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The story of France's all-conquering start-up

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The story of France's all-conquering start-up
BlaBlaCar the French tech start-up taking over the world. Photo: AFP
10:33 CEST+02:00
France's record-breaking start-up BlaBlaCar is set to take over the world, or most of it, with its popular ride-sharing app. Here's everything you need to know about the jewel of the French start-up scene.

What is BlaBlaCar?

Essentially it's a ride-sharing service, although the company describes it in slightly grander terms as “the world's largest long-distance ride sharing community”.

It was initially foundered in 2004 under its former name Covoiturage.fr.

In layman's terms, BlaBlaCar, like other ride sharing schemes, connects drivers who have space in their car with people looking to travel to the same place but don't have a vehicle or the money to buy a train ticket.

As with most things these days it comes in the form of an app, that can be downloaded onto your smartphone or accessed via the web.

BlaBlaCar has been dubbed “a hitch-hiker's app” and it boasts that it has “brought ride-sharing to the mainstream”.

It's perhaps not surprising that in a time of economic crisis and high unemployment a service that allows both the driver and the passengers to save money has proved incredibly popular.


(A worker in the head offices of BlaBlaCar. Photo: AFP)

Why is it called BlaBlacar?

The company is so named because members can specify how chatty they want to be during the ride, from "Bla" to "BlaBlaBla".
 
So passengers planning on taking a quiet journey can signal this with a single "bla" but if they'd prefer to chatter away the whole ride through, they're recommended to change their profile to write "blablabla".
 
So how does it work?
 
A motorist first has to become a member of the community by signing up online and logging their details. 
 
They then upload their journey plan onto the app, specifically stating the time, dates, and pick-up and drop-off points - as well as the cost. 
 
Passengers log on and search for the journey they want to make. If they find a match they reserve a seat with the driver, who can choose whether or not to accept the request. Passenger and driver safety is aided by a two-way rating system from previous rides. 
 

(Photo: AFP)
 
The passenger cost of each journey is capped, meaning the drivers don't actually make a profit on the ride - only enough to cover petrol costs and general wear and tear.
 
This is one of the key differences to other ride-sharing services like UberPop and has so far enabled BlaBlaCar to stay out of trouble with the law and France's notoriously belligerent taxi drivers.
 
Drivers are paid electronically by the passengers who book using a secure card payment online.  
 
How does it make money?
 
Although the scheme sounds like a worthwhile community service, BlaBlaCar is of course looking to make money. And despite the fact that it has 20 million members worldwide and is installed in 19 different countries, it isn't yet profitable.
 
BlaBlaCar collects approximately 12 percent of the total cost of each ride, which according to the Financial Times means revenues will be in the tens of millions.
 
But not being profitable isn't the be all and end all, yet anyway.
 
The company says it has expanded 100 percent each year in Europe and claims 10 percent of the French population have signed up to the scheme. Earlier this year it gobbled up German rival Carpooling.com and Hungarian company Autohop.
 
It's figures like this that have impressed investors and allowed it to pull in over $300 million dollars of investment, mainly from US venture capital firms Insight Venture Partners and Lead Edge Capital, as well as Stockholm-based Vostok New Ventures.
 
So who are the wise guys who founded it?

BlaBlaCar zooms into start-up record books

(The co-founders of BlaBlaCar, no doubt overjoyed to be valued at over $1 billion. Photo: AFP)

BlaBlaCar has three co-founders: the CEO Frédéric Mazzella, COO Nicolas Brusson and the CTO Frances Nappez. Mazzella pictured below) is in charge of defining the vision and evolution of BlaBlaCar, Nappez supervises the technical side of the company and Brusson is in charge of the international expansion of the company.

The story goes that Mazzella came up with the idea for the company when he had to get back from the Vendée region of western France to Paris for New Year's Eve. He had no car, the trains were full, but most of the cars making the same journey were empty. Not long after BlaBlaCar was born. He used to be a scientific researcher for Nasa and could also have been a professional pianist.


(Founder of BlaBlaCar Frederic Mazzella. Photo: AFP)

For his part Nappaz is a veteran of tech development in the consumer market having worked for Free Iliad and dating site Meetic. Apparently he never gets flustered, but then why would he given the success of the company.

Brusson is a veteran of start-ups in Silicon Valley having worked there during the 2000 boom and he's also worked as a venture capitalist in London.

All in all a crack team.


(Photo: AFP)

What next for BlaBlaCar?
 
BlaBlaCar will no doubt move far and wide thanks to the recent investment of $200 million. The co-founders have already said that they plan to launch in Brazil this month, and that it aims to grow in Indonesia, Japan and South Korea next year. 
 
In a statement released on Thursday, co-founder Nicolas Brusson said the investment would be used to "accelerate our growth in new and established markets, continuing to build the largest people-powered transport community in the world."
 
The company told Fortune magazine this week that it wasn't planning to expand into the US yet, due to the cheaper gas prices in north America and there's less "cultural acceptance for ride-sharing". 
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