Accepting rides from strangers: Q&A with BlaBlaCar CEO

Accepting rides from strangers: Q&A with BlaBlaCar CEO

Hear more from Mazzella at Convergence Paris 2013

Before agreeing to ride in someone else’s car, you’ll most likely want to know whether you can trust the driver. If the person is a friend or family member, chances are you already do trust him or her.  If it’s a total stranger, though, probably not. No surprises there. That’s long been a barrier to ridesharing.

Frédéric Mazzella, co-founder and CEO of the ridesharing marketplace BlaBlaCar, wants to change that. His company enables users to create profiles to help build trust. And it’s working: In a survey of members of his online community, he found that those who post complete profiles on the website generate a lot of trust -- more than an average neighbor and almost as much as a friend.

Mazzella has published the survey results at the website Betrustman.com. On June 26, he’s scheduled to present his findings on trusted online communities at GreenBiz’s Convergence Paris.

This is a favorite topic of conversation for Mazzella, who also invites users on his website to rate themselves based on how talkative they are. Someone who’s quiet is a Bla. A moderate talker is a BlaBla. A motor mouth, you could say, is a BlaBlaBla. As for Mazzella? “I think I’m a BlaBlaBla,” he says.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent conversation with Mazzella:

GreenBiz: From your online videos, it’s clear that you place a great deal of value in the idea of trusted communities -- so much that you’ve created a superhero named Trustman. What have you learned about trust in your experience as an entrepreneur and founder of BlaBlaCar?

Mazzella: I learned that it’s a complex thing because it's a human thing. It’s made of many, many, many indicators, plus time, plus engagement. When I say time, it's based on the past interactions you may have had with someone and the future that you can foresee. And then it's built on many, many different kinds of information, like it has some declarative information, some rated information, some moderated information.

GreenBiz: Can you describe the effect that trust in the community has had on the development of BlaBlaCar?

Mazzella: It has accelerated growth, of course. And it has also made people say different things about us. Before people used to say, "Well, I don't know exactly with whom I'll be riding." Now they don't say that anymore. That is the most important thing. They get enough information before getting in the car with someone so that they feel they know who they'll be riding with.

Photo of BlaBlaCar CEO Frédéric Mazzella courtesy of BlaBlaCar.

GreenBiz: When did you introduce the element of trust in the platform?

Mazzella: In 2009, we started with online profiles and ratings. Then we introduced online payments in the beginning of 2012.

GreenBiz: Reputation is everything in the sharing economy. How do you manage your own personal reputation as the founder of a trusted community with millions of members?

Mazzella: I think reputation and trust is different. Reputation is one attribute of trust. It’s not the only one. The fact that you say things, that you make a video or whatever, doesn’t make you a good driver. That’s the reason why trust is activity-based. So reputation is one element of trust.

GreenBiz: So if you become a driver, you're not guaranteed to fill the car just because you're the founder of BlaBlaCar?

Mazzella: Yeah, well, technically it's not linked. But then your question was more about how I manage. I try to do what I say and say what I do. That's about it. The thing is, when I do ride on the website, I don’t say who I am. And, you know, I'm not well-known at all. So people don't recognize me.

GreenBiz: I think a lot of people analyze data differently when sizing up a company or a person’s reputation. You want to see top-notch ratings and up-to-date, outstanding reviews. But the decision isn’t always black and white. What is your process for judging reputation based on activity, ratings and reviews?

Mazzella: You mean on a marketplace when I'm interacting with people, not with things, right? When I feel that I don't have enough information on the platform itself, it may happen that I go on the Internet and try to find more information on other networks which are not linked to the one I'm seeing.

GreenBiz: Can you give an example where you've done this sort of thing?

Mazzella: Like yesterday, I booked a room on Bedycasa. You know this website? It's a website for home stays. it's basically almost the same as Airbnb. It's smaller, but it’s got a very good presence in France. I booked a room yesterday, and I contacted four people who could take me at their place. And I booked a room at the first one who responded. So that was my proxy, I would say, to choose. I'd say, well, this guy is alive and he reacts when I'm contacting. So it’s a good sign. I will book with him because if I need some information, I know the guy will be there.

GreenBiz: If I'm an existing company or maybe a startup, and I see how effective building trust has been for BlaBlaCar, how do I implement the same strategy for my own company?

Mazzella: I think that it's very tough. At the beginning, if you don't have trust from usage, you will first need to build liquidity anyway. Especially for a marketplace. Usually at the very beginning the difficulty, just like we had also, is to simply generate some traction and some liquidity on the marketplace. And then trust comes after. Because usually the early adopters care less about trust. They just care about the other advantages. For example, for us on our marketplace, the first advantages that allowed us to start the business were that it was really a low-cost solution and last-minute solution to travel. And then we introduced the notion of trust in order to be able to convince millions of people to use it because they wouldn't be as careless about this as the first early adopters.

GreenBiz: You have experience providing rideshare for the public but also as a service for companies such as Ikea. I'm wondering: Do corporate clients have special requirements for their users that are different from members of the public?

Mazzella: Yes, and that's also a problem when you want to build a consumer product. When building a consumer product, you have to listen to your consumers. When building a B2B product, you have to listen to businesses. You can't be listening to both at the same time. When we were doing this, we had to really struggle with the fact that we had to say to our business clients that we would not listen to their input on how the product should work and that we were considering only consumers. It was very, very tough. We don't do that anymore. It's been a year that we don't deliver new business platforms. We stopped that. Especially because usually they have a special request that we can't comply with. Rather than saying no during the project, we say no before the project now. We still maintain 200 platforms but actually we stopped selling new ones.

GreenBiz: Looking at the recent past, are there lessons for trusted communities in the closure of the British peer-to-peer car-sharing company Whipcar?

Mazzella: I don't know anything about the reasons why Whipcar closed. I witnessed the closing of this company as well, but I don't know why.

GreenBiz: There's one other company I want to mention. It's the San Francisco Bay Area car-sharing startup JustShareIt. They really emphasize monitoring and tracking technology at the core of their value proposition. Car-sharing and ridesharing are not the same, but here we see an interesting contrast between building trust and building technology products. Can monitoring and tracking be a substitute for building trust or are these necessary complements of one another?

Mazzella: I think they are complements. I think they cannot substitute each other, of course. When you start, you have no brand reputation. You have to prove that you are trustworthy. The way you do it is by showing that you’re an expert at what you're building. It cannot be a substitute for trust. Certainly not for trust in the community.

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