There are a lot of important team members here at RelayRides, but perhaps none more so than our fearless leader: Shelby Clark. At 28 and fresh out of Harvard Business School, Shelby is the man who keeps RelayRides pointed in the right direction, empowers us to make our own smart decisions, and politely reminds us not to screw too many things up. Here we’ll learn a little more about Shelby, stretching from how RelayRides was founded to his general thoughts on life and business.
Before we start getting too business oriented, let’s talk a little about your background. Can you tell us a little about what you did pre-RelayRides? Sure! I grew up in the suburbs of Denver; with the Rockies in my backyard, I developed a serious love affair with the outdoors, which partially explains my desire to do my part to positively impact the environment. Post-Denver, I got my undergraduate degree at Northwestern University, and then started my career in management consulting. After working with a lot of big companies, I decided to take a break and took a six-month leave of absence to work for a non-profit. Through some connections and recommendations at work, I ended up at Kiva.org.
Can you tell us some more about Kiva? Today Kiva has become one of the world’s premier microfinance organizations, connecting donors with impoverished people across the world, and providing them the seed financing to better their lives. I joined the organization in its early days, and at first I helped Kiva deal with problems at partner organizations, most notably uncovering and resolving a situation involving massive fraud at a partner organization in rural Uganda. I returned to work for Kiva full-time in their SF headquarters, and helped them build internal systems to scale the organization without experiencing similar problems in the future. This was an incredibly empowering experience, because we were a group of inspired people who knew nothing about microfinance, but with a lot of passion and sweat, we were able to create one of the largest microfinance organizations in the world in a few short years. It was at Kiva that I found my spark for social entrepreneurship. While Kiva is a non-profit, they don’t just give money away, so it operates more like a business. And that got me thinking that even businesses can do good in the world; one of the founding ideals behind RelayRides is that while we’re a for-profit company, we believe that we’re helping people out by increasing mobility options, while decreasing costs and overall environmental footprints. Kiva also exposed me to some of the peer-to-peer concepts that power RelayRides. Much as Kiva connects lenders to borrowers for the sake of alleviating poverty, RelayRides connects people who have a car who those who need one, positively impacting car owners, borrowers, and the community.
So how did you go from microloans to carsharing? When I started at Kiva, I actually drove out there (San Francisco) from Chicago. That might have been a little too much for my old car to handle, because it died shortly thereafter. I pretty quickly realized though, that when you live in a city like San Francisco, you really don’t need to own a car. The vast majority of my trips could be accomplished by taking public transporation or biking; there were still, however, a few trips a month where I would really need a car. That’s when I joined Zipcar, and quickly fell in love with the carsharing model.
Lots of people love carsharing, but you actually decided to start your own company; what spurred that? After Kiva I moved here to Boston to go to Harvard Business School, and I was oh-so pleasantly reintroduced to our good friend The Winter. And the winter greatly magnifies some of the flaws in the traditional carsharing model. Mainly, to stay profitable, these carsharing organizations need very high utilization rates for all their cars. This makes it hard to get popular models, or to pretty much ever get a reservation on a weekend. The end result of this is that renters will often have to travel pretty far to pick up a car. In San Francisco this isn’t too big of a problem, but it became a big issue for me here in Cambridge. It was the dead, and I mean dead, of winter and I had to travel about two and a half miles to get a car. It was pretty much like biking through an avalanche; it was brutal. And as I was slowly biking, I passed hundreds of cars, all just sitting empty and unused, with some clearly having been there for weeks. That’s when a little lightbulb went off in my head, and I realized that if we could tap into this unused resource, carsharing could work so much better. And that’s pretty much the founding idea behind RelayRides!
That’s great; can you share some advice you’ve learned at RelayRides with some of our readers? Hmmm… this actually came up a few weeks ago when I was talking to this scientist who felt the entrepreneurial bug biting him. The technical side of it went waaaay over my head, but he had some new molecule that he wanted to commercialize. The advice I gave to him is the same I’d say to anyone: go for it! There are always going to be a million little reasons why it might not work, but that doesn’t mean it wont. And even if it ends up not being a huge success, you don’t lose that much, especially if you’re young. Running a business is so informative; I’ve learned so much since launching RelayRides. That’s pretty much the greatest take away from entrepreneurship: even if you don’t end up “succeeding” in the traditional sense, you still have a number of great rewards.
Staying on business, what are some other businesses you admire? Naturally, I’m a big fan of anyone working in the collaborative consumption space. So to that end I of course still love Kiva. I also am a big fan of ThredUp, which is like a clothing exchange for the web 2.0 generation. I also have tremendous respect for any company that’s taking an innovative approach to areas that have gone a little stagnant. Another firm that jumps to mind is Knewton; they’re doing some amazing stuff in the education market. They have an online, adaptive-learning system that seems to really help kids out with studying and test-prep. Another company I love is Tesla, they’ve really done a great job of tackling a hairy problem. Tons of companies had been trying to crack the electric car for decades, but they finally made it work on a decent scale. And we’re just now starting to see it go mainstream, with their sedan coming out soon, and GM and Nissan finally stepping up with their own offerings.
Now that we’re back to talking about cars, what’s your favorite place to drive? One of the great things about New England is the foliage. The colors changing in fall is just so beautiful. Every October or so I just love to drive out west to rural Mass. and look at the leaves. I’m pretty excited to get a convertible in the system so I can do that with the top-down, wind blowing leaves right past me.
Wow, I’m a little jealous, that sounds awesome. Let’s wrap this up on a fun note, give our readers two truths and a lie and we’ll see what they think. Alrighty: – I was a flying trapeze artist in an Argentine circus. – I think Mayo goes great on pretty much any food item. – I paid for college with a swimming scholarship.
Thanks so much!