into a nice business. It's off to a good start: Built on college campuses, around workplaces and events, Zimride by last summer had formed more than 26,000 carpools, created more than 100 million shared miles and saved drivers more than $50 million in expenses. Last September, Zimride raised $6 million in venture capital from investors Mayfield Fund, Floodgate and K9 Ventures. Facebook's fbFund provided $250,000 in seed funding back in 2008.

When we spoke over Skype last week, John told me that the Facebook platform is key to driving Zimride's growth. "If it's going to be mainstream -- if I expect my girlfriend or my sister to do this -- we need to reinvent the rideshare," John said. "We don't want anonymity." As Facebook emerges as the identity system for the Internet, it's a way for people to check out who their ride-sharing partners are, who their friends are, even the kind of music they like, which can be an issue on a road trip.

John, who is 28, got the idea for the company as an undergrad at Cornell's hotel school, where he graduated first in his class. "From the time I got to college, I was thinking about occupancy," he says. "When you look at our highway system, 80% of seats are empty. That's a 20% occupancy rate. That's an opportunity." He put in a couple of years at Lehman Bros., got out just in time and was introduced to Logan Green, who had a similar idea while serving on a public transit board in Santa Barbara, where he'd gone to school. They launched Zimride in 2007 at Cornell and at UC Santa Barbara, riding on the Facebook platform. The company isn't named after John, by the way; it got its name after Logan traveled to Zimbabwe and saw lots of people sharing cars there.

Today, the company has partnerships with more than 100 universities and companies, including Facebook, Intuit, Genentech and PwC. The colleges and companies pay Zimride a service fee to arrange rides, many of which are commutes of less than 50 miles roundtrip. Zimride doesn't charge people who use the service on its public platform, but it will. For now, it's most popular in California; plenty of people were sharing rides from San Francisco to LA, but there were few options for rides from Washington to Philadelphia or Boston to New York.