Johnson Innovation Speaker Series Features Zipcar’s Robin Chase

November 2, 2018 at 10:14 am


One of the world’s most prominent entrepreneurs told a group of University of South Carolina Upstate students and Spartanburg business leaders there has been a paradigm shift in the global economy.

Robin Chase, founder and former CEO of transportation ventures Zipcar, Buzzcar, and GoLoco, was featured during a Johnson Innovation Speaker Series event held Thursday, Nov. 1, at USC Upstate’s George Dean Johnson Jr. College of Business and Economics in downtown Spartanburg.

“I believe that what I would call industrial capitalism is dead,” Chase says. “We made companies with very thick, very big barriers around us. You knew what was inside the company, what was outside the company. And that was the method to extracting the most value. And it was true. That was the best method. But today we’re living in this world where the Internet exists. And we have this collaborative economy… Sharing in this collaborative economy is the future.”

Chase, 60, shared the story of Zipcar, a car sharing company she launched in June 2000 with an initial investment of $50,000. The company, nicknamed “the Apple of car sharing,” was acquired in January 2013 by Avis for $500 million.

Chase says the company’s “beta car,” which was a lime green Volkswagen Beetle, would remain parked in front of Chase’s home in Cambridge, Mass. Customers would make a reservation online, walk to her house, and grab the car’s keys from beneath a pillow on her front porch.

“In the glovebox of the car was a piece of paper and (customers) would write start odometer, stop odometer, start time, stop time,” Chase says. “Then they’d return the key under the pillow.”

“I used to tell this story as it was amazing luck,” Chase adds. “A friend of mine said to me, ‘Robin, I hate it when you tell this story that it was just amazing luck. That was not luck… Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.’”

After touching on some of the highlights of Zipcar’s journey, Chase segued into a broader discussion of concepts that serve as the foundation of her 2015 nonfiction book “Peers Inc: How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism.” She told the audience, which was comprised of about 100 people who were packed into room 150 at the Johnson College of Business, there were three reasons why Zipcar had a “high likelihood” of success.

“We leveraged excess capacity,” Chase says. “We created a platform for participation … We thought about customers not as consumers, but as co-creators, or peer collaborators.”

“It’s these three elements that are creating this new organizational structure that I’m calling ‘Peers Inc,’” adds Chase. “And this organizational structure is completely changing the way we build businesses today, the way we work, and ultimately how it’s shaping entire economies.”

Chase cited examples of “platform companies” that have “risen” during the past 15 years, including Apple, Amazon, Skype, Facebook, and Airbnb. “What’s happened over the last 15 years is the Internet now exists,” Chase says. “And the Internet enables us to have very low transaction costs for managing lots of small parts. So we have this possibility that’s brand new that could never exist before.”

Chase’s message appeared to strike a chord with her audience.

“We are continuing to see a lot of disruption in a wide range of industries,” says Sue Schneider, CEO of Spartanburg Water. “I am very happy USC Upstate was able to bring Robin Chase to Spartanburg. I think it is a sign that not only are they lifting up their vision, but, when they involve the community, they are lifting up a community of ideas.”

Chase’s stop in Spartanburg was the first in a run of speaking engagements she plans to make across the world during the next few weeks. It was also the official start of USC Upstate’s inaugural celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week, which will be marked with a range of activities Nov. 12 through 15 at the Johnson College of Business at 160 E. St. John St. near Spartanburg’s urban center.

“This really exceeded my expectations, particularly in the participation of community leaders,” says Brian Brady, an instructor and director of USC Upstate’s GreenHouse Business Incubator. “Key members of the community were here to hear her message and I was most impressed with the way it resonated with people across a range of industries.”

Chase is a graduate of Wellesley College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. She was a Harvard University Loeb Fellow and received an honorary Doctorate of Design from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

In addition to serving as executive chairwoman of Veniam Works, Chase currently serves on the boards of the World Resources Institute and Tucows, as well as the Dutch multinational DSM’s Sustainability Advisory Board.

By Trevor Anderson
For USC Upstate