“What we do today has nothing to do with what we were doing three years ago.”
An interview with Frédéric Mazzella, Founder and CEO of BlaBlaCar
BlaBlaCar – the name may sound like baby talk, but the company behind it is one of the most mature and innovative internet firms in Europe. Valued at $1.6bn by US investors in 2015, and with 30 million members in 22 countries, this is the world's largest long-distance ride sharing community. Its success is built on the potential for optimizing car usage: Owning a car costs an average of €5.500 per year, and yet for 96 percent of the time the car stands idle. And three out of four cars on the road have only the driver on board.
Members registering with the online ride-sharing community have to rate their enjoyment of in-car conversation on a scale ranging from Bla (the silent type) to Bla Bla Bla (very talkative). The name is not only eye-catching, but has the advantage of being understood well beyond the borders of its French homeland. Which is not a bad thing when you‘re out to conquer the world – and the management team headed up by Frédéric Mazzella won’t settle for less. The 40-year-old company founder has just taken a seat in the cafeteria of the stylish new company headquarters in downtown Paris. And while he and BlaBlaCar have been making headlines with the company’s breakneck growth, Mazzella is relaxed, engaged, focused – and ready to talk about goals, purpose, and what makes a company strong in the sharing economy.
THE FOCUS: Fred, ‘the sharing economy’ is a broad and ambiguous term. What does it mean in the case of BlaBlaCar?
Frédéric Mazzella: If we look at the way we use our cars today, there’s a lot of room for optimization. In France, owning and operating a car costs about 5,500 euros a year, which accounts for gas, tolls, depreciation of the vehicle, repairs, insurance, and other things. But 96 percent of the time our cars just sit there, doing nothing, and when they are driven, three times out of four the driver is the only occupant.
And BlaBlaCar has a solution for that?
Yes. It helps people share the cost of having a car. It’s a new solution that travels directly from the tip of your finger to your smartphone, and then to the internet, the search engines, and the databases – the possibility of connecting with someone who’s using another car. In the end, it helps make better use of the car so everybody can not only save money, but also consume fewer resources.
So BlaBlaCar’s contribution to society is mainly economic?
Well, at first glance it’s mainly economic and environmental (through the optimized use of idle car capacity). But it’s also magical. We’re able to build better interactions between people because we are building a network of trust in which everybody knows the people they’ll be riding with. You have profiles, you have pictures, biographies, and preferences, and you have the ratings of the members. We are building an environment for trust. And this is actually much better for humanity, because you’re able to trust people you’ve never met thanks to digital trust tools, opening up great opportunities for peer-to-peer collaboration. Our members share a long-distance ride, and enriching social experiences too.
How has the purpose of BlaBlaCar manifested itself?
Feedback from the community is essential to us. Our users say they don’t just want to find a ride which is a match in terms of where from, where to, and when. They also want to know who they’ll be riding with. And I think that is a natural need. If you go on a ride, you really want to know who’ll be in the car with you. So the key to our community is that you actually have the profile of the person you’ll be travelling with.
It’s not uncommon for a company’s supposed purpose or societal impact to be fabricated by PR strategists. How genuine is the purpose of BlaBlaCar?
I think it’s very genuine! At BlaBlaCar we crowdsourced our values internally. When our company had grown to 60 people, we gathered in a room and said, Okay, what defines us? What motivates us to build BlaBlaCar every day? And we were able to define some values with our team which are now our ten golden rules.
Can you give us some examples?
We have values like “Share More. Learn More,” which is a value that allows us to really share as much as we can, so that we learn together. We have values like “The Member is the Boss” which states that our reason for being is satisfying our community, and “Think it, build it, use it,” which means that we developed a product - a ridesharing app - which we were keen to use, and that we all rideshare to continue developing the product through the lens of our members, and identify ways to improve it... So we really live our service, we live our values. And that’s why BlaBlaCar is very genuine, new, and authentic.
In recent decades, traditional companies have been perhaps too exclusively focused on profits. On the other hand, social ventures like yours were seen as almost non-profit organizations. You’ve been described as one of the most promising unicorns in Europe, which must put you under a lot of pressure to create value. How do you deal with that?
I don’t feel any specific pressure, because we know that we are still only scratching the surface of what’s possible in terms of optimization. And we know that along the way, we’re building a community where people help each other. The valuations or financial pressures are something that goes along with business development. But it’s not the core of the business we are building.
Part of your growth strategy has involved ‘acquihiring‘ – acquiring local companies to enter new markets. How do you preserve your strong culture when integrating new companies?
As we expand in a new country, our partners are usually very small teams. The fact that we have defined our values makes it much faster for us to communicate our motivating factors and the way we work together. So far, we’ve done eight acquihires. And when we arrive, our partners are relieved to find that we’ve invested so much energy in making ride-sharing a reality. So they are already happy about that, and then they also see how our values go hand in hand with our sense of purpose and how our growth is compatible with them. It’s important to discuss all this in detail with the teams before we join forces with them.
“That’s the magic of values – when you are growing so fast.”
As a company goes from being a very small firm to one that can raise hundreds of millions of euros in funding, how does the corporate culture evolve?
Fortunately we have our ten values, which take precedence over processes. We formulated our values four years ago, when our company had 60 people. Now there are over 500. They still hold, and they still shape our day-to-day activity. They are part of our DNA, and DNA doesn’t change.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
Let’s take “In trust we trust.” It’s a value that will help you make the choice between two paths. For instance, you have a choice between developing a solution which might provide a quick fix but is not that reliable, and a solution which is robust. When you know that our corporate value is “In trust we trust,” you go for the trustworthy solution. So the value helps you make the decision and it takes the place of processes. That’s the magic of values – when you are growing so fast, you don’t have time to create all the processes along the way.
At BlaBlaCar, what skills do you look for in leaders?
Motivation is the key. The skills come with motivation, because when you’re motivated, you can learn anything. Our field is very special because it’s very new. Yes, it’s been developing worldwide over the last 15 years, but by ‘new’ I mean that the business is evolving so fast that we’re all learning as we go along. What we do today has nothing to do with what we were doing three or four years ago. Learning is central in motivating us to do what we do every day. So the talents we need are people who are looking for a learning experience.
How do you make sure that someone has enough curiosity and hunger to learn?
It’s a very long process. We check that they are people who’ve been looking for more learning in the past, people who haven’t been just remained in static positions. People who have changed jobs several times are usually people who are looking for a learning experience, rather than just trying to replicate the same experience as before, the same job as before.
So what might scare off a traditional corporation – somebody who’s changed jobs a lot – might actually be attractive to you?
Yes, it could be. But it also presents a challenge, of course, because you need to make sure that the job you offer this person is enough to keep them learning for several years.
Would you say that your recruiting is based more on potential than on competencies demonstrated in the past?
Yes, but it’s super hard. If you want someone to perform a job for your company but they haven’t ever done it before, you’re not sure it will get done correctly. But at the same time, if it’s the right person and they are motivated to succeed, the results will be amazing. Because you’re not asking someone to redo the same thing, you’re asking someone to engage in learning by doing – which is ten times more motivating for someone who is eager to learn.
Presumably as you became more successful it got easier to hire people. But is it getting harder to retain people? Or are you still growing fast enough?
We’re growing fast enough. We don’t see people leaving the company at all. Actually, I remember holding interviews to fill an HR director position recently, and I asked the applicant why he was interested in BlaBlaCar. And he told me: “Because I’ve been trying to recruit someone from BlaBlaCar for the past two years and there’s no way I can get someone out of the company, so I wanted to know what’s inside.”
Turning now to your own personal motivation, when did you decide you wanted to be an entrepreneur, and why?
I think the seed was probably planted when I was studying computer science at Stanford. A lot of my classmates weren’t even finishing their Masters or PhDs – they were dropping out and going to start-ups or creating companies. That raised a lot of questions in my mind. I was probably 22 or 23 years old, and I had been looking for an idea that would inspire enough passion for me to commit all my energy to it. And when I had this ride-sharing idea, I knew it was the one.
And how did your friends and family feel? Did you have a lot of entrepreneurs in your inner circle?
No. Actually, both my parents are teachers, a math teacher and a French teacher, so it’s not the most entrepreneurial environment you could imagine. But it’s an environment where you learn the value of learning, the value of work – and thankfully, that’s part of entrepreneurship as well. You learn a lot and you work a lot. And if you work well, you also learn well and you don’t repeat your mistakes.
“The fastest way of progress is to learn from the mistakes of others.”
In the early days of your entrepreneurial journey, did you have any important mentors?
I would say there are as many as 50 or maybe even 80 people who have influenced me over the years. In the end you create your own mix based on what you’ve seen – the good things you want to reproduce and the bad things you don’t want to duplicate. Because there are three kinds of progress in life. The first one is to make no progress, which is not good. The second one is to learn from your own mistakes – so at least you’re progressing. But the fastest way is to learn from the mistakes of others.
And when you think about BlaBlaCar – whose mistakes have you been learning from?
Specifically for our business, I would say we have learned from all the start-ups who are building marketplaces and dealing with communities, building trust, or building profiles like we do. And we keep an eye on platforms that also have matching issues, by which I mean they need to match supply with demand. Then there are the companies that have grown very fast, from 10 to 500 employees in five years. We have learned a lot from their experience – about all the processes you need to put in place so that the structure holds.
Based on your personal experience, would you say entrepreneurs can be made, not just born?
I think you can learn a lot of things – for instance, you can learn to avoid mistakes by benchmarking a lot. And sometimes you shouldn’t follow your instincts; you should follow your methodology. Sometimes you need to hold back and try to find comparable situations to analyze before you take a calculated risk. Another thing that can be learned is how to motivate your people. Creating a project is not just about working on it every day; it’s also about bringing a lot of people along with you. And in order to do that, you have to externalize and articulate your motivation and your vision. It’s extremely important to build a team with a shared vision.
In the early days, many people said BlaBlaCar would never succeed. You had to reinvent your business model six times over the years. What does it take to deal with failure and learn from it?
For me, changing business models doesn’t represent a total failure – otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. It is actually very important to try something, to see what doesn’t work and learn from the experience, and then try something new. That’s progress: identifying mistakes, correcting them, and moving forward without duplicating them. You have to be very pragmatic and very tough on yourself when you see a mistake. You can’t keep thinking: “But that should have worked!” If it doesn’t work, it’s time to move on.
Were you been tempted to give up?
No, because there was no way back. The way for me was always forward. I had to keep going; I had to find the right door. I knocked on all the doors I could find until one opened.
What would you like to be able to say about your career and BlaBlaCar in five years from now?
That we’ve made something better. That we’ve nudged behaviors towards more trusting relationships and that we’ve become a bit smarter about how we use resources. Actually, I feel that I can already say that. But the thing is, the scope is so broad that it will never be enough. There will always be room for more trust and optimization. So we’re not finished yet, and we have our work cut out for the coming decades.
You’ll never be completely satisfied?
I don’t think so.
Thank you for talking to us.
Profile: Frédéric Mazzella
Physics, computer science, business administration, music – Frédéric Mazzella is a man of many talents. So he was never going to be happy with a typical career track. Born to a math teacher and a French teacher in Nantes, France, on March 9, 1976, the physicist and computer scientist graduated from the elite École Nationale Supérieure in Paris. This in itself would have opened every door for him in his native France. But Mazzella chose a different path, moving to the USA and to Stanford University in particular. And it was here, he says, that he was captivated by the country’s entrepreneurial spirit.
After several years as a consultant and project manager for organizations including the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), at the end of 2006 he launched the ridesharing service BlaBlaCar. Following its expansion in France, where BlaBlaCar acquired local ridesharing services, in 2010 the company set its sights on other parts of Europe. And after a round of financing which brought in a good 100 million euros in 2014, BlaBlaCar went global. According to information provided by the company, as of May 2016 BlaBlaCar had 30 million members and was active in 22 countries.
In addition to his business pursuits, Mazzella also has a passion for music. He studied four instruments at the Paris Conservatory and has a particular love for the violin and the piano.
How BlaBlaCar works
At first glance BlaBlaCar is simply an online long-distance ridesharing service. However the company, which currently has 500 employees in 16 offices around the world , sees itself as much, much more – “an entirely new, people powered, transport network .”
To use BlaBlaCar services, users must register on the company website. Drivers can then offer empty seats in their car to other members, specifying the route and the price. The passengers share the costs with the driver. BlaBlaCar recommends a price for each passenger, which the driver can then adjust, based on the comfort of the car or the part of the route travelled. Prices are capped, however, to ensure that drivers are only sharing costs and not making a profit.
Before travelling, the driver and passengers can check out each other’s profiles on BlaBlaCar and find out more about who they’ll be sharing the car with. Each profile contains a photo and information on the type of car as well as the member’s age, taste in music, interests, ratings by other users, and even how much they like to talk. Members can use the BlaBla scale to indicate if they’d rather enjoy the scenery in peace or engage in a lively conversation.
The business model differs from country to country. While BlaBlaCar charges fees in some countries (such as France, UK, Spain, Portugal and Italy) it is free in others.