Way back when, in April of 2013, Scott Case and I participated in a rapid-pitch program called Enrich Your Pitch at Inc.'s GrowCo conference in New Orleans. The competition featured all veteran-owned companies. It was an impressive group, and I was especially taken with an eager guy named Joseph Kopser, who was pitching his relatively new business, RideScout. At the time, I didn't realize quite how new it was.
Joe didn't win the grand prize, but he says the press and exposure were worth their weight in gold, helping him keep afloat and raise crucial funds at a very precarious time. He also told me (much more recently--we've stayed in touch) that at the time of his GrowCo pitch he barely had a beta version of his idea, and he was having an impossible time hanging on to users.
Now flash forward about a year or so, and Joe picks a luncheon at 1871, the Chicago tech incubator that I serve as CEO of, as the place to launch RideScout in the Midwest. The business literally exploded after that event, expanding into another 66 cities in a matter of weeks. It was a spectacular rollout and Joe has been running around the country ever since, with several hundred ride providers now active in 69 markets.
Secrets of His Success
I thought I knew exactly what his game plan was, but I still wanted to hear it directly from him. Luckily for us Joe still finds time to swing by 1871 on a regular basis. He's become a vocal and active supporter of a new initiative we've launched called The Bunker, an incubator and support program for veteran-owned businesses that is just one way that Joe gives back (it's a big part of who he is and what he wants to do with his life.) Most recently, however, has been the big announcement that Daimler, one of the world's largest car manufacturers, has acquired RideScout and entered the ride-sharing business.
That's another impressive step up for a startup that was scrambling to survive a little more than a year ago, but that's how it happens if you're in the right place with the right team and the right idea at the right time. And, of course, it never happens by accident.
So I sat down recently with Joe to ask him exactly what the secrets were behind RideScout's rapid expansion, and all the good things that have followed from that. In a word, he said that it was because he had built a "platform." That was music to my ears, because I have recently written about this very subject, and it's amazing how closely his description of the critical building blocks mirrored my recent Inc. columns.
As I've explained before, the power of the platform is a two-part strategy that consists of: (a) doing what the big guys can't, or won't, do for themselves by working together; and (b) creating de facto industry standards that organize otherwise unstructured data and markets.
Joe figured out early on that each of the alternative transportation providers was operating in a silo, and the last thing that any of them cared about (or was focused on) was cooperating on sharing route and cost data--even if such a combination was clearly desired and highly valuable and beneficial for the end user. Basically, RideScout built a bridge between these islands and created a comprehensive platform that served the consumer’s needs.
Even more importantly, Joe understood that each vendor had their own language, terminology, interfaces, etc., and that the absolutely last thing any consumer needs are more individual apps on their phones that don't talk to each other and can’t even be effectively compared with one another without investing an inordinate amount of time and energy.
The need for a one-stop shopping experience and an integrated solution was clear, but no one was really in a position to get the job done. Needless to say, the first mover would have a major shot at organizing the entire space, setting the industry standards, and becoming the market leader. RideScout rode to the rescue.
Then there is the primacy of the platform, which addresses a critical, related consideration: the value of investing your energy and resources into building infrastructure that the individual players in a given market can't afford to do by themselves.
The need was clear, and there was a major opportunity, but Joe also needed to assemble the technical team that could get the job done quickly and in a fashion that was immediately scalable. He needed to build a platform and an overall solution that accomplished four things:
1. It was absolutely critical to figure out how to translate, aggregate, and normalize the data that needed to be "grabbed" from sites, suppliers, and vendors from all over the country into a consistent set of formats. Building the ingest tools and the translation programs were major time and dollar investments.
2. It was equally important to build a single interface for all sharing by vertical. In other words, all bike shares needed to ultimately look the same thru RideScout regardless of the city you were in, and the same was true for all car shares, transit, and rides for hire. No one else was stepping up to fund the development of a single standard, one which also needed to somehow account for the outliers in certain areas whose particular approaches needed to be melded into the overall system.
3. The system and the backend had to be scalable and robust enough on Day One to accommodate the flood of data (and, hopefully, users), as well as demand from newly interested participating vendor and partners (once they woke up) on a national basis, and the process needed to be as automated as possible.
4. The overall solution set needed to be extensible and always backwardly compatible, because the only way to make sure that RideScout maintained its leadership position was to constantly raise the bar by adding features and functionality that responded to the input, suggestions, complaints, and increasing demands and expectations of all participants, including the various governmental bodies in each geographic location. As it happened, the fact that RideScout took a very conciliatory and collaborative approach to the city managers and regulatory bodies as the company moved from market to market turned out to create a very substantial barrier for other potential new entrants.
Ultimately, time will tell, but Joe's off on an exciting ride. Nothing beats a well thought-out and well-built platform--as long as you keep raising the bar.