Ethan Eyler's first company wasn't a joke. But, well, its customers thought its product was.
The product was a nearly three-foot-long faux-fur mustache, available to customers in an array of technicolor hues and more subdued ones that approximate natural human hair shades (the "Legendary Blond" Carstache is currently on sale for $34.99). Customers mostly were buying them on the company's website as white elephant gifts.
That's until Lyft came along. The ride-hailing startup, which had spun out of ride-sharing upstart Zimride in 2012, branded itself in bright pink, with fist-bumping drivers whose cars bore bright pink fuzzy mustaches. It bought tens of thousands of those pink stuffed 'staches. Lyft instantly, and easily, became Carstache's biggest customer. And shortly thereafter Lyft brought Eyler--a serial entrepreneur who'd also dabbled in marketing, having worked at Sony and Tencent--into the Lyft team.
Today, Eyler is 35 years old and heads up the ride-experience team at Lyft in San Francisco. The Uber competitor, which is funded by more than $2 billion in venture capital and is rumored to be scouting for an acquisition, seeks to differentiate itself by projecting a friendly, borderline-whimsical attitude. It claims that it treats drivers better--and that, therefore, they treat passengers better. And Eyler is the man in charge of perpetuating those feelings of good will. In a phone call last week, he explained just how he keeps the positive vibes flowing as the brand grows up--even though the fluffy mustache has been retired.
So, this might be known as the "post-mustache" era of Lyft. What do you do inside the company now?
I run the experiential stuff. The "magic mode" program is something I created two or three years ago.
Tell me about "magic modes."
These crazy stunts we do--we call them magic modes. They are things that are fun and once-in-a-life experiences. The most recent was Ghost Mode, and we partnered with Sony Pictures on it. You could actually take a ride with [Ghostbusters vehicle] ECTO-1. The cars were not only decked out like original Ghostbusters cars, but had in them Key-Lime Slime Twinkies and Ecto Coolers. Magic modes are just the tip of the spear of the ride-experience.
What are some others you've done?
On Back To the Future Day last year, we got 10 replica DeLoreans and did a mode where the drivers were dressed up as Doc or as Marty. Last Halloween, we did zombie delivery.
Zombie delivery? OK, you have to explain that.
We said, "if we are going to do delivery, we are going to do it as Lyft would." We partnered with Upright Citizens' Brigade and AMC's The Walking Dead, and had a zombie on a dolly--and actors delivering the zombie. So you could order a zombie for a party.
Oh! For April Fool's this year we did "prank mode." So one of the passengers would be the insider--and you'd be pranking your friend who you brought along for the Lyft. For this, we recorded fake news broadcasts that would be on in the car. One of them was an oil tanker exploding with a chicken truck or something--but there were chickens everywhere in the broadcast, and then we'd have an actor hop into the car carrying a chicken.
These sound crazy--but they're an extension of our brand. And the awareness we get through word-of-mouth and press coverage of these is really worth it, too.
And when you're working with a brand or a Hollywood studio, are you making revenue off of these?
It can go either way. We are typically looking to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for users--and to strengthen the driver-passenger relationship.
What do these wacky stunts have to do with the driver-passenger relationship?
One of our core tenets of the brand here is that we treat you better. It's part of everything we do. How we treat the drivers is where it starts, and it ladders down to passengers.
Our ethos of fun and mischief dates back to the Carstache. We think of it as setting the stage for that in-car experience we were always going for. Between the fist-bump and the Carstache it kind of was an aesthetic that helped select this audience that was willing to engage--to meet each other. Even as that evolved (you no longer need to sit up front or perform a fist-bump when entering a Lyft), the experience carries through.
My role at the company has been to take that initial ethos and evolve it along with the brand. I'm sort of the protector of mischief.
How do you keep the brand from eroding as just about everyone with a nice car who needs extra income is driving for Uber and Lyft and a local limo company in every major city around the world?
Our culture is just so different. Our relationship with our passengers and our drivers is so different. Letting our drivers get tips, and giving them the best service we can, help create a cycle of care. Everything we do is toward that. We think a lot about "how do we design the UX of being a driver to make you want to act in the right way?"
Before joining Lyft, you started Carstache--and a mobile-gaming company, too. Are you going to get the entrepreneurial itch again?
I'm having a lot of fun here. Years ago, before I joined, I had a conversation with [Lyft co-founder] John Zimmer, and he asked whether this a path I wanted to keep going down--this mustache is the wink of Lyft, the path would be continuing to make the whole experience of Lyft fun. So, fun is actually my job. My answer would be different if I were at a different company where it wasn't my job to do these big, fun, whimsical things at a massive scale.
And Carstache continues to exist.
It's a funny little thing. It's pretty much on autopilot--I'm very much focused on Lyft now. I have accountants and distributors, so it's something I can be hands-off about.
What's going on with the Lyft mustache these days?
We transitioned from the Carstache to the Glowstache in every major market now. We are always innovating and working on new things, so I can say there's more to come.
What's the next crazy mode going to be?
Look out for Halloween--we are really looking to up the bar. And for New Year's Eve. But first: We are going to do Ghost Mode at Comic Con [which starts in San Diego this week] again.