If you live in a city, or even near one, you've probably seen a car or two decked out with a green circle and a white, zippy "z" on the door. What you have witnessed is the future, Scott Griffith hopes, a future in which no one has to shoulder alone the burden of owning a car in the city. Forget combing the streets for parking spots, shelling out big bucks for insurance, or worrying about what kind of car to get. Through car-sharing a la Zipcar, you only pay for driving when you're actually driving.
Griffith is the CEO of Zipcar; his name and the company are synonymous. But he didn't invent car-sharing. Europeans have been doing that for years. Nor did he invent Zipcar-that was Robin Chase who started the company on the back of a proverbial napkin and now sits on the board. But as CEO of Zipcar, Scott used his marketing, fund-raising and business strategy experience to expand the company into a national phenomenon with over 50,000 members in New York City, Washington D.C., Boston, and San Francisco. Under his leadership, the company's revenues increased five-fold in two years, and urban Americans are starting to see Zipcar as a way of life.
To turn an idea into a profitable company takes business acumen, charm, and creativity. But Griffith considers his engineering background the key to his business success, earning him several gold stars from the business community (including the designation from Fast Company as one of the "Four Leaders You Need to Know" in 2005). The Carnegie Mellon grad earned his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 1981, way before computers and wireless technology were mainstream. So it wasn't anything specific he learned as an undergrad that would make him a business lion; rather, it was the way of thinking that engineering demanded. Engineers take a situation, pick it apart, examine the pieces, and then put them back together in a better way. Looking at business problems this way gave Griffith a fresh perspective from many of his peers. "I'm a reformed engineer," he was quoted in the Carnegie Mellon alumni magazine, "I want to keep the model fresh."
"I'm a reformed engineer...I want to keep the model fresh."
To familiarize himself with the business lexicon, Griffith got an MBA from the University of Chicago. Then he spent his twenties and thirties in various areas of the business sector, but always as a creative problem-solver. He ran two strategy consulting firms, then headed up two technology-based companies that used software and the internet to provide critical services to the public and private realms.
Building the Business
Zipcar's problem pre-Griffith was that it ran more like a small
business than a power
business. It had limited car choices (VW Beetles and Golfs), and most of its users were college students or recent grads. The smaller cars in their fleet couldn't handle the occasional sofa run or 2 x 4s for a bookshelf, so Zipcar wasn't a one-stop shop. The first thing Griffith did was diversify, adding Mini Coopers, Scion vans, and SUVs to the fleet. He also saw that the company had sunk a lot of money into advertising, but only to those people living within a Zipcar radius. Griffith saw greater appeal in diversity and greater profit in marketing to businesses.
"This just makes sense, especially if you live in a city."
Zipcar was and is a technology-driven business. With proprietary software and an alliance with Cingular wireless services, the whole operation works with fewer than 50 employees. That means plenty of money left for marketing and infrastructure updates, two things critical to Zipcar's ongoing success.
Griffith also digs the environmental aspect of the company. He uses Zipcars whenever he leaves the office, and is proud of the fact that according to an international study, each membership vehicle replaces at least seven private cars. In fact, company research revealed that 15% of Zipcar members got rid of their cars and 35% put off buying one. "This just makes sense, especially if you live in a city," he is quoted as saying in the same alumni article. Compared to under $100/month that members spend on average for Zipcar, it costs several hundred dollars to own a car in the city. "Do the math. You can drive our cars a lot before you get to that."