Published December 28, 2010
I came across this story by doing something my mother told me never to do: I accepted a ride from a stranger.
The other night I emerged from the Porter Square Shaw’s, cold, encumbered by groceries and facing a mile-long walk home. A woman with something to sell stopped me and offered a free ride home, no strings attached.
I was skeptical.
She explained it was a promotion for iCar, a Zipcar-like startup based in Somerville. The woman — Mimi — was very nice, and everything seemed to be on the up-and-up, so I took the ride (after explaining that, of course, this is something I would never do).
I got home with a big smile on my face. And of course I immediately checked out the website, icarsharing.com. Not only did I fail to heed my mother’s advice, I gave into a marketing trick. What a sucker.
I called Jennifer Jones, the spokeswoman and first full-time employee, for the pitch.
“ICar is Boston’s latest carsharing service. We offer our members hybrids, sedans and 15-passenger vans that can be reserved and used by the hour, by the day or by the week,” she said. “It is a membership -based service … Our basic membership rates start at $5 an hour or $69 a day.”
Sounds exactly like Zipcar, right? The company is happy to admit that yes, it is a lot like Zipcar, and Zipcar’s familiarity is a marketing advantage for iCar. The startup says it wants to compete with Zipcar on price, customer service and technology. (Hourly rates are a bit cheaper, and you don’t need to log in to a website to check out a car — just swipe and go.)
But can the car-sharing market sustain a new player? Zipcar was founded in Cambridge 10 years ago, flush with cash from angel investors, and has yet to turn a profit. In June, Zipcar announced it would go public (on NASDAQ as “ZIP”) but has yet to do so. Not to mention Zipcar says it has more than 500,000 members and 8,000 vehicles worldwide; iCar has secured parking spaces for 25 cars with 14 in operation. (Parking spaces are a lot harder to get a hold of than cars, but iCar is proud to have acquired two in Brookline.)
RelayRides, another Cambridge startup, offers “neighbor-to-neighbor car sharing,” wherein you borrow someone else’s car for a fee. That company recently moved to San Francisco with backing from Google, though, in another tale of Boston’s brain drain.
Greg Gomer, who blogs for BostonInnovation.com, wrote earlier this month of RelayRides:
San Fran is a much better fit in terms of culture. San Fran is much more environmentally friendly and certainly more open when it comes to sharing of any kinds than Boston.
I wish iCar luck. And if it takes off, I hope they don’t zoom out of town.