Ali’s shared with us how that journey went, from the bumpy start to the smoother ride today.
This article is part of Your Allies’s entrepreneurship series. We profile entrepreneurs and their business concepts and give our view on their marketing approach. There’s always something to learn from real startup and business growth experience!
What was your motivation to set up liftshare.com and what mission have you set yourself?
“I’m the youngest of four children, so I grew up in an environment of enforced sharing! But as I reached my teens, I became aware of sharing on a broader scale and recognised the huge potential of a global sharing economy.
As a student at Bristol University, back in 1996, I realised I didn’t have enough money to get the train back to Norfolk for the Christmas holidays. I was convinced there must be students driving in a similar direction, so I pinned a message on a student notice board, asking if anyone could give me a lift. The next day, I returned to find three offers of a ride home – and the idea of Liftshare was born.
Today a total of 550,000 people have joined liftshare.com, with over 80% of commuters having at least one good journey match.
Our mission is very simple: to ensure everyone has someone to share a car with.”
Your Allies says… From enforced sharing to embracing sharing because it makes economic sense – now there’s your customer need uncovered by personal experience. Liftshare.com is an inspiring peer-to-peer company because it is a first mover in its space and has succeeded in establishing corporate and community car-sharing in over 1,200 schemes. Kudos!
What makes liftshare.com unique, unlike any direct and indirect competitors?
“We’re a social enterprise, so we’re mission-driven rather than profit-driven. No member ever pays to join or use any schemes on the Liftshare network and we provide a lot of car-sharing schemes (such as FestivalBUDi.com, StudentCarshare.com and of course liftshare.com) purely to help us achieve our mission.
We are also pioneers in the sharing economy and social networking – we were actually launched a week before Google! But above all, what makes us different is that – with over 360,000 members – we have critical mass in the UK, so we give users the best chance of finding a match. Liftshare works for everyone, every journey, anywhere, and is trusted by both corporates and individuals.”
Your Allies says… Scaling up the business to critical mass so services can be used by the target group is one big challenge P2P companies face where sharing resources happens in the real world rather than online. Social enterprise Liftshare has achieved this growing from a young, cash-stripped user base into car-sharing schemes and broadening its appeal to everyone who can use a lift, from consumers and communities to corporates.
What is your business strategy to accomplish your mission?
“Whilst we provide many free sites for finding a car-sharer, Liftshare is actually funded by businesses, communities, hospitals and universities who pay to have their own lift-sharing schemes, with access to the entire network of UK users. We’ve been the leading provider of car-share schemes in the UK for over a decade, helping organisations such as Heathrow, Tesco and Sky, who recognise the impact a car-sharing scheme can have on their environmental credentials, parking issues and finances.”
Your Allies says… understanding how to provide services which support or tie in with initiatives as Liftshare has done here is a smart move. As well as the benefit of being associated with already established organisations or campaigns comes the added plus of having access to their networks.
What marketing strategy have you put in place to reach your business objectives?
“Our market changes continuously. It took us a while to realise how important it was to refresh our marketing approach. Initially, like any small business, we spent a huge amount of time thinking carefully about our marketing approach; lots of ideas were tried and tested, lessons learned quickly – we started doing well, even though we had no marketing budget.
As time went on, we started to focus more on running the operation than on marketing. We continued to develop some amazing new tools and services but we made the mistake of not dedicating enough time to getting many of them to market. Without a clear marketing strategy for each new service, we unsurprisingly found some were not as successful as we had hoped.
We learnt our lesson and we now rewrite our marketing strategy every year to keep up with the changes in the demands of our various audiences and the variations in the ways they access information.”
Your Allies says… Testing is a must to ensure you’ve chosen the right tactics to support your overarching marketing strategy, and to find out whether that strategy works. Thank you for sharing the learning from switching your focus away from marketing to product development and operations. This happens all too easily in a startup environment and still does to many.
From what we’ve seen you’ve recently invested in a new brand identity broadening the positioning to travel. As we’d expect from an online platform you self-publish content and are proactive on social media to reach your target groups with a mix of useful and fun multi-media content as well as user-generated content that helps to convince undecided users. Keeping your communities engaged and further growing them, especially with both an open community and schemes to manage, is hard work but can really pay off if done well.
What was your biggest challenge in developing liftshare.com so far and how did you overcome it?
Since 1999, Liftshare has been a roller coaster for me and my team – there have been exciting developments but we have certainly had challenges too.
Funding our efforts to change the way we travel in the UK proved an almost insurmountable obstacle at first. My first audience was festival-goers and students, and with a beginner’s enthusiasm I’d imagined 10,000 joining liftshare.com in year one, each paying £10 to make the website sustainable. On day one, we actually made just £40 – which didn’t even cover my travel costs! I rapidly reworked the business model.
Your Allies’s says… We sympathise with the financing challenge which we know very well from our experience working with early-stage startups. It has been difficult to raise funding in the last few years since the fundamental weaknesses of our banking system became more visible in 2008. No doubt that it must have been an even bigger challenge for a peer-to-peer pioneer already long before the financial crisis. Peer-to-business financing has recently become a viable option, especially when the fundraiser can call upon an established following.
Good luck with further growing the Liftshare community, for the good of saving people money and the environment!
Ready for even more inspiration from real-life business experience? Check out the complete entrepreneurship series!
Photo credit: Ryan McGuire / gratisography.com, published unchanged